New York's different class of death

It's been almost a fortnight since police discovered Jonathan Levin's murdered body in his Upper West Side one-bedroom apartment. The crime jarred New York. A well-loved instructor at a tough South Bronx high school, 31-year-old Levin was shot in the head, his ankles bound with duct tape and his body jabbed with a knife. Police say he was tortured to death for the code to his bank card by a former student, 19-year-old Corey Arthur, who they have charged with his murder.

Levin happened to be the son of Gerald Levin, chairman of Time Warner Inc. The story of a school-teacher allegedly murdered by a former student has fascinated and saddened many layers of Gotham strata. The younger Levin showed an uncommon openness in letting his killer and his killer's accomplice into his house without a struggle. His killer was equally lacking in self-consciousness, if monstrously so. The former student knew Levin was a middle-class white but not the son of a media mogul, CEO of the world's largest media concern. Arthur wasn't thinking of CNN, swimsuit issues and Batman movies, of stock valuations and buyout debt - the culture of Time Warner was of a city apart from the Sumner Houses projects where Arthur was captured after a speedy manhunt.

New York's vast civil service has been an entree to the middle class for decades, but rarely the province of sons of privilege deliberately declassing themselves. Levin worked at Taft High School by choice. He distanced himself from his father's world and was highly involved in his students' struggles to go to college and to survive their adolescence intact. He had counselled Corey Arthur, who has been convicted for drug possession.

The rich man's son fit media narratives both custom-made and generic. For the tabloid Daily News it was an example of "A Generation Vexed". Teenage Arthur was another point of darkness among American adolescents, along with a pregnant New Jersey teen who gave birth this week at her prom, discarded her baby in a bathroom stall and returned to the dance floor. Commentator Jim Sleeper connected Levin's father's company's promotion of gangsta rap and the accused's passion for hip hop, writing of Jonathan Levin that sons of "malefactors of wealth struggle to undo the damage they think their fathers have done". Gerald Levin's damage, in Sleeper's estimation, was to release rap CDs full of gory rhymes. The New York Times focused on the high risk involved for altruistic idealists like Levin in the metropolis, printing that with Levin's murder "the noble calling of putting other people's troubles on your own shoulders has suffered serious blows."

Levin's affluent, driven family has been frequently contrasted with his loving, impoverished students in news reports. At his funeral service, weeping black and hispanic students mourned along with his father and his father's powerful friends. The elder Levin once said, "What my son is doing is more important than what I have done." New Yorkers, though aware that the killing of a school-teacher would probably not have received front page coverage without his famous father, have wanted to assert that the younger Levin, though less important in the world's eye than his father, was more important to the city and more expressive of New York's generous character.

The younger Levin's death has allowed New Yorkers to endorse a concern for the public good over the bottom-line and thus to fictionalise itself into a city that opts for the public good, not the realtors' good. The most salient metaphor about New York and class in this story is not to be found in Jonathan Levin's life choice, however, but in Corey Arthur not knowing that Levin was a graced media scion. For Arthur, a middle- class New Yorker and an overclass New Yorker were indistinguishable from one another, perhaps equally unrecognisable.