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Last Updated: Friday, 16 January, 2004, 10:06 GMT
Crimes and misdemeanours in New York
Andre Vornic
By Andre Vornic
In New York City

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Editorials urge the mayor to prove he is more than "just a suit"
After forcing through a much-debated ban on smoking in public places, the Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has continued his campaign to root out behaviour considered anti-social. But there are stirrings of rebellion among city residents.

Rumour has it that on certain nights, in certain bars, the smoking ban is flouted by unspoken consensus: as curtains are drawn and doors locked, the regulars light up with an illicit frisson, united in the solidarity of the outcast.

This may be an urban myth, but its tale of sneaky defiance rings true.

The only way to indulge your vices legally these days, runs a local joke, is to stand in the bar door, half in and half out: you smoke outside with one hand, and drink inside with the other. Consuming alcohol in public is also illegal, of course.

Cigarette butts outside a bar on 42nd Street
No smoking in bars
To the extent that they really exist, impromptu speakeasies for smokers are just one response to city policies heavy on social controls.

Reports abound of both residents and visitors falling prey to zealous enforcement of bizarre laws: the man who was arrested for sitting on a milk crate, the tourist who was fined for occupying two subway seats after falling asleep on a train...

Some of the stories are no doubt apocryphal. But they're easily woven into city folklore, thriving on popular perceptions that New York is going the way of Singapore: a place where spontaneity is strictly regulated in the name of quality of life.

'Control freak'

The magazine Vanity Fair has recently led the charge against Mayor Mike, blaming him for taking the fun out of New York.

Delfin Diaz
Why don't they start by fining customers who come asking for fake Gucci items and Rolex watches?
Street vendor Delfin Diaz
Writing in the paper, Christopher Hitchens, a columnist famous for his enjoyment of the good life, lived up to his reputation for invective: "All we know for certain," he said, "is that one of the world's most broad-minded and open cities is now in the hands of a picknose control freak."

The mayor's latest crusade is against street vendors. The ubiquitous stalls groaning with cheap merchandise are now threatened with removal. They're commonly operated by war veterans, disabled locals, and immigrants.

New Yorkers like to complain - or kvetch, in the city slang - about their presence, yet will gladly admit to raiding them every time they need new socks.

Mr Bloomberg, however, has accused street vendors of peddling counterfeit goods and impeding traffic.

Delfin Diaz, whose stall in Times Square was being avidly scoured by visiting Floridians, disputed the charge.

Times Square shopping
Stalls are threatened with removal
"We're doing something for this country," he said, his breath forming an avalanche of steam in New York's arctic cold. "Why don't they start by fining customers who come asking for fake Gucci items and Rolex watches?"

Street artists have also challenged the mayor's plans, saying they risk being criminalised for their cultural trade.

Community leaders, moreover, accuse Mr Bloomberg of taking a selective approach to quality-of-life issues.

He recently vetoed legislation forcing landlords to strip their apartments of lead paint, which has been blamed for severe neurological disorders in children. He also sided with manufacturers of car-theft alarms against residents exasperated by their shrieking, which often rips unchecked through neighbourhoods for no obvious reason.

'Have a nice day'

But for all the criticism, many New Yorkers retain a soft spot for Messianic mayors, and fault Mr Bloomberg more for his lack of charisma than his authoritarian tendencies.

A friend told me one needs to be "something of a dictator" to run the city.

Editorials urge Mr Bloomberg to prove he is more than "just a suit" and to "find his inner LaGuardia", citing the name of one of the city's legendary bosses.

Non-smokers are delighted to return home from the bars not smelling like chimneys. And there is boundless gratitude for the city's low crime rate, which has declined to levels unseen for decades.

In fact, few would dispute that New York is at heart the same unruly place it ever was. Craters still disfigure city streets. Driving manners remain rapacious. The cinemas are awash with chatters, rustlers, and popcorn munchers.

And sales attendants have lost none of their rudeness. They do wish you a nice day, mind you. However grudgingly.

Last smoke in New York
30 Mar 03  |  Americas
Fines for mobile use in NY cinemas
23 Nov 02  |  Entertainment
Bloomberg puts up New York taxes
02 Dec 02  |  Business
Profile: Michael Bloomberg
01 Jan 02  |  Americas

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