07/25/2014 01:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What's the Harm in Subway Acrobats?


As an Argentine living in NY there is one social norm in particular that stands out: the lack of open communication on a superficial level. Riding the subway at any point during the day reminds me that New Yorkers seldom reach out to the person next to them and spark up conversation.

Except, perhaps exclusively, when the street performers walk into the wagons. This exterior agent, be it the drum player, the acrobats, or even the graffiti artist, unite the subway riders in an off-routine experience. It is during these short intervals while an artist shows his trade that I've seen strangers exchange warm glances, smiles, polite nods or blush as they too recognize the skill displayed; maybe even acknowledge the artist's trade with a dollar or two.

On the other hand, the police commissioner's zealous belief on the escalatory theory 'Broken Windows', lead to the prohibition of graffiti art throughout the city and now acrobats from performing in wagons. These performances do more than crack the daily routines of the subway-riders. The dancers are also, like old school graffiti writers, mostly black young men who come from humbler or working class backgrounds. They find a place away from violence where they grow as artists, as individuals, and even make a couple of dollars at day's end.

To be fair, in between 1990 and 1999 homicide dropped 73 percent, burglary 66 percent, assault 40 percent and robbery 67 percent. Partly due to the 'get-tough' policy applied by Mayor Giuliani but also due to the economic boom of 1990's. Following the behavioral theory, Commissioner Bratton is striving to 'limit the possibility that serious street crime may flourish in areas where disorderly behavior goes unchecked' as said by Wilson and Kelling. Except, the theory is lacking and so is the underlying premise behind the police's actions. Disorderly conduct might be a factor to rising crime, but it is neither the trigger nor a requirement. The motion to outlaw the subway acrobats may be based on the issue of security but its undertone prompts a matter of ethnic and racial segregation that is not uncommon to NY.

Ralph B. Taylor argued that the economic decline, rather than a racial composition, the increasing physical decay of the neighborhood or superfluous social disorder, is cause for higher crime rates. I read Mr. Gillard's interview on "Humans of New York" the other day where he told his story: As a black man he dealt drugs to earn money and help the children and families in his neighborhood. "It seemed almost fashionable." Crime is not always driven by a benevolent motive, but perhaps more effort should be placed at addressing the problem from the deeper economical root, and not the easy fix of arresting young men who perform in the underground trains.

The problem lies in the opposing standards of order-maintenance for public space; what is considered disorderly behavior? The subway dancers could be comparable to the graffiti of the 1970s and 80s, as in it occupied public space in a way that people couldn't ignore. New York's diversity also means there are strong racial and class tensions. This is built in the city's history. There is no cohesion among the residents but there is a fallacy of the shared expectations for the social control of public space, which is the natural place where people from all backgrounds are forced to collide -- notably true on the subway.

Disorderly conduct is a fuzzy line. The performances that I enjoy on the subway may agitate another passenger. My father once said to me that my rights end where my neighbor's start. New Yorkers, especially wealthy residents, don't like to be solicited; it is a reminder of the poverty gap that separates the socio-economic groups within the city. It is psychologically distressing. If the acrobat didn't solicit passengers for money would that refine the partition between the performer's right to express himself and the passenger's right to a placid ride? Probably not. Even if the performances are entertaining, their unsolicited work makes certain people uncomfortable.

In smaller towns it is easier to find a collaborative effort to maintain a certain standard of communal life. The smaller a community the more likely it is that members will share values, opinions, and traditions. But the larger a community grows the higher the chances subgroups will form, with variations on those values, opinions and standards.

Truth is, the police exist to help regulate behavior, not to maintain the racial or ethnic homogeneity within a neighborhood. In the last 40 years their role has become one of law-enforcement rather than order-maintenance with the NY government and the wealthy elites striving to control public space. It links to another recurrent cultural problem: which is the incapacity to understand that sometimes, you don't need to control but rather learn to co-exist. Respect, is the key word. And it needs to come from both parties for it to work.

I don't deny that there is a point in question regarding the safety of the performances. I've seen a dancer's foot get too close to a spectator's nose for comfort. It could also be that the undertone for the hundreds of arrests on this matter is one of racial partition. For whatever reason, I'm sad to see the acrobats go; they granted a break from the satirical social isolation that comes from being massively surrounded by people.