"They did it partially to 'make their mark,' like they were showing ownership ... I [once] stepped on a train and saw all of these Satan Souls members get out. I checked in with the conductor and he said, 'It happened again, Arnold!' The police cracked down on that pretty hard the following year -- that really is crossing a line -- though hijackings still occurred every now and then for some time after." Fun fact: In 1980, a 15 year-old kid took over a train and drove it for six stops. He wasn't in a gang, he just really liked trains. It was a system in chaos, is what we're saying.
Citizens started avoiding the subway altogether (ridership dropped by more than 20 percent over a decade). Lack of staff and resources meant that people like Arnold just had to turn a blind eye to anything that wasn't life or death. "Unless it was an emergency, we weren't going to stop. Murder, grievous injury, deaths, someone falling on the tracks were stoppable reasons. What wasn't was, say, fighting. Or some guy getting handsy with someone. Or graffiti ... If you were alone, and two robbers came on and you were robbed, I don't know of any conductor who would go out of their way to do something about it. I would call it in and get police, but that's it."
Arnold knew better than to intervene in the minor stuff. He had a colleague who got stabbed trying to stop graffiti artists. Usually they didn't even stop painting when they saw MTA workers came by. "I remember seeing Sesame Street's Christmas episode. The part where they all go on the subway came on ..."
"There is no reason why they should have gone through unscathed," he remembers thinking. "Where was the graffiti? Where was the guy ready to start stabbing people? If you ever needed to prove to your kids back then that Sesame Street wasn't real, just show them how the subway looked then. A group of people like that, even without puppets, would have been a muggers' dream at the time."
You'd actually think the living puppets would freak them out a little, but you get the point.
Related: Your Neighbors Try To Murder You: 6 Realities In A Genocide
And Then, Something Very Strange Happened
In a dystopian film, the whole point is that things are falling apart and will continue to fall apart. Anyone riding those subways in Arnold's day could easily assume that New York wouldn't even be a city at all by the year 2000, just packs of gangs and terrified victims. (1981's Escape From New York took place in 1997, and seemed somewhat plausible at the time.) In real life, well, let's extend our original graph a couple of inches to the right:
After 1990, crime plummeted faster than it had risen.
You could argue that things reached a symbolic boiling point in 1984, when a guy named Bernie Goetz whipped out a revolver and shot four people threatening him on the Subway, and instantly became a national symbol for a citizenry that was fed up with crime. The ensuing drop in violent crime would be nationwide, and was so sudden and dramatic that experts aren't sure why it happened. Theories range from tougher policing to legal abortion to even reduced lead poisoning.
As for New York's subways, they poured nearly $2 billion into the system in just a few years. They hired 2,000 staff solely to clean graffiti, an intensive process which itself took years (they held a special ceremony in 1989 to celebrate the cleaning of the final car). "When I left, most of the trains were clean," says Arnold. "Everything was new, or seemed new."
By the 1990s, crime was vanishing from the subways, and by the 2000s, it had become a model system. There was a dystopian nightmare, then people got sick of it and fixed that shit. When's the last time you've seen that in a movie? The good guys just straight cleaning up a dystopia?
We're not bringing this all up out of the blue. These days, those subways are in need of repair again, triggering a bitter public argument over funding. And the national mood seems to be that society, in general, is in the process of falling apart and can never be put back together. But historically, that's simply not true. Where there exists enough will (and cash), things can be cleaned up and repaired, restored to their former glory. Problems are, in fact, solvable.
Just ask anybody who rode the New York subway in 1978.
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