Flat White

Letter from New York – where empathy is exhausted

9 February 2022

12:00 PM

9 February 2022

12:00 PM

This week, in one carriage of the New York City subway, there were seven homeless people taking shelter on an icy winter’s day. They were swathed in various worn-out coats, hats, scarves, blankets, knapsacks, and plastic carry bags; none showed their faces from behind their layers of urban swaddling.

In other carriages of that subway, and the many others I’ve been riding, there are many more of these human ‘mounds of misery’. At street level, every district of Manhattan that I have walked through has had dozens of homeless people in different stages of demise and disarray, including many showing signs of psychosis.

Beyond my own observations, the Coalition for the Homeless reports that the number of homeless single adults in New York City is 91 per cent higher than it was in 2010.

At the same time, in the first six weeks of 2022, six New York Police Department (NYPD) officers have been shot and two have died. Both the young Police officers who died were people of colour in a city where the newly elected Mayor is African American and a former cop.

That same NYPD, the most storied Police department in the world, just released the crime stats for last month which showed a rapid return to pre-Covid levels: ‘For the month of January 2022, New York City saw a 38.5 per cent increase in overall index crime compared with January 2021 (9,566 v. 6,905). Every major index crime category saw an increase for the month of January 2022 with the exception of murder, which fell by 15.2 per cent (28 v. 33). Robbery increased by 33.1 per cent (1,251 v. 940), and grand larceny increased by 58.1 per cent (4,047 v. 2,559). Citywide shooting incidents increased by 31.6 per cent (100 v. 76) in January 2022 compared with the same period last year.’

I came of age in New York City in the Seventies and Eighties – an era often thought of as the worst in the city’s history. When it was literally burning and broke. When its very high violence levels became the subject of post-apocalyptic movies and T-shirts. When I acquired a lot of street smarts and survival skills. When I conducted my own ‘Escape from New York’ to Australia and new beginnings.

Having then watched New York City truly transformed and taking its place as the ‘global capital’ during regular visits from 1990 onwards, I admired what New Yorkers had achieved with and for each other. It became a marvel of a metropolis. On this current trip back, I sometimes wonder if I am witnessing not only a return to bad old days, but a more fundamental decline of the United States with New York City as the lead indicator.

But I’m not. Historians suggest that the collapse of civilisations is characterised by not just violence and a lack of social cohesion, but also by the fall of government and economic failure. For all of the political ruction of the past five years, America’s institutions actually remain highly functional and, indeed, its economy is kicking new goals, notwithstanding a decades-high inflation rate of around 7 per cent.

On February 4, the US Labor Department released data that shows 6.6 million jobs generated in 2021, which is way beyond almost all predictions. Many of the jobs being added are in the hospitality and healthcare sectors which is conceptually good for lower paid people and addresses the US’ 40-year long trend of income disparity. Indeed, almost every restaurant and retail shop in New York has a ‘Help Wanted’ sign on its window, and its hospitals and nursing homes are bringing in people from all over the country.

How then do we explain how homelessness and violence can be rising at the same time that job generation is going strong? Some blame specific policies by the former Mayor, but it seems to me that there’s something bigger going on.

Perhaps, over the course of Covid, New Yorkers have developed a ‘blind spot’ to social dysfunction in their streets, subways and suburbs.

In the way that Sydneysiders have a blind spot about gambling and basically ignore the consequences of having more poker machines per person than any place but Las Vegas, it’s possible that New Yorkers have become desensitised to the suffering and squalor around them. Sadly, it seems to be within the window of tolerance of many New Yorkers to have fellow human beings sleeping rough on their stoops and sidewalks. Moreover, people complain to me about ‘aggressive’ beggars, as if anybody would ever choose to beg for survival.

While Covid certainly created more opportunity for shared purpose around a common cause, there’s no doubt that its various restrictions also drove many of us physically apart and into the haven of our homes and screens. In the name of protecting ourselves from infection, it has maybe also made some more wary of others. These things have an impact. They become part of our ‘emotional muscle memory’.

When we choose not to see poverty, or when we shrug our shoulders about ‘black on black violence’, or when we opt out of and away from the pain around us, or when our convenience is prioritised over our moral obligations, we put part of our own individual humanity on hold. We may be safer in our chosen comfort zone, but we are a little less alive.

It’s a kind of municipal muteness that sees us losing our skills of compassion and connection. Or, in the form of social justice or equity, those things become political toeholds of the Left that many of us in turn find hard to accept or be associated with.

The practice of empathy requires the practice of empathy. One gets better at helping others the more one seeks to understand others and how best to support others. It’s inherently inconvenient. It’s a choice, a discipline and a sacrifice. For the sake of my old hometown – or my current hometown in sunny Australia – I really do hope that many more of us make a new commitment to service as we emerge from Covid.

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