Magazine article Insight on the News

A Kinder, Gentler New York? or More Authoritarian?

Magazine article Insight on the News

A Kinder, Gentler New York? or More Authoritarian?

Article excerpt

Mayor Rudolf Giuliani opened a can of worms when he decided his city could practice politeness. Only New Yorkers could stage such an in-your-face discussion about civility.

Lyndon Johnson dreamed of his "great society," Ronald Reagan of his "city on a hill." Now Rudolph W. Giuliani, mayor of the nation's most rambunctious city, is chasing an even loftier goal: an "ideal state" -- a clean, earnest, law-abiding, kinder, gentler Big Apple that would make Plato proud.

"Does everybody remember Plato?" the second-term Republican asked in a recent speech. "Plato developed the notion of the ideal. You never reached it. But in striving to get there, you kept making improvements in society."

Since his reelection last year, the mayor, a former federal prosecutor occasionally referred to as "Mayor Mean," has addressed urban behavior with a vengeance. The same techniques that successfully reduced major crime in the five boroughs, he believes, can increase civility.

Pundits say the campaign can't hurt Giuliani's admitted ambitions for higher office, but true or not, the "civility campaign" is seen as vintage Giuliani, the strict disciplinarian lecturing his irascible subjects on their uncivil ways.

The mayor signaled the dawn of his new era around Christmas, when police erected antijaywalking barricades at two busy Manhattan intersections. "We shouldn't encourage people to walk in the middle of traffic, as if there is some constitutional right to do that," Giuliani said at the time, although even he admitted to crossing against the light from time to time.

He then pledged to enforce the 30-mph speed limit and in the face of widespread ridicule floated a host of new initiatives that included a crackdown on noise, littering and routine rudeness from city employees. He also advocated civics classes in public schools, a dress code for teachers and, with the help of a recent court decision on zoning, a plan to drive sex shops out of town.

Of all his moves, none have raised more hackles among New Yorkers than Giuliani's drives to stamp out jaywalking and speeding, practices city residents regard as a birthright. Folks in this not-yet-ideal city greeted the news of the crackdown with the kind of amused contempt they usually reserve for visitors from Southern California.

"I think it's complete stupidity," Manhattan resident Rick Cooper, 38, told the Associated Press earlier this year. "New York is a walking city. If I wanted more room for cars, I'd move to L.A."

The first jaywalker ticketed under the mayor's crackdown was Brenda Barnes, a 44-year-old widow and law student hit with a ticket as she crossed Sixth Avenue while leaving Saks Fifth Avenue after a manicure. Like a good New Yorker, she's fighting back, enlisting the aid of the criminal-defense clinic at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University.

But the louder the protests, the higher the mayor raised the fine for jaywalkers -- from $2 to $50, and then a threat to go to $100. It was too much for Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "This city is becoming increasingly authoritarian," he complained.

What has tickled some New Yorkers and enraged others -- mainly Manhattanites -- is the mayor's effort to frame his arguments in a moral context, demanding that people acknowledge the consequences of their actions. …

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