It was 1989 that I first went to New York City, all of 21 years old. I figured myself pretty street savvy, since I new my way around Cleveland and got myself out of a 4-on-1 (me being the one) knife stick-up in Detroit earlier that year. And yet, I found myself perfectly unsettled in Manhattan. Why? Panhandlers- the most aggressive I had ever seen.
I learned a trick. I bought a pack of cigarettes. They cost $1 back then, making them a nickel each. If cornered by a particularly aggressive and/or smelly urban outdoorsman, I would offer two cigs. They would always be accepted eagerly, even though a dime would have gotten an angry retort.
I went back once more in 1990, but decided that I just didn't like being accosted all the time. For a while, a trip to the Big City meant Toronto, which was cleaner besides.
A funny thing happened a few years ago. Toronto and NYC traded places. I took Alex to Toronto 6-7 years ago, and it was awful. The panhandlers were overwhelmingly young- lying in the sidewalks, human pin-cushions. Not to sort of thing I wanted Alex to have to deal with as a 9-year-old. New York, on the other hand, was glorious. Even in Central Park, we were left to ourselves to enjoy the greenery.
I've never been back to Toronto. I've been to New York more than 20 times since 1998. Do the tourist math.
Move forward to the present, and here in Central Indiana. I live in Fishers, and for work, I probably visit downtown Indianapolis once a week. Invariably, I am hit up by a panhandler.
Now I know that some homeless, many even, suffer mental illnesses. I pity that, but by no means does it give me cause to enjoy the interference. I have a job to do. You want money? Go get a job. At least get out of my way.
So, I am positively delighted to learn that Indy's new Mayor has clearing the streets as a top agenda item. This is excellent news for downtown! From the Indy Star report:
John Cochran, Ballard's special counsel, said the Mayor's Action Center receives complaints and the mayor's staff hears about panhandling regularly.
"People who live Downtown are tired of it," Cochran said. "We want to reduce it to a palatable level."
To do that, Ballard wants to bring a "tough love" approach to the issue.
He said people shouldn't feel constantly harassed to give money.
"The immediate goal is to get them out of Downtown so that citizens and visitors don't have to look at it," Ballard said last week.
I've never minded the buskers. Play your music out of the footpath, and it's lovely. The Star referenced Tom Goins. I see him on the NE quadrant of the Circle all the time. I don't mind him. He's pleasant. He's clean. He passively does what he does. The aggressive unsightly begging has to go.
I don't know what Rudy Giuliani did as mayor to clean up New York, but it worked. I like going there again. In fact, I like going there far more than I like going downtown. That's quite a statement, because travel to NYC entails a trip through TSA's security hell.
There are some who will find this policy insensitive. Fine. Here are your choices: Be a magnet for tourism and commerce, or, be a magnet for panhandlers.
Which will it be?