Keeping the City Safe For Capitalism

The folks who’ve brought you the new global marketplace must be getting a little nervous. Maybe somebody advised the literate among them to take a peek, fearful though it may be, through the collected works of colleague and friend Michael M. Thomas. Perhaps the traders and brokers and assorted whatnots on Wall Street observed the recent spectacle of mad-as-hell New Yorkers climbing midtown pedestrian barricades and immediately detected inexplicable stains on their heretofore immaculate clothing.

How else to explain the latest innovation in privatized government-the proposed opening of a seemingly unnecessary police substation in the financial district, to be paid for by a gigantic business improvement district, the Alliance for Downtown New York? Apparently, somebody thinks the extra police will come in handy for reasons yet to be determined and certainly unrelated to current rates of destruction, mayhem and pillage downtown.

The Alliance had offered to pay $5 million for a police museum (whose foundation, as luck would have it, is headed by Police Commissioner Howard Safir’s wife, Carol Safir) in exchange for a redeployment of up to 200 police officers from the First Precinct’s current headquarters near Canal Street to a satellite station house on Washington Street. The Alliance also volunteered, bless its generous heart, to pay the rent on the proposed new station. To some people, admittedly naïve in the ways and wiles of power and money, this sounded as though wealthy people in privileged neighborhoods could buy additional police protection. And why, one might ask, are wealthy people in privileged neighborhoods suddenly so concerned about their lives, their sport-utility vehicles and their sacred trust funds? Perhaps a few have gotten a glimpse of life after the next crash and have decided to take the necessary steps to keep the barricade-jumpers at bay when America’s debtor class joins forces with the 401(k) crowd.

Should you find yourself muttering such arguments, be advised that Mayor Rudy Giuliani believes you are out of control (and he, after all, should know) and that you are little more than an overzealous populist (this from a man who sells himself as a street urchin from Brooklyn). Confronted with such criticisms, the Mayor at first suggested that a greater police presence downtown would act as a deterrent to various begrudgers of foreign origin who might have an idea about making loud and violent debating points in capitalism’s hallowed ground. This contention, it should be noted, was made several days before two representatives of America’s home-grown terrorist network were caught red-handed with bits of anthrax, a biological weapon that kills in days. Whether such evil would shrink in the face of a few extra blue uniforms is open to question, but it should be noted that the sight of soldiers armed with Uzis hasn’t ensured peace and tranquility in Jerusalem.

Though the original deal has unraveled-the Mayor, in a man-bites-dog development, actually called the museum deal a “mistake”-the city and the Alliance remain committed to the new substation in the only part of town where the criminals dress better than the law-abiders. Unless the Mayor has plans to commence raids on various Wall Street outposts, it’s not entirely clear how these redeployed police will help lower the crime rate.

The larger issue, however, remains clear: Here’s one of those hotshot business improvement districts using its clout and money to bend government to its will. This is exactly the sort of abuse that critics warned of back in the days when Dan Biederman, he of the many-headed midtown business district, was building his sprawling empire on 42nd Street and 34th Street. Folks in Queens and Brooklyn who have good reason to ask for police substations and more police resources understand exactly what’s happening downtown. City Council member Sheldon Leffler, a Democrat of Queens who sounds like William Jennings Bryan these days, put it bluntly: “The police officers will be deployed under this proposal based on the ability of a community-the Wall Street community-to pay. Other communities have a greater need.”

Other communities, however, are not blessed with private organizations intent, it would seem, on replacing public services with private “amenities”-like law enforcement, garbage disposal and even social services. This is not to begrudge the breathtaking work Mr. Biederman’s organization has done in Bryant Park and Grand Central Terminal, or the success stories in Times Square, Union Square and several other neighborhoods. Many of Manhattan’s commercial strips are better because of Mr. Biederman and his lesser known (and more modest) colleagues.

Still, the question remains: Exactly how much power do we wish to turn over to these remarkable but unaccountable organizations? Do we really want Dan Biederman, a man most Manhattan residents don’t know, to bear the title of “mayor of midtown”-a label given him only half in jest?

Let them do what they do best, but, please, let’s not have them start moving cops around.

Keeping the City Safe For Capitalism