My New York
An intellectual considers his city, from LaGuardia to Giuliani and beyond.


Nevertheless, New York, I thought, still constituted a better environment for thinking and writing about important matters, including even political matters, than Washington. According to Kristol, the ruling passion of New York had become the pursuit of money. Not that he had anything against this. Though he did not quote Dr. Johnson — “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money” — his own attitude was much the same. But the pursuit of money did not, in his view, give as much food for thought as the ruling passion of Washington, which was the pursuit of power. But here, in my opinion, Kristol was mistaken.

As I saw it, the ruling passion of New York was the ambition for success, of which the acquisition or possession of money was merely one of many different forms. Unlike political power, success could be sought in so great a variety of fields that the obsession with it made for a more multifarious and therefore more intellectually interesting world than was dreamed of in the monomaniacal philosophy of our most monolithic company town.

“So,” I said in conclusion, “I wish my old friend well in his new surroundings, but for this surviving remnant of the moribund New York intellectual community, Manhattan is the only place to be.”

I was perfectly sincere when I wrote these words, but they were incomplete in that they did not touch upon the disgust I shared with so many other New Yorkers about the overall condition of the city. Nor was this disgust significantly lessened by the fact that I had by now moved from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the Upper East Side. There one felt — and in fact was — safer, but even in this most prosperous and privileged part of Manhattan, people were permitted to sleep on the streets at night and to accost one by day with pleas (or rather, demands) for money. Even there, in other words, toleration of the intolerable was still the regnant ethos.

Some improvement seemed to be in the offing when Edward I. Koch became mayor in 1978 and began offering public resistance to what he called the “poverty pimps.” Koch even tried hard to get the homeless off the streets and into shelters, but for a host of reasons — not least the opposition he ran into from the courts and liberal organizations like the ACLU — he failed. Therefore, while Koch’s colorful rhetoric helped create a better atmosphere, the actual condition of the city remained dismal. Moreover, the outspoken mayor’s candor about race, though refreshing to some of us, simultaneously played, as opportunity arose, into the hands of black demagogues like Al Sharpton and Sonny Carson and their white fellow travelers.

It all went even farther downhill when David Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor, succeeded Koch in 1990. The gentlemanly Dinkins, a standard product of the old Democratic machine in New York, was not himself cut from the same cloth as the likes of Sharpton. Yet being black, he was much more subject than Koch to the pressures coming from such quarters. The result was that he permitted Carson, in violation of a court order, to stage a boycott in Brooklyn against a Korean grocery store that went on for weeks with, at most, token interference from the police. Dinkins was also very slow to respond when blacks in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights rioted against their Orthodox Jewish neighbors, and a rabbinical student was set upon by a mob and stabbed to death.

It was incidents such as these that led to Dinkins’s defeat in 1993 at the hands of Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican who (unlike Lindsay) was not a liberal Democrat at heart. Having voted for Giuliani, I obviously figured that he would be better than Dinkins. Yet neither I nor anyone else ever dreamed that the new mayor — or any other person occupying that office — would be able to turn the city around, let alone that he would do so almost overnight. How wrong we were!

Our error arose from a failure to anticipate two things that would previously have seemed out of the question. One was the application of an academic theory for fighting crime that — perhaps for the first time in the history of academic theories of social policy — not only worked but did so almost from the minute it was put into practice. This was the so-called “broken windows” thesis originally developed by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson.

Simply described, the thesis held that neglect of very minor infractions of public order encouraged and engendered larger and more serious crimes that were much more difficult to tackle. Under the influence of this idea, the Giuliani administration concentrated on apparently trivial “quality-of-life” offenses. In a flash the squeegee wielders were gone from the intersections in which they had formerly stationed themselves; suddenly there was hardly a derelict sleeping on the streets by night and begging by day; all at once, youths avoiding the payment of fares by jumping over subway turnstiles ran into the waiting arms of cops on the other side. This last tactic, to the amazement of everyone but (I daresay) Kelling and Wilson, brought a bonus in the arrest of a very large number of youths who were packing guns and were wanted for some graver charge.

All by itself, this campaign effected an enormous transformation. From a city that even a stubborn holdout like me had started wondering whether to leave, New York was turning into a place in which it was again a pleasure simply to walk. It was by no means a paradise, and certainly it helped that the economy — fueled by the Wall Street boom and engendering such improvements as the cleanup of Times Square — was doing so well.


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