I had no idea they’d been around that long, but congrats to a fine, fine publication on its twentieth birthday: to its excellent staff, and especially to editor Brian Anderson, a long-time friend of this blog generally and Ye Humble Olde Host specifically. Brian was kind enough to send me a copy of his book, South Park Conservatives, back when it came out, and a most worthy and compelling read it is. That’s always the case with his stuff, and with the other writers in the CJ stable too.
But what about this “saved New York” business? Is Ye Humble Olde Host being facetious, or just impertinent? Is he ridiculously overstating the case?
Well, as it happens, none of those things apply. In fact, the Man That Saved New York said it long before I did. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Backstory, full disclosure, all that: I was in NYC at the tail end of the Dinkins admin, and was there for almost all of Giuliani’s two terms, and have visited quite frequently since. I saw the man transform New York myself, despite absolutely piteous hysterics from a good part of its citizenry (and from pretty much all of it on the Lower East Side, which is where I lived and spent most of my time) the whole while.
The outcry against Giuliani, starting from well before he even started his run for mayor, was…well, I can honestly say I’ve never really seen anything quite like it. You couldn’t pick up a newspaper, a magazine, an alterna-weekly, or a fanzine from almost any subculture from punk rock to tattooing to B&D (and I did, all of ’em) without running across at least one anti-Giuliani howl in there someplace, and usually more than one, if you count the sniffy little asides scattered like dung-mines throughout the editorial content.
The place was positively lousy with Giuliani-as-Hitler posters, and you’d walk through protests in Tompkins Square and Union Square Parks and elsewhere just about every other day, whether organized by the Gay And Lesbian Communist Transgendered Revolutionary Front or the Panty-Sniffers Action Strike Force, or just random impromptu degenerations of hack-sack tourneys, drum circles, and miscellaneous green-weenie die-ins into full-on frothing street theater. I remember walking by the Village Voice offices a few times as they were hosting, uhh, gatherings out in the street in front — naturally, they would’ve; it was their kind of scene, man, and kind of their last hurrah, since they went into the death spiral immediately after he won and started turning the city around. Giuliani-hate was in the very air like a grimy mist, and, looking back, was actually a chilling precursor to the derangement Bush 43 would inspire in the not-so-distant future.
But these days, I know a lot of people who were out in the middle of those street-theater productions, hamming it up with the rest of the flea-bitten circus, who will at least grudgingly admit that the man did some good. It was actually when I started waking up from my college-Lefty fog myself; I just couldn’t reason out how the wise and humane Left thought allowing Saddam to run roughshod over a neighboring sovereign state was in any way a good idea, and I started looking into things for myself from that point on — a thing the thin coating of standard-issue groupthink that gets sloppily brushed on in our universities just isn’t capable of withstanding much of for very long. I understand the finish holds up a lot better at the undergrad-and-above level, but still isn’t necessarily permanent. Having to get out and pay your own way in the world acts on the last crusty, rusty remnants almost like sandblasting, it seems.
I’ll let Brian explain to you what Giuliani dragged the city choking, gasping, and near death from:
Twenty years ago, the Manhattan Institute launched City Journal as an intellectual and journalistic response to New York City’s downward spiral and to the illness of the American city generally. Most observers believed that illness fatal; City Journal did not.
Several things, the magazine argued, were killing cities. The first and most pressing was crime. Recall New York in 1990, a city of fear. More than six people a day lost their lives to violence. Along with those 2,262 murders—an all-time high—came rape, assault, burglary, auto theft, and other crimes. Some inner-city neighborhoods were like war zones, with nightly drive-by shootings and police nowhere to be seen. New Yorkers grew accustomed to barring their windows, triple-locking their doors, and looking nervously over their shoulders. The same was true of residents of most other American cities.
Disorder was equally pervasive. In New York, aggressive panhandlers shook down pedestrians on corner after corner; parks were homeless encampments; graffiti scrawled its ugliness over everything. And nothing could be done about any of this urban pathology, the experts said, short of some kind of radical transformation of American life: the crime and disorder were understandable responses to an uncaring, selfish society.
Yet “uncaring” was a wildly implausible charge. In fact, American cities were being harmed by a hypertrophy of care. Since the sixties, most cities had become vast welfare agencies, providing cradle-to-grave services to the poor. Instead of helping the poor get ahead, however, the municipal welfare state caged them in dependency. By the nineties, welfare rolls had expanded dramatically, reaching more than 1 million in New York City.
To help pay for these services, taxes skyrocketed, harming urban economies already challenged by the postindustrial era. Businesses fled, as did many residents. Cities increasingly became handout-seeking wards of the federal government.
Declining schools were another big problem. New York City’s schools had once been excellent, helping generations of immigrants assimilate into their new country. By the time (CJ)’s first issue appeared, though, many schools in New York and other cities were bureaucratic failures, dominated by trendy but unproved pedagogy, ineffective teachers impossible to fire, and student brutality. Minority kids suffered the most, dropping out in droves, their futures lost, while teachers’ unions resisted reform.
Small wonder so many people gave up on cities and left for the suburbs. But City Journal rejected the idea that the urban crisis was inevitable. Change the policies, and cities could thrive. After all, as Jane Jacobs and other urbanists had shown, cities had been the primary source of economic growth and cultural dynamism throughout American—and world—history. They could be so again.
And here’s the bit where Hizzoner gives credit where it’s due:
And in New York, it happened. During the 1990s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani implemented many ideas championed by City Journal, later saying that if there were “a charge of plagiarism for political programs, I’d probably be in a lot of trouble because I think we plagiarized most of them, if not all of them, from the pages of City Journal.” On the crime front, the magazine was an early advocate of George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s Broken Windows theory, which holds that if a city lets beggars, hookers, and pushers conquer public space, graver crime will follow, since the authorities are sending a message that no one is in charge. Crack down on quality-of-life infractions, and potential wrongdoers hear the opposite message: that someone is watching. After Giuliani and his first police chief, William Bratton, adopted this approach and combined it with key managerial and accountability reforms, crime began to plummet, with murders down 56 percent in six years and all felony crimes dropping even more.
Giuliani introduced welfare reform, too—cutting the welfare rolls from 1.1 million when he took office to 462,000 when he left—and he began to make the city more business-friendly, among other changes that City Journal had long promoted. The result was one of the greatest public policy successes of our times: the rebirth of Gotham.
And at every step in this transformation, the professional Left raised a hue and cry that had to be seen and heard to be believed. I remember the interminable Village Voice articles denouncing welfare reform particularly; when fingerprinting of welfare recipients was implemented as a means of shutting down the I-80 corridor (known at that time as the Handout Highway because cheats were working full-time at driving its length, all the way to Illinois, to collect their government handouts in different jurisdictions along the way) as a means of defrauding the taxpayers, the Voice waxed positively lyrical about the horror of depriving the Noble Poor of the last tattered shred of their supposed “dignity.” Of course, it worked; almost immediately, literally thousands of con artists were rightly removed from the rolls.
And then there was the squeegee-man controversy. The squeegee men gathered in huge, squawking flocks like turkey-buzzards near the entrances to the tunnels to New Jersey, smearing piss-soaked rags across the windshields of unwilling drivers, then waving their tin cups in the faces of their captive “clients” and demanding money for the “cleaning” service. People would actually turn on their wipers to try to avoid being accosted by the filthy stewbums, who often threatened the hapless drivers with violent retribution if they didn’t cough up. It more closely resembled a nightmare scene in a thieves’ market in some war-torn Third World shithole than anything you’d expect to see in the erstwhile Greatest City In The World.
And naturally, when Giuliani announced a crackdown on these violent, crack-addled thugs, whose modus operandi was only a small step removed from outright mugging, the professional Left sprang into action. “No squeegee no peace” was the battle-cry for the spoiled Westchester brats who camp out and panhandle from the stoops of St Marks Place in the summer, and disappear immediately the first crisp fall night. They actually chanted that inane mantra right out loud, without any apparent embarrassment at all, sometimes getting so enthusiastic about it that their reeking dreadlocks would shake loose from the ratty bags encasing them and fly about their faces in a frenzy of wasted motion and effort.
And wasted it most certainly was, because Giuliani wisely resisted their insipid entreaties on behalf of parasites who wouldn’t piss in their mouths if their gums were on fire. The squeegee men slowly slipped back into the shadows where they belong, and commuters were once again free to endure the stalled traffic in some sort of peace.
Every day seemed to bring some small but noticeable improvement to the quality of life of New Yorkers, even as so many of them complained bitterly about it. Giuliani broke the Progressivist hammerlock that was strangling New York City, and any New Yorker who is now free to stroll the city at night without fear of molestation or bodily harm owes him a debt of gratitude. Likewise, they owe some thanks to Brian Anderson and City Journal, too. I’ll be most pleased to raise a glass tonight to toast their success, and to wish them twenty more years of it at least. Everyone who cares at all about our great American cities — the damage liberal misrule has done to them, and the possibilities for reclaiming and restoring them — owes them the same thanks. Hearty congratulations to all involved; ya done good, gang.