Two weeks ago, I visited New York City with my wife, who was interviewing at a local medical school located in the Bronx. I dropped her at the school. Since I was lacking a car, I hopped on a public bus, intending to take it to the local subway station.
I have never been so frightened for my country in my life.
The bus itself was fine; all the people on it had places to be. It was the subway station that was truly scary. The station itself looked like a bomb had hit it. Debris covered the shattered tile floor. The stench of vomit and urine permeated the place. Rust layered the tracks; wooden boards between the tracks moldered into dust. The station had clearly been beautiful at one point, but now it looked like a leftover set from "The Omega Man."
Elderly people sat holding their cheap knockoff bags, quietly avoiding eye contact with the younger crowd. Young people gathered in small groups, speaking in broken English into their expensive cell phones. I saw a couple of young men pass small plastic bags to one another.
Then I got on the train. As the Bronx rushed past, shattered images stuck to the smeared windows like flies to a windshield: buildings with graffiti on every air conditioner, on every window, on every door; empty lots covered in garbage; apartments with hundreds of broken windows; the Bronx River, pieces of wreckage sticking at obtuse angles from the muddy water. The landscape of hopelessness.
This isn't how the Bronx used to be. Two generations ago, the Bronx was a diverse and thriving lower- to middle-class enclave, full of upwardly mobile people. The area was largely immigrant and hummed with the excitement of a population looking to take advantage of the American dream. Myriads of intellectuals grew up in the Bronx, ranging from Don DeLillo to E.L. Doctorow to Harold Bloom to David Halberstam to Chaim Potok to William Safire, entertainers like Woody Allen, Paddy Chayefsky and Stanley Kubrick, and entrepreneurs ranging from Ralph Lauren to Eli Broad to Calvin Klein.
Then the government got involved.
Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, in an attempt to fight poverty, the New York City government instituted higher property taxes and rent control. The idea behind the property taxes was simple redistributionism -- tenants should be given more money from the pockets of landlords. The same held true for rent control -- the unspoken idea was that landlords had been gypping their tenants.