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La Repubblica, Italy

How Gentle Is New York

By Federico Rampini

It is urban and metropolitan America that has become the most civilized and peaceful in recent years, the very America that was shaken by violent racial clashes in the '60s and '70s.

Translated By Claudia Pellicano

26 January 2013

Edited by Lau­rence Bouvard

Italy - La Repubblica - Original Article (Italian)

My neighbor’s name is Shotaro Tanaka. He’s Japanese, 30, has a very nice wife and two delightful kids. He works in a bank. We have very different lives; our encounters usually happen in the elevator or on the apartment’s floor, and they’re always very pleasant. Tanaka is extremely kind; he never stops apologizing about how his kids are loud (and it’s not true.) He arrived here only a year ago, and he’s already completely in love with New York. In addition to Japan, he lived in Hong Kong for a long time, so we have a piece of Asian life in common. But when we talk about our life in Manhattan we light up with the same enthusiasm.

New York is special in this way: It is a metropolis that makes people who are different from each other ethnically and culturally, in their biography and lifestyle, feel at home in no time. Everyone takes the part of New York that he wants and recognizes it as his. It’s difficult to feel out of place, let alone a stranger. This, in a way, has been part of this city’s story since its origins.

But a new element has emerged only in the last two decades. New York has become a gentle city. While it can have stressful work and life rhythms — not to mention decibel levels — it is, in a way, a peaceful city that seems to have adopted the “live and let live” philosophy. This change came to mind when I went to see a terrible documentary, “The Central Park Five.” It is the true story of a horrible crime committed in Central Park: The night of April 19, 1989, a young Caucasian woman, Trisha Meili, was savagely assaulted, brutalized and raped while she was jogging. She fought for a long while, between life and death, before miraculously recovering. That crime in Central Park upset the city. The police were under so much pressure from public opinion, the media and politicians that they “made up” the culprits. Five black teenagers were arrested, only because that evening they were walking in the park being rowdy and kidding around. Under severe interrogation, taken to the limit of psychological torture, confessions were extorted from them (unbelievable, inconsistent, full of contradictions). Sentenced to prison, it took a few years before the real culprit was uncovered, clearing them of blame.

That event remains imprinted on New Yorkers’ minds. Yet, a century seems to have passed. Not just because the city now seems much more secure. The documentary “The Central Park Five” recalls a New York where every ethnic group felt surrounded by others’ hostility, under siege, highly strung — an atmosphere almost incomprehensible to those who live in today’s New York. It’s no coincidence that New York is one of the least armed cities in the U.S. In the debate about weapons, “our” mayor Michael Bloomberg is cutting edge, leading a national campaign that asks for even more severe restrictions.

Today’s “geography of fear” is completely upside down. If you put together the steady stream of shootings and massacres of recent years, it is small towns that prevail by far: the America of quiet, sleepy rural districts, of suburbs with cozy houses, of Rotary Clubs, of neighbors who know each other by name and who meet at church every Sunday. In these backwaters, some terrifying myths have begun to take root; there are people who arm themselves because they are persuaded that they will need to fight for their freedom against an oppressive and totalitarian state (the communist Barack Obama). The paranoia that travels on the Internet finds much more fertile ground in these places.

It is urban and metropolitan America that has become the most civilized and peaceful in recent years, the very America that was shaken by violent racial clashes in the '60s and '70s. All in all, it’s a wonderful story, because it shows that even the most radical changes are possible, sometimes even “easy.” Today no New Yorker ever wonders when, how or why it was possible to transform the psychology of this city, to overturn the balance of power between fear and trust. What used to be an asphalt jungle, a creepy metropolis infamous for its homogenization and anonymity, today is a more tolerant and quiet city, with steadier nerves than many other rural districts. It’s not just a matter of wealth; even during the latest recession crime figures remained at an all-time low. By the way, it could also be said that Boston and Washington are as friendly and reassuring as New York. And, on the other coast, San Francisco. Even Los Angeles (I’ll go that far). So, building trust between neighbors is a possibility, even when coming from levels of pathological difference such as those of 1989. 24 years after that horrible crime, now Shotaro Tanaka and I jog in Central Park at 10 p.m., in the middle of a reassuring crowd of other joggers.



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