Defining Urban Liberalism
I use the term urban liberalism to refer to the political philosophy of many postwar cities that combined entrepreneurial economic development strategies, personal rehabilitation and social work approaches to social problems, and a tolerance of social differences in the form of broad support for civil liberties. Urban liberalism is not so much a label that any particular politician consciously wears. Rather, it is a coherent set of policy tendencies that can be seen in the practices of many urban mayors from the 1960s through the 1990s. In New York City, this includes the administrations of John Lindsay (1966–73), Abraham Beame (1974–77), Edward Koch (1978–89), and David Dinkins (1990–93). In general, however, I focus on the later two administrations, since it is during this period that the full contradictions of this political philosophy emerge.
I look at urban liberalism because the new quality-of-life philosophy is a direct response to it. The economic and social policies of urban liberalism helped accelerate the urban problems associated with the decline of public order in the 1980s and then failed to address them adequately. Consequently, political actors at the neighborhood and city levels began to search for an alternative vision of urban politics that could overcome urban liberalism’s contradictions and directly address the disorder facing the city in the 1990s. The issue that best exemplifies this process is homelessness, which is both a product of the contradictions of urban liberalism and a visible symptom of the inability of urban liberals to resolve the public disorder crisis that drove the backlash politics of the 1990s. This sentiment can be seen in the comments of lower Manhattan resident Richard Brookhiser, who argued in an editorial for the New York Times that liberal politicians and residents had failed to take seriously the rise of homelessness and disorder.
New York liberals—decent and agreeable people—do not seem to be-
lieve that their way of life merits deference or support. Their lack of