The 1980s are over
July 7, 2014
In 1989, a brutal crime seized the civic imagination of New Yorkers. The victim, an ambitious young investment banker working in the corporate finance department of Solomon Brothers, would simply be known as ‘The Jogger’.
The Jogger was out for a run into central park after-work, when she was viciously attacked, dragged into the bushes, severely beaten and raped. As one reporter noted at the time of the trial, The Jogger was “part of the wave of young professionals who took over New York in the 1980’s. Some among them had seemed convinced that if you worked hard enough and exercised long enough, you could do anything; even go into the park at night.” (NYTimes)
As the decade of Me drew to a close, The Jogger became NY’s symbol of a courageous middle-class figure dragged down by the grimy underbelly of a city in deep recession. But of all the crimes that happen in New York, why the intense focus on this particular woman? Why the sensation around this particular case?
Essayist Joan Didion asked this very question in 1991, in a probing NYRB article entitled New York: Sentimental Journeys.
The answer Didion provides is sociologically quite complex, traversing everything from race relations and sexual politics in America, to the historical design of central park. What surprised me the most in her analysis, however, is that she also ties the symbolic charge of The Jogger to the crash of October 1987, which she says “damaged the illusions of infinite recovery and growth on which the city had operated during the 1980s”.
In 1990, it felt as though there was something wrong with New York. Didion reports that people were talking about “their loss of flexibility, about their panic, their desolation, their anger, and their sense of impending doom”. The public, she says, associated its sense of anxiety with accusations of wild behavior in the public space. New Yorkers were eager, too eager, to believe their uneasiness was caused by the teenagers roaming in the park that night, five of whom were publicly arrested, humiliated and convicted of the crime.
Didion objects. The teenagers are not to blame.
These people were talking instead about an immediate fear, about money, about the vertiginous plunge in the value of their houses and apartments and condominiums, about the possibility or probability of foreclosure and loss; about, implicitly, their fear of being left, like so many they saw every day, below the line, out in the cold, on the street.
They were not, she said, “talking about drugs, or crime, or any of the city’s more publicized and to some extent inflated ills”.
Didion was right. In 2002, having already served a collective 41 year in prison, the five men had their convictions overturned. A serial offender who was behind bars confessed to the attack on Trisha Meili in 1989, and DNA evidence later confirmed.
Last week, the five men received a $41 million dollar settlement from the city of New York. For them, the 1980s are only now over. The riches they couldn’t access before, their belated share, has finally been doled out.