New York, everybody knows, is a violent city, perhaps the violent city. Mean streets and fat cops and that exhilarating feeling that, somehow, you're always in danger. The city wears its violence like a badge.
I live on Gramercy Park, the one bit of New York, New Yorkers tell me, that's meant to be just like London, although there's nothing remotely like London outside my window. Within the past three months, this is what I've seen:On the corner, I saw a policeman confront a man who was wielding a knife while holding a woman and baby hostage. They escaped uninjured, and the culprit was dramatically wrestled to the ground and handcuffed.
Two blocks away, at the intersection of Lexington and Twenty-third, an elegantly dressed man in a green wool suit was crossing the street, carrying a briefcase. When he was halfway across, a car, which I now realize had been waiting for this very moment, started up, accelerated, sped around the corner, and struck the man so hard that he flew into the air and landed on the windshield of a taxi. The taxi driver lost control, ran into a fire hydrant and was knocked unconscious, slumped against his steering wheel, pressing against his horn.
And then there was this astonishing incident, just outside the Gramercy Park Hotel. I happened to notice a young couple leaving through its revolving door. The man, in his early 20s, was dressed in a T-shirt and black jeans and had a flamboyantly pierced ear. The woman, a blonde, was wearing a short black leather skirt.
Someone appeared, a man (I never got a look at his face), who called out something - a name, I believe - stepped forward and shot the young man in the chest. Just like that: a shout, two steps, bam. And the young man's T- shirt erupted in a cauliflower of pink goo.
These are, admittedly, exceptional moments. In fact, they are the only moments of physical violence that I've witnessed in New York. I've seen no road rage. For all the shouting that New Yorkers do, I've seen no one get out of his car and strike another driver. For all the clubs and the drinking until four in the morning, I've never seen a bar fight, although I've regularly seen pub fights in any number of British provincial towns. I've been to Yankees games and mixed with off-duty drunken firemen and foul-mouthed clowns from the Bronx, and never once suspected that any one of them would even think of punching someone out of allegiance to their team.
But I have seen these three things, virtually outside my door. They were extreme, theatrical - just like TV, the movies, just like New York. And that's because each one was being performed for a camera. The violence was all made up.
New York is violent, but it's not violent in the way we have been led to believe: all that "Taxi Driver," Scorsese, "NYPD" stuff. In fact, there's a curious conceit being perpetrated by the office of the mayor of New York, Rudolf Giuliani.
In the past six years, New York has become statistically and undeniably a less dangerous place. This is, one suspects, highly alarming to the people who run the city. How else to explain a very different trend: that there are statistically more violent films about this city than ever before?
The mayor's office has 14 people whose mission is to make filming in the city easy. New York wants its images on the world's screens, and it doesn't care what those images depict. A permit to show that New York cops are brutal and disgusting? No problem. Prostitution, drug dealing, Mafia hits? Hey, you just have to ask. A crowd riot that involves closing down streets and tunnels - please!
Last year, 21,286 days' worth of filming took place here. Next year, there will probably be even more. And many of these shows are just as violent as the ones shot outside my building. After all, this is New York.