Comforting Thoughts

Cities should be comfortable places. People should be able to expect good things from the cities where they live, trivial as well as major things: a cheerful wave from a neighbor, the replacement of their garbage can covers by the refuse collectors, a prompt and pleasant ride—perhaps even a seat—on the bus or subway, a good education for their children, an unbroken lock on their front door. All these simple hopes combine in a major expectation: that life will be increasingly fruitful in the future because its essence, the quality of life, will continue to improve.

In an uncomfortable city, by contrast, people expect bad things to happen: to find trash deposited on the sidewalk in front of their homes, to be subjected to the verbal assault of an aggressive beggar or the physical assault of a mugger, to discover that their car stereo has been stolen, to face constant reminders of poverty and depression. All too often, this is the image people have of New York today.

The term "quality of life" has come into common use as the impression continues to spread that in big cities, and perhaps above all in New York, the specific circumstances the term comprises are in fact getting worse, not better. A deterioration in the quality of life affects people in subtle ways. One may fear auto theft because one’s best friend’s car has been stolen—or because the garbage collector has made a mess of the sidewalk in front of one’s home. If the city doesn’t care about one aspect of its citizens’ lives, they infer, it probably doesn’t care about others. Thus, poor garbage collection implies careless policing, inadequate schooling suggests the deterioration of the city’s infrastructure, official toleration of aggressive panhandling hints that citizens are vulnerable to theft or violence.

In an almost subliminal way, urban residents sense the connection between the signs of deterioration they glimpse around them and the potential for other kinds of harm. But there has been little systematic effort to identify which specific signs the public interprets as evidence of a general decay in what has come to be called the quality of life. Yet understanding precisely what causes the public to perceive such decay is essential if the government and other organizations are to establish rational priorities for making the city more comfortable. Improving the quality of life is important for economic reasons as well: In a comfortable city, people are more likely to take entrepreneurial risks and less likely to give in to the temptations offered by other municipalities seeking to attract the city’s major employers.

The importance of achieving a more precise understanding of the public’s perception of the quality of life stimulated the Commonwealth Fund and the Manhattan Institute to undertake an extensive study of the matter. The first step in this joint effort has been to ask seven top urban thinkers to explore particular areas of city policy and their effects on the general quality of life in the city. These papers constitute the main body of this special issue of The City Journal.

On the basis of the ideas presented here, Louis Harris and Associates will conduct a survey designed to provide the city’s leaders with precise information about the public’s views regarding the most important deficiencies in New York’s quality of life.

George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University and a Harvard fellow in criminal justice, has written a paper on the operations of the New York City Police Department. His view is that while ordinary people find disorder in their neighborhoods to be the greatest threat to the quality of life, police work has tended to concentrate on solving major crimes. According to Kelling, the Police Department should refocus its efforts, placing a greater emphasis on controlling activities which, though they are not regarded as serious crimes or felonies, nonetheless create an atmosphere of disorder and lawlessness. Kelling’s argument is particularly interesting in light of the city’s recent emphasis on community policing.

Fred Siegel, a professor of history at Cooper Union, looks at the condition of New York’s parks. He criticizes the city budgets that have consistently given short shrift to parks and recreation. And while he remarks with satisfaction on the growth of private philanthropy toward the parks, he is dismayed by the city’s tendency to treat private contributions to park maintenance as though they were intended to replace, rather than supplement, government funds.

Raymond Domanico and Colman Genn, respectively the director and a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Educational Innovation, point out that the state of public education is a major factor in the perception of a debased quality of life in the city. The authorities in charge of public education, they argue, insist on centralized management of the schools and are reluctant to entrust principals with the authority they need to carry out their mission effectively. Thus, they argue, no one is accountable to the needs of parents and children.

Peter Salins, chairman of Hunter College’s Department of Urban Planning, writes about housing in New York City. According to Professor Salins, what most New Yorkers want is housing in solid neighborhoods. They are not so concerned, he argues, with modem buildings or state-of-the-art appliances. Thus, the city’s housing policy should aim to build stable neighborhoods, rather than to renovate apartments without regard to neighborhood characteristics.

Dick Netzer, a professor of public administration at New York University, examines New York’s transportation problems. He believes that officials should more strictly enforce traffic regulations in order to speed up the flow of people and goods through the city. He argues that the highway system should be modernized and truck routes provided to enable long-distance shippers to circumnavigate the city. Netzer also calls for greater use of vans to supplement or even replace bus service on less-traveled lines. Meanwhile, fares on public transit should be made variable, in order to discourage over-use of the subway system during rush hours and encourage greater use at other times. To make the subway more pleasant for its riders, the city should evict those who use the stations and trains as places to bed down or to carry on their begging profession.

Nathan Glazer, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, argues that by favoring dense concentrations of large buildings in downtown and midtown Manhattan, the city’s planners have made New York a difficult place to live. He calls for the city to consider quality-of-life questions more seriously when making development policy.

Finally, Thierry Noyelle, a fellow at the Eisenhower Center for the Study of the Conservation of Human Resources at Columbia University, writes about the economic fears that haunt many New Yorkers. Noyelle believes that too much is made of the departure of major industrial headquarters from New York City. Many such moves, he notes, have resulted from mergers and changes in ownership rather than from any inherent New York problem. Many companies have relocated to other parts of the metropolitan area, where they remain a vital part of the local economy. Yet Noyelle does not find evidence to suggest that the suburban counties (except Fairfield County, Connecticut) significantly compete with New York City for jobs in the banking and financial fields. He urges the city to recognize that manufacturing continues to decline in importance and to do as much to stimulate the retention and expansion of small service firms as it does to encourage small manufacturing firms.

A common theme in these essays is that the city government is often driven by the needs of those who provide services rather than by those who receive them. This is hardly surprising: Bureaucrats and city employees, after all, are an easily-defined interest group, well-organized and skilled at asserting their goals. No one speaks so emphatically or effectively for the common good—the interests all New Yorkers share as citizens. The Quality of Life Survey, following the lead of these seven articles, will fill that vacuum by giving the city’s leaders a comprehensive view of what New Yorkers believe needs to be done to make this a city in which all can feel comfortable.



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