Sign Of The Economic Times: Squeegee Men Return To New York Streets

Squeegee men making a comeback in New YorkAs goes the New York City squeegee, so goes the nation?

Squeegee men haven't been seen in Gotham since the rough and tumble days of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who served as the city mayor from 1994 to 2001. That grittier New York City was littered with these panhandlers, who make their living by accosting halted cars to wash car windows in the hope of receiving a small amount of money. (The money is often handed out to shoo the squeegee men away.) The squeegee men sprung up in the wake of New York City's financial woes, which were at their worst in the 1970's and continued into the following decade.

In the aftermath of a new financial crisis, the squeegee men are back, once again being viewed as a symbol of economic decline, according to an article in the New York Daily News. A reporting team from the Daily News spotted a crew of five squeegee men at 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue this past Sunday. "I'm walking and I see a man cleaning a car window. It took me back in time. I had to do a double take to make sure I was seeing right," Reggie Thomas, 44, told the Daily News.

Squeegees have long been a potent symbol of New York's current state of affairs. Of particular note, when Giuliani ran against David Dinkins during the 1993 mayoral race he referred to them in appeals about the lowering of the quality of life in New York. In a widely distributed quote, here cited by the online zine Poor, he promised a tougher law and order administration for the following reasons: "It's the street tax paid to drunks and panhandlers. It's the squeegee men shaking down the motorist waiting at a light. It's the trash storms, the swirling mass of garbage left by peddlers and panhandlers, and open-air drug bazaars on unclean streets."

When the city's fortunes reversed in the 1990s amid a national wave of lower urban crime rates and renewal, Giuliani clung to the disappearance of the squeegee men as proof of how his administration had turned the city around. They became such a widely accepted barometer for New York City's progress that Giuliani was even motivated to exaggerate their disappearance, argued investigative reporter Wayne Barrett in his essay, "Giuliani's Legacy: Taking Credit For Things He Didn't Do," published by the Gotham Gazette.

According to Barrett, the NYPD was only reporting 75 squeegees on the streets by the time they became a red-button political topic in the '93 election. And they were mostly removed by election day anyway, he reports. Regardless, what followed during Giuliani's election was New York's boom years of the '90s. Those years featured a Gotham highlighted by the clean-up of once seedy areas like Times Square. But the era of the remade New York has been succeeded by the ensuing decade of terrorism and economic crisis. The latter has planted the seeds for the return of the squeegee men on 42nd Street, who are out there supporting their families.

"I have uterus cancer," says 38-year old woman Sheila, whose husband was one of the men profiled by the New York Daily News. "He's here because welfare and Medicaid don't cover everything.... He doesn't come here every day. But he needs to get extra money."

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