06/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Case of the Compassionate City


What does an illegal bull-horn in Union Square have to do with a chain store booting out an old diner in West Queens? We work for the Compassionate City and we need the answer.

This investigation starts with a hunch: If I stand in the center of the city, in a small park, and I shout that I want to change the city - I'm overwhelmed with claustrophobic dullness. White noise spills from my mouth. Something strange has happened to the art of public talk.

The NYC culture was always keyed to cutting voices of unforgettable characters: Ralph Ellison and Susan Sontag, Leonard Bernstein and Charley Parker, John Cage and Allen Ginsberg. Our civic heroes were radical immigrants and avant garde malcontents. Now you have to Wiki and Google them. They are electronic echoes.

The police approve of me as I isolate into my iPod, keeping the beat with my hypnotized head. But if I so much as raise up a cheap battery-operated bull-horn, even in a traditional speaker's corner like Union Square - the police run over demanding a sound permit for a device that is quieter than anything nearby.... The investigation continues.

The police act this same way - when we put our hands on a chain store register in West Queens, at a chain store that replaced a beloved old diner. We raised a hand to the sky beyond the logo and we asked for power from the "God that doesn't sell us anything!" The police came running in the same way at both places. Our compassionate city cop asks, in his hard-boiled way: Who are they running for, and under what instructions?

So we follow the bull-horn ban back into the mysterious police culture and try to find the source, back in those back-rooms, all the way back, deep into the fog of laws... The hard-boiled detective of compassion wants to know where all this started. We eventually are back at the source of the laws that become universality accepted violations of the 1st Amendment. The police who run toward the bull-horn in Union Square and the prank prayer at the altar of cash in Queens... they are running from the same starting point. Our sleuth thinks it's an address on Wall Street.

This is how we solve this crime: As long as the talking arts at the center of town are prohibited, and commercial white noise rules, then the mono-culture will continue its lucrative advance miles away in the neighborhoods. Both ends of this talk are sources, and the police will come running to either place when the corporate talk is interrupted.

The landlord's deadly Muzak will advance on the jazzy talk on the corner or the chatty wisdom in the deli -- if the silencing fear continues downtown. If the bull-horn is seized, the old diner is bulldozed. But if the bull-horn has its free speech, the diner stays. Compassion needs the voices. We solved the crime.

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