MAXWELL:  The dangers of a love affair with NYC

3/29/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As a lover of New York City, I go there every chance I get. I will be there this weekend taking Robert McKee’s famous screenwriting course that will be held at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Although I am excited about being in the Big Apple for four days, I am worried about my personal safety for the first time ever. I have always taken to the streets of New York like a child taking to the sights and sounds of the circus. New York is pure excitement _ the ultimate love affair.

Today, however, the prospect of going to the city scares me because of the attitudes of the NYPD, the city’s taxi drivers and far too many residents. I worry because I am a dark-skinned black male, a target that attracts trigger-happy boys in blue and the wrath of cabbies.

During the past 13 months, NYPD’s finest have killed four unarmed black men on the street. The latest victim, Patrick Dorismond, was standing on Eighth Avenue, near the theater district, hailing a taxi when an uncover cop, seeking to buy drugs, approached him. Moments later, Dorismond was lying in his own blood _ dead.

As usual, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani demonized the victim and defended the cop _ even before knowing all the facts of the case. Apparently, the NYPD has its marching orders: Get black males by any means necessary. That scares me. What would I do if a non-cop-looking person approached me trying to buy drugs? What would I say? Would my actions be my last?

Black men on New York streets can feel the personal danger. When I was there alone for the millennium celebrations, I was careful to avoid any contact with cops or situations that would demand their presence. I stayed on busy thoroughfares, among crowds and, except for my cheap hotel, inside upscale businesses. In Central Park, I steered clear of lone white women and made every effort not to surprise them.

In short, I tried to avoid any behavior that could have been misinterpreted as threatening. And what is threatening? Anything a white person, especially a business owner, deems so. Whenever I hailed a taxi, I did so in busy, well-lighted places. I remembered actor Danny Glover’s now-famous media blitz of his trouble getting a cab. Had he not been a well-known star, he easily could have wound up dead on a Manhattan sidewalk.

Another trick I use to call a cab is to be in the company of a white person. Drivers usually do not pass me by when I am with a white person, especially a male. Or, offering a good tip, I have an attendant at my hotel call for me.

Paradoxically, I feel safest in Harlem. There, I encounter fewer whites who may feel threatened. Those in Harlem want to be there. They want to eat at Sylvia’s, see the Apollo Theater, attend service at the Abyssian Baptist Church and listen to the choir, tour the Schomberg Center for black culture and generally enjoy the unique ambiance. These are whites who have come to terms with Harlem and its denizens. They tend to be more cosmopolitan and harbor fewer fears of African-Americans.

Fear creates unnecessary ethnic friction, which engenders incidents that bring in the police. Last summer, when I came to New York to cover the Million Youth March, I had to walk from Grand Central Station to 125th Street in Harlem because I could not find a cabbie to drive me there.

A few years ago, I would walk into any neighborhood. Today, I am smarter. I know that I can get into big trouble simply by crossing a street, from one deeply ethnic neighborhood to another. Here is how one travel guide describes the city: “New York is the world’s most ethnically diverse city with different nations in different territories. The cityscape changes and so do the faces, customs and languages. It’s around the world from barrio to Chinatown to shtetl.”

Frankly, I will not go alone into some of these “territories.” The mere sight of me in, say, the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn would be bad for my health. I most certainly would not venture alone into Crown Heights. I would, however, walk the streets of Spanish Harlem anytime. The vibes are positive there.

As a dark-skinned black male in New York, I know that I must battle the old forces: the perception _ and perhaps the reality _ that we are overrepresented in street-level crime, that we are violent. As such, I choose to navigate the city by minimizing even the slightest confrontations that may bring me face to face with the NYPD. I choose to take responsibility for my human environment, learning the lay of the land, knowing my place.

Anyway, I fly to Gotham City on Thursday and hope to return on Monday.