THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF
RUDY GIULIANI’S NEW YORK
Edited by Robert Polner
Soft Skull Press, 2005
Rudy Giuliani and the Myth of
Modern New York
By Kevin Baker
New York City has had two great mayors throughout its long and tumultuous history. They were Fiorello La Guardia…and De Witt Clinton.
Most contemporary New Yorkers would be surprised by those selections—and above all by the omission of another name, that of Rudolph Giuliani. Clinton, after all, is a figure from the distant past, when New York mayors were not even elected, but still appointed by the state legislature up in Albany. He survives in modern memory only as the name of a high school, or a park, or a neighborhood. Even La Guardia, the man to whom all modern mayors are compared, is a hazy icon by now to many New Yorkers.
Yet both men shared two, salient characteristics that qualify them as truly great leaders of a great metropolis. Not only were Clinton and La Guardia both relentless and effective reformers, they each of them held—and realized—a transcendent vision for the city they led.
Rudy Giuliani’s claim to modern greatness, on the other hand, rests upon his responses to two, very different crises during his time in office. The most vivid of these was, of course, the awful events of September 11, 2001. In the wake of 9/11, Giuliani simultaneously rallied and eulogized his city through the most shocking calamity in its history.
It is true that, even here, Giuliani would exaggerate and whitewash his own role in this event, as he would come to do about almost every aspect of his administration. It was ultimately Giuliani, after all, who should have borne the responsibility for allowing hundreds of firefighters and police to march into the doomed towers with no effective way of communicating with the outside world—a fact he seems to have blatantly lied about to the federal investigatory commission, falsely telling its members that no such communications equipment could have been obtained. Then there were his unseemly attempts to put his longtime mistress in charge of the victims’ relief fund, which he only backed off from under intense public pressure by the victims’ surviving relatives.
But certainly, Giuliani did strike the perfect grace note in consoling his shaken city immediately after the catastrophe, and at a time when the President of the United States was notably absent. His speeches and press conferences were remarkably composed, sympathetic, and inclusive. As such, they served as a welcome relief from so many of the mayor’s more blustery public utterances during the dying days of his second term, whether he was wrangling with a radio caller about an ordinance against owning weasels, shamelessly exposing the past of a nightclub bouncer who had been shot dead for the apparent crime of refusing to buy drugs from an undercover narcotics agent, and proclaiming his prostate cancer and resulting impotence from the front pages of the city tabloids, as a ploy in his unseemly (and seemingly endless) divorce from his second wife. With 9/11, this supremely energetic, forceful—and increasingly aimless—man had at last found a moment that he could rise to, and his reaction was admirable.
Yet even during the most buffoonish days of his second term, Giuliani remained a highly popular figure in most of the city. This was not surprising, since he was widely credited with having solved the other, broader crisis of the early 1990s, which was the proliferation of crime and socially aberrant behavior that was considered to have made New York an “ungovernable” city.
By the start of the last decade of the twentieth century, the number of murders in New York had surpassed 2,000 a year. Public drinking and drug use, farebeating in the subways, panhandling, graffitti homelessness, perennially filthy streets, rampant pornography and prostitution in the city’s Times Square center, and—most emblematic of all—the forced “squeegeeing” of car windows against their owners’ wishes, were all considered indications, big and small, of how life in the city had deteriorated from the first, halcyon decades after World War II.
When Giuliani took office on January 1, 1994, these problems seemed to be intractable. It was a commonplace that the quality of life in New York had been deteriorating for at least thirty years, and the continuing sense of siege—of chaos narrowly averted—was wearying and demoralizing in its own right. One prognosticator after another, in books, in countless magazine and newspaper pieces; even in popular movies such as Escape From New York, predicted a dismal and perhaps apocalyptic future for the city.
And yet, ten years later—ten years of Giuliani, and his designated successor—there is no denying that New York City is, all in all, a substantially safer, richer, cleaner, more orderly, and even more pleasant city than it has been in a long time. Crime—and especially violent crime—has dropped to levels not seen since the mid-’60s. The homeless have become noticeably absent. Pornography has been banished to a few, select back streets—or at least back boroughs. Times Square brims with new development, and a positive, family-oriented atmosphere. Even the squeegee men seem to have disappeared.
Has Giuliani really brought about a miracle? Well, much of how you answer depends on who and what you choose to believe about the past, and just what went wrong, and why, in the first place. Rudy Giuliani’s perceived success goes to the very heart of political mythmaking in America today, and to which narrative of the nation over the past forty to fifty years one chooses to embrace. It revolves, just as much of all national politics does, around the myth of modern New York.
But let us start with a few facts about Giuliani’s own record, and work our way back through the past. To deal with the most salient question first: Should Giuliani claim credit for reducing the crime rate in New York?
Andrew Karmen in his magisterial study, New York Murder Mystery, The True Story behind the Crime Crash of the 1990s, notes that every large city in the country, no matter what law-and-order strategy they employed, experienced an exponential drop in crime during the decade. Karmen, a professor of criminology, has carefully weighed all of the reasons given for New York’s dizzying drop in crime—and attributes it to a “‘fortuitous confluence’ of underlying factors,” of which the most important were the subsidence of the crack epidemic that had caused most of the latest rise in crime in the first place; the culling of the ranks of criminals and “criminal-aged” youth through shootings, a plague of AIDS infections, and the simple demographics that marked the end of the baby boom; a sharp increase in college enrollments of young men; an upturn in the national economy; and an influx of mostly law-abiding immigrants.
Karmen’s study, copiously researched and carefully reasoned, concedes only a minimal contribution to any of the self-serving reasons that Giuliani and his innumerable fans in the media gave for the crime drop, such as the city’s new, computer-based “Compstate” program of targeting crime, or an increase in arrests of individuals for relatively minor, “quality of life” crimes.
For all those who will no doubt scorn Karmen’s work without bothering to read it, there is another, even more unavoidable fact that argues against the great man theory. That is, crime rates in New York were already plunging by the time Giuliani took office.
During the administration of Giuliani’s predecessor, David Dinkins, the city murder rate fell 13.7 percent; robbery, 14.6 percent; burglary, 17.6 percent; auto theft, 23.8 percent. These were the most dramatic drops in the city’s crime rate since the Second World War—and when one considers that it was Mayor Dinkins, after all, who pushed through a bold tax surcharge to finance the hiring of 6,000 more police officers in the first place, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that Dinkins, rather than Giuliani, might have become a national figure as a law-and-order mayor…that is, had he been a white man, instead of the “fancy shvartze with a moustache” that Giuliani sycophant Jackie Mason so shamefully labeled him.
But this is straying into the realm of perception again. Let’s get back to the facts. Giuliani’s supporters will no doubt point out that the drop in the overall crime index was even more dramatic during Giuliani’s first term; some 40.5 percent to be exact. But Wayne Barrett demonstrates in his meticulous, critical biography Rudy!, that at least a good portion of this spectacular crime crash was an exercise in how to lie with statistics. Barrett shows that nearly all major crime statistics were systematically manipulated during the Giuliani years, usually through the downgrading of felonies to less serious offenses, in order to produce still better figures.
Meanwhile, as both Karmen and Barrett show, many benchmarks that Giuliani himself had set as measures of his success in policing the city, actually declined during his administration. Felony arrests in areas such as weapons possession fell off significantly from the Dinkins years, police response time rose by two minutes, or 24 percent; and by 1998 only 27 percent of felony arrests were leading to indictments, as opposed to 38 percent of those during 1993, Dinkins’ last year in office.
If Giuliani’s “get tough” police tactics really deserve the credit for the crime drop, then how to explain these very clear drops in police performance—worse response times, a smaller percentage of indictments, etc.? Nor did Giuliani’s police department have much to brag about when it came to preserving the rights of the citizens they were supposed to protect.
“If Giuliani was to bask in the glory of the city’s plummeting crime rate, he also had to live with the sting of nationally spotlighted cases of NYPD brutality and rising indexes of cop misconduct,” writes Barrett. “Other major cities—like San Diego and Boston—showed that it was possible to get one without the other.”
Giuliani’s efforts at crime and social control entailed alienating large numbers of New Yorkers through excessive police tactics in minority neighborhoods. These included constant, random searches of black and Hispanic youth that made many neighborhoods feel they were in a perennial “lockdown,” and brutal, random demonstrations of police force, such as the reckless gunning down of an innocent young man, Amadou Diallo, by four plainclothes detectives.
The mayor’s contempt for civil liberties, his refusal to tolerate almost any dissent, and his general, bully-boy style was signaled by his encouragement of a grotesque, drunken police riot at City Hall even before he took office. Once in power, this mayoral disdain for the discourse of democracy was exhibited relentlessly, whether he was shouting down a reporter asking uncomfortable questions at a press conference, attempting to cut off funds to an AIDS hospice that had dared to criticize his health care policies, confronting mourners of the world’s AIDS victims with police snipers on the roof of city hall, intimidating demonstrators generally by ensuring that they spent as much time as possible being put “through the system,” or summoning an unnerving array of police, helicopters, and other hardware to virtually seal off part of Harlem, when a particularly noxious black nationalist insisted on holding a rally there.
All of this would seem to indicate, then, that Giuliani’s actions had very little to do with bringing down the crime rate—as opposed to, say, either the steps taken by his predecessors, or outside influences and trends that he had no control over. But what, then, of all the other accomplishments Rudy would claim for his own in transforming New York?
Here again, the facts point clearly to the conclusion that nearly every one of the leading accomplishments Giuliani took credit for was either the by-product of a booming national economy, or of actions taken by other political leaders—or facilitated only by the most brutally callous actions toward the city’s poorest and most helpless citizens.
Despite Giuliani’s frantic efforts to grab credit for it, the revitalization of Times Square came from a massive state-city development effort that began under Governor Mario Cuomo and Mayor Ed Koch, and was completed (again) by the Dinkins administration, which got the Disney corporation to make a financial commitment to developing midtown before Giuliani ever took office. The porn shops and theatres that Giuliani took credit for turning out were also gone from “the Deuce” months before Rudy ever got to City Hall. The last, graffiti-covered subway car was taken off the line in 1989, the final year of the Koch administration, and the city was considered remarkably free of graffiti in general, and its streets markedly cleaner, by the time the Democratic convention came to town in 1992. Even the seventy-five or so known “squeegee” men, as Barrett documents, had been permanently removed from their stations by police before Giuliani actually came to power.
Many of the poor and homeless, meanwhile, were simply shunted off to the outer boroughs, or to distant “edge” cities. Something similar happened in municipalities throughout the country. But in New York the process was, at the very least, accelerated by Giuliani’s fanatical determination to leap aboard the national Republican bandwagon to “end” welfare. In New York City, this entailed cutting off federal food stamps from the poor whenever possible, slashing funding for homeless shelters and housing construction; and formulating new requirements which made it so difficult for many of the city’s most ill-equipped citizens to find work that they dropped off the welfare rolls, and out of sight.
What became of these welfare recipients, and where they went, was not something that seemed to much interest anyone, least of all anyone in city government. It was a policy that in one stroke reversed New York City’s proud, hundred-year-plus record of pioneering the compilation of social statistics, and using them to actually help solve problems of poverty and social welfare, rather than simply redirecting them to more hapless communities.
Faced, then, with all of these lies and distortions, all of this shameless self-aggrandizement, all of this indifference and bullying on the part of Rudy Giuliani and his administration, one can only say…So what?
As a New York Daily News reporter once remarked, when I called in to the radio show he was on to protest that Giuliani hardly deserved the credit for New York’s dramatic crime drop, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”
Point taken. After all, big-city mayors are always dependent upon the kindness of state and national governments. Politicians everywhere claim credit for rising economies they had nothing in the world to do with—and are buried by slumps they moved heaven and earth to try to prevent. If Giuliani’s policies toward the poor and the helpless were particularly uncaring, particularly cynical…well, how many leaders have ever done more for the unfortunate than their constituents demanded? If many people of color saw their rights violated, no doubt many were happy to live in a safer city—or as Giuliani put it with typical delicacy, when asked what he had done for minorities by a Washington Post reporter, “They’re alive, how about we start with that?”
It would be ingenuous to claim that Rudy Giuliani was not a great mayor only because he has grabbed more credit for his accomplishments than he deserved. All great politicians are self-aggrandizing—and lucky.
The reason why Rudy Giuliani was not truly a great mayor is that he never possessed a transcendent vision of what New York could be. This was no small failure but a real tragedy, the squandering of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Before his first term was over, the money and the mandate were both there. Giuliani had the chance given to so few mayors—to bring about something that had never been before.
If put to no purpose, power simply dissipates; the true test of all leaders is what they do with their mandates. We must ask ourselves then, what did New York’s truly great mayors do with their power?
De Witt Clinton, during his eleven years as mayor, was an executive possessed of seemingly boundless ambition and interests. He pioneered free, universal education in New York by helping to found the Free School Society, which poured public and private money into schools for the poor and the working class. He oversaw plans for the city’s long push up Manhattan Island, and the monumental rationalization of the city plan, through the imposition of the “grid” system of numbered streets and avenues. He reformed the public markets, started a city orphan asylum, helped to found the New-York Historical Society and the Literary and Philosophical Society; even bolstered the harbor defenses during the War of 1812. Any number of further, farsighted educational and cultural programs were blocked in the city’s always contentious political atmosphere, although Clinton did his best to push them through.
Yet above all, as Evan Cornog writes in Kenneth Jackson’s Encyclopedia of New York City, “As mayor and governor Clinton had a vision of the city’s future as a great commercial center, and by means of commercial success he hoped to raise the city to cultural eminence as well.”
The means to this was the grandest, most daring public works project in the history of the United States to that point, the building of the Erie Canal. In one stroke, the canal would link the city, through the waterways of upstate New York and the Great Lakes, to the the immense new resources and markets of the westward-streaming nation. Clinton was not able to fully realize his dream until he was in the governor’s chair, but when he symbolically mixed the waters of the Hudson and the Atlantic at the canal’s opening in 1825, New York had tied its great harbor to the American heartland. It was a commercial advantage that would never be relinquished, vaulting New York once and for all past Boston and Philadelphia to its position as the country’s pre-eminent cultural—as well as commercial—city.
Fiorello La Guardia’s vision was a similar one, on an even grander scale—that of New York as a great, twentieth-century world city that also delivered the fruits of its labors to all of its citizens. In the midst of the Depression, he pulled the city out of its fiscal and moral bankruptcy, freeing it from both the bankers and Tammany Hall. He performed the related, Stygian labors of reforming the city’s finances and cleaning up much of its endemic political corruption. He shook up the police department, chased leading gangsters out of town, ameliorated racial discrimination somewhat with fair employment laws, and recruited the most talented and dedicated bureaucracy the city has ever had.
La Guardia, the master builder, created the modern city that we all know—and at the completion of this “Great City,” New York was fittingly crowned the world’s symbolic capital, with the arrival of the United Nations. Riding the wave of New Deal liberalism, Fiorello used state, federal, and city monies to build seemingly endless miles of roads and highways; schools and hospitals; bridges, tunnels, parks, beaches, zoos, playgrounds, and of course our first two airports.
But all of this Great City building, and all of these reforms, were oriented toward the greater goal of making New York a safe, livable, middle-class and working-class town. It was the “Little City” that revived and flourished most exquisitely under the Little Flower. As Thomas Kessner points out in his seminal biography, La Guardia put a human heart into the city government, and created a New York where, for the first time, collective democracy stood between the individual and many of the exigencies of life. He built New York’s first—and often best—public housing, put street peddlers in covered markets, employed hundreds of thousands of desperate men and women in public works projects, and unified and expanded the city’s mass transit system to its present size—while still maintaining the nickel fare.
All of these reforms were not only humanitarian triumphs, but essential to restoring the city’s commercial life. Business became easier, cheaper, and more rewarding in the reformed city. Yet like De Witt Clinton, La Guardia envisioned all these material advances as not merely ends unto themselves, but as a means toward a greater enhancement of the human spirit.
“All too often, life in New York is merely an squalid succession of days, whereas in fact it can be a great, living adventure,” La Guardia, the perennial civic booster had claimed—and by the end of his time in office it was, offering the average citizen an almost obscene array of possibilities. Besides the new public beaches, and the parks, there were free concerts, and a great, free university. New York was not only the capital of the nation’s publishing and fashion industries, and the emerging world capital of art, but a city where, for a very reasonable price, a middle-class person could go see the golden age of American theatre, legendary baseball stars and teams, and simply the best jazz that ever was.
What legacy did Rudy Giuliani try to leave behind, once he had acquired the political power that would have allowed him to try almost anything at all? What greater vision of New York did Giuliani have to offer us?
The answer is none. Giuliani and his friends will take umbrage at this conclusion, but it can be verified readily enough, through even the most cursory examination of the record.
Let us look, first, at the physical city, the most obvious realm of accomplishment. Certainly, there was and is no dearth of great building projects still to be undertaken, as historian Mike Wallace—to name just one contemporary urban visionary—has recently made clear in his provocative book, A New Deal for New York. Giuliani’s eight years in office seemed to offer a unique opportunity to finally finish, say, the long awaited Second Avenue subway line—but there was no serious attempt to do so, nor to make any other, badly overdue additions to the transit system, nor even to contain the system’s steady fare increases.
Let us turn to the waterfront—an obvious direction for a city that was built on sea trade. There was neither any effort made to restore the city’s port and freight facilities—as proponents such as Rep. Jerold Nadler have long advocated—nor any comprehensive plan to make over the city’s abandoned waterfronts into new neighborhoods. There was not even an attempt to think about what such a plan should look like.
In the end, no significant public building of any kind took place during the Giuliani administration—probably the first time this has ever occurred in the city’s history, during a period of great prosperity. Giuliani and his aides could not bring themselves to evince much interest even in such popular struggles as the late Senator Daniel Moynihan’s long campaign to remake the main city post office into a new Pennsylvania Station.
There was, in fact, so little interest in planning at city hall that, when the federal government handed over Governor’s Island—some one-hundred-seventy-five acres of wildly lucrative real estate, smack in the middle of New York Harbor—to the city for the sum of one dollar, on the sole stipulation that the city make some use of it…the Giuliani administration was unable to come up with anything at all, until Congress nearly snatched the island back.
But perhaps this whole critique is unfair. After all, we live in a very different era from that of De Witt Clinton or Fiorello La Guardia, and one can hardly have expected the modern, Republican Rudy Giuliani to have the same liberal, Great City ambitions.
Did Giuliani have, instead, some new, radical right-wing vision of what the city could be? As it was, his coming to power dovetailed almost perfectly with Newt Gingrich’s revolutionary sweep of the Congress, and the election of Republican Governor George Pataki in 1994. Just as La Guardia was a liberal whose good fortune it was to finally win the mayoralty in a great liberal era, Rudy Giuliani was a Republican in power at the start of the most thoroughly Republican era in over sixty years. Surely, this was the moment to make New York the incubator of bold, new Republican experimentation, just as La Guardia had let FDR make New York City the showcase of the New Deal.
It didn’t happen. One need only to look at New York’s public school system under Rudy, to understand how he never paid more than lip service to most right-wing ideas. Aside from a few noises about school vouchers, Giuliani made no attempt to revitalize the city’s schools, which were undoubtedly the greatest source of dissatisfaction among New Yorkers after the crime rate. Instead, he made massive cuts in the school budget for the first three years he was in office, and largely contented himself with railing at the Board of Education bureaucracy. He also turned the schools chancellorship into a revolving door, largely in an effort to enhance his standing within the Republican national party. Even before he was mayor, Giuliani connived in getting his allies on the city school board to fire one chancellor, for the crime of allowing a school program so audacious as to advocate more tolerance toward lesbians and homosexuals (One of his confederates in this endeavor was actually rewarded with a plum city position during his administration). During his actual years in office, three more chancellors were hired and fired, and tormented regularly, until the position was rendered largely ineffectual.
At least this showed a rare—if erratic—involvement with something close to most New Yorkers’ hearts. When it came to most wider issues concerning the city’s vital interests, Giuliani often seemed like no more than a moderately interested bystander—especially in comparison to his own future.
Rather than offend Governor Pataki and other state Republican leaders, he quietly supported the state legislature’s abolishment of the city commuter tax, and stood idly by while the legislature severely limited the city’s rent control statutes. He genially continued longtime city programs of handing out generous tax breaks to private corporations, without any serious study, or legal stipulation, as to whether these would really create more jobs. He expressed no trepidation about a city economy that seemed ever more dependent upon runaway real estate speculation and stock-jobbing. He seemed, in the end, altogether unconcerned as to how most middle- and working-class New Yorkers would find work or get to it, house themselves, or school their children.
But perhaps it is also unfair to have expected radical, right-wing reforms—or anything very radical, or bold at all. Most New Yorkers remained Democrats during Giuliani’s administration, as did the City Council. Could even Rudy really have pushed through a Gingrich agenda in New York?
Maybe, then, the best legacy Giuliani could have left would have been a genuinely conservative one. Couldn’t it have been vision enough for Giuliani to have consolidated the gains New York had been fortunate enough to make in the 1990s? Reordering its finances, tucking some of its wealth away for the bad times; recruiting outstanding public servants from all walks of life, and reaching out to our city’s alienated minorities?
But this did not occur, either. The city’s glimmering new surpluses were simply ploughed into expedient operating expenses in the next year’s budget, as Barrett amply documents. No outstanding new administrators emerged from the Giuliani years, as loyalty to the mayor was valued above all, and an atmosphere of intense paranoia seemed to prevail at city hall.
No one was brought together, no input was solicited from anyone outside the tightly controlled Giuliani coterie. Mayoral aides were terrified to speak for the record even in praise of their boss. Any underling who didn’t keep his head down was quickly cashiered—even police commissioner William Bratton, who had carried out the new law enforcement programs Giuliani insisted were the sole reason for the city’s drop in crime. Survivors, on the other hand, were epitomized by the head of the city’s housing authority, a young man lacking even a college degree, who was hired as a payoff to his father, the capo of the discredited Liberal Party, and who ultimately became embroiled in a sordid little scandal of his own.
In the end, the only part of the city’s future that Rudy Giuliani seemed to believe in fervently, the only bold, new projects that seemed to sustain his interest were…sports stadiums.
In retrospect, it seems like a veritable mania (and one that has unfortunately overcome his successor, as well). Over his years in office Giuliani enthusiastically built or promoted any number of these—a minor-league baseball park at Coney Island that cost $30 million of the taxpayers’ money; another one on Staten Island that cost $100 million. There were proposals for much more grandiose major-league parks for both the Mets and Yankees; stadiums for the area’s two pro football teams, arenas for its basketball and hockey teams—all of them backed by the mayor, at a proposed cost that would amount to billions of dollars in direct, public subsidies. (None of them promise to bring in even a fraction of the outside dollars that, ironically, David Dinkins’ revitalization of the U.S. Tennis Center in Flushing does…a project that Giuliani, of course, did not hesitate to villify.)
There was, then, no greater vision of the city at all, because all along there was only the vision of the man himself. De Witt Clinton died in political office. Fiorello La Guardia died two years after leaving the mayoralty—time he spent trying to feed hungry children in postwar Europe—and left a pittance to his widow and his own children. Rudy Giuliani has gone on to a wildly remunerative career of speechmaking, consulting, and speculative politicking—no doubt still hoping for the governor’s chair, or a senate or cabinet post, or even the presidency.
He leaves behind a city that is cumulatively better off than when he took power—but it is hard to say just what that means. A city is not simply a statistical entity, but an aggregation of individuals, of all sorts of people—and many of the poorest and most helpless people in New York when Rudy took over were either pushed out or ruthlessly driven further down the economic ladder. Even during the boom times of the late 1990s, unemployment in New York was higher than the national average, and poverty was about twice the national rate. Some 1.8 million New Yorkers were still below the federal line for severe economic hardship, and with the steadily rising cost of living in most of the city, their predicament only got worse.
Giuliani’s legacy was a New York with a steadily diminishing middle class, a city where there is a much wider gap between rich and poor than anywhere else in the country. Of course, Giuliani himself was not wholly, or even mostly, responsible for this—but that is just the point. He has returned us to a New York which is again almost exclusively dependent upon the vicissitudes of the marketplace—and especially the dangerously limited and erratic markets of real estate and stock speculation.
For all of his claims to be a radical reformer, Giuliani—much like Gingrich on the national level—was a consummate politician of nostalgia. Herein lies the real secret to his continuing popularity—to be found in the myth of modern New York, and Rudy’s skill at exploiting it.
Ironically, Giuliani built his winning coalition with a de facto promise to restore New York to the years of the liberal ascendancy before 1965—to the city La Guardia built. This is the city that remains golden in the imagination of New Yorkers; more broadly, it is the urban ideal that remains foremost in the minds of Americans in general. This is the city of civility, and low crime; of clean streets, and affordable housing, and decent entertainment, and good jobs at livable wages. It is the city of beloved, dedicated public schoolteachers, and friendly cops on the beat, and no trace of racial disharmony.
To the extent that this city existed at all, and was not a pure creation of nostalgia, it was a liberal creation. It came into being for what was, over the long skein of our history, a relative blink of the eye; from the waning years of the Depression to the early- to mid-1960s. Already, in the years just after World War II, America’s cities—and not least among them, New York—were faced with a burgeoning crisis brought about by a “perfect storm” of changes in American life, good and bad.
Growing middle-class prosperity and seminal gains in civil rights meant both white and black flight from traditional urban neighborhoods. The most prosperous, stabilizing families in thousands of communities were suddenly gone, their places taken by masses of relatively unskilled, under-educated immigrants from Latin America, the South, and elsewhere. At the same moment, de-industrialization brought about the continuing flight of manufacturing jobs from the country in general and the cities in particular—meaning the loss of millions of the low-skilled, entry-level, but decent-paying jobs that poor immigrants had traditionally used to advance. Rising crimes rates and the proliferation of drugs meant that for the first time in American history cities were not seen as exciting, even glamorous places to go, where one stood a better chance of getting ahead.
It was liberals who responded to this inexorable crisis. It was they who practiced a politics of engagement, designed to resuscitate the cities. They had to. They were in charge, especially in the cities.
Of course, they made plenty of mistakes, some of which only made things worse—most notably the more extreme, Robert-Moses-style urban “renewal” projects that finished off whole neighborhoods; the Big City run amok. And many of these liberal leaders and politicians were not really liberals at all, only leftover clubhouse cronies, reactionary union leaders, and tyrannical bureaucrats, who only paid lip service to liberal principles.
But even the worst excesses of such individuals were challenged, ameliorated, and reversed by other, grassroots liberal activists, and the popular forces they mobilized. To look objectively at the American urban experience of the past half-century after World War II is to recognize an ongoing effort by the leaders and the peoples of our great cities to engage with the problems of housing, of homelessness and joblessness, and drug addiction and crime, and—to a remarkable extent—to solve them.
To see what this meant in New York, one need only look at the whole array of long-term efforts referred to above, plus many more. Putting New York back on its feet has meant Jane Jacobs saving the West Village from the wrecking ball. It has meant Mario Cuomo building Battery Park City and using the profits to create middle- and working-class housing. It has meant the Cuomo and Koch rebuilding Times Square, David Dinkins finding the money to hire more cops, Bobby Kennedy starting a jobs program in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Nehemiah and Banana Kelly projects to rebuild housing salvaging one neighborhood after another, and on and on.
The role of the American right, meanwhile, during this whole, epic struggle to save our cities, can best be described as standing off to the side and shooting the wounded. Conservatives have always been, at best, indifferent to the plight of the cities, when they have not been actively hostile. Whether it was Gerald Ford turning his back on New York when it hovered on the edge of bankruptcy, Ronald Reagan cutting almost all funds to build federal housing, or George W. Bush callously and recklessly refusing to let New York City have the money it was promised in the wake of 9/11 for security and rebuilding, the American right has long evinced a philosophy best summed up by that famous Daily News headline: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.”
This is, when one considers it, a remarkable philosophy for a national political movement. No other major party in modern Europe, or anywhere else in the developed world, has ever advocated simply leaving its nation’s cities to molder and rot. Everywhere else in the First World, cities are viewed as reliquaries of national pride, and cultural accomplishment, to be carefully cultivated and preserved.
In America, though, the right long ago found it more politically profitable to cater to a suburbia that is uniquely hostile toward its cities. In order to justify this tactic, the Republican party, in particular, has perpetuated the myth that all the post-war woes of American cities were caused by the very people trying to save them; that it was liberal indulgence toward crime and social dysfunction, and liberal overspending on welfare and unions, that made everyone want to flee to the suburbs. It was the perfect explanation, because it exonerated Republicans from the need to do anything at all about cities. They could only be helped when they decided to help themselves.
Rudy Giuliani was perfectly positioned to exploit this myth, and bring about the sort of “toughness” that the right had always claimed to advocate. It was his great, good fortune to come into office at a time when a number of long-running, liberal efforts to revitalize New York were coming to fruition, and when some of the worst demographic trends—such as the crack and AIDS epidemics—were rapidly abating. But his appeal, and his administration, were always more about attitude than anything else.
The racist comment of his intimate, Jackie Mason, or—much more perniciously—the smarmy ads featuring longtime Giuliani friend Ron Silver in the 1993 election, were always the vital core of Giuliani-ism. In the ad, Silver—an intense, somber presence on the screen—looks into the camera and talks knowingly about how the city had declined during the “past four years.” Between his white ethnicity, his age, and his New York accent, he is clearly a spokesman Upper West Side liberals (or at least what the Giuliani campaign imagined them to be) were able to identify with—and his monologue had the stern, inescapable, but ultimately forgiving appeal of a concerned but loving father. ‘Look,’ it seemed to say, ‘you know and I know this can’t go on. Things are out of control now that you’ve elected this unqualified black guy (nothing more than a shvartze, after all, with no right to that moustache). Straighten yourself up, it’s time to clean up this mess.’
It was a diabolically brilliant appeal, fascism with a menschy face. It played perfectly on New Yorkers’ presumed “liberal guilt,” freeing them to ignore any remaining reservations about Giuliani’s actual politics, and his Republican credentials. Every problem that New Yorkers had been complaining about for the last half-century or so was now dumped not only onto ineffectual liberalism, but, specifically, into the lap of Giuliani’s only black predecessor.
Fittingly, Giuliani’s ultimate success is no real accomplishment, but his having used the past to move New York City into a future of virtual reality politics. In so doing he is only following a national trend. More than ever, politicians in both major parties are judged not on anything they have actually done, but on how convincingly they can invent an imaginary American past, from which we can all go forward to a rosy, if carefully unspecified, future.
In the years ahead, New York may or may not flourish, but whatever happens to it will have nothing to do with Rudolph Giuliani. He has called us to no higher purpose, he has charted no new course for us, he has built for us no lasting institutions, or even physical improvements. He has convinced this greatest of democratic cities—the first city to truly ever be run by the people—that all of our great, collective efforts of the past, all of our tolerance and our daring, led only to ruin. He has taught us that all we need is a strong man, and we can leave everything to him. Far from being a great mayor, Giuliani was not even a good one.