The Big Apple: Better Than Ever

By Anderson, Brian C. | The World and I, August 1998 | Go to article overview

The Big Apple: Better Than Ever


Anderson, Brian C., The World and I


Mayor Giuliani has made New York City a place where people feel safe and want to live.

Flash back a few years. New York City had become seemingly ungovernable, a seedy place of garbage, graffiti, and crime, mired in economic decline and home to the nation's largest underclass.

Who'd want to live there? No longer the hub of urbanity, Gotham was by the late eighties the very symbol of urban decay--30 years of cultural revolution had done its grievous work undermining city life. Today, astoundingly, New York is once again the place where striving men and women want to live; crime has plummeted to levels unseen since the fifties; and the city struggles to find the best use for its $2 billion budget surplus.

What happened?

Rudy Giuliani happened. Though few recognized it at the time, when Giuliani became New York's mayor in 1993, contemporary liberalism as a governing philosophy was sputtering fitfully to its terminus and a powerful lesson was about to be taught about political possibility in a postliberal era.

As City Journal editor Myron Magnet has argued, New York City confronted five major problems as it lurched into the nineties, all created or at least dramatically intensified by the wrongheaded notions of liberals. First, crime had made the city an edgily unsafe place, and police felt handcuffed and dispirited. Second, Gotham's quality of life suffered from a kind of spiritual pollution, with uncollected garbage stinking in the streets, squeegee men shaking down motorists, and vagabonds--often mad--accosting passersby on what seemed like every street corner.

Third, an enervating culture of dependency had swollen New York's welfare rolls to the bursting point, with well over a million people receiving assistance. Fourth, the city's economy was lifeless, innovation and job creation snuffed out by European levels of taxation and a dense thicket of regulations. Last, New York's public schools, though they spent more per pupil than many school systems in the country, formed, with notable exceptions, a vast archipelago of failure, dooming Gotham's poorest kids to a bleak future.

Rudy to the rescue

The mayor immediately grasped that the deepest problem New York City faced was crime, and it is here that his success has been most impressive. For too long, liberal nostrums--that "society" was to blame for crime, that panhandling was a "lifestyle" choice, that society's main law-and-order concern should be to protect the criminal from abuses of authority--had offered an open invitation to disorder. A city's first responsibility, however, is its citizens' safety.

Giuliani-era police strategy, embracing George Kelling and James Q. Wilson's "broken windows" theory--that a broken window that goes long unrepaired signals that no one cares, encouraging ever more dangerous criminal behavior--directed cops to crack down on public drunkenness, fare beating, and other low-level criminal activity. Not only did this strategy tell thugs and hoods that the police were back in town but it turned out that many of the fare beaters and public drunks were more serious criminals, wanted for rape, assault, and murder.

This discovery of a key to the logic of criminal activity (a rare truth gained to social theory)--when wedded to the now-famous compstat (computerized statistics) system of tracking crime--cut through New York's complacent criminal class like a scythe. Result: Almost overnight New York became one of the safest cities in the United States, with a murder rate 68th among the country's biggest cities. Even liberals secretly rejoiced, while publicly bemoaning New York's new "authoritarian" temper. As Giuliani's success has inspired mayors across the country to push for similar policing reforms, New York's example has been a boon for the country as a whole, not just happy Gothamites.

Along with taking this new approach to crime, Giuliani pursued a wider quality-of-life agenda, one that has moved to the fore as he begins his second--and final--term as mayor.

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