It’s not that I take pleasure in seeing anyone get hurt, but I can’t say I was upset when the natives violently crashed the pioneer party in Williamsburg. There were 25 or so hipsters, umbrellas, space pirates, or whatever you like to call them on the roof blazing copious quantities of high grade skunk, another six on the fire escape drinking loudly, and a brick holding the apartment’s outside door open, Dr. Dre booming from a stereo system that well exceeded the monthly rent, plugged into a pricey new Apple loaded up with mp3s. I’d been there about an hour, with friends who had come to see friends of theirs, and still had no idea whose apartment I was in. It didn’t seem to matter. Several people had apparently just ambled in, drawn by the noise, crowd, drugs, and women, uninvited and unchallenged.
Then come the Hispanics. Four, all men, one of them easily larger than anyone else at the party. Hip hop clothes, gold chains, one with a couple of knife scars on his cheek. Someone puts the music down and suddenly there’s a lot more murmuring than yelling. As the noise goes does, the newcomers tense up. Quantum uncertainty in practice — the newcomers are trying discreetly to examine the party, the party is trying discreetly to examine them and everyone is stuck staring. One of the newcomers asks for a cigarette in a neutral voice — half the hipsters are smoking, no one offers a smoke. Within five minutes all the women in the room have retreated to the roof. Five minutes later, three fellows descend from it, trying to look serious and purposeful but coming off stoned and spooked. One of them steps up to the newcomers, and, to quote “Airplane,” starts talking jive— “Yo fellas, I’m sayin, yo, no disrespect, knowh’Imean , but this is a private party, yo” — then puts his hand on the biggest guy’s shoulder, as though to steer him to the door. Even after the young jive talker was smacked around, I still wasn’t clear if he was the host of the party, but in any event no one stepped in to help him. The Hispanics left after that, unchallenged, and the party quickly petered out.
It’s a testament to how much the city has changed since the Dinkins years that the hipsters at the party, many of them newcomers to the city, lacked the danger sense shared by most all New Yorkers. There is an almost unprecedented expectation of safety in Hipster Williamsburg (which shares little but a name with Hispanic Williamsburg and Hasidic Williamsburg), with its population of underemployed, oversexed recent college graduates and their ilk. There’s a shared expectation that the L is a safe means of transportation at three in the morning, that there’s nothing wrong with sitting in a park with a $2,000 laptop or leaving your apartment door open while throwing a party.
But this detachment is from the police as well as from hard men and low lives. The Giuliani revolution in controlling crime is barely noticed, taken as a given. Unlike those who live in poor or working class neighborhoods, the city’s young hipsters feel neither compunction nor fear about smoking a joint while at home or at a party. While the poor and working class continue to face consequences for smoking pot, middle class pot use has been all but decriminalized — and this is, for the most part, a good thing.
Ask a hipster fresh off the boat or however it is they get here about juice bars, and odds are you’ll hear about some spot on Houston Street that mixes a great blueberry smoothie. Ask about weed, and odds are you’ll hear about a delivery service, some young entrepreneur from the neighborhood moving quarter-ounces.
But a decade ago, as the East Village, the Lower East Side, and Alphabet City were just beginning to gentrify, just about every juice bar in those areas — and there was a fair handful of them — sold nickel and dime bags. The quality was fairly low, ranging from dusted or otherwise laced up to pure schwag, but the quantities were generous. Most of the spots sold a particular brand of weed, or at least sold weed in little plastic bags branded with little logos, so that seeing the empty bags strewn on the sidewalk, anyone, smoker or otherwise, much plugged in knew where they came from — other than the police, evidently. The IRS could have conducted a half decent audit by collecting the bags in the neighborhood, which is where most all the weed was smoked — you left, went to a bodega for papers or a blunt, and then lit up outside.
The other classic setup was the bodega full of dusty cans and without any customers younger than 14 or older than 35. During the day, customers would buy a soda or a bag of plantain chips and the weed bag would be dropped in the paper bag. At night, all business was conducted from a bulletproof glass window facing the street. I’ve actually gone to such spots late night in search of household super basics, like garbage bags, only to be told, less politely, that “We don’t do that now.”
There were many variations. For a while there was an ice cream truck in on the action, taping bags to the bottom of ice cream cups — once or twice I saw parents buy their kids an ice cream while treating themselves.
Spots did get busted here and again, but new ones opened up, hydra-like. Those too impatient for word of mouth would drop in on a new deli that had that look, drop a ten spot, and see what ended up in their paper bag. If the ten was snickered at or disdainfully ignored, you knew you were in a coke or smack spot.
Nearly all these spots sold extremely low quantities that the police were evidently willing to overlook, or at least not go out of their way to find. But in consequence, most users were sparking up right after leaving the store, on the street. But of course these spots and street users added up to a classic broken windows scenario. Turning a blind eye to the spots (easily identified, among other ways, by the tremendously poor care they took of their stores and storefronts) told their customers it was alright to smoke in the streets, seeing people smoke in the streets gave the sign that it was alright to get rowdy, fight, and otherwise seriously disrupt the neighborhood’s life, and so on. In short, the spots were central to a pervasive feeling of lawlessness and incivility.
Like many people about my age (25) who were born here, I have certain nostalgia for all that lawlessness and chaos and the weirdness and adventures that intermittently popped up around it.
But who in their right mind wants to live above a drug spot, with people getting high all around — yelling, fighting, pissing in the streets, and worse — or open a business adjacent to one? Some storeowners and neighborhood residents objected, but the response was most always some variation of “This is how it is” or “What do you expect living here?”
Rudy changed all that. Few people remember how controversial the whole idea of proactive, Broken Windows policing was in 1993. Today the idea that small crimes are signposts that larger crimes are acceptable, and that those who commit small crimes are likely to be involved in larger ones, seems conventional. But at the time, the idea of focusing on small crimes in a city overwhelmed by big ones was dismissed by Al Sharpton, the New York Times, and much of the city as absurd, if not outright villainous.
We now know that the idea was spot on. When Rudy’s first police chief, Bill Bratton, started conducting massive arrest sweeps of turnstile jumpers, it turned out that one of every seven people arrested had an outstanding felony warrant. In little time, crime began to plummet, and as went the fare jumpers and squeegeemen, so went the drug fronts. By 1996, there was nary a spot left in Manhattan (Note to newcomers: Manhattan here is Bloomberg’s luxury product, going only as far north as about 110th Street. Uptown is, of course, understood as a distinct sixth borough. I’m talking about the Manhattan you see on taxi maps.).
In their place came delivery services, stepping into the vacuum that the spots hat left in Manhattan, Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg, and the rest of the places the young, better off, and sometimes beautiful choose to live. Even low level delivery services tend to have a minimum sale of about an eight of an ounce and to sell a higher grade of weed than did the five and dime spots.
The delivery quantities were too small, though, to be worth robbing, especially since most services had fairly small clienteles, gained through word of mouth and recommendations from trusted clients. This, combined with the price barrier to entry goes a fair ways toward filtering out the younger and wilder crowd. Often one or two man operations, with the delivery guy doubling as the CEO, they are for the most part discreet affairs that help to separate the drug economy from the criminal and quality of life concerns that accompany open air drug use and sales. Outside of their operations, these new dealers tend to be disconnected from the criminal economy, as do their clients, outside of their smoking. Neither tend to interact with any other sort of criminal element either during the sale or otherwise.
In short, all drug sales are not the same — spots have far more impact on the surrounding community than do delivery services. As George Kelling, co-author of the seminal 1982 Atlantic article “Broken Windows” that introduced the theory of the same name puts it, however distasteful it might be, “Suburban drug use… doesn’t compare with the violence associated with the fight for drug markets that has literally wiped out neighborhoods. The drug trade threatens the stability of poor neighborhoods — very few middle class neighborhoods are threatened by drug dealing or drug use.”
I sat down in the big playground at Washington Square Park with Nancy — names have been changed to protect the guilty — an attractive (but married) red haired, chain smoking Hispanic woman in her late 20s, while her six year old son played on the swings. A lifelong Brooklynite and waitress at a popular Village restaurant, devoted martial artist, and former casual heroin user, she’s been selling weed from a friend’s place in the Village for the last six months, pocketing an extra $1,200 or so a month on about six ounces. “I’m thinking of expanding to low poundage,” she told me. “If I was contactable, I could easily expand, but I’ve got no beeper and only answer my house phone when I recognize the number. No one can find me except physically. It’s very Victorian.”
Nancy entered into the pot business almost by accident, when her personal source vanished “and my new guy only sold in larger quantities than I could smoke, so I moved some along down the food chain, thus the better to help friends, make money, and live a happy life.” After unsuccessfully staring down a eavesdropping mother staring daggers at us, Nancy expressed concern that the other mother might call the city’s child services bureau and we moved the conversation out of the park, leaving her son to play with Nancy’s sister.
When I then asked what concerns, moral or otherwise, she had about the business, Nancy, who has never had an encounter with the police while selling, said, “I don’t think it’s a problem or a vice anymore than cigarettes or chocolate. I’m not into the legalization people. It’s not a moral issue … I don’t think I’d sell to high school kids — it feels like mixing the crimes. I am conscious of the risks just because of the college student clients, who think ‘Oh no, I got a bright future. It’s this chick who’s, you know, not in college.’ The clients are not very paranoid about the police, and neither am I, but I’m sometimes paranoid about the clients.”
To her, the job means always having a bit of her own weed to smoke and “the difference between working full time to pay the bills and having money to spend. It’s putting my child through private elementary school.”
When I asked Kelling about delivery services, he surprised me by arguing that limited police resources necessitate a degree of tolerance for discrete delivery services. “I have never been an advocate of legalization but at the same time the ideas that we are going to have a drug free society or stop all drug dealing is a joke. The top priority of the police has to be with drug markets that threaten the stability of cities, and to come down very hard on such groups. It sees to me that if one is able to make substantial gains the threshold might change. At one moment in time the pattern of a group or gang might be minimally appropriate but once you’ve changed the threshold, you demand even more discrete drug dealing.”
Given police success, the hope is to eventually define deviancy back up, but in the short haul, so long as the sellers are policing themselves and staying off the streets, the cops have other priorities. At this moment in the cycle, at least, the practical result is the essential decriminalization of low level middle class drug use. Suddenly, the window is all but unbroken, the war on drugs distinct from the war on crime on the local level. It is the extension of the free and open use of coke in high end bars otherwise free of disruptive or criminal dealings, and that handle what trouble does emerge in house. This is a whole new spin on the old adage, often invoked when the cops or other sorts of trouble approach, to “master your high.” In short, to the extent that drug use in a neighborhood is distinct from other criminal or publicly disruptive activities, it becomes less and less of a police and prosecutorial priority.
Daniel is another example of a dealer below the present threshold. A non descript white guy in his mid-20s, Brooklyn born and raised, he has been selling for half a decade, first at college and then in Park Slope, and has yet to encounter the police. He nets about $2,500 a month, labeling it “a decent bartender’s salary, and I prefer my line of work.”
He got his customers through socializing, a free mix of business and pleasure— “I have a pretty small client base of about 15 people… I’m a local to my neighborhood. You know people — I play softball with some people, I play poker with other people, friends refer friends. Almost all my people are in the Slope and Prospect Heights.”
Like Nancy, he has no moral qualms, and little fear of the police. “I don’t really get worried when I carry. Maybe in the beginning, but at this stage in the game I’m pretty comfortable with everything. I don’t meet people in the street — either in their homes or in a car. I don’t have that guilty conscience. I really don’t believe I’m doing anything wrong or that anyone has reason to think I am.”
Julia Vitullo-Martin, the crime columnist for GothamGazette.com, makes a distinction similar to those of both Kelling and Daniel. “It comes back to the federal drug war and our motives for doing this. Do we have this war against drugs because like turn-of-the-century Protestants we think drugs, like alcohol, nicotine, gambling, and coffee are immoral? Is that what’s driving this or is it because we object to drugs because with drugs come crime and its really crime we don’t want. I really don’t care what anyone does at home if that person is not robbing, raping, or murdering. The war on drugs is premised on the idea that the addiction itself is what we should go after… I hesitate because I don’t want to see anybody selling drugs on my street. I don’t object to any low level dealer selling in his apartment but any selling on the street I object to because I think it always triggers bad stuff. I’d like to see the NYPD turn a blind eye to this low level stuff whenever it becomes private but as soon as it becomes public I object.” The difficulty is in codifying common sense, and applying limited resources in a way that is both reasonable and fair, which are two very different, and sometimes contrary goals.
The upshot is that those with their own place, a fair amount of discretionary cash, and minimal prudence, most all of whom live within delivery zones such as Hipster Williamsburg, slide while nickel and dime bag buyers, like those in Hispanic Williamsburg, get no such free ride. I asked Vitullo-Martin, is this an unfair use of policing and prosecutorial discretion or an intelligent application of limited law enforcement resources?
Referring back to the crack epidemic of the 1980s, she replied that, “In cycles of public policy there is such a thing as shock treatment in which you’re on some kind of downward spiral and you’re just going to keep going down unless something shocking and practically brutal happens. Then the question becomes, how do you get out of that shock treatment, which is where we are right now. The shock treatment did work, but now what? … Some kind of basic equity requires that if you’re going to bust the crack user with a small amount you’ve also got to slam the privileged kid drug user.”
Daniel doesn’t want to hear this. Now that he no longer sells to high school students — “These kids looks so suspicious, its ridiculous, and they have no sense of how things are supposed to flow” — he’s had not even close shaves with cops or hardcore crooks. “I haven’t been involved in any real shady shit. My partner who does his thing in the city had a gun put to his head and had 10 Gs taken in any attempted transaction. I only go out of my network if I get a referral. I carry no weapon. I’m not dealing with those kinds of clients and those kind of areas. I’m in a family biz and a family neighborhood.”
On the subject of families, Nancy’s husband “knows, but doesn’t want to. As far as he’s concerned, it’s no moral issue, but breaking the law is liable to get you into trouble, and we have enough trouble anyway. It seems kind of sleazy. I think that’s the main issue — it seems kind of low brow.”
Or, as Vitullo-Martin has it, however much safer the city is these days, “this is not Greenwich, Connecticut.”