This was how things worked, as Curtis Sliwa recalls it, back in the heyday of the Guardian Angels, from the late ’70s through the early ’90s: In one subway car, Sliwa might break up a fistfight, then move to the next car and find a domestic dispute in progress. In the following car, there might be a drug dealer pushing his product, and in the car after that, a group of young men openly drinking malt liquor 40s and smoking blunts.
He’d developed this protocol, moving backward through the great steel snake of the train and looking for crimes in progress, nearly 40 years ago. He was a 23-year-old McDonald’s night manager in the Bronx, in a city so gripped by fear and decay that he felt called to vigilantism. He always gave special attention when he reached the snake’s tail.
The last car on the subway “is always the most problematic,” Sliwa said, this past Monday evening. “If there are troublemakers on the train, there’s a good chance they’re laying up in the last car, scheming or planning.”
He stood in the doorway of a C Train that was speeding uptown from Columbus Circle toward 155th Street, where a passenger on a southbound C was robbed at knifepoint late last month. He was decked out in the iconic Guardian Angels uniform, red beret and track jacket, beaming like a patrol car light, and it was not without relish that he recollected the bad old days.
A man in a suit and black overcoat scarcely looked up from his e-reader as he leaned against the pole, and a woman seated nearby was so engrossed in her smartphone that one of Sliwa’s troublemakers could have pinched the rolled-up yoga mat from her tote bag and been gone with it before she glanced up and noticed.
New York City’s tabloid press announced last week that the Guardian Angels would be returning to the subway for the first time since 1994, when Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor. At its peak, the organization commanded the city’s imagination, earning magazine cover stories and a mix of laudation and condemnation from public officials for its volunteer subway patrols at a time when many New Yorkers felt that taking the train meant risking being mugged or worse.
The Angels were apparently inspired to bring back their theatrical brand of crime prevention this year after a string of 11 knife and razor attacks on subway trains, including the robbery at 155th Street. By all appearances, the uptick in slashings is a statistical anomaly: Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton have insisted that the incidents are unconnected, and many of the attacks rose from altercations, not prowling criminals carefully choosing their marks. Still, the tabloids and local television stations have covered the crimes with their usual breathlessness. “CUT AND RUN: New slasher strikes fear in subways,” read the New York Post wood on January 28, the first of three subway crime-related covers in less than a week for the paper.
Now, Sliwa estimates, the Guardian Angels comprises 150 or so volunteers, down by several hundred from its 1980s membership. They ride the trains in shifts, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., using Broadway Junction in Brooklyn and Columbus Circle in Manhattan as meeting places for the patrols, which focus on those two boroughs. I’d arranged a ride-along with Sliwa by phone. When I arrived at Columbus Circle at 7 p.m. for our appointment, I met a TV reporter and a freelance photographer. The Angels had booked them for the ride-along too.
In the two hours that followed, Sliwa bounced up and down the decidedly unfrightening West Side of Manhattan, riding the C, B, and F trains between West 4th and 168th Streets and back. He was accompanied by about 10 other Angels in full regalia. By Angels tradition, each one had a nickname: Benjamin “EQ” Garcia, a quiet man from an East Harlem housing project who joined the group in 1986; Sylvia “Hell Girl” and Milton “Sensei” Oliver, a married couple of Bronx building superintendents, ’87 and ’82, respectively; and Ivan “Blue Blood” Cruz, a 16-year-old high school student from Bushwick, 2014. (Sliwa’s own nickname is “Rock.”) Cruz, among the youngest in a group that was roughly split between old-timers and relatively new recruits, wasn’t sure how late he’d be able to stay out on patrol. He had school in the morning.
The group’s leader stood stoically as they rode, keeping watch over subway cars that were, most often, fully sedate. He shook hands with the many straphangers who recognized him from the Guardian Angels or his subsequent act as a conservative talk radio host, a job he’s held on and off since 1991. He’s currently on, with WABC on weekdays, in a Crossfire-style show from noon to 3 p.m. and then solo from 5-6.
At each station, Sliwa stood with head and shoulders protruding from the train car’s door, a pose he ostensibly struck in order to signal to his fellow Angels in other cars, but which doubled as a striking photo-op for the cameras that traveled along with him.
If the Guardian Angels’ reemergence at this particular moment feels strange or unnecessary, it’s because New York City is currently enjoying its safest period in decades, according to NYPD statistics. Sliwa does not deny that crime is significantly lower than it was in 1979, when he founded the group, but believes the city may be on the brink of a downturn.
“That it’s the safest city it’s ever been—that’s nonsense. Nobody believes that,” he said, citing Bratton and former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly’s recent spat over the alleged manipulation of crime stats.
Sliwa believes that even if crime may be technically down, the perception of crime is up, and that perception is at least as important as statistics. When the city feels dangerous, regular working New Yorkers become afraid and their criminal counterparts become emboldened, he said. Eventually, the perception of danger becomes an actuality.
Ed Mullins, who heads the union representing NYPD sergeants, recently echoed this view. “It’s the safest summer on record according to the stats, but what’s the perception of the people?” Mullins told the Wall Street Journal in September. “The cops I talk to don’t know what to do, and the people don’t feel that way. The perception is the reality.”
Sliwa and Mullins’ theory remains unproven, but if it turns out to be true, it is worth asking where the perception of danger is coming from. The New York Post, which generally supports the Angels and vehemently opposes Mayor de Blasio, has printed the phrase “bad old days” dozens of times since the mayor took office in 2014, once going so far as to badly photoshop de Blasio’s face onto Taxi Driver anti-hero Travis Bickle.
When squared with the mostly tranquil lived experience of present-day New York, it is hard to view the Post’s obsession with a return to the squalor of earlier decades as anything other than a campaign to discredit the progressives who currently hold municipal power. The miseries of the gentrified and unequal city are real enough, but the homeless are not close to driving down the real estate prices of the buildings they may shelter against. Neighborhoods are not going bad.
Similarly, the only symptoms of peril at Columbus Circle Monday night were the men and women in red who congregated there, preparing to fright crimes which they never encountered. Those most dismayed with the perception of danger in New York may be the same as those who work hardest to create that perception.
Sliwa and the police unions see things differently. It is the NYPD’s scaled-back use of aggressive measures such as stop-and-frisk under de Blasio and Bratton that has left people afraid, not conservative alarmists, they say. “Cops, before, were encouraged to be proactive, even sometimes to the detriment of the department. There’s no doubt about it—the ‘cowboy cop’ syndrome,” Sliwa said. “But overall it was good for the city. Now, it’s almost like they’re told to be passive...it’s like the cops are in limbo.”
The Guardian Angels leader credits Bratton’s use of so-called “horizontal patrols” during his first term as commissioner, under Giuliani in the mid-1990s, for reducing subway crime. Sliwa performs these patrols himself when he rides the subways, walking an entire train from front to back and watching for suspicious activity. He believes that crime could be curbed today if cops performed horizontal patrols more often as well. Bratton’s proposals for dealing with the spike in slashings—barring repeat offenders from using the trains entirely, and urging riders not to sleep on their commutes—were met with wide criticism and ridicule, including from Sliwa.
After Giuliani took office, the Angels gradually receded from view, and the narrative about them today largely holds that the mayor’s tough approach to crime simply rendered them happily irrelevant. Their fade to the background may also have to do with the credible case that Sliwa’s famous derring-do was largely a myth. In 1992, he admitted that he staged a series of hoaxes in the Angels’ early days, claiming to break up a rape, a mugging, and other crimes that never actually happened, in hopes of gaining public support. The same year, the transit police union announced its plan to sue Sliwa over a kidnapping attempt he fabricated against himself in 1980, which he claimed was perpetrated by transit cops who were angry at him for making them look bad. Speaking to a New York magazine reporter for a cover story on the Angels in 1980, Sliwa’s attorney was unable to produce a single name connected to the 92 citizen’s arrests the group claimed in the press to have effected in its first year.
Then-mayor Ed Koch gave a press conference that year criticizing the Canarsie-born leader’s pursuit of the limelight, which at one point included a three-day hunger strike protesting the mayor’s failure to recognize the Angels for one of their more impressive exploits. “Good Samaritans don’t ask for rewards,” Koch said. “I suggest they join the police force if they want to continue their efforts to increase public safety. Look, I don’t know everything about the Guardian Angels but I do know they love publicity and that one of them has sold his life story to television and that the more publicity the better.”
Sliwa’s hunger strike, staged at City Hall, was aimed at convincing Koch to officially credit the Angels for saving MTA Officer Robert Miller’s life from a group of three attackers who snatched his nightstick at the Bowling Green subway station earlier in the year. The mayor was not the only person who disputed Sliwa’s version of events. “It was a routine arrest,” Miller told New York at the time. “It was a matter of three guys in their early twenties with a few drinks...Nobody was beating me over the head with my own nightstick, and I didn’t lose my gun or radio or anything. I realized the incident was being blown out of proportion by the press when I kept getting calls asking me loaded questions like ‘Were you glad to see the Angels?’ I kept telling the press the truth, but the story came out cockeyed anyway.”
At one point Monday, Sliwa, Hell Girl, and Sensei conducted a horizontal patrol of a downtown C Train. The line’s older R32 trains, with their sticky floors and rickety corrugated exteriors, give no illusions about the fact that they have been in service since even before the founding of the Guardian Angels, and would have given a fittingly seedy and nostalgic backdrop to the Angels’ work that night. But they were riding a glossy R160, among the newest trains in the system, and most passengers were sitting quietly, wearing the sullenly placid expression that is the default for evening commuters.
The Angels handed out business cards to passengers as they walked, urging them to join or support the group. Augustin Camacho, a courier and longtime Uptown Manhattan resident, jumped from his seat as Sliwa walked by, recognizing the leader by name. “They’re protecting people,” Camacho said later when asked for his opinion of the Angels. “Hell yeah! They’re doing a great job.”
As the train neared 95th Street, Sliwa entered the last car, the notorious hangout for troublemakers and schemers. It was nearly empty. A young nurse named Lauren was among the five or so passengers. She said she did not recognize the Angels. She works odd hours at her current profession, and previously bartended and waited tables to put herself through nursing school. Her mother is always reminding her to stay vigilant when riding the subway at night, she said, but she has never felt unsafe. “I mean, it’s New York,” she said after Sliwa entered the car in his unmissable outfit. “You just get used to seeing different groups, people from all walks of life. You don’t really think much about it, to be honest.”
The most hardened criminal in the rear car appeared to be a man in a Yankees hat who was flagrantly defying the MTA’s unenforced encouragement against eating and drinking on the train. The man tore into his sandwich with vigor and disregard for the informal rule, but when chunks of meat and mayonnaise spilled from his jaws and threatened to fall the floor, he was careful to catch them in his crinkly black deli bag.