As regular readers know, I’m enjoying both “Person of Interest and “Blue Bloods” on CBS. While the shows are very different, both programs’ feature protagonists who fight crime in New York City. In “Person of Interest,” Jim Caviezel plays an ex-CIA operative who operates with occasional help from allies in law enforcement, while “Blue Bloods” focuses on Tom Selleck as the leader of a family of Irish-American police officers and prosecutors. Their dual premise is interesting because crime has fallen dramatically in the Big Apple over the last two decades, making it one of the safest cities in America. While New York City-based shows and movies of the 1970s and 80s depicted an unsafe metropolis in economic decline, most popular portrayals in recent years have caught up to the contemporary reality of a thriving city.
As crime rose in the 1970s and middle-class New Yorkers fled to the suburbs, negative images of the city became plentiful in popular culture. In the aftermath of the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, Woody Allen, the most prolific chronicler of New York, offered a harsh assessment in his most commercially successful movie, “Annie Hall” (1977). In light of the Ford Administration’s rejection of Mayor Abe Beame’s request for a bailout in 1975, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells his friend Rob (Tony Roberts) that the failure of the country to rally around New York is because, “the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers,” adding, “I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.” Singer later tells Rob, who has now moved to Los Angeles, “You're an actor, Max. You should be doing Shakespeare in the Park. “ Reflecting the rise in crime, Rob tells Alvy, “Oh, I did Shakespeare in the Park, Max. I got mugged. I was playing Richard the Second and two guys with leather jackets stole my leotard.” Films like “Taxi Driver” (1976) and "Saturday Night Fever"(1977) also showed a metropolis in decline.
The city endured a another epidemic of bad publicity in the 1980s as racially charged crimes like the Bernard Goetz subway shooting and the infamous Central Park jogger case dominated coverage of New York. The early “Law and Order” reflected these issues in “ripped from the headlines” fashion while Spike Lee portrayed a New York City bitterly divided along racial and ethnic lines in “Do the Right Thing” (1989). Oliver Stone even skewered the bright spot of the era, the stock market boom, in "Wall Street" (1987). See http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2012/01/oliver-stones-wall-street-25-years.html
As the crack cocaine epidemic peaked, murders reached an all-time high in 1990. Consequently, films and television of the mid-to-late 80s depicted a city where law enforcement was ineffective. “The Equalizer,” a now-forgotten show that is a forefather of “Person of Interest,” featured Edward Woodward as a former CIA agent who protected people the police couldn’t or wouldn’t protect. In Tim Burton’s original “Batman” (1989), Gotham is a stand-in for a NYC where only a vigilante can rescue the city from the Joker and his violent minions.
With crime falling in the 1990s, pop culture reflected this change. “Seinfeld” and "Sex and the City” portrayed a Giuliani-era New York that almost seemed like a return to the “Fun City” of the mid-1960s. In 1999, Spike Lee made “Summer of Sam” which directly contrasted the booming city of the tech bubble with the dysfunction of 1977, when Son of Sam terrorized the citizenry and a blackout precipitated widespread rioting.
Positive depictions grew throughout the late 1990s and into the 21st century. The first “Spider Man” (2002) showed the caped crusader fighting minor criminals in a city that looked in far better shape than the Gotham of the late 1980s. Following the lead of “Seinfeld,” virtually every sitcom aimed at an affluent demographic seemed to take place in the city as “Friends,” “Will and Grace, “ and “Just Shoot Me” showed a safe New York where upscale professionals thrived (though the diversity of the region is virtually absent from these programs.)
Starting in the early to-mid 1990s, crime in the Big Apple fell precipitously, with murders reaching their lowest levels since the 1960s. The economy boomed, partly due to the stock and real estate bubbles of the time. While “Blue Bloods” and “Person and Interest” depict a still-dangerous city, films and television have largely reflected the reality that it is now one of the most prosperous and safest big cities in the country.