City Journal Home.      
Spring 1991
   
Can Neighborhoods Save the City?
Richard Vigilante, Fred Siegel, Martin Shefter, Peter D. Salins, Charles Murray, George L. Kelling, Nathan Glazer, Edward N. Costikyan
EMAIL
RESPOND
PRINT
SHARE

CHAIRMAN NATHAN GLAZER: Today’s session is part of an effort to figure out how city neighborhoods and communities work and how they fail; what we gain when they work well, and what we lose when they do not. Most of us here are New Yorkers, especially if you count the expatriates among us. But the problems of neighborhoods and communities in New York are surely part of national trends. So I would like to start by calling on Charles Murray, who for several years has been arguing that many of our urban problems are caused by policies that disable communities and neighborhoods, particularly working-class and even underclass neighborhoods.

CHARLES MURRAY: Nathan, in recent years, as I looked at various urban problems, I have been struck by the number of times in which a bureaucracy was behaving not just ineffectively or inefficiently, but in ways that were almost lunatic. When a school system is run so that teachers are physically afraid of their students, there is something lunatic about that; it is so far removed from everything that common sense suggests. When a criminal-justice system returns to the community someone who has repeatedly committed dangerous crimes, that is crazy: No normal community would consent to that. There are countless examples of the governing bureaucracy behaving in ways ordinary human beings would never behave if given the chance to run their institutions closer to the ground.

This leads to the proposition that citizens can make much more sensible and effective decisions about their neighborhoods than bureaucracies.

NATHAN GLAZER: Of course the lunatic bureaucracy is not really lunatic, it is simply fulfilling certain requirements. One of the classic descriptions of the destruction of communities through public policy is in a famous study by Michael Young and Peter Willmott, Family and Kinship in East London. They studied the effect of public housing in East London. The bureaucracy had to decide who would get the next available flat, and it had apparently very sensible objective criteria for doing so, such as family size and need. But these objective rules were being applied in communities that depended on close-kin relationships—mothers wanting to live near daughters and that sort of thing. By following its seemingly sensible criteria, the bureaucracy caused great disruption to the community.

CHARLES MURRAY: Lunacy is a pretty apt description for policies that are so divorced from experience. This was driven home to me very forcefully in thinking about drug policy. To win the current war against drugs, we would have to make millions of arrests a year, and keep hundreds of thousands of people in jail.

Of course we cannot do this. So instead we wage a very restricted war on drugs, still costing billions, without helping our most threatened citizens and communities to achieve what they want, which is to win their own war against drugs for their own children and their own neighborhoods.

Yet we could do that, virtually for free, by giving back to citizens and their communities the authority they need to protect themselves from drugs. For most citizens, winning the drug war would come down to just a few things. One of the most important is to be able to choose schools without serious drug problems. It should not be too hard to run such schools, given the sort of authority that teachers and principals had, say, in the 1950s to oversee student behavior or even expel troublesome students.

This is not done now because we no longer have a consensus on the sort of authority schools should have. Still, probably most parents, especially in threatened neighborhoods, would like stricter schools. Why not let these parents choose such schools?

The most direct way to do this is through a generous, unrestricted voucher program. Very apprehensive parents could choose a school with zero tolerance for drugs—expulsion for the first offense, locker checks, drug testing. If parents are not afraid, they could choose a school where the authorities cannot touch their child without due process and a search warrant. Most schools will probably take a moderately strict position, reflecting the preferences of most parents, but schools could be created to suit most preferences, without having to reach a citywide consensus on school authority.

Another place where we want to be safe from drugs is in our own neighborhoods. One of the great maligned forces for social control in the neighborhood is landlords, who serve the community by renting to tenants who make good neighbors and rejecting tenants who make bad neighbors. But in a number of ways, from rent control and fair housing laws to urban renewal and public housing, we have made it harder for landlords to do this, especially in poor neighborhoods. If we gave landlords back the power we have taken from them, citizens who valued order could more reliably choose orderly places in which to live; while less orderly citizens would have to find neighborhoods in which landlords, for a price, would tolerate them.

Bureaucracies can never perform this function, because it requires landlords to make personal, even arbitrary, judgments we would never tolerate in government. A bureaucracy, in this regard anyway, is forced to be lunatic, forced to lack judgment.

NATHAN GLAZER: At least in part this lunacy seems to come from an excessive development of certain rights which almost nobody feels are crucial—like the right to be free from school discipline—but which the courts or other agencies of the government seem obligated to accept.

FRED SIEGEL: I think the various lunacies here are all of a piece: They impose formal equality at the cost of substantive equality. It is hard to talk about the school system, for instance, without talking about the way the courts intersect with the bureaucracy. For example, an enormous percentage of the New York City school budget is mandated by the courts for special education. Currently we are letting teachers go, even though average class sizes are increasing. This is because the courts are doing things like mandating a full-time Cambodian translator for one student in a school, and so the money goes to that instead of to teachers. It sounds crazy, but it is quite common.

On the way over here today I was thinking about my own neighborhood, Flatbush. Many of the concerns of the area really come down to the way the courts have widened social divisions by enforcing new notions of privacy. I live in an integrated area of Flatbush in which both black and white members of the middle class live detached Victorian houses, sometimes interspersed with apartment buildings. There has always been tension between the homeowners and the apartment dwellers, who are far poorer and sometimes on welfare. But the cleavage has grown wider in recent years as the representatives of middle-class mores, such as social workers, truant officers, and police officers, have been stripped of their authority in the name of the right to privacy. So the apartments are now thought of as more of a threat to the community than a part of it. For instance, there was a case a few years back of a juvenile criminal who was terrifying the neighborhood with repeated muggings. But nothing could be done to keep him off the street because his records were sealed, and the courts were officially ignorant of the fact that he was a repeat offender.

RICHARD VIGILANTE: What seems to be happening in these cases is that an outside authority, such as the courts, is raising the rights of particular individuals above those of the community. What set of presumptions are these authorities operating on?

FRED SIEGEL: It is a kind of militant nonconsequentialism: The presumption is that you can endlessly expand rights, claims, and privileges, without having to see how they fit together.

But let me say something now that may not be to the liking of everyone here. What I hear from Charles Murray is an attempt to impose a free-market model of culture in a place where the free market cannot work. There is no reason to believe that if we expand rights and allow everyone to express himself as fully as possible, somehow collective good will come from an invisible hand. In New York, at least, a free market in morals has been a disaster.

MARTIN SHEFTER: Fred is probably correct that we have a conflict between a culture of rights and the claims of the community. But I don’t think one can locate the source of that impulse solely in the courts. For every ruling by a judge there always seems to be a constituency that rises up in defense of it, regardless of the consequences.

PETER SALINS: The issue of the rights of the individual versus the community exists in the suburbs as well as in the city. But do these issues have special significance in the kind of dense municipal space that we have created in New York City? New York neighborhoods are places where people share geography, but not necessarily other values.

CHARLES MURRAY: Part of the problem may be that the elites who dominate the courts and other policy centers undervalue that kind of community. The people around this table probably fall into the same category. We have professional associations, we have friends that are scattered all over town, we have clubs, we have our little platoons. They are very homogeneous because they don’t tend to be geographically based. In fact, as Robert Reich has pointed out, many affluent people seem to want to secede from spacially defined communities and isolate themselves in gated suburbs with four-acre lots. I submit that this is part of the problem, because these elites are making decisions about how people who do live in neighborhood communities ought to live their lives. And these decisions don’t take into account how easily a community based largely on geography can fall apart if the people in it are denied the authority to protect it.

GEORGE KELLING: Policing is a good example of how bureaucracies create a mission for themselves, such as fighting serious crime, that often has nothing to do with the priorities of the neighborhood. Countless police officials have told me of meetings with community leaders to discuss local crime problems. The police executives go in with their computer printouts and say, “This is the amount of robbery, this is the burglary problem, etc., and this is how we are working to bring it down.” Then the people from the community say, “Yeah, yeah, that’s interesting, but what are you going to do about the prostitutes, what are you going to do about the dirty playground, what are you going to do about these other problems that are really bothering us?”

The “crime-fighting” definition of police work was the invention of a centralized bureaucracy that decided to regard the community as a threat and a source of political interference rather than as a source for guidance. I don’t think bureaucracies need courts to be unresponsive to the community.

RICHARD VIGILANTE: I think we’re inching toward an idea. It seems to me that by shifting some of the decisions down to the neighborhood we would be reducing the burden on the bureaucracy while getting more out of the citizenry. When people tell the cops with their printouts that they really care about controlling rowdies and prostitutes, that information is an asset, an asset that the bureaucratic city government has been squandering. Maybe it would be interesting to identify such community assets more clearly and see how we might preserve them.

CHARLES MURRAY: No, I think that when you start to look upon the neighborhood as an asset that can feed into the system you have already missed the point. You are ignoring the way in which neighborhoods function. The community functions only when it really has the ability to take action, not when it is being “consulted” or given “maximum feasible participation.” The community cannot be thought of as an asset managed by the system, because the community must be self-creating.

By way of example, consider one very bad decentralization plan, the one that Chicago has used for schools. As I understand it, the plan gave parents a great deal of power to run local schools. But the only thing students had in common was that they lived in the same neighborhood. The Chicago plan did not take into account that parents in those neighborhoods had diverse goals. Chicago was trying to create school communities—assets if you will, Richard—where none existed. It has not worked very well. What you really need is parents who get together because they share common goals and on that basis are able to run the schools. Just throwing people together in a hodgepodge and saying, “You folks make the decisions” may be a way to take a load off the bureaucracy, but it is not a way to run schools.

NATHAN GLAZER: I want to flag one issue I think we have to think about. Fred talked earlier about what happened when social workers stopped visiting the apartments in Flatbush; and George, you have been working with the city to restore the authority of police officers to keep order in the city. But can this society still produce the authoritative social worker, or the order-making policeman, the person who imposes, or feels he has the right to impose, a standard?

Years ago there was an interesting article by Alvin Schorr on French social workers. Now, knowing what the French are like, you can imagine what a French social worker is like. She knows how a child should be raised, and she tells the clients, “You do this” and “You do that.” It is like the Académie française and the French language: No variation is allowed. At one time we had such people too. But we felt that they interfered with our rights, so now they do much less of it. And when they do it at all it is often in the form of an angry outburst rather then a sustained, self-confident imposition of a norm. But these people are necessary to the community. Roger Starr talks about having torn the epaulets off the sergeants of civil society: the police, the schoolteachers, the social workers. Is it possible for our social workers and policemen and our teachers to regain their authority?

GEORGE KELLING: On the neighborhood level, the problem of authority has become very subtle. The old idea of the cop who could come in and take on the toughest SOB in the neighborhood, kick his butt, and from then on run the beat by his nightstick, is gone. It is never going to be restored. What you do see, as I have observed myself in foot patrol and community policing programs, is the police constantly negotiating on the streets for the authority they need to get people to behave.

Even in rough neighborhoods, most of the troublemakers are also very vulnerable people who lead extraordinarily risky lives: the street people, drug dealers, etc. The police are able to regulate people because they can offer protection from some of the hazards of street life in exchange for the street people following the rules.

CHARLES MURRAY: What kind of protection do the police offer?

GEORGE KELLING: Let’s say a stranger, another street person, comes into the neighborhood and wants to get money, or to steal somebody’s booze. The locals tell the cops, so the cops are getting something: information. But it is the local street people whom the cops will be protecting from this guy.

In most neighborhoods there is a broad consensus about what constitutes disorderly or unacceptable behavior. The policemen’s problem is how to negotiate the authority to stop disorder, because they do not get it automatically.

MARTIN SHEFTER: James Q. Wilson in his book Thinking About Crime discusses some of the same community policing experiments that you have studied. He says that one of the community norms that police patrols enforced in Newark was that in disputes between merchants and customers it was presumed that the merchant was correct. You can see that this would be a useful procedure for maintaining community and order, especially in a poor neighborhood, because it strengthens the authority of confirmed community builders—local businessmen.

But then, what are we to make of the Korean grocery incident in Flatbush? There, a political constituency that is certainly not composed of libertarians and that is indigenous to the local community demanded just the opposite: that the authorities presume that a Korean shopkeeper who treats a customer as a shoplifter should be denounced and even driven out of business for racism.

GEORGE KELLING: Were those demonstrations controlled by elites or by residents who shopped in that store?

FRED SIEGEL: Elites would be the wrong word to use. I live among eight blocks from where this took place. What has not been said, though most of the black merchants in the area are aware of it, is that there was also a shakedown scheme going on. You cannot prove it, but if you talk to other merchants, Korean or black, they will tell you that they have been approached and told that if they don’t want this kind of trouble they had better contribute to a certain beneficial fund.

The reason the boycott could succeed even without broad black support is that the black political leadership was unwilling to confront this matter honestly and intelligently. Had they been willing to do so and make clear that there was a cost to the black community, things that might have been different. And there was a high cost. When the extraordinary black teacher from the nearby high school who insisted on crossing the picket line was driven out of his school, many lost heart. There is no substitute in these kinds of situations for ordinary courage.

MARTIN SCHEFTER: Yes, but it has become very difficult. For the past 30 years, racial cleavages in American cities have been such that spokesmen for the black community fear that any assertion of community standards over individual rights will be a cover for racial exclusion, and therefore totally unacceptable.

PETER SALINS: Would the outcome have been different if we had had community policing over there?

GEORGE KELLING: My guess is that the situation was so political that local police control would have been quickly superseded by central authorities in any event.

FRED SIEGEL: Actually, if the cop on the beat knew the merchant was had been able to say, “I know this guy and the woman’s charges don’t make sense,” the police might have been able to cut things off at the beginning.

MARTIN SHEFTER: The people most active in defending community standards in the old neighborhoods were property owners—people who were concerned above all with property values. One problem here may be that property ownership—of homes, of apartment buildings, of stores—is not widespread in the black community. So when there is a conflict between merchant and customer, landlord and tenant, the political leadership of the black community identifies with the customer rather than with the landlord or merchant. And if so, doesn’t that make proposals like reviving the authority of landlords or other traditional pillars of the community somewhat utopian?

CHARLES MURRAY: My impression is that there is far more black ownership than is popularly assumed.

MARTIN SHEFTER: Sure, but ethnic politicians in past decades tended to defend the interests of property owners because the political leadership was linked to businessmen and home owners. Today in the black community, political leadership is linked to the public sector.

PETER SALINS: But I think we should bear in mind that three-quarters of the population in New York City is not black and less than half is white. In New York these issues of community are played out against a background not of black-white conflict, but of great ethnic diversity.

CHARLES MURRARY: Even if the black poverty rate is, say, 30 percent, that still means 70 percent of blacks are above the poverty line. Despite high unemployment, most blacks are employed. In reality, the black community is one more big chunk of the population that consists overwhelmingly of productive, law-abiding citizens.

That brings us to a very interesting dilemma. Ninety percent of Americans could run their own lives effectively, happily, and satisfactorily. That 90 or maybe even 95 percent are just the sort of people who can build working communities, largely on their own. Of course, you still have that 5 or 10 percent who are problematic.

So here is the question: Do you set up your social institutions on behalf of the very small proportion that cannot function? In that case, government will be constantly intervening on their behalf, often in ways that are harmful to communities. Or do you establish a system that works really well for that 90 percent and then does what it can for the rest?

MARTIN SHEFTER: Well, in New York, the answer has been all too clear—we will side against the 90 percent even when they are minorities.

In New York, one of the early examples of this was the abolition of the “600” schools for troublesome and disruptive students. Because many of the students in the 600 schools were black, the fight to abolish them in the early 1960s was portrayed as a civil rights crusade, even though the 600 schools largely served to protect the minority students whose educations would otherwise have been disturbed by the rowdies.

NATHAN GLAZER: When you let citizens have the power to build communities you are necessarily letting some people—like Charles’s landlords—have the power to exclude others who would harm the community. For the same reason, it is impossible to govern a city by focusing almost exclusively on social failures. If 60 percent of the budget is directed at 20 percent of the people, which may not be much of an exaggeration in New York, there will be no money to fix the bridges, clean the streets, pay the police, and provide other things that communities need.

CHARLES MURRAY: Yes, community does depend on exclusion—even on rehabilitating a certain type of discrimination, discrimination in favor of good behavior.

In this country you can still buy yourself into good neighborhoods and good schools, but that is no help to the poor. Stable, working poor people do, however, have many noneconomic assets. The problem is, we have made it hard to discriminate in favor of such assets. We need to let poor people use their noneconomic assets to get better apartments, better schools, and better neighborhoods.

NATHAN GLAZER: What do you mean by noneconomic assets?

CHARLES MURRAY: Well, my favorite image goes back to landlords. Take two people who want to rent the same apartment. Both have the money, but one got the money from working on a loading dock and supports his family, while the other is a welfare mother who got the money from the welfare department and has a history of trashing apartments. A sensible landlord will rent to the working guy, that is, assuming antidiscrimination laws do not prevent him from doing so. But the public housing bureaucracy is not going to make such judgments. Nor are public schools. But under a housing voucher or school-choice program, families who want their children to go to certain schools, or people who want to live in certain buildings, have to bring more than their entitlement to the table; they have to bring good behavior because the school or the building can turn them down.

All these little feedback messages from private parties in the community serve as the moral equivalent of a price system. On a very intimate level they convey information people need in order to run their lives successfully. They sort out the unregenerate destroyers of better low-income communities, and nudge people who can change in a better direction.

FRED SIEGEL: But Charles, this is a perfect example of how a free market in morals does not work. The people who establish this country’s sexual morality are not the people who, in your example, are paying the price for it. There is a powerful intersection between our inability to deal with the problem of female-headed families in the inner city and the upper-class faux-bohemian totemization of sexual autonomy, no matter what the cost. The price system does not work: The people who set the moral tone for society are convinced that their right to sexual self-fulfillment is absolute. There is enormous resistance even to the idea of any kind of censure, stigma, or even public criticism of sexual behavior. We have bought the argument for total sexual autonomy.

CHARLES MURRAY: But we only believe in autonomy for certain people. It is precisely because we have withdrawn autonomy from landlords, merchants, and teachers that we have such a lack of moral and practical leadership in our communities, whether they be workplaces or neighborhoods.

RICHARD VIGILANTE: I think this question of “whose autonomy?” is crucial to our entire discussion. We have been describing not a general expansion of autonomy, but a shift of the power to act autonomously.

This shift has been away from the community and its needs, and toward certain individuals who are being protected from the discipline of the community by some larger entity: the city, state, or Federal Government, or some part thereof, such as the courts or the bureaucracy. Now, of course, everyone in the community wants the right to appeal for protection to those larger entities when the community behaves, as communities sometimes do, in a ruthlessly self-interested or xenophobic way. But I think there is a consensus at this table, and a growing feeling in this country, that things have gone too far.

So I want to raise a practical question: To what extent is the problem of reviving community one of making sure that the right people get back the autonomy that was taken from them, and how can we restore their autonomy?

PETER SALINS: If I may answer your question with a question, I would like us to address a fundamental point that we have been just barely avoiding all morning: Do the size and shape of communities matter? If so, should we give neighborhoods more say in their governance? Should political power in this city be decentralized? Is that how we shift autonomy, or power, back to communities?

NATHAN GLAZER: Good question. Do you have an answer?

PETER SALINS: I think that geography and size do make a difference. Yes, this country has rushed to separate responsibilities from rights; yes, we are infatuated with our personal autonomy; yes, there is a national conflict between elite and bourgeois values. But nonetheless small municipalities are better at keeping order, at keeping some of the epaulets on those sergeants of civility.

FRED SIEGEL: Of course, for many years New York did have smaller political units that were very important: the boroughs. All the service areas—police precincts, school districts, council districts—are still drawn within borough lines. The history of the loss of faith in government in New York is in large part the history of centralization, of taking functions like garbage collection away from the boroughs and centralizing them.

NATHAN GLAZER: Are boroughs the right size, though? Is a borough of 2 million people too large to reflect community interests? We are now going through a process of reorganizing city government into 51 council districts. Would that be a better level at which to run many services?

FRED SIEGEL: Not necessarily. The neighborhood I live in works pretty well, but it is not a community. The term community is too strong for so large and diverse a thing. People in the neighborhood have an affinity of interest that allows them to come together on a practical basis for certain limited goals: doing something about crime, or the filthy playground, or whatever. But these are people who belong to other communities, whether they be Orthodox Jews or Urdu-speaking Pakistanis. In fact, insofar as New York is a much more integrated city than, say, Chicago or Boston, there is much less congruence between neighborhood and community here.

That suggests, first of all, that our decentralized political units need not be too small, certainly not as small as neighborhoods. The kind of interests that need addressing can be addressed by larger units than that.

More importantly, it suggests that the city s new attempt to create more coherent council districts may be a disaster. The redistricting guidelines make race the dominant factor in establishing the new council districts. This is a very dangerous way of trying to reestablish coherent political communities. These small, homogeneous districts, which encourage people to think of community and common interest in terms of race, will almost guarantee racial polarization in the City Council.

As for turning these into real governing districts, that would just make things worse, as we saw with the school districts created by school decentralization: They will be large enough to be ethnically distinct, and polarizing, but too small to function effectively as governments.

Even now, when you hold elections in a small school district, no one shows up. But a borough is big enough and powerful enough politically that people can focus on it. Organized neighborhoods can come to the borough and get respect. A neighborhood can be ignored by city hall, but probably not by borough hall.

NATHAN GLAZER: Well, how would we start reviving the boroughs?

FRED SIEGEL: Start by putting two major services, the school system and trash collection, back into the hands of the borough. When a borough president runs for reelection, he will probably lose if the schools are no good and the trash is not being picked up, and we may get some real reform.

New York City is the only large city in the world that is so centralized. London, Tokyo, and Paris are all much more decentralized with local councils that wield considerable power. These cities do not try to provide most basic municipal services in a centralized fashion.

CHARLES MURRAY: So the boroughs are the right size?

FRED SIEGEL: Well, they are a workable size and they have a real historical identity that would make the transition practically and politically much easier.

PETER SALINS: Of course, they vary considerably in size. There is another advantage to the boroughs. New York suffers not only from excessive centralization, but from centralization dominated by Manhattan, the borough having the least in common with the other four. Manhattan elites tend to think of the city not as the location of their neighborhood, but as the center of a number of more cosmopolitan affiliations. It is Manhattan’s elites for whom isolation from the city’s problems seems possible and who therefore are most willing to assert individual rights against the community. Borough decentralization would give more power to people who do not necessarily share that mentality.

NATHAN GLAZER: I see a consensus developing which I never dreamed would emerge. Do you think many New Yorkers feel this way?

RICHARD VIGILANTE: I think one reason there is so little talk of borough decentralization is that decentralizing at that level looks like the first step to breaking up the city, which most people do not want and which is on people’s minds because of Staten Island. Neighborhood decentralization, on the other hand, does not look like the first step toward breaking up the city.

PETER SALINS: But that is like the arguments about the Soviet Union. Maybe the price of keeping either the Ukraine or Queens is to give them more autonomy so they will be less inclined to leave. Besides, there is no inconsistency between borough decentralization and further disaggregation. The boroughs are probably in a better position to devolve further power to neighborhoods because they understand their own neighborhoods better than planners sitting in city hall.

EDWARD COSTIKYAN: I wish this meeting had been held 20 years ago. The abortive 1975 Charter revision effort I was involved in was motivated by this very notion of following London’s model and that of nearly every other major city: maintaining the central powers at the city level, but creating small subdivisions, districts of 200,000 to 250,000, to handle the local functions. I still think it is more sensible way to run a city.

GEORGE KELLING: Even if you decentralize radically, however, you still must come up with ways to make the bureaucracy focus on community concerns. Even if you had borough-sized police departments, for instance, there would still be a powerful tendency for them to define their mission by professional or bureaucratic standards: Catching armed robbers will be more important than rousting the drunks and panhandlers. But in, say, a neighborhood with a commercial district, those will be the wrong priorities. The local merchants can probably absorb a certain number of armed robberies, but they can’t survive if fearful customers won’t come any more. So you will still need ways for the bureaucracy to link up with the community at very low levels.

FRED SIEGEL: There are proposals now for community courts to handle exactly the kind of crime you are talking about: aggressive panhandling, prostitution, etc. The best way to operate community courts would be from the borough level. They would serve in the neighborhoods, but they would be appointed by the borough president. So the courts would share local concerns but would also be accountable to a broader, somewhat less parochial authority.

EDWARD COSTIKYAN: New York had community courts for many years, and they were a good thing. The local judges and lawyers were more familiar with the local petty criminals or other disputants, and with problems in the neighborhood. That familiarity added a bit of common sense to the administration of justice. And it also meant that there were neighborhood-wide legal communities, local lawyers who lived and practiced on your block and who were part of the neighborhood, not it natural enemies.

GEORGE KELLING: I think community courts would be an excellent way of protecting some of the assets of the community—I like that term, by the way—that have been undermined lately. We need not only community-based courts, but community-based police, prosecutors, probation officers, and truant officers, all working with each other and with local community leaders on cases (that is, on people) they all know, because the cases are part of the community too. In my experience, the communities, knowing who the kids are and maybe wanting to give them a break, are often more generous and more willing to help. You find the same sort of people who might otherwise be screaming their lungs out about crime saying to these kids, “I’m willing to work with you, give you a break, a job, or whatever.”

PETER SALINS: If we are serious about decentralization, we have to discuss money. The city spends $29 billion, which is probably more than the budgets of most nations. For borough decentralization to work, a good part of the revenue must not only be spent but also raised at the level of the borough, because separating taxing and spending breeds irresponsibility and resentment. That would have very significant implications. Manhattan would be, by far, the richest of the boroughs. And Queens, though it is prosperous, would probably have to tax itself a great deal more even to provide the ordinary services. Three-quarters of locally raised city funds come from Manhattan.

MARTIN SHEFTER: Could we decentralize only as many functions as could be supported by the property tax? Then there would still be a lot of revenue-sharing from the richer boroughs to the poorer boroughs: The sales tax and the income tax and a few others would be used to support city-wide services. The advantage of making the property tax the borough tax is that it would help curb the “not in my backyard” syndrome, which if it were always honored would mean there would never be another unit of housing built in this city. Making property taxes local would encourage people to think more responsibly about development—since expansion spreads the tax burden—without forcing them to accept expansions they definitely do not want.

RICHARD VIGILANTE: That is a good example of how the revenue problems that Peter Salins raised can actually be turned to advantage. Right now the city taxes the heck out of multifamily apartments, and businesses, and commercial property, and everything else that produces money, but taxes single-family or even two- and three-family homes pretty lightly. So the economists tell us that Queens and suburban Brooklyn are undertaxed, certainly as compared to other suburban areas.

But if you go out to Queens and tell people, “We’re going to raise your taxes to suburban level,” they’ll tell you, “Do it and this neighborhood will empty tomorrow. We’re not getting suburban levels of services, the schools are no good, and we are certainly not going to pay suburban taxes.” On the other hand, if Queens really controlled the school system and the garbage and a few other obvious things, it could tax itself at suburban rates and give itself suburban levels of services.

Still, there are other complexities in the trade-off between local and central functions. For instance, sewer hookups. Can you let the local borough office or local community board be in charge of sewer hookups, or will they use that as a weapon against development? Can you let the local community decide where boarder babies go, or where the AIDS shelter goes, or where the sanitation-truck depot goes? There is not much revenue payoff in those, and you still come up against “not in my backyard.”

EDWARD COSTIKYAN: The problem with defining what is local and what is central is an artificial problem. We’re not the first city in the world to wrestle with this. England has done it and has a national city ordinance that defines what the local district does and what the region does. Every other major city has been able to work out the allocation between the two with relatively little conflict.

NATHAN GLAZER: This leads me to the question, how did the city get so centralized? I think we have to go back at least to La Guardia and the concern about corruption. One way that we fought corruption was to professionalize and centralize and keep on centralizing. The Lindsay administration carried this theme forward very strongly so that instead of city government depending on able people who took Jobs in the Depression-the virtuosi, they used to call them-it depended on hot shots who had just come from places like the Defense Department or the Rand Corporation. And then, of course, the Knapp Commission gave us a police department whose prime directive was to avoid corruption. This process has been going on unrelieved for something like 40 or 50 years. Could it be reversed?

EDWARD COSTIKYAN: Maybe old age or cynicism is catching up with me. I went through that effort once and I am convinced that the political resistance to that kind of transfer of authority is insurmountable. The only reason I got into it last time was that Nelson Rockefeller thought it idea, and he was going to push was a great 1 it through. Then he decided to leave Albany and become Vice President, and that was that.

Several decades ago local political organizations provided a basis for community government. But those political organizations have passed on. I do not know whether it is feasible to start talking seriously about devolution of power to local units of government, because the base is not there.

The real problem is that the possessors of centralized power do not trust communities, for a variety of reasons. First of all, they are not us, they are somebody else. Secondly, there are low-income communities, and there are high-income communities. Some of the centralized people say you can trust the Park Avenue people, but not the people in Harlem. Those problems, however, are not teal obstacles to the creation of a decentralized government if you have the will and the power to do it. But I do not think you will ever get the power to do it, unless you get a supervening governmental authority to impose it.

PETER SALINS: Almost 6 million New Yorkers live outside of Manhattan. I think the only really strong constituency for centralized government comes from Manhattan.

NATHAN GLAZER: Doesn’t it come from the poor boroughs too, like the Bronx and Brooklyn, who would fear being cut off from their share of the $29 billion, on the basis of their numbers on welfare, etc.?

PETER SALINS: The Bronx, perhaps, but I think Brooklyn is a borough that would like to control more of its destiny. Brooklyn still has a lot of historical consciousness and in many ways looks like the separate and rather grand city it once was. Queens certainly would like to control its own destiny to a greater extent, and of course Staten Island is considering secession.

MARTIN SHEFTER: The most powerful political constituencies for centralization are the municipal employee unions.

PETER SALINS: Yes, far more powerful than the poor. The City of New York is currently governed largely for the benefit of its municipal employees.

MARTIN SHEFTER: During the school decentralization Fight 20 years ago the greatest opposition to decentralization came from the teachers’ union.

NATHAN GLAZER: The other route toward decentralization, then, is privatization. Fred Siegel started off by suggesting that we return education and garbage collection to the boroughs. It has been demonstrated a number of times that in New York even mob-controlled garbage collection is much more efficient than public garbage collection. And it has been demonstrated again and again that private schools, or parochial schools, or even nominally public but quite independent schools, as we have here in District Four, are better and more efficient than public schools. If we could in some sense starve the public sector and contract a lot of these functions, that might weaken the strongest constituents for centralization: union leaders who want to bargain with the whole city, one time, for all their people and their share of the $29 billion.

RICHARD VIGILANTE: Yes, but decentralization and privatization have to work together. A privatized garbage-collection service probably would not be much more efficient than the public version, after you add in the corruption, if it were done on a single city-wide contract. We have learned again and again that these city-wide contracts afford huge corruption opportunities, in part because nobody can watch the whole city at once, and in part because the bureaucratic procedures we install to govern a $29 billion budget themselves breed corruption. So I think there is no way to short-circuit this fight. If decentralization is a good idea, it will have to be fought for. You will have to mount one of those rare campaigns in which for a very brief time, on a very major issue, the common good really can triumph against a powerful conglomeration of special interests. That does not happen too often, but it can happen when you combine a crisis with exceptional leadership and a powerful idea.

PETER SALINS: What Justifies the central authority is the notion of a conflict between the local welfare and the general welfare. But in the New York area we have a test case of decentralization because we have both the decentralized model and the centralized model right here. We have roughly 16 million persons in the metropolitan area. New York City governs about 7.3 million of those people. And we have thousands of jurisdictions for everybody else. It is pretty clear which half functions better. In most of those small municipalities the general welfare does just fine, and no one thinks about this supposed conflict.

New York City is the greatest city in the world in part because it is composed of so many wonderful little cities, some only a few blocks in size. I see no reason why we cannot have the best of both worlds: Keep the city together, but let all the little cities, and all their citizens, do their best for themselves and for all New York.

 

 

 
An NY Roundtable featuring Edward N. Costikyan, Nathan Glazer, George L. Kelling, Charles Murray, Peter D. Salins, Martin Shefter, Fred Siegel, and Richard Vigilante
City Journal Spring 1991.
Click to visit City Journal California
Get the Free App on iTunes


Home |  About City Journal |  City Journal Books |  Archives |  Links
Contact Us |  Subscribe Print |  Subscribe Online |  RSS |  Advertise |  CJ Mobile

CONTACT INFO:

subscriptions: (800) 562-1973 • editorial: (212) 599-7000 • fax: (212) 599-0371

Copyright The Manhattan Institute