Editor’s Journal

Winter 1991
Can't Buy Me a City

If asked to name the two most overblown news stories of 1990, I would be tempted to answer: the city and state fiscal crises. As Edwin Rubenstein points out elsewhere in this issue, it is fairly predictable that if you spend all the revenue you can possibly raise and then some during boom times, as soon as the economy slows, you will go bust.

The worst thing about these recurrent fiscal crises is that they tend to make New Yorkers even more skeptical and cynical than usual about solving our other perpetual crises--in crime, health, housing, and the rest. How can we fix things while we are broke?

The answer is that the solutions to New York's crises, both fiscal and other, lie not at cross-purposes but along parallel lines. They are all best addressed by a single, long-slumbering insight: New York's real resources are not taxpayers and their tax payments but citizens and their communities.

For the most part citizens make their own lives, raise their own families, build and even defend their own communities. For years, however, New York City policies have placed too many stumbling blocks in the way of these normal human efforts. For that error even the most lavish city budget cannot compensate, because money is no substitute for communities that work.

One small but deadly stumbling block is revealed in Robert James Bidinotto's shocking exposť of New York's criminal privacy laws, which keep New Yorkers from knowing whether prospective employees, tenants, or even roommates might be violent criminals. Normally the private character judgments of businessmen and shopkeepers are a vital defense for the community. But New York does not trust employers to judge for themselves whether a violent criminal has reformed. This withdrawal of trust disarms the community, effectively forcing employers to hire criminals, many of whom will rob and rape and kill again.

As Peter Salins shows in his brilliant reassessment of rent control, in most New York neighborhoods rent regulations do not reduce rents very much. But as NY contributor Roger Starr has pointed out, rent regulations do prevent landlords from performing a vital social function. In most cities, landlords reinforce community standards: They want tenants who pay rent, and do not destroy their buildings. These happen to be just the sort of people most communities want, because they are also the sort of people who tend not to defecate on the sidewalks or sell drugs in the school yard. In New York, rent regulations deny landlords much say over who lives in their buildings, and thereby deprive communities of a traditional--and free--form of protection.

This is not a small loss. As George Kelling so persuasively argues in our cover story, when community standards break down, fear and disorder take hold, to be followed inexorably by serious crime, making any real community impossible. All too often in New York this spiral of decay begins precisely because government policies, rather than helping neighborhoods work, undermine their defenses and sap their natural strengths.

Yet our greatest failures conceal our greatest hopes. Citizens can do so much good for themselves and their communities, if they are trusted to do it. To rebuild this city, we need not billions in new tax dollars but a deeper understanding of how communities work, and the courage to let them go to it.

—RV