City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics

By Alex S. Vitale | Go to book overview

Introduction

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the quality of everyday life in New York City underwent dramatic changes, suffering the twin scourges of rising crime and disorder. In 1991, the city’s crime rate peaked at its highest level ever, with more than two thousand homicides, and homeless encampments, panhandlers, and drug dealers became a normal part of the urban landscape. Then in a major shift, by the year 2000, homelessness was largely erased from public view, and crime had dropped to the lowest level in forty years. Somehow, the quality of daily life for millions of New Yorkers had been restored. There was, however, a darker side to this miraculous transformation. By 2004, homelessness reached its highest levels since the Great Depression, with both more than 100,000 New Yorkers relying on emergency shelter at some point during the year and new aggressive policing tactics, which resulted in the incarceration of tens of thousands of people for a wide variety of minor offenses such as drinking or urinating in public, blocking subway stairways, and sleeping in public parks.

This transformation in the quality of life in New York and many other American cities was more than the creation of some new policing tactics or the construction of a new philosophy of the socially marginal. Rather, it was a melding of the two into a coherent new approach toward social control. This “quality-of-life” paradigm emerged as a set of concrete social control practices united by a political philosophy that explained the nature of homelessness and disorder as one of personal responsibility and established punitive methods for restoring social order and public civility. In the process, it changed the way that cities dealt with welfare reform, community development, and policing practices in general.

The quality-of-life paradigm is a way of reorienting the efforts of city government away from directly improving the lives of the disenfranchised and toward restoring social order in the city’s public spaces. This

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