The New York Times

The Bronx of the '70s and '80s was depicted in "The Bonfire of the Vanities," a best-selling novel by Tom Wolfe.

December 10, 2007

No Longer the City of 'Bonfire' in Flames

Twenty years ago, the acid-penned journalist Tom Wolfe unleashed his first novel, "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Skewering everyone from self-absorbed Wall Street millionaires to hucksterish street politicians, the sprawling satire painted a picture of a New York declining inexorably into racial conflict, crime and greed.

The novel tapped, to electrifying effect, a vein of anxiety that defined 1980s New York. From the moment it was published in November 1987, new episodes in the drama of the metropolis seemed to unfold like chapters in Mr. Wolfe's story.

Four white youths from Howard Beach, Queens, were already on trial for beating a black man who fled to his death in traffic on the Belt Parkway.

That same month, a black teenager named Tawana Brawley, who was found smeared with feces in a garbage bag, said she had been assaulted by white men with badges, sparking a prosecution that later collapsed when it was determined that she had fabricated the story.

Wall Street convulsed as its stars were investigated for white-collar crime, culminating in the 1990 securities fraud conviction of Michael R. Milken, the "junk bond king."

For much of this year, the lens of New Yorkers' nostalgia has been trained on 1977, looking back 30 years to the blackout and looting, to the Son of Sam killings, to disco. But 1987, too, was a seminal moment for New York, then torn between new heights of wealth and decadence on Wall Street and the draining of jobs and taxpayers from the rest of the city.

Now, as Mr. Wolfe turns his attention to a new novel about immigration — set, no doubt to the disappointment of some New Yorkers and the relief of others, in Miami — the milestone of "Bonfire" provides a moment to consider how the city's own narrative has (so far) turned out. How and why New York pulled back from the brink is a matter of as much dispute as the reaction to "Bonfire," which became a best seller.

The novel's antihero, a cosseted WASP bond trader named Sherman McCoy, takes a wrong turn off a highway in the Bronx and blunders into a confrontation with two young black men who seem to be about to rob him — until his mistress grabs the wheel of his Mercedes and runs one of them down. Sherman, the self-styled "Master of the Universe," at first exults in his escape from what he calls "the jungle." But inescapably, through his own moral failings and the machinations of corrupt prosecutors, activists and journalists, he meets his downfall.

To some New Yorkers, Mr. Wolfe's satire was bitingly accurate, nailing both a racist criminal justice system and the politicians who played on white fear and minority anger for personal gain.

To others, it was a cynical endorsement of racial stereotypes that did not so much critique white paranoia as cater to it.

Either way, though, the New York of "Bonfire," to a degree that might well have shocked people in 1987, no longer exists. Not in reality, and not in the collective imagination.

New York is on track to have fewer than 500 homicides this year, down from 2,245 in 1990. The white population is no longer shrinking, and diverse immigration has made the city less black-and-white.

The crime drops that marked the Giuliani era — along with some divisive police confrontations with minorities — have continued under a Bloomberg administration that civil rights leaders credit with bringing more interracial respect.

More locally, the Bronx neighborhoods near the site of Sherman's accident are now dotted with owner-occupied row houses and apartments. Artists have moved into Mott Haven lofts.

The mostly black and Latino residents of Melrose, survivors of the "Bronx is burning" decades, now worry, not unlike suburbanites, about an influx of outsiders. They complain that the new Yankee Stadium, new malls and proposed congestion pricing could bring in out-of-towners from, say, Westchester to hog precious parking spaces.

"Twenty years later, the cynicism of 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' is as out of style as Tom Wolfe's wardrobe," proclaimed the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose counterpart in the book — Reverend Bacon — warns that he controls the burgeoning "steam" of black anger. (Mr. Sharpton, who has replaced his 1980s velour jogging ensembles with tailored suits, was taking a swipe at the white suits and spats that Mr. Wolfe religiously wears.)

"It becomes increasingly implausible for the Wall Street multimillionaire white folk living in $8 million Manhattan apartments to feel themselves oppressed by poor black people," said Ronald L. Kuby, who was the partner of William Kunstler, the radical lawyer who died in 1995. Mr. Kunstler's fictional counterpart helps Reverend Bacon portray Henry Lamb, the young man hit by Sherman's Mercedes, as a sacrificial "honor student."

"They have totally taken over Manhattan and are breaching the defenses of even remote parts of Harlem, are gentrifying the Bronx," Mr. Kuby said of his fellow whites. "Far from fleeing, they are flooding in."

Another lawyer whose doppelgänger appears in the book is Edward W. Hayes. "Today, there's not enough crime to become a criminal lawyer," lamented Mr. Hayes, a longtime friend of Mr. Wolfe's who was the model for the dapper, street-smart defense lawyer who takes up Sherman's case. "Nobody goes around and sticks up supermarkets anymore, or armored cars."

In March, Picador will issue a new trade paperback of "Bonfire," part of a planned set of editions of Mr. Wolfe's entire oeuvre. But Mr. Wolfe said that if he were to try again now to tap the zeitgeist of New York, he would write an entirely different book.

Today's version, he said, would be about how the city's sanitized streets have become a stage set on which New York plays itself, for an audience of tourists.

"This is a city now built on excitement," Mr. Wolfe said — "a Disneyland," he termed it, with "no industry other than the excitement of just being here."

But at 77, Mr. Wolfe hasn't joined the moneyed flocks migrating downtown to once-gritty artists' lofts. He inhabits an Upper East Side apartment not as enormous, but as perfectly put together, as Sherman McCoy's Park Avenue duplex.

Mr. Wolfe's real-life characters remain deeply divided, like their fellow New Yorkers, over what changed their city.

Mr. Hayes — using some of the eyebrow-raising ethnic language of his "Bonfire" character, Tommy Killian — gave credit to "the war on crime in New York City, which was basically won by white Catholic men from the boroughs."

Minorities in the courts "got treated like dogs, and if you were a legitimate guy in a poor neighborhood you had no shot at all," Mr. Hayes said. But in his view, New York crippled itself by blaming "society" for crime until Rudolph W. Giuliani came into office in 1994.

To Mr. Kuby, it was quite the opposite: The waning of the crack epidemic and progress toward "equal justice" allowed for better policing. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, he said, "removed as he is from the lives of black people, at least views them as citizens, unlike Giuliani, who viewed them as unruly, ambitious children."

Mr. Sharpton said that activists like himself — through cases like that of Abner Louima, a black immigrant from Haiti who was sodomized with a broomstick in a Brooklyn police station in 1997 — convinced whites and members of minority groups that police misconduct was a real problem. That, he said, opened the door for new coalitions across racial lines.

"People were more tribal" in the 1980s, he said, adding, "As you are no longer excluded, your attitude becomes more expansive."

The Bronx County Building, the setting of Sherman's trial, is no longer (if it ever was) the "fortress" Mr. Wolfe describes, where prosecutors refuse to leave the building for a sandwich for fear of being mugged. Outside, up and down the Grand Concourse, Art Deco buildings are being renovated. And rents are going up.

Further north, on Tremont Avenue, Moe Stein, the owner of Frank's Sports Shop, said he now has to disappoint the few adventurous tourists who come looking for rubble-strewn lots. But the Bronx still suffers, he said, from the terrifying image left by the 1981 Paul Newman film "Fort Apache, the Bronx" and the widely panned 1990 movie made from "Bonfire," with Tom Hanks as Sherman.

The bond traders and investment bankers who populate "Bonfire" are passé now, Mr. Wolfe said, replaced by brash new hedge fund managers who meet clients barefoot, or in jeans with $6,000 belt buckles, as if to say, "You don't have to like me at all, I'm merely a genius who makes you money."

But one thing hasn't changed, Mr. Wolfe said: the allure of New York. It's what distracted Sherman as he gazed at the glittering skyline from the Triborough Bridge — thinking, "There it was, the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century" — and missed his turn to Manhattan.

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