Saul Bellow’s prophetic 1970 novel captured New York’s unraveling and remains a cautionary tale.
Fear was a New Yorker’s constant companion in the 1970s and ’80s. We lived behind doors with triple locks, some like engines of medieval ironmongery. We barred our ground-floor and fire-escape windows with steel grates that made us feel imprisoned. I was thankful for mine, though, when a hatchet turned up on my fire escape, origin unknown. Nearing our building entrances, we held our keys at the ready and looked over our shoulders, as police and street-smart lore advised; our hearts pounded as we tried to shove the heavy doors open and slam them shut before some mugger could push in behind us, standard mugging procedure. Only once was I too slow and lost my money. A neighbor, who worked at a midtown bank, lost his life.
So to read Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet when it came out in 1970 was like a jolt of electricity. Just when New York had begun to spin out of control—steadily worsening for over two decades until murders numbered over 2,200 a year, one every four hours—Bellow’s novel described the unraveling with brilliant precision and explained unflinchingly why it was happening. His account shocked readers: some thought it racist and reactionary; others feared it was true but too offensive for a decent person to say. In those days, I felt I should cover my copy with a plain brown wrapper on the subway to veil the obscenity of its political incorrectness.
The book was true, prophetically so. And now that we live in New York’s second golden age—the age of reborn neighborhoods in every borough, of safe streets bustling with tourists, of $40 million apartments, of filled-to-overflowing private schools and colleges, of urban glamour; the age when the New York Times runs stories that explain how once upon a time there was THE AGE OF THE MUGGER and that ask, IS NEW YORK LOSING ITS STREET SMARTS?—it’s important to recall that today’s peace and prosperity mustn’t be taken for granted. Hip young residents of the revived Lower East Side or Williamsburg need to know that it’s possible to kill a city, that the streets they walk daily were once no-go zones, that within living memory residents and companies were fleeing Gotham, that newsweeklies heralded the rotting of the Big Apple and movies like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy plausibly depicted New York as a nightmare peopled by freaks. That’s why it’s worth looking back at Mr. Sammler to understand why that decline occurred: we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Continue reading