Death Row Records CEO and all-round uberthug Suge Knight once described Compton as “like the ocean… It’s real pretty, but, anytime, something can happen.”
You could apply the same analogy to New York. A couple of weeks back, I was planning an expedition to the Bronx to interview a veteran graffiti crew for a new magazine that’s launching here in September. This was exciting for a number of reasons – a chance to visit a new area; a chance to speak to a really interesting interviewee; a chance to see my name in print here. I spent the day before researching, reading up on the history of the artists and their work.
The next morning, I packed my Dictaphone carefully, made sure I knew where I was going, and headed to the station. Just before I was due to jump on the subway, I double-checked the crew’s Facebook page to make sure there weren’t any new projects that I should know about.
Instead, I found page after page of tributes. It turned out that the son of one of the group’s founders had been shot dead at a barbecue the night before, hit by stray gunfire when an argument broke out and two men pulled guns. He wasn’t involved in the dispute – he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I called into the magazine and told them what had happened. Of course, I didn’t go; instead, I spent an hour or so reading about what had happened. The murder remains unsolved. It was one of four killings in New York that day, brief ripples on the surface of the ocean that soon dissipate and are lost. Most of them you never hear about at all.
I’ve never once felt really unsafe in New York; but nor have I ever doubted that all I’m seeing is the surface. There are layers and layers, undercurrents that you’d miss if you didn’t know what to look for. There’s the spectacularly ghetto barber’s shop a few doors down that seems to do a roaring trade at all hours of the evening; the ice cream van that spends its days going round and round the neighbourhood; the dudes who occasionally stand on the corner and look me up and down as I walk by, looking like they’re about to say something then deciding against it.
A week or so after the shooting, I did make it uptown to do the interview, and it was an experience. Unlike Manhattan, the Bronx isn’t flat; you can stand at the top of a hill and look down to the gleaming spires of the island, the skyline almost lost in the haze, a few miles and a world away. The degree of poverty in some parts of New York is startling – as I discussed here last month, there are areas that look more like shantytowns than districts of the Western world’s financial nerve centre. The part of the South Bronx that I visited wasn’t nearly that decrepit, but whereas Manhattan and Brooklyn feel like they could exist in Australia, this place most definitely didn’t – or, perhaps, it would be at the core of one of those outer suburbs of Melbourne that relatively few people from the heart of the city ever visit.
I didn’t speak to the artist who lost his son, but I spoke to one of his colleagues, who was friendly and fascinating. We talked about the history of graffiti and the way that it has evolved in parallel with New York over the years, about how both the art form and the city have changed. Graffiti walls now fetch thousands of dollars at auction, and New York is no longer the decaying, near-bankrupt metropolis in which teen artists splashed the first murals on derelict subway cars. Rudolph Giuliani remains a polarizing figure of Thatcher-esque proportions – some curse at the mere mention of his name, others claim that he’s solely responsible for cleaning up the city – but whatever the reason, NYC has left the bad old days of the 70s and 80s behind. The crack epidemic has receded, and with it violence and gang culture.
But still, every day, somewhere, someone gets swept away by a soundless undercurrent. And soon the ripples disappear, and no-one knows any different.