By Tom Allon
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said the only thing constant is change, but recently in New York there have been some events that echo those of the past.
Yes, things have changed quite a bit, but some things remind us of similar occurrences in New York City history.
For example, the controversy surrounding the cartoon characters in Times Square and some of the violence involving the scuffles between the police and people dressed as Spider-Man remind me of a time when Times Square symbolized the chaos that engulfed New York.
But then it was mostly prostitution and drug dealing in the area that led to mayhem. Now that Times Square was Disney-fied two decades ago during the Giuliani administration, it seems fitting that Disney and other cartoon characters are responsible for the new controversy in midtown Manhattan.
The other phenomenon these cartoon characters reminds me of is the ubiquitous squeegee men of the early 1990s, who would come up to your car as you waited at a red light and, without asking, often cleaned your windshield and expected pay in return.
Then Police Commissioner Bill Bratton cracked down on these squeegee men as a symbol of the “broken windows” theory of policing and they went away, and many attribute New York’s dramatic drop in crime to this style of policing.
Are people who dress up as carton characters and expect big tips when they pose for pictures with tourists and kids the squeegee men of 2014? The City Council is now proposing legislation to regulate the proliferation of these seemingly innocuous but highly symbolic characters.
Even Mayor Bill de Blasio has acknowledged that something needs to be done about this “new reality.”
In addition to this dust-up in Times Square, we had the first high-profile death in a while of a man at the hands of the police on Staten Island.
It resulted from a choke-hold and excessive force being used to subdue a 43-year-old man who was alleged to have been selling illegal cigarettes on the street. This type of police mistake and the ensuing rounds of protests and denunciations by people such as the Rev. Al Sharpton also had a bit of a 1990s echo.
The real question overriding all of this is will the city continue to pursue the “broken windows” theory of policing and crack down on small misdemeanors, like selling illegal cigarettes on the street or making sure people dressed up like Elmo don’t harass pedestrians in Times Square?
There has been a movement started by the Brooklyn district attorney to decriminalize marijuana possession, and there have been articles in The New York Times recently questioning the large amounts of misdemeanor arrests that have continued during the first six months of the de Blasio administration.
What kind of New York will we live in during the coming years — one that continues extra vigilance against crime or a city that puts civil liberties and a lax approach to petty crimes above all?
On a different level, there is another pattern emerging that reminds me of the 1980s all over again — the rise of a highly aggressive and potent U.S. attorney who is making a name for himself by taking on prominent cases.
In the same way that Rudy Giuliani emerged as a major political figure in the late 1980s, we now have Preet Bharara, who is seemingly fearless in his pursuit of government officials.
He now seems to have the Cuomo administration in his crosshairs and what appeared to be a sleepy political season now has some drama, with the U.S. attorney exploring the actions around the Moreland Commission. Are we now witnessing the ascension of a new political star coming out of that office?
So as we enter the second half of 2014, with a new city government and a governor seeking re-election, it’s hard not to draw parallels to an era almost a quarter century ago. The more things change in politics, it seems, the more they stay the same.
Tom Allon, president of City & State NY, was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left to return to the private sector. Reach him at [email protected].