New York Views

The Editors
Welcome to NY
Autumn 1990

The city we love is at a turning point.

To be a New Yorker is to love and to hate, to boast and to recoil, to dream and to fear. For years, New Yorkers have lived a double life: working amid the splendor of the new capital of the Western world, the true heir of London, Paris, and Rome; living amid the filth, fear, and frustration of a city that does not work, that has not worked for decades.

New Yorkers come here for the reason people have always streamed to a capital city: because it is the place to observe, meet, work alongside, and match wits with the greatest assemblage of human virtuosity anywhere in the world. The clich#146;e9, for once, is correct: If people can make it here, they can make it anywhere. For the privilege of a ringside seat or a place in the ring, New Yorkers have always cheerfully made the personal sacrifices a big city demands.

But for decades now the toll of sacrifices has mounted. Fired by the opportunities that sustain their public lives, New Yorkers try to excuse the intolerable conditions in which they lead their private lives. Yet even on salaries that amaze less venturesome contemporaries elsewhere, more and more people find they cannot make a decent life for their families in the city. They begin to measure up success on a finer scale and contemplate escape. A whole generation of New Yorkers experiences this vivid tension: to be in love and yet to be on edge—poised for flight.

The two lives of New York are, like the identities of Jekyll and Hyde, an unstable pairing. Eventually one will dominate the other and become the true character of the city. New York will either once again become a city of people who wish to be here, or it will inevitably be transformed into a city of only those who must be here. There will always be many such people, and the city will survive. But such a New York would be an angrier, poorer, and smaller place.

This magazine was born of a desire to close the rift between our public and private lives, to lighten the burdens New Yorkers must carry, to focus some of the immense ingenuity and energy which flows to New York on making the city livable once again. About New York’s future we remain cautiously, but stubbornly, optimistic.

There is good reason to believe that the point of no return, at which New York’s public and private lives narrow into one, is fast approaching. In part this is because of the sheer passage of time: It has been three decades since the quality of New York City life began its rapid decline. A whole generation has been raised that has never known, and can barely imagine or hope for a New York that works. And yet just three decades ago the city’s public school system functioned tolerably well, we still had a reasonably affordable housing market, our transit system was envied around the world, and the city’s infrastructure was being not only maintained, but expanded.

More important, New York faces a basic worldwide transformation: the emergence of a global information economy, in which information becomes the driving force in production, outstripping both sheer labor power and raw material in relative importance. In the new economy, victory goes to the cities with the greatest reserves of intellectual capital, which cannot be hoarded by capitalists or tied down by governments, because it is carried around in people’s heads.

This transformation of the global economy should, by all rights, bring New York a new preeminence. From its early days as a merchant port and financial center, through its pioneering of skilled manufacturing trades and professions, New York City has always led the information economy; it has always been low on acreage and high on talent. Even now, the city leads in most of the great information industries, from finance to fashion, art to publishing. Most important, it is still an intellectual magnet, still the one place to which the best and brightest stream. The information economy could prove New York’s salvation.

Victory, however, is not inevitable. The changing nature of the economy may also prove the city’s undoing. For economic competition is now more than ever competition for people, people who are not immobile like apartment buildings or utility plants, people who can go elsewhere if they choose. Cities, like nations, must compete for people by offering a better quality of life; the most desirable will attract the most human capital, and prosper accordingly.

It would not take much to turn New York around. Just the basics: a working school system, a reasonable housing market, civility on the streets, faith that there is some law operating here besides the law of the jungle. If we could only come so far in restoring the quality of private life our other natural advantages would make us sure winners in the competition for people.

New York City needs to recover a basic insight: The common good is not a luxury item. What the common good is, and how to achieve it, is the basic stuff of political debate. For too long now, along with working schools, bridges, and subways, New York City has lacked a working politics. NY's goal is to restore to the city something it has lacked for decades: real debate about the city’s very real problems. The magazine will provide a forum for those interested in new, innovative solutions to the city’s stubborn ills. We are not interested in binding ourselves to the platitudes of the right or the left. The age of the ideological straitjacket is, we hope, over. We do believe in looking at radical solutions to New York’s radical problems. We are interested in fundamental reforms, not simply ways of coping. New Yorkers have coped with too much for far too long.

Many who enter the city abandon all hope. Not all of them leave. Some remain, carefully cultivating cynicism, wearing irony like a badge of honor. These voices of New York, despairing of making the city livable, have instead come to celebrate the unlivable, to wallow in the dirt and the drugs and the degradation, to call it “real,” “gritty,” “authentic.” A whole generation of New Yorkers have been offered only these alternatives: to flee or to shrug. To these people, and to every concerned citizen, NY offers that rare commodity: hope. If in facing New York’s serious problems we occasionally sound grim, it is not because we are grim at heart. This is a labor of love. Like all labors, it begins in pain and ends, we hope, in the rebirth of America’s greatest city.

Welcome to NY.

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