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Will New York Be the Old Babylon?

I thought NYC would rebound quickly after COVID and De Blasio, but it just can't seem to get its act together.

Photo by Clément Falize / Unsplash

Yes, but forecasts of its demise are (probably) premature

Joe Rogan thinks New York is caput. He's said so a couple of times. Between de Blasio telling police to use a “light touch” in response to the BLM riots through crushing COVID lockdowns to COVID passports, Rogan thinks NYC is on the road to BFE.

I'm exaggerating a bit. His words and inflection reflect uncertainty, but he clearly thinks New York might finally be heading toward Snake Plissken territory.

I think he's wrong. The place is too big, too important, too central. As long as the United States has a military that can assure that the dollar is the reserve currency, thereby pumping trillions south of Houston Street, New York City will always bounce back. It always bounced back before the Federal Reserve Act; the Federal Reserve will assure it keeps the rubber.

But Rogan's cynicism puts him in good company. Many people moved to New York in their early twenties with great eagerness and excitement, only to lament New York's decline in their middle and later years.

Edith Wharton wrote that NYC in her youth (1870s and 1880s) was great, but it was finished by 1906.

Theodore Dreiser said NYC was a colorful place when he arrived in 1906, but it was drab by the early 1920s.

F. Scott Fitzgerald applauded New York's glamor in the early 1920s, but said the glamor was gone in 1932.

Saul Bellow remembered New York as a city of intellectual excitement when he was a young man, but when he got older, he said it “depressed” him with its “sense of malignancy and despair.”

Edmund Wilson as a young man in New York embodied the city's “metropolitan spirit,” but in his seventies, he wrote that he was “eager to leave New York, which is now absolute hell.”

They say crime is on the rise in New York. Could be, but it's hard to believe it's worse than it was in the 1970s.

I visited Manhattan twice, once in the 1970s and once in the early 1980s. I walked through the Bowery with my father in the 1970s; he wanted me to see up close what the debauched life really looks like. In the 1980s, I asked a cab driver to take the Bowery to my destination (when we got caught in traffic, the cab driver gestured to me and said “This is what you get for wanting to take the Bowery”).

On both trips, I marveled at all the bums (today's “homeless”). They fascinated me.

As did Time Square and its, ahem, vigorous offerings (a “venal Disneyland”) and a seediness that is normally reserved to the shadows, not a city's brightest lights.

Was 1970s NYC much worse than, say, 1950s NYC?

Of course, 1970s America was simply worse overall than 1950s America, but after adjusting for the vast difference between the two decades, was the crime that much worse in the era of Nixon, Carter, stagflation, and the Bee Gees than in the era of Truman, Eisenhower, economic growth, and Elvis?

When he lived in the East Village in the late 1950s, W.H. Auden always carried a five-dollar bill, for fear that, if he were to be mugged, he would have nothing to give the mugger and get beaten up even worse.

I go back and watch The Gangs of New York and marvel at the crime in 1860s New York (I also marvel that Scorcese made such a good film out of that underwhelming book of non-fiction).

I go back and watch The Wanderers (another great film from an underwhelming book), which depicts gang life in NYC exactly 100 years after The Gangs.

It seems pretty obvious that serious crime is as endemic to New York as pigeons.

Yet the crime has never brought New York down permanently. It's resilient to attacks from outside (blackouts and 9/11), and it's resilient to attacks from the inside (de Blasio and Central Park rapists).

So, I can't join the ranks of those, from Rogan to Wharton, who lament its passing. New York City will be here a long time.

Of course, I remember that final scene from The Planet of the Apes (1968) when Charlton Heston falls down before the half-buried Statue of Liberty and realizes New York itself was buried by at least 150 feet of sand

I'm also reminded of Babylon.

By the time of the prophet Isaiah, Babylon had been the leading city of the Middle East for a thousand years, but that didn't stop Isaiah from saying it would become like Sodom and Gomorrah, with no one dwelling there and full of howling creatures.

Less than a thousand years later, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus reached the site where Babylon had stood. He found it completely deserted.

About 150 years later, the site of the former city had become a Persian royal game park, inhabited, said St. Jerome, “by all manner of wild animals.” In the 1930s, Edward Chiera, an archeologist, visited the site and said it's only inhabited by foxes and jackals, prompting him to ask:

Why should a flourishing city, the seat of an empire, have completely disappeared? Is it the fulfillment of a prophetic curse that changed a superb temple into a den of jackals? Did the actions of the people who lived here have anything to do with this, or is it the fatal destiny of mankind that all its civilizations must crumble when they reach their peak?
Edward Chiera, They Wrote on Clay.

I think it's safe to say the flourishing city of our empire will completely disappear. New York will join the old Babylon.

But I think that's in the far distant future. As of this moment in history, I anticipate yet another robust rebound.