Will Millennials Step up to Save Gotham? | Opinion

Millennials living in New York City have only experienced the city at its best. As Boomers are proud to tell us, we never lived through a Times Square full of hookers or a Washington Square littered with needles. For us Millennials, recent events in the city are like the first spat of a new romance. We have had only roses until now, and so what we do at this bump is crucial to the future of the relationship.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt once explained, "There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations, much is given. Of other generations, much is expected." It certainly feels like much has been given to the Millennials: a clean, safe city filled with economic and artistic opportunity. But without knowing what caused that prosperity, one takes it for granted—or worse, actively opposes the policies that created it. This causes things to fall apart, and the city enters into another cycle. Good times create a weak generation which then creates bad times—which then creates a strong generation who creates good times, and so on.

The train seems to be on schedule— murders and shootings are rising and New Yorkers are fleeing, despite Governor Andrew Cuomo's efforts to coax expats back from the Hamptons to the Upper West Side. It's important, however, to put the rise of violent crime in perspective. The ghost of the high-crime 1970s and 1980s is not hiding in every closet, and conservatives may be a little too trigger-happy to draw the comparison. Crime is nowhere near where it was. But there is a self-fulfilling element to this—throwing up our hands at the first sign of trouble is a sure way to get more of it.

Not all unrest spirals into chaos. There may have been a temptation to surrender the city following the draft riots of 1863. Instead, federal troops were called in to put down a mob that killed over 100 people and torched many buildings. The city did not retreat, and the aftermath of the Civil War was a time of explosive growth and consolidation.

Other examples include the racial strife in the city during the "red summer" of 1919 and the 1920-21 recession, which preceded boom times. Similarly, 2011's Occupy Wall Street protests came in the middle of Pax Bloomberg. All this is to say that history is not inevitable—or at least its magnitude isn't. Both Whigs who believe history is a rising road, as well as pessimistic determinists, must contend with the squeegee men beside that road.

Washington Square Park, NYC
Washington Square Park, NYC Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

So, what is to be done? On one view, we are creatures of comfort who live in the city only because it is safe and offers opportunity. There is nothing special about the place except for what it does for you in the moment. The minute that safety goes away, so too will the Millennials. On the second view, there is something unique about New York. Writers and intellectuals all have their own take on what this means, but, as the mensch Pete Hamill opined, there is no single great novel about this city. Maybe that's because this romantic view can mean different things to different people. It can mean the triumph of classical liberalism and tolerance. Or it can mean the cultural excellence that comes from cosmopolitanism. Cynically, this could also be dubbed the "Stockholm view" of New York—that the abuse has been so internalized, the victim romanticizes his addiction to the abuse of the city.

Whatever view you take of why we live here, it is very un-American to be bullied out of a place. When people move out of New York, they should do so on their own terms, because they want to live someplace else. These decisions should come from a place of strength, not a flight of fear.

What happens to New York matters to America, and Millennials are a large part of what will happen to New York. Now is not the time to make rash decisions. We should instead reflect on the history of the city and the values that made its existence possible. Liberalism and cosmopolitanism are not for everyone—but those who want to live here sometimes need to fight for it.

Max Raskin (@maxraskin) is an adjunct professor of law at New York University School of Law.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.