City Journal

Julia Vitullo-Martin
The Livable City
Confronting the Quality of Life
Autumn 1993

From the days of the Dutch, New York City has attracted people who come to find their fortune in the great city. In New York, the standards of achievement are higher, and the rewards for achievement greater, than anywhere else in America. “Wake up, muscles, we’re in New York now,” warned Casey Stengel, on being traded from the Phillies to the Giants.

Newcomers to the city are typically young, energetic, and ambitious. But when they are older and richer, they often leave, troubled by crime, dirt, pollution, and the pressures of the city. In sum, people are attracted to New York by its economic and cultural vitality; they are driven away by dissatisfaction with the quality of life.

A series of surveys commissioned by the Commonwealth Fund and conducted by Louis Harris and Associates confirms this perception and sheds a good deal of light on how New Yorkers view the quality of life. Harris polled 1,500 people who had recently moved to New York from other parts of the country, 1,500 who had recently left New York to live elsewhere, and 2,800 current residents of the five boroughs.

Those moving to New York, the survey found, are younger, better educated (but less affluent), and much less likely to be married or have children than those leaving. Most (61 percent) cite job changes as among their main reasons for moving to the city; 56 percent cite “cultural and other amenities.” In contrast, only 34 percent of out-migrants say they left because of job changes. Fifty-five percent say they wanted to live in a better house or neighborhood, 54 percent were looking for a safer place, and 59 percent sought “a better lifestyle,” particularly for their families. In addition, 39 percent were trying to reduce their costs of living and 26 percent specifically mentioned taxes.

These findings matter because the City’s vitality depends on attracting and retaining productive people. If New York is to remain a world-class city, its municipal government must make a top priority of addressing those problems that drive people away. Ironically, such quality-of-life issues are, in theory, fairly easy to handle. A municipal government cannot create manufacturing enterprises or Wall Street firms, but it can pick up the garbage, control traffic, maintain the capital plant, and make the streets safer and more orderly.

New York is not an agreeable city. It is other things—energetic, creative, surging—but not agreeable. This matters less to young people, who are often fleeing a sterile culture that they don’t want to reproduce here. But it is of enormous significance that only 34 percent of New Yorkers rate their city as a good place to live, in contrast with 60 percent of city dwellers nationwide. Forty-five percent of New Yorkers say they are likely to move out within the next three years. And while 50 percent of urban Americans say their cities are good places to raise a family, only 21 percent of New Yorkers say the same, and nearly half rate the city as “poor.” Forty-one percent of those moving out of New York said a major reason was to find better schools.

Yet those who leave New York do not do so without regret: they miss the cultural attractions and career opportunities the city has to offer. There is every reason to think that the city could stanch the flow of residents by changing government policies. For example, 28 percent of out-migrants say that assistance in paying private-school tuition would have kept them in the city. In other areas as well, New York’s government has vast opportunities for improving the city’s quality of life, as we shall see by looking at the issues of crime, dirt, parks, and capital plant maintenance.

Crime

Nearly one-third of New Yorkers in the Commonwealth survey report that someone in their family has been the victim of crime in the past three years. Worse, for those who moved into the city within the past year, the figure is 22 percent. When asked the single most important thing they would like to see improved about the city, both in-migrants (38 percent) and out-migrants (41 percent) said safety. “No other answer came close,” say the survey authors. Nine percent of out-migrants say they moved because they or a family member had become crime victims; 29 percent said they would have stayed had they felt the city was safe for their children. And when asked to name the two most important issues affecting their vote in the mayor’s race, 33 percent of current New Yorkers cited crime and 9 percent mentioned drugs.

Even more serious, current New Yorkers who say they are likely to move cite crime far more often than any other reason: 40 percent say it is their primary motivation. Among likely movers, crime is named more often by Latinos (48 percent) and blacks (44 percent) than by whites (37 percent) or Asians (37 percent). And it is named by 49 percent of those with children under 18 in their households. Other surveys, such as those conducted over several years by Peter Harris for the MTA, reinforce the point that crime dominates all other concerns.

New Yorkers are understandably disturbed by the ineffectiveness of the $4-billion-a-year criminal justice system. Only 4 percent of felonies committed are punished by incarceration of any kind and less than 2 percent lead to a prison term, according to the 1987 report of the Commission on the Year 2000. “The city can do something about crime. It has sufficient authority to make a difference,” the commission report said. “All elements of the criminal justice system must convey the message that punishment for crime will be certain and swift.”

The city can also help prevent serious crime by combating public disorder. In the Commonwealth survey, two-thirds of New Yorkers say graffiti reduces the quality of life, 63 percent mention homeless people, 62 percent cite noise, and 59 percent mention panhandling. Studies have confirmed what James Q. Wilson calls the “broken window” family has been the victim of crime in the past three effect: tolerance for disorder breeds more of it. years. Worse, for those who moved into the city Moreover, the fear caused by disorder drives law-abiding citizens off the sneers, which are thereby ceded to criminals. Yet offences against public order, such as vandalism and graffiti, are dismissed as “minor” crimes and seldom punished. Occasionally, agencies like the Parks Department present graffiti vandals with the option of being arrested by the police or spending a few Saturdays cleaning up graffiti. But these efforts are sporadic, in part because they are very hard to implement systematically and in part because they are seldom supported by the mayor’s budget office.

The New York City Transit Authority has made significant progress against disorder and crime. When former transit police chief William Bratton instituted a crackdown on fare evasion, begging, and sleeping on trains, the rate of serious crime in the subway system dropped by 30 percent.

Dirt

Even putting aside its effect on crime, public disorder is itself a problem for New Yorkers. This is true even of something as simple as dirt, which 72 percent of New Yorkers surveyed say diminishes the quality of life. New York is surely the filthiest of major American cities, the only one that does not have a single faultlessly kept area under city control. City Hall has messy lawns, broken steps, and a park strewn with trash. The entrance to Gracie Mansion is dirty, and even Park Avenue, probably the best-maintained area of the city, has potholes and litter.

It is the tragedy of the commons writ large. As ecologist Garrett Hardin pointed out 25 years ago, property that is common to all is too often cared for by none: “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

But it is possible to take back the commons. In the mid-1970s, Central Park’s Sheep Meadow had been nearly destroyed by excessive athletic use. The worst offenders were teams organized by private schools around the park and by independent athletic leagues. When Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis decided that the only way to save the meadow was to shut it down and restore its lawn over two years, he was furiously threatened by several of the schools and softball leagues. But he overcame this opposition and reopened the renovated meadow, banning athletic uses. For the past few years, however, the Parks Department has relaxed the rules, and the Sheep Meadow may again be threatened. Nonetheless, the Central Park Conservancy has successfully used a similar strategy in other parts of the park.

Robert Kiley, former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and David Gunn, former president of the New York City Transit Authority, faced a more daunting task when they set out to rehabilitate the city’s subway system. It had suffered tremendous deterioration over decades, but its elements had to be repaired in place, without shutting lines down except for brief periods. The job is far from complete, but great progress has been made. According to Peter Harris’s surveys, riders using the most thoroughly rehabilitated line, the Seventh Avenue/Broadway local, rate their service far more highly than other riders do.

The approach used by Davis, Kiley, and Gunn entailed not only rehabilitating common areas, but also guarding them to prevent further deterioration. Davis created park rangers. Kiley and Gunn created station managers, who are responsible for keeping their stations clean and well-maintained.

By showing that it intends to clean itself up, the city could help change a culture that is far too tolerant of littering. One of Robert Moses’s innovations, as described by Robert Caro, was assigning teams of well-dressed, good-spirited young workers to pick up refuse on Jones Beach immediately after visitors dropped it. The idea was to embarrass the miscreants. A relentless dose of summonses can also have an effect on behavior, as the success of the “pooper scooper” law demonstrated. Such punitive actions, however, should be undertaken only to change behavior, not to raise revenue—which seems to be the city’s primary goal in ticketing merchants for dirty streets in front of their stores, in effect punishing small businesses for the city’s inability to keep its streets clean.

And changes in behavior won’t make much difference if garbage collection and street cleaning remain poor. Even by the city government’s relatively lax standards, the percentage of districts with less than half the streets rated acceptably clean rose from 13.6 percent in 19S9 to 25.4 percent in 1992 Sanitation problems are exacerbated by overly generous union contracts, documented by the Citizens Budget Commission in January 1993. The managerial and contractual problems facing sanitation are enormous, but a committed mayor would be the first step in making a difference.

Parks

New Yorkers love their parks, one of the brightest spots in the city’s quality of life. In the Commonwealth Fund survey, a majority of New Yorkers rate the city excellent or good as a place for recreation and leisure. In a later poll, also commissioned by the Commonwealth Fund and conducted by LH Research (Louis Harris’s new firm), 86 per cent said the city’s parks give them “a sense of civic pride and a good feeling about being with other New Yorkers.” Further, 97 percent consider parks and playgrounds important in making New York City a livable place, and 96 percent describe them as “a really important part of growing up in New York.”

The Parks Department has been particularly hard-hit by the city’s recent fiscal problems; between 1959 and 1992 its budget was cut by nearly one-third, after inflation, and the department’s fewer than three thousand employees are the smallest number in recent history. Yet New Yorkers are willing to pay to support their parks. Two-thirds of those polled say funding for parks should be restored at least to its 1970s level; nearly 40 percent think funding should be increased even further. Two out of three New Yorkers are willing to pay a voluntary tax dedicated to improving parks. And more than two-thirds say they would be more willing to vote for a mayoral candidate who made a strong commitment to restoring and improving the maintenance and safety of parks and playgrounds.

As the city has cut back on parks funding, private organizations have stepped in to fill the breach. Over the years, Central Park’s restoration has gone from exclusively city financing to being jointly financed and managed by the city and the private Central Park Conservancy. Similar groups have been established to support Prospect, Riverside, Flushing Meadows-Corona, Van Cortlandt, and Pelham Bay parks. On a much smaller scale, neighborhood groups throughout the five boroughs have often taken over vacant lots or deteriorated playgrounds, restored them, staffed them, and in many cases locked them at night to prevent abuse.

Capital Plant

The maintenance of the city’s capital plant is notoriously poor, as evidenced by crumbling bridges, pockmarked roads, and frequent water main breaks. The West Side Highway literally collapsed from rust; the Brooklyn Bridge sprung cables; the Queensboro Bridge began dropping pavement into the East River. City streets are so rough that buses often suffer frame damage after just a few months’ use. Officials have a familiar set of excuses—New York is so big, so complex, so dense, so riddled with underground wires and pipes, that infrastructure maintenance is harder than it is anywhere else.

But consider the humble sidewalk. If the city can achieve perfection in any rehabilitation or construction project, it should be with sidewalks. Sidewalk construction is one of the oldest urban functions; it entails no technical complications whatever; it is done on the surface, so the many problems of underground work are avoided; it is an easily learned task. What’s more, the city contracts out all the work, so the government’s only duties are in management and oversight. Even cost is no barrier, since the city bills property owners for sidewalk reconstruction.

Yet the condition of New York City’s sidewalks is abysmal. One would be hard-pressed to find an entire square block in New York whose sidewalks are in excellent condition—in contrast with any other major U.S. city. New York’s sidewalks are rebuilt constantly, and badly. In July 1993, for example, workmen tore up every western corner on a segment of Amsterdam Avenue to install curb cuts for handicapped access. They worked with amazing speed and made a tremendous mess. They dug up the old concrete, threw some of it into a dumpster and flung the rest around the street, poured new cement, pushed in some wire partitions, tarred the boundaries of their work, set up flimsy barriers, and left. The freshly laid concrete was immediately vandalized by local high school students; unlike most suburban towns, New York does not require contractors to post sentinels while cement dries. The workers left behind hundreds of small tar balls that stuck to pedestrians’ feet for several days. The curb cuts were bumpy and uneven, ugly and dangerous. In laying the corners the workmen damaged the street and adjoining sidewalk patches; they left the damage unrepaired. Complaints to the Department of Transportation were fruitless.

The city’s unresponsiveness in such cases is staggering. One autumn morning, pollster Louis Harris emerged from his townhouse to find the entire sidewalk ripped up and an obviously incompetent contracting crew at work. He immediately called his new partner, former deputy mayor and Board of Education president Robert F. Wagner Jr. Wagner, in turn, called the off1ce of the commissioner of transportation, asking for information about the job and how it could be halted. Six months and twenty transportation officials later, he got the information. The job, of course, was long since and badly completed.

Street reconstruction is even worse. The 14th Street debacle is famous: a six-month job to improve the business district ended up taking two years, driving many shops out of business, and then the shoddy work had to be redone. There are streets like that in almost every neighborhood—3rd Street in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, for example. More astonishing, the city is now repaving Sixth Avenue, one of its premier avenues, in this fashion. In front of Radio City Music Hall, I recently noticed tar slopping up on the sidewalk from the work. I asked a contractor whether he would be removing it. “No, lady,” he said, “the sidewalks are done by the next contractor.”

One may give up on the big things, conceding that the city of New York is no longer capable of building the Brooklyn Bridge or constructing a resplendent new courthouse. But surely it should be able to handle something as simple as sidewalks.

Can City Hall Do Its Job?

A recurring theme is evident in any examination of the city’s quality-of-life problems: with a few happy exceptions, the municipal government does not do a good job of performing its most basic functions. It was not always thus. As recently as the late 1960s, the city was so confident of its ability to provide basic services that the Lindsay Administration based its sanitation strategy on the assumption that people would drop litter onto the streets, which would be cleaned daily. But New Yorkers’ habit of littering long outlasted their government’s ability to clean up after them.

Although New York City’s government IS ineffective, it is not impoverished. Indeed, it spends far more per capita than any other U.S. city (except Washington, D.C., which has no state government). And expenditures have gone up—by two-and-a-half times since the 1970s fiscal crisis—even as services have declined.

The problem is that, since the 1960s, the City government has steadily reduced the proportion of its budget spent on basic services in favor of an expanding menu of social welfare programs unique among American cities. As Nathan Glazer observes elsewhere in this journal, New York has moved away from doing the things a city can do well and toward doing the things a city cannot do well. The city budget allocates $6.9 billion to the Department of Social Services and a mere $575 million on sanitation. It spends some $880 million subsidizing a chain of municipal hospitals—a function no other city government has ever taken on—plus $294 million on health, $212 million on mental health, and $126 million on aging. Compare that with $146 million spent on parks, $129 million on libraries, and $70 million on the arts.

City officials argue that these heavy expenditures on health and welfare services are not their fault; they are mandated by the federal and state governments. But the fact is that the New York City government initially embraced the role of welfare state, believing it could be a channel of upward mobility for all who came here, particularly the marginal members of society. In contrast with virtually every other U.S. city, where welfare is almost entirely a state function, municipal government in New York set itself up as the jurisdiction that would train, educate, socialize, and care for those who would otherwise be cast aside. Among the many optional health and welfare programs offered by other levels of government, New York invariably opted for the most generous. During the fiscal crisis, budget officials tried to break this pattern and withdraw from many services, but the commitment went too deep.

New York is now stuck with the only municipal government structure in the country organized around the redistribution of income. As a result, New Yorkers not only pay very high taxes but also get poor basic services. Sixty-two percent of New Yorkers rate safety on the streets as poor; 53 percent say street, road, and highway maintenance is poor; and 37 percent rate health-care services as poor. Two-thirds of New Yorkers believe that city government can do something about their major concerns.

New York’s failure to deliver good basic services takes its greatest toll on the poor, for whom schools are often atrocious, neighborhoods dangerous and dirty, and access to good transportation minimal. What lesson of upward mobility is there for a child in Harlem, stuck in a crumbling, dirty, chaotic school where drug dealers freely conduct business out front?

An additional problem with the delivery of services is managerial. Most city agencies are top-heavy; when budget crises occur, the tendency is to cut from the bottom. Deputy commissioners are kept on, while those who actually provide services are laid off. Top officials, moreover, are largely insulated from the drudgery of ordinary city living. The mayor and his deputies are driven to and from work, often have a car available for personal use, and seldom, if ever, need to take the subway. In other words, they do not consume their own services—nor must they comply with their own regulations. People laughed a few months ago when, at a press conference, it became clear that the police commissioner did not know the speed limit in the city. Why should he? He is exempt from its enforcement.

A first principle of reform would be simple: Top officials should live like New Yorkers. They should use city services—public transportation, parks, schools, and community centers. Just as the CEO of Ford Motor Company is expected to drive a Ford, so should the CEO of New York consume the services he oversees. An example was set by transit managers Kiley and Gunn, who made a point of riding the subways.

A second principle is that citizens should be treated like customers. Calculating that a good customer buys about $100 worth of groceries weekly, a successful grocer says: “When I see a frown on a customer’s face, I see $50,000 about to walk out the door.” When the mayor sees a frown on a New Yorker’s face, he should see the possibility of a comparable loss to the city.

A third principle is that city employees must have incentives to do better work. “People are not dumb,” writes Percy Barnevik, CEO of a multinational corporation. “They know that if their company is not competitive, there is no job security.” But do government workers know this? In a few cases, the answer is yes. The Parks Department has a tiny but excellent in-house monument restoration team whose work is as good as that of private contractors. They are allowed tremendous independence in choosing and scheduling their projects, and are treated as the professionals they are. Parks also had an independent group of climbers and pruners—regular employees who, on facing cutbacks, had proposed that they be allowed to reorganize their work on their own to improve productivity. Other agencies doubtless also have some good in-house crews, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Business consultant Tom Peters tells managers: “Starting this afternoon, don’t walk past a shoddy product or service without comment or action—ever again.” What if a mayor announced that this advice would be his ruling principle? If the city government were committed to rewarding good work and punishing bad, the quality of services could only improve.

Preserving New York’s Strength

New York’s economy has always been the city’s great strength, and it remains the most powerful magnet attracting newcomers. Just over half of all in-migrants in the Commonwealth survey give an employment-related reason for moving to the city. Of current residents, 52 percent rate New York highly as a place to work. And nearly one in five New Yorkers stipulate either the economy (17 percent) or jobs and unemployment (19 percent) as a major factor determining their vote in the mayoral election.

But New Yorkers are not entirely optimistic about the economy, and for good reason. Nearly two-thirds of those polled rate the opportunities for starting a business in New York negatively. High taxes and excessive regulations make it difficult for the city to sustain a flow of new enterprises and to retain its mature, successful business. According to various estimates, state and local taxes are 55 to 80 percent higher in New York City than in the rest of the country.

The city government’s usual response to business flight has been to offer concessions to particular firms or sectors, such as abatements to keep large corporations from leaving or tax breaks specifically targeted at small businesses. The strategy is a defensive one: don’t reform the structure, but help those who complain most aggressively. Such an approach merely shifts the burden to those businesses that are not favored, and does nothing to encourage the formation of new businesses. A drastic realignment of the city’s economic policies is in order, aimed at making New York a more hospitable place for anyone to do business.

New York faces other economic challenges that cannot be directly addressed by city government. The communication revolution makes location much less important than in the past—you simply don’t have to be in New York anymore, particularly after you’ve established your career. It’s helpful to come to New York young, fight your way toward the top, make contacts, establish a credential as a New Yorker—and then leave for your favorite playground. Aspen, Santa Fe, and Key West are now outposts of New York, populated by professionals in finance, advertising, publishing, entertainment—indeed, most every field short of old-time manufacturing.

The hard fact is that New York can no longer count on its status as an economic center to compensate for the quality-of-life problems that encourage people to leave. The city must ask: What do people, particularly upwardly mobile people, want? As the Commonwealth survey shows, they want economic opportunity combined with safe, pleasant neighborhoods. In the old manufacturing economy, no one much cared what a city looked like. But today, as Peter Salins notes, “The city’s face is its fortune.”

In the new information economy, New York will have to compete as never before. The very idea of having to compete is anathema to many New Yorkers. There’s something fundamental in John Updike’s description of his hero, Blech, who “had the true New Yorker’s secret belief that people living anywhere else had to be, in some sense, kidding.” But as people facing quality-of-life problems ask themselves, “Do I have to be here?” they will increasingly find that the answer is no.

New York cannot continue to prosper if it remains poorly governed—as it will without a fundamental change in the philosophy of government that has dominated the city for decades. Today the city spends 36 percent of its budget on low-income assistance, and only one-half of one percent on parks. One can understand the reasoning: the former is a serious human problem; the latter seems frivolous, dispensable. But the quality of life is crucial to the city’s future. For far too long, the city government has used the pressing crises of the moment—and there is never a shortage of them—as the excuse for not dealing with these fundamental problems.

Of course, no one comes to New York to be well-governed; no one comes to New York to be governed at all. This is the electric city, the city of energy and anarchy and greatness, the place where rule-breakers often rise to the top. Yet the sense of order that has always underlain the chaos seems to be eroding, and restoring it is the city government’s most important responsibility. New York’s future depends on it.

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