Escape from New York

The greatest fear about crime is that it will spread. Not that it could happen to you, but that it could come to you, that your neighborhood would be taken over, that you’d no longer feel safe walking around your own home. Not that you’ll be mugged, but that you could be mugged at any moment and anywhere, even steps from your own door. Even in cities, we believe in the sanctity of ours homes and neighborhoods with suburban pride. Today, in New York, with one of the safest subway systems in the world, the first neighborhoods to gentrify are those directly abutting subway stations. The proximity of a subway station means there is less crime between your home and wherever you’re going.

This wasn’t always the case. Thirty-five years ago, New York boasted the most dangerous subway system in the world. The crime on the subway was of course only a portion of a city plagued by crime—much of it drug-related and petty, but overwhelmingly violent—but the transit system filled citizens with a particular dread. The subway is a network that connects here and there, us and the other. Crime spread through the city’s subways and neighborhoods were crippled like bad blood reaching organs.

This, at least, was the exaggerated perception.

The high crime rates of the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s were accompanied by mass “white flight” to the suburbs, only for this trend to reverse in the late ’90’s with a wave of gentrification continuing today. The fears underlying white flight became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy as the abandoned buildings attracted gangs, drug users, and other criminals, giving space for crime to proliferate.

“Davidson clearly shared in the suspicion of the subway as a medium for the incessant creep of crime, but also glorified the violent flattening of social hierarchies by the savage’s anarchic spirit.”

The perception that crime was taking over the city had as much to do with cultural representations of criminals as statistics. In 1980, the photographer Bruce Davidson began a documentary project with the help of the Guardian Angels, an organized group of toughs who rode the New York City subways to protect innocent civilians from the rampant crime. Davidson, a former soldier, prepared for his project as if he were entering a war zone: Each morning he performed “a military fitness exercise program,” and set off with a bag containing multiple forms of ID, quarters and subway tokens for buskers, a whistle, a small Swiss army knife (for “a little added confidence”), and first aid supplies. His preparation was not for nothing; near the end of the year, he was robbed for his camera at knifepoint.

Aperture published Davidson’s photographs in a 1986 monograph entitled Subway, and included an essay written by the photographer. At the end of this essay, he describes his feelings—a mixture of fear and duty to his project—as he returned to the subway after the mugging to photograph “young people returning from the beaches along Far Rockaway.”

“They all look like muggers to me,” he wrote.

Davidson clearly shared in the suspicion of the subway as a medium for the incessant creep of crime, but also glorified the violent flattening of social hierarchies by the savage’s anarchic spirit. He describes his role as a photographer in the subway slums as some mix between revolutionary, anthropologist, and aesthete (emphasis mine):

In transforming the grim, abusive, violent, and yet often serene reality of the subway into a language of color, I see the subway as a metaphor for the world in which we live today. From all over the earth, people come into the subway. It’s a great social equalizer. As our being is exposed, we confront our mortality, contemplate our destiny, and experience both the beauty and the beast. From the moving train above ground, we see glimpses of the city, and as the trains move into the tunnels, sterile fluorescent light reaches into the stony gloom, and we, trapped inside, all hang on together.

As the Roman poet Horace said, “Impavidum ferient ruinae. The falling ruins will strike him unafraid.

Only a year after Davidson’s “Subway” series, the great social equalizer came to be. John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic Escape From New York pitted Kurt Russel against the violent gangs of New York, which had finally fulfilled their manifest destiny. In 1988, the movie begins, after the crime rate had risen 400 percent, the island of Manhattan was converted into a maximum security prison, like a modern penal colony. A containment wall was constructed across the Harlem River, down around the Brooklyn shoreline, curving around downtown Manhattan, and back up the banks of Hoboken. The Department of Corrections established their outpost at Liberty Island Security Control. When Air Force One crash lands in Manhattan, a street thug kidnaps the President, and Snake Pliskin (Kurt Russel) is sent in to rescue him. When Pliskin first encountered the anarchic gangs, they came straight from the earth. Manhole covers lifted to free neo-punk swarms, who streamed also from subway station entrances. Pliskin was saved from the encounter by a theater-loving cabbie, who warned Pliskin that at least the lower half of Manhattan had been overrun:

You don't want to be walking from the Bowery to 42nd street at night! I've been driving a cab here for 30 years and I'm telling you, you don't walk around here at night! Yes, sir! They'll kill you and strip you in ten seconds flat.

Earlier, a government official had warned him, “The crazies. Live in the subways. Complete control of the underground. They're night raiders.”

After this initial encounter, Pliskin searched for the President in the underground of lower Manhattan—abandoned train yards, the archives of the Public Library—and found the criminal lair in, no surprise, the heart of the subway system, Grand Central Terminal. The president was tied to a chair in a train car. Finally, after their recapture, Pliskin performs a deadly showdown in a boxing ring erected under the dome of Grand Central Station; the gang’s empire plays out its violent spectacles at last vestige of a once-regal monument to humankind’s ability to transverse the earth.

The reduction in crime rates by the mid 90’s had little to do with Rudolph Giuliani’s “Broken Windows” approach to policing, wherein police officers focused on petty offenders in order to deter more serious crime. Recent research has shown this sort of “supply-side” approach to crime prevention misunderstands opportunistic nature of crime. That is to say, stopping a crime on one day also reduces the number of yearly total crimes by one, because that potential offender is unlikely to commit that crime on another day. Refocusing police efforts on high-level offenders—i.e., drug dealers rather than users—caused a greater decrease in crime than Stop and Frisk and other sweeping measures. Still, the damage has been done, and the subway retains its false, insidious aura as a transporter of criminals first and commuters second.