The 1981 movie "Escape from New York" envisioned a not-too- distant future in which Manhattan was converted into a gigantic maximum-security prison.
The film's premise was over the top, but the note of pessimism it sounded about the city's future was not. Through the 1980s and into the early '90s crime was rampant in New York. The city was losing private-sector jobs and middle- class families were leaving in droves.
Today, that state of mind is hard to fathom. New Yorkers love to complain, but current gripes tend to focus on astronomical real estate prices - the price of living in a city that is almost too desirable.
What hit New York in the 1990s?
Rudolph Giuliani, argues Cooper Union history professor Fred Siegel in his new book "The Prince of the City" about the lightning rod who served New York as mayor from 1994 to 2001.
It's a theory that some New Yorkers are loath to embrace. Before he became a national hero on Sept. 11, Mr. Giuliani was the man that New York liberals loved to hate. His enthusiasm for law and order and reducing welfare rolls was seen by many as attacks on minorities and the poor. Columnist Jimmy Breslin once wrote that Giuliani has a "mad desire to get at the poor because he is a prosecutor and being poor is a felony."
Those who don't like Giuliani prefer to argue that New York's revival was inevitable - a coincidence of a booming economy and declining crime rates nationally - but Siegel makes a compelling case that New York's changing fortunes were, in fact, the opposite of inevitable.
Far from merely reflecting a nationwide decrease in crime, Siegel argues, New York actually led the country. Chicago, with one-third the population, surpassed New York in the number of murders in 2001, he points out. "Overall, New York's decline in crime accounted for more than 60 percent of the national decline" in the mid-1990s, he writes.
How did Giuliani do it? He was able to turn the city around, Siegel argues, because he scrapped the Great Society-style governing philosophy that had dominated the city's politics since the 1960s and replaced it with one that emphasized hard work, individual responsibility, and accountability.
Liberal mayors like Giuliani's predecessor David Dinkins "spoke endlessly of what the city owed the poor, but they delivered rising rates of crime and welfare," he says.
Siegel, invoking Machiavelli - which he does throughout the book - considers that a kind of "pious cruelty."
Such analysis permeates every page of this philosophically oriented biography. …