Why Are Rich People So Obsessed With Proving US Cities Are Dystopian Hellholes?

Right-wing pundits, landlords, and tech executives all believe they can prove we are amid a crime wave with just one more video.
Why Are Rich People So Obsessed With Proving U.S. Cities Are Dystopian Hell Holes?
Spencer Platt / Staff

By now, you may have seen the viral Twitter video filmed by Jacqueline Toboroff, editor-in-chief of the right-wing The Manhattan.Press blog, that features a long pan of handbag salespeople on the sidewalk in New York City. On Instagram, it's captioned hysterically to suggest something is wrong here: "Two of the most expensive zip codes in the world (#soho & #tribeca) are indistinguishable from 3rd world locales," Toboroff wrote. "This is Democrat policy at your front door."


The video was shared by Citizen Free Press, another right-wing blog, that warned the video showed "streets of Soho and Tribeca, two of the wealthiest zip codes in the world, now littered with graffiti, knockoff goods, drugs, and criminals.” As many people online pointed out, the video actually shows Canal Street, which has for decades been a destination for tourists to buy knockoff goods on the sidewalk; not exactly a portent of some new strain of societal collapse. Toboroff didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Regardless, the video was then shared by Zach Weinberg, an NYC-based tech executive, who was horrified enough to spring into action and offer money to students to create more videos like it.

"I would like to pay an NYU film student to document the craziness we have on our streets in the Chelsea neighborhood in NYC," Weinberg wrote in a tweet. "I will also pay you to turn it into daily short video clips for TikTok/Twtr. I will pay you for a full month + I will pay to promote the content." Weinberg didn't respond to a request for comment. 

In truth, the provenance of the video doesn’t matter that much. What’s more interesting is how this particular incident dovetails with a larger conservative meme (pushed, for example, by Tucker Carlson, and Toboroff herself has appeared on Steve Bannon's TV show) that American cities are fallen dystopias. It's an idea that those on the right and ostensible left—Weinberg clarified in later tweets that he plans to vote for the Democrats nationally and centrists locally—have all glommed on to, asking for a tougher crackdown on crime and homelessness, while ignoring the real cause of the problem: rampant capitalism that has engendered a devastating housing crisis. 


Weinberg may be a tech executive based in New York City, but he’s still in an industry dominated by Silicon Valley’s funding and ideological influence. In San Francisco, tech billionaire Marc Andreessen has advocated for building more housing and infrastructure—as has Weinberg—only to turn around and scream at the threat of some affordable housing units in his own wealthy zip codes. In Los Angeles, wealthy residents and investors campaigned on anxieties about non-white neighbors in opposition to prosecutors seen as being too soft on crime, support systems for growing homeless populations, and nascent police reform movements.

In this imaginary, cities are pressure cookers ready to blow if there isn’t enough law and order. Segments from conservative channels regularly go on about how liberals are destroying San Francisco by letting criminals run amok by refusing to incarcerate them and defunding the police. This idea is popular among the Tucker Carlson acolytes of the world just as much as wealthy people who ostensibly hold progressive views.


“In San Francisco, VC lives matter. We’re the ones employing people, bringing business, buying properties, you know, paying property taxes,” Ellie Cachette, a tech investor who backed recall campaigns to oust San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, Governor Gavin Newsom, and other officials, told Mother Jones last year. “And what are we getting in return? Nothing.” Cachette clarified in a tweet that she was discussing how "attacks and crime on VCs / owners make it hard to keep offices" and that she supports Black Lives Matter. 

The reality, however, couldn’t be more different: There are few, if any, cities that have actually attempted to defund police budgets or loosen punitive punishments, and crime is not on the rise nationwide or even in cities. Liberal political campaigns only gestured towards defunding the police, but in reality pushed to increase budgets. In supposedly war-torn New York City, Eric Adams pushed a budget that cut everything but police funding. 


Sign up for Motherboard’s daily newsletter for a regular dose of our original reporting, plus behind-the-scenes content about our biggest stories.

In fact, as Citations Needed podcast co-host Adam Johnson recently pointed out in his Substack, there's been a double standard emerging in mainstream coverage where the causes of rural violent crime increases comparable to those in cities are obfuscated. Crime increases in liberal strongholds are assigned clear, if exaggerated, causal roots: reforms in prosecution, bail, and police departments. Crime increases in largely white, conservative counties are often portrayed as being more complex and rooted in a nuanced unraveling of the social fabric.

“This is the nature of carceral ideology: It cannot fail, it can only be failed. When crime goes up in areas with modest reform efforts, it’s the reform efforts that are to blame. When crime goes up—by roughly the same percentage—in places where no such reforms exist, Tough on Crime ideology and the lack of a robust welfare state or social services cannot be blamed. Instead, it’s blamed on a lack of churchgoing and oppressive liberal lockdowns,” Johnson wrote. 

Back in New York, this isn’t the first time Canal Street—which runs through a key part of Manhattan—has served as a convenient scapegoat for wealthy urban elites and their various anxieties. After all, as The New York Times wrote last year: “For the city’s powerful, central Canal Street is a problem to solve, and a redevelopment opportunity.” The pandemic stalled the hopes and dreams of landlords and developers hoping to push out tenants and small businesses while they waited for an “upscale bonanza,” but it never came. The New York Times wrote about what remained and attempted to thrive: an "informal economy" centered on arts as well as sidewalk sellers "whose trade makes up much of the area's visible retail activity."

It’s an old story in Manhattan (and every city for that matter): when there is hysteria about “safety” in cities, you can reliably find elites seeking to offer narratives that rationalize policies which reinforce the status quo or their preferential arrangement, whether they vote Republican or Democrat. 

Sometimes it's a function of gentrification as capitalists drool over profits to be squeezed from tenants and businesses. Other times, it's a function of latent anxieties (e.g. racism) that views residents yet to be pushed out as dangerous mobs ruled by violence, drug use, and general chaos. But all of it ultimately traces back to the same thing: a housing crisis, a dearth of social programs supporting mental health and addiction, and a refusal to abandon carceral logic that says social problems should be hidden away in jail cells—not supported by systems funded with as much cash as our prisons and police departments. 

In the meantime, we will have to suffer these outrage cycles as conservatives and liberals alike—frothing right-wing pundits, Silicon Valley tech executives, and Manhattan landlords—all try to convince us that they are trying to help, not sabotage, our society.