Now that the two candidates have been decided for our next mayoral election, I'd like to share with them a story that pretty much sums up life on the streets of New York after three terms under the Bloomberg administration:
It was a perfect September day. The sun was shining and I felt a soft, silky breeze as I rode my bike through Central Park, making my way past Strawberry Hill to 72nd Street. There, on the edge of the main drive, in broad daylight, in front of dozens of tourists, joggers, and dog walkers, I saw a man watering the bushes. Or so I thought, until I realized that the thing he was holding was not a hose, and the stream of liquid coming out of it was not water.
No, it wasn't some poor elderly man with bladder control issues who didn't have time to find a men's room. In fact, there was something brazen about this guy, who made no attempt to be discreet. He had a look that said, "This is my toilet, and I dare you to try and stop me."
It's not the first time I've seen this along the crowded streets of our city. In recent months, I've witnessed men peeing against storefront walls in the middle of 42nd Street, at Spring and Seventh, and Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. Often, this public pissing is taking place with police standing just a few feet away, either indifferent or oblivious, I am not sure which.
So what does this have to do with New York's next mayor? It's a warning sign for the road we're on as we head back to those pre-Giuliani days of unsafe, uninhabitable streets, when the squeegee guys routinely ambushed cars, smeared windshields and intimidated drivers into giving tips. Public urination is taking spitting in the street, littering, and not cleaning up after your dog to a whole new level of filth and depraved disregard for civility and public hygiene. We are slipping fast, and we need a strong new leader who is not afraid to be a badass to stop the decline.
I wasn't able to find specific stats that show how many public urination tickets have been written over the past few years. But the number of criminal defense lawyers who turn up on an Internet search offering their services for people charged with the offense would suggest the numbers are astronomical -- and that's just the people who get caught.
Anecdotally, this kind of behavior -- along with spitting and littering -- has gotten noticeably worse since I first moved to the city in 2001, and New York's dubious honor of being rated the dirtiest city in the U.S. by http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/americas-dirtiest-citiesTravel +Leisure proves it. A recent poll by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism would suggest most New Yorkers agree, finding that 71 percent felt that public spitting has become a problem in New York City, turning our streets into a miles-wide Petrie dish.
"What's your problem, this is New Yaawwk!" I can hear Lewis Black say. He recently produced an otherwise brilliant video celebrating this city's "Eff You!" individualism, featuring cops high-fiving these public pissers.
But this is NOT all our city can and should be. We shouldn't have to step over bags of uncollected garbage, dodging rats and toxic slime on our way home from dinner, even in the "nice" neighborhoods. Our bike lanes shouldn't be treated as gutters for loose litter and filth. Go to any other major city in the U.S. and around the world -- Paris, London, LA, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago -- and the relative cleanliness of those streets puts us to shame.
You can change the culture of a city. It is possible to raise the standards and expectations of our citizens, and it all boils down to leadership. I used to live in Hong Kong, a densely crowded place known for people coughing up loose phlegm in the middle of the street. That all changed after SARS in 2003, when the Hong Kong government launched a high-profile campaign, imposing and strictly enforcing spitting bans. London did the same in 2009.
I'm not exactly sure why our city has turned into such a cesspit over the last few years -- no doubt the reasons are complicated. But I suspect it has something to do with the fact that our city workers (including the sanitation department) haven't had a raise in years, and there are about 4,000 fewer cops on our streets compared with the Giuliani days. I don't buy that we don't have the money -- we pay more in city taxes than most other municipalities, and we have some of the wealthiest taxpayers in the country. It's a problem of rampant fiscal waste and misplaced priorities under a mayor who has lost touch with the needs of the average New Yorker. In his last term, he has become more interested in creating a legacy of nanny-state legislation than focusing and following through on the nuts and bolts of running a vast metropolis.
So although it doesn't grab the same headlines as "stop and frisk," I'd love to this issue to be raised in some of the upcoming mayoral debates. I'd like to hear exactly how Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota plan to roll up their sleeves and clean up our streets.
At this point, I don't know who I would vote for, but this may not be the place and time for a warm and fuzzy populist. Although I consider myself to be as progressive as the next Huffpost blogger, I readily admit that when it comes to the city I've adopted as my home, I have double standards. Getting New York back on track will take cojones, and yes, maybe even a candidate who isn't afraid to say he's willing to run over a few kittens to get the job done.