Gotham Gazette

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Operation Spotlight, etc.

Last fall's post-September 11 headline in the satirical newspaper the Onion read: "Rest of country temporarily feels deep affection for New York." But it is still holding on. Despite forbidding statements from federal officials about the vulnerability of the city and its landmarks--particularly the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge--Americans are still coming to New York in large numbers as tourists. The city's hotel room occupancy--nearly 79 percent in April, about the same as last year--showed no sudden drop-off after the new federal alerts, according to the Daily News.

Nonetheless, not all New Yorkers were standing tough, and certainly not Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who cancelled the June 2 birthday celebration of the 119-year-old Brooklyn Bridge. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the Police Department had not asked for the cancellation. "That's a decision we did not recommend one way or the other," said Kelly at a City Hall news conference. "He made that decision on his own."


Meanwhile the Daily News revealed on May 19 that the NYPD had sent five investigators from its counterterrorism and intelligence bureaus to attend a symposium on suicide bombers in Israel. The next day, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned that suicide bombings like those in Israel would be "inevitable" in the United States.

The NYPD's five investigators represented the first time any American police department had received training from Israeli experts--and also the first time that the NYPD had sent officers to any foreign country for instruction. Kelly denied that the training was tied to specific expectations of suicide bombers in New York.

Nonetheless, New Yorkers with memories reflected on the near-miss in 1977 when a Palestinian living in Brooklyn was arrested within hours of exploding a nail-studded bomb in the subway. This is the first and only known instance of an attempted suicide bombing in New York. Was it an isolated incident? or a portent of things to come? The NYPD is judiciously preparing for the worst.


There are a few bad signs in the city's routine life. Drug dealers are popping up again on the West Side. Prostitutes are visibly back in Times Square. Ugly etched graffiti mar retail windows in Midtown and up and down both East and West Sides. And somehow seven arrested suspects, including an alleged serial rapist, escaped police custody this year--two in one week.

Yet overall crime in the city declined by seven percent during the first four months of this year compared with last year. With the exception of rapes, up six percent, and shootings, up 22 percent, every major category of crime was down. The police are containing crime, even as New Yorkers are getting jittery.

And Mayor Bloomberg is showing he's no wuss. He has announced a new program, Operation Spotlight, which beginning July 1 will target the worst of the nearly 10,000 low-level criminals who repeatedly commit quality-of-life crimes--and get off with a few days in jail or community service. Calling them career misdemeanor offenders at a City Hall press conference, Mayor Bloomberg said: "These are the people who deal drugs, deface storefronts and steal from our retail establishments. They drive away tourists. They discourage shoppers. They devalue our neighborhoods. The time has come for us to cast a spotlight on them."

This has long been a sore spot with police, who were pressured by Mayor Giuliani to make quality-of-life arrests only to see most suspects walk even in cases of proper evidence and paperwork. At least part of the problem was the judicial system, full of unsympathetic judges. Designed with the cooperation of Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman, Operation Spotlight authorizes judges at special courts in each borough to sentence convicted repeat offenders to up to a year at Rikers. Offenders can also be sent to drug treatment.


Columbia University Press chose April as the right time to publish Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City, by Joe Austin, an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University. Austin argues that graffiti artists, called "writers," have never been given a fair hearing on their cultural contributions. He seeks to rectify this injustice while lecturing New Yorkers on the provincialism that led them to destroy what he regards as "perhaps the most important art movement of the late 20th century."

It's wise to skip over his political analysis, which is full of errors, including the "four-term Democratic incumbent Richard Wagner" (instead of three-term incumbent Robert Wagner) not to mention the anti-graffiti parks commissioner "Hubert Stern." (by which he surely meant Henry Stern). But the full-color photographs of the trains painted with "masterpieces" by Kase, Dondi, Vulcan and other writers are a reminder of just how talented some of them were--and just how out of control sections of New York had become. A detail of the 200-foot long Halloween Wall in a Brooklyn schoolyard is undoubtedly magnificent--and it was painted by Loomit, a German writer. New York not only had its homegrown writers, it had become a magnet for foreigners whose local municipal authorities had the good sense, unlike ours, to fence their own train yards and patrol vulnerable public spaces.

Let's hope that the days of career misdemeanor offenders, artists or not, will soon be over.

Julia Vitullo-Martin, a long-time editor and writer on urban affairs, is the former director of the Citizens Jury Project at the Vera Institute of Justice. She is now writing a book entitled The Conscience of the American Jury.

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