New York Views

Richard Vigilante
How to Save the City
Autumn 1991

Just about everyone wants to save New York, but fewer and fewer people seem to think this is possible. Saving whose city? people want to know: The city of the rainbow coalition or the yuppie city? The gay city or the Catholic city? The teachers’ union or the students they teach? The garbage collectors or the garbage producers? The taxpayers or the service eaters, the landlords or the tenants, the rich or the poor?

Even if we had a good plan, most New Yorkers seem to believe, we could never implement it: Salvation would be too painful for too many powerful interest groups. You can’t save a city without goring an ox, one might say, and the oxen took over this city long ago. In New York this way of thinking about politics has become almost as automatic as despair. It is also beside the point. Worrying about the special interests is no way to come up with a solution because special interests, like vexed oxen, aren’t goals, but obstacles.

Politics is supposed to be about the pursuit of the common good, and the goods and goals people have in common tend to be fairly simple. To save New York, we need a picture of what the good city looks like. It might surprise the special interests to discover that it is possible to paint a picture of New York that nearly everyone finds attractive. Having done so, translating that picture into reality becomes a less daunting task than we fear.

What would the city look like if it were “saved”? The answer is: pretty grand. Saving New York means restoring the natural order of things in which New York is not only the greatest and most important city in the world, but the city in which, on the whole, Americans would most like to live. It is a place of great wealth and culture, but also a place of great democratic virtue. It is a place where millionaires built their mansions right up to the sidewalk on main street, and also a place where working men in streetcars could make their way to the most extravagant expanse of greenery on the face of the earth, kept inviolate for the ease of those who could not flee to country villas at the drop of a hat.

New York has had bad times before. But it has also had better days. And what defined those better days was this: America’s premier capitalist city was also a place where men and women of modest means enjoyed, in relative safety, the public amenities made possible by wealth. They reaped the fruit of bourgeois urbanity. Not all equally, to be sure. But in a city that was not only grand, but clean and safe and with the best urban school system in the country, a remarkable number of working people truly shared in New York’s abundance.

What would the picture look like today? That’s easy. New York at its best would have all the good things a great city can command. It would be clean and safe, even for children. One could sit in the parks in the evening as well as the daytime. The schools would work. One could move about the city with relative ease. All the basic services would work well: The streets would be pothole-free, the bridges would be safe, the water mains would not break at random, the garbage would be collected. The city would not only offer the benefits of cosmopolitan life, but being rich and generous it would even compensate its citizens for the stresses of that life by bringing the country here. There would be more parks and swimming pools, not fewer, and the people who used them would behave politely. One still might not want to be here on a summer’s weekend in August, but every Manhattanite who was here would be in walking distance of a moonlight stroll on the waterfront (it is an island after all). And every borough dweller could get to clean, safe, amiable beaches, with well-run public bathhouses (Jones Beach has them: two bucks for a locker and use of the showers). The rides at Rockaway and Coney Island would still light up the night sky.

This is not a goal, you say, but a dream, a shining city on the hill? Well, one thing New Yorkers have to start doing is raising their sights.

Think of it this way: In the past decade developers all over the country built full-service condominium communities. You know the deal: Buy the townhouse and get the club and the swimming pool and the tennis courts and the basic services, including shipshape maintenance, too.

New York is far more wonderful than any preplanned condo development. But we could learn one thing from them: We are in a market—a people market. Maybe we need to start thinking of the city as one gigantic condo complex, where the amenities of gracious living are not an expense but an investment in our competitive position, in our ability to attract human capital.

What about the poor? Where do they fit in? That is the really grand part of the scheme. In exclusive condo communities, only the rich get to use the pool or get protected by the private security force. But New York is one of the richest places on earth; we can afford democracy. If we spend our money wisely, there should be amenities and services enough for everyone. That was always the New York idea: thus CUNY, thus Central Park, thus the branch libraries and the subway and the public school system that were once considered the best in the country.

Can we do it? Yes. For although the overall picture is a grand and brightly colored panorama, its elements are fairly simple. The basic plan for achieving it could be written on a postcard. New York City is currently busy doing a great many things rather badly. If instead it did just a few very important things reasonably well, this city would have a new golden age.

The golden rule for city government is: Most things hardly matter at all to most citizens and a few things matter immensely. What are these things?

The first thing we have to do is to revive the local economy—and tax base; there is no way to run New York on the cheap. National recession or no, the overwhelming drag on New York’s economy is high taxes. According to a study by Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman, no Reaganite tax-cutter, New York tax rates are already so high that every $100 million increase in the local tax burden costs the city as many as 10,800 private-sector Jobs. Her office estimates that future tax increases, which are supposed to bring in billions of dollars to balance the budget, will put so many taxpayers out of work that the city will actually net only 20 percent of what it expects. Other economists, including Peter Salins and Gerry Mildner, writing in NY, have shown that high property taxes on apartments and commercial buildings chase away businesses and destroy neighborhoods, particularly poor neighborhoods, as apartments are abandoned by defaulting landlords.

New York needs to lower key taxes almost immediately. We also need to get smarter about manipulating federal tax policy for the city’s benefit. Say what you will about the capital-gains tax, which Democrats seem to love as much as Republicans hate, New York’s economic interests are clear: A federal capital-gains tax cut would revive the financial industry, and that means reviving the New York economy.

The next thing on the agenda is the schools: If every year the school system got somewhat better rather than somewhat worse, that alone might within a few years “save the city.” New York is full of thirty-somethings who are about to hit the highest-income, highest-taxpaying stretch of their careers, but are also planning to leave as soon as it becomes time to send their first child to kindergarten. For poor children the stakes are even higher: the difference between being able to read and figure and write correctly and being functionally illiterate.

We know how to do this: Under public-school choice, no student, no matter how poor, would be forced to go to one of the city’s worst schools. Choice forces bad schools out of business when they can’t attract enough students. It also allows teachers with real flair, talent, and dedication to emerge as leaders of new schools.

To say that choice is not a panacea is obvious, but to say that it is unproved is preposterous. Choice turned New York’s District Four from the worst school district in the city to one of the best in Manhattan. Moreover, the right to choose is crucial to keeping middle-class taxpayers from leaving town. Not to have any choice about their children’s education utterly violates middleclass parents’ sense of who they are and what they have been striving for.

School choice is an absolutely democratic reform, which benefits all citizens. The same can be said of the next thing we need to do: get serious about public safety and public order.

New Yorkers should be able to use the subways, streets, parks, and public spaces not only without fear but without loathing. To make New York’s public spaces safe for the public, we need primarily a change in attitude. Both the city and its citizens must become much more intolerant not only of crime but of disorder and incivility. In addition to forbidding the usual crimes and misdemeanors, we have to forbid some bad habits that, if not stopped, will soon become established local customs: like defecating on the sidewalk, spreading tuberculosis in the subways, asking strangers for money, and littering pornographic literature in the streets, not to mention race-baiting.

Oddly enough, for all that New York politicians have talked about public safety over the years, the city still seems to be laboring under the idea that stopping crime and disorder is a special interest—that the police are a middle- or upper-class asset that must compete with such low-income assets as the municipal hospitals or welfare. This is absolutely wrong. Crime is an enormous toll on the poor that does more than any other factor to drive jobs, businesses, and capital out of their neighborhoods.

Making New York safe for all New Yorkers will not be cheap: Community policing is a great idea, but it involves lots of foot patrol and requires lots of policemen to be done well. If we really are going to refuse to tolerate not only murderers and rapists but also street toughs harassing old ladies, we are going to need a lot of cops.

After reviving the economy, fixing the schools, and restoring order, the next thing to do is to restore a sane housing market. The way to do that is equally obvious: Phase out not only rent control but the whole system of rental-housing regulations. The worst thing about rent control is not price regulations, but the accumulation of rules and bureaucracy that makes it terribly difficult for good landlords to get rid of bad tenants. In healthy neighborhoods, landlords serve a social function: In seeking to protect their property values, they exclude the sort of tenants who ruin communities. In New York this screening is almost impossible to do. The ones who suffer are those who live in poor neighborhoods or public housing, where evicting even drug dealers can be difficult.

What a start: If New York had reasonable taxes, if the economy were not going down the tubes, if the public schools were usable, if order reigned in poor neighborhoods and public spaces, if the search for a place to live were not a form of ritual torture, who would be talking about leaving New York? All these things are within our grasp. We are stopped from pursuing them not by any rational objection, but by our exaggerated sense of the power of special-interest groups, and a hoary political conservatism that paralyzes us when we think of making fundamental changes.

Yes, the city has money worries. But as Steven Craig points out elsewhere in this issue, our money worries arise almost entirely from the fact that New York is the only American city that is trying to run its own welfare state. If we brought New York’s spending on programs for the poor down to the average of other large American cities, we could close the fiscal gap and have billions more besides for essential services.

We let basic services deteriorate because we want to help the poor. But the poor, more than the rest of us, need a safe, orderly city, with an economy that provides jobs, an education system that gives their children hope for the future, and public amenities to enjoy. They have nowhere else to go.

We cannot now afford to give the poor “the good city” because we are spending our money on things almost no other city does and which, on net, do the poor little good: billions a year in welfare and Medicaid costs that in most places are a state, not a city, responsibility; a couple billion more (including tax expenditures) on a housing program we need only because we make it almost impossible for private landlords to serve the poor; $600 million a year in subsidies to a municipal hospital system that should be privatized. City hall cannot keep unwed welfare mothers out of poverty or bail out a housing market that it is busy punching holes in. But it can improve neighborhoods, fight crime on the streets, and reform the schools. Aren’t good schools to go to and safe, clean parks to play in more important for poor kids than bad city hospitals? (Especially since we could almost certainly find someone else to run the hospitals.)

We could afford all these things—not only schools and cops, but parks and pools, museums and youth centers, clean streets and safe bridges—all the amenities of a wealthy city, and we could afford them for everyone, but only if we keep our eyes on the prize.

Saving the city is simple, as long as we remember that the list of important jobs city government can do well is fairly short, and the payoff for doing them well is enormous.

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