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

By Alex S. Vitale | Go to book overview
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4
The Rise of Disorder

The backlash against the socially marginal in New York began with the increased social disorder of the 1970s. Squeegee men, panhandlers, and people sleeping in public spaces came to be the most visible symptoms of an urban environment that many people felt was out of control. The roots of these problems, like the roots of the homeless problem itself, were economic, political, and cultural. The greater economic polarization of the late 1970s through the early 1990s contributed to the formation of an economic underclass that was drawn into prostitution, crime, and other forms of public disorder. Culturally, the social tolerance established by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s was abandoned as social disorders such as crime, prostitution, and graffiti increased. Politically, as the homeless problem emerged in the early and mid-1980s, urban liberalism lost public support as more and more neighborhoods and economic elites called for immediate punitive action to restore order. The paradigm of urban liberalism was no longer able to respond to either the economic or social changes under way. Urban liberalism’s core principles of social tolerance, the preference for social services over market reforms, and the model of expertdriven centralized planning both failed to ameliorate social problems and alienated many important political constituencies. Instead, what developed was a contradiction between the practices and conceptualizations of the urban liberal paradigm, and the actual experiences of people in these cities.

One of the central roles of municipal government is the management of social problems, especially when they become so severe that they threaten the economy of the city, reduce the quality of life of large numbers of residents, or destabilize their neighborhoods. In the 1980s and 1990s, New York’s urban liberal politicians were confronted by just such a challenge: the rise of mass homelessness and a variety of other social and physical disorders such as prostitution and graffiti. This chapter

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