Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment.
Sometimes you just instinctively (and accurately) know something, as was the case the other day when I saw an Internet headline about how a number of victims of superstorm Sandy had been victimized again. "NYC Sandy Victims looted over Thanksgiving," the piece announced.
"I bet that happened in Rockaway," I immediately wagered with no one in particular, and won.
The story went on to say one couple in the Breezy Point section of Rockaway had a $25,000 coin collection stolen, among other items. Thieves broke into at least two other homes in the area, either on Thanksgiving itself or the day before, when many people were away for the holiday. The story also noted 14 home break-ins during a five-day stretch about a week earlier; during the same period in 2011, there had been none.
Rockaway is about a 10-mile-long peninsula straddled by the Atlantic Ocean in the southeastern corner of Queens in New York City, with upwards of 130,000 residents (at least before Sandy). I lived there from second grade through my first year of college, but I don't think I've been back since my parents moved about 20 years ago, so anything I say about the place should be judged with that limitation in mind.
A lot of old knowledge can be a dangerous thing. But I don't need to go out on too many limbs to make several points.
First off, most areas in Rockaway (also known as "the Rockaways") were safe places to live. It certainly was safe in my general neighborhood when I was a kid, in what I would now describe as a largely lower-middle-class community of apartment buildings and modest single-family homes and duplexes. There also were working-class and low-income sections, as well as solidly middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Call it a demarcated mix.
I can't speak for the comparatively ritzy communities of Belle Harbor and Neponsit, but crime started becoming a real problem where we lived — in the eastern hub of the peninsula, Far Rockaway — in the late 1960s and early '70s. In part because they weren't interested in sticking around and living in fear, I can't think of a single classmate who still lives anyplace in Rockaway. I suspect a couple must, but I just don't know who they may be. For various reasons, my parents didn't leave until the early 1990s.
My friends and I were lucky to attend strong public schools. The kinds of schools in which, if I failed to learn something, it was my own fault, not that of my teachers, principals or anyone else.
Along with a few thousand other students at any one time, I attended Far Rockaway High School, which over an 11-year period (1965 to 1976) saw three alumni win Nobel Prizes and a fourth win a Pulitzer. But in the same way that crime seized some parts of town, violence and academic failure eventually conquered FRHS, causing it to close down a couple of years ago.
I focus here on crime and education because I long ago came to realize they're hugely important in determining whether any community, city, state or nation works nearly well enough. Starting with the basics, with whether they're simply livable.
While some anti-crime and educational policies have proved to be vital, even more essential are citizens who observe the law and prepare themselves for adulthood simply because that's what citizens are supposed to do. This is another way of saying that:
1. Something elusive called "culture" and something elemental called "personal responsibility" matter.
2. In part because of what I saw happening in my home town, I've never been of the mind that taking crime exceedingly seriously is the moral equivalent of some kind of Nixonian "Southern Strategy," as many on the left frequently have suggested. Protecting people from really bad guys is just about the most moral thing government is obliged to do.
Looting of any kind is vile; coming up with a word for looting the homes of people who just saw much of their community either burn down or wash out to sea requires a new dictionary. Breezy Point, it also needs remembering, was the home of many firefighters, cops and other first responders who were killed when the Towers fell on 9/11.
Rockaway was a wonderful place to grow up two generations ago. When it came to safety, our biggest concern might have been not breaking too many bones playing tackle football on the beach without equipment. I have been hearing in recent years (before Sandy, anyway) that several parts of the Rockaways are enjoying a bit of a renaissance. That was, and I hope remains, great news.
But news of what happened there last month — and I concede that the creeps may not actually live in Rockaway — stinks in the most offensive of ways.
A version of this essay first appeared on the Center of the American Experiment website.