The homeless shelters whisked onto Manhattan’s Upper West Side last month have become international news. Given the intensely Jewish character of the neighborhood, it has also become Jewish news. As an Upper West Side resident, it’s also personal news.
The homeless shelters arrived because social distancing guidelines rendered city shelters inadequate to house New York’s enormous homeless population while the collapse of tourism left many of the city’s hotels vacant. Pandemic-related emergency measures allowed the city to turn three Upper West Side luxury hotels into shelters without either public input or financial oversight.
The neighborhood split quickly into two broad camps. One is concerned primarily with the public safety issues inherent in hosting a population that includes drug addicts, sex offenders, and violent criminals. The other insists that any refusal to embrace the shelter residents as welcome additions to the neighborhood constitutes lack of compassion.
This split mirrors a debate raging across the country, with Republicans calling out for increased policing while Democrats soft-pedal rioters they claim are fighting for justice. What makes this split interesting is that Upper West Side Republicans are few and far between. The public safety side in this neighborhood is led by Jewish Democrats who have rallied proudly behind Black Lives Matter and its nationwide call to defund the police.
The division roiling the Upper West Side Jewish community is the sort of story that should – but often doesn’t – cause people to rethink their political alliances and affiliations. Most people choose their political affiliations (at least initially) because of messaging, not philosophy. Because most Upper West Side Jews consider themselves progressive, they rallied instinctively behind Black Lives Matter. They did so because they like the sound of saying that black lives matter; relatively few studied the organization and concluded it was worthy of support.
Still, when the battle lines were drawn, they stood against the police – until the very moment that the public safety crisis hit home. Now they find themselves mired in cognitive dissonance. How can anyone supporting an occupation zone in Seattle oppose a far-less-intrusive homeless shelter on the Upper West Side? Why can New York City reduce the policing needed to keep crime-ridden neighborhoods livable but not reduce the safety that Upper West Side residents feel?
If systemic racism is real and threatening, why not turn luxury hotels into shelters? If “compassion” means making poverty less unpleasant rather that creating opportunity and mobility, why not make the homeless comfortable on the Upper West Side?
Such questions arise nearly every time the progressive agenda lurches further left. Ideologies often make it difficult for adherents to say, “This far but no further.” The question is always: Why stop here?
Once the movement has pushed in a direction that makes you uncomfortable, you can either change your comfort level or reject the logic. But those who choose to draw personal comfort lines within revolutionary movements – for example, those who refuse to set aside their unease about the safety of their children, their vulnerable adults, and their homes in the name of progressive compassion – immediately get marked as reactionaries.
Self-aware citizens might begin to wonder whether they may have been wrong in embracing progressivism – and, “worse,’ whether the uneducated, deplorable Republican underclass may have been right. But few of the Jewish progressives championing public safety on the Upper West Side are likely to undertake such self-reflection.
Instead, most will insist that progressivism simply landed in the wrong place on a matter about which they possess first-hand information and that it has an enviable track record of promoting justice, equity, and compassion in all matters on which they lack such insight.
In other words, very few Upper West Side Jews will admit that the overnight injection of homeless into a safe, upscale, Jewish neighborhood is part of a broader public safety crisis. The split is between progressive ideologues comfortable importing sex offenders and drug addicts to rub elbows with neighborhood kids and progressive NIMBYs who prefer that such undesirables stay closer to kids living in other neighborhoods.
The NIMBYs may win this round. In the long run, though, they can only lose. They’re on a treadmill heading in the wrong direction. Sooner or later, it will sweep them away. And with them, one of America’s most vibrant, diverse Jewish communities.
Bruce Abramson is a principal at B2 Strategic, senior fellow and director at ACEK Fund, founder of the American Restoration Institute, and the author of “American Restoration: Winning America’s Second Civil War.”