In Prospect

Winter 1998

So far, Rudy Giuliani has proved New York’s best mayor since Fiorello La Guardia; the question as he begins his second term is: will he equal La Guardia’s unmatched standard?

It’s not a fanciful idea. When he took office, New York seemed in an inexorable decline, facing five apparently insoluble problems. But he has solved two and a half of them in four years—and he has four years to go.

From the start, he rightly saw that the most urgent issue was crime. The first duty of any government is making sure that citizens are safe, and New York’s soaring crime rate made New Yorkers feel that the social order was unraveling as their government dithered. In one mayoral term, Giuliani has beat back crime almost to 1950s’ levels—the biggest urban governance success in recent memory, accomplished almost overnight.

He achieved that success in large part by solving the second problem: upgrading the city’s then-ragged quality of life. New Yorkers hunched their shoulders in apprehension not just of muggers but of crazed, aggressive beggars; potholed, garbage-strewn streets; graffiti and boom boxes; open-air drug markets; and hookers pandering to every squalid taste. Instead of the life-affirming panorama of metropolitan life, they too often saw a theater of depravity and degradation. When the mayor re-established that public spaces belonged to the law-abiding rather than to the lawless and dysfunctional, he gave wrongdoers and ordinary citizens the message that somebody was in charge, that there was a social order and a standard of behavior. Wrongdoers understood that their days of impunity were over; citizens grasped that their city had a future. Lastly, in a city in which 1 million residents collected some form of public assistance, the mayor has managed to reduce the welfare rolls by 335,000—a good start.

In this issue, City Journal lays out what we think the mayor needs to do to complete the job of rescuing New York. Above all, he must get the city’s economy growing again, as William J. Stern explains on page 15. Otherwise, no matter what successes the mayor achieves, the city still faces a future of decline. The second major task is fixing the public schools—the last great civil rights challenge, as Sol Stern argues on page 26. As for welfare, Heather Mac Donald writes (on page 35) that workfare leaves untouched the key welfare problem: illegitimacy, which ensures an unending supply of new recruits to the welfare rolls and to the underclass. Solving these problems won’t be easy: not only will the mayor need approval from New York State’s benighted legislature, but also the interests he must defeat are powerful. And because the term-limits law means that Giuliani can’t run again, in a year or two he will find his power beginning to ebb.

These tasks are hard to accomplish, too, because they run counter to the political culture of New York (and, in the case of illegitimacy, the national culture). Yet one of the great revelations of the first Giuliani term was the power of a strong leader to change the culture. So much of what’s gone wrong in urban society over the last generation has been the result of cultural change: of the 1960s’ beliefs that criminals are victims of social conditions, that welfare recipients are victims of economic injustice and racism, that quality-of-life crimes are "victimless," that single-parenthood is merely a "lifestyle" choice and single-parent families work fine. Because these beliefs originated with the elites, it seemed logical that if they ever were to change, the changes would begin with the elites, too.

In fact, the last places on earth that will cling to the old assumptions will be the universities and the media. But Mayor Giuliani’s successful policies actually have begun to precipitate a cultural change. New Yorkers found that they loved the results—enough to reelect Giuliani by a landslide and even to begin admitting to themselves and one another what they only vaguely felt four years ago: that it’s nice to live in an orderly and lawful city, that criminals are not victims and ought to be held accountable for their actions. Which means that the mayor has the power to change Gotham’s thinking—perhaps enough to finish the job of saving New York.