A quarter-century ago, City Journal appeared as an intellectual response to the crisis of the American city, which had many causes but none more destructive than the social and economic policies of the liberal establishment. Beginning in the 1960s, the Left successfully pushed for an ever more expansive government role in uplifting the urban poor. Forget the market, they argued: welfare support with no questions asked, funded by high taxes on business, was a right that every disadvantaged city dweller should be able to rely on. Moreover, urban crime reflected American injustice. Nothing could be done until society was fixed. The homeless had rights, too, even if they were defecating on the street. Schools should focus on achieving racial equality, burnishing students’ self-esteem—and protecting teachers’ interests.
These and other misguided nostrums proved toxic. A black underclass emerged, stuck in long-term dependency that helped undermine family structure, leaving millions of kids effectively fatherless, which only made it harder to escape welfare. Crime and disorder blew up. Schools failed. Remember the New York of 1990? More than 2,000 murders and pervasive menace on the streets, as cops reacted to crime after it happened, instead of trying to prevent it. Nearly 1 million on welfare. Minority kids dropping out of school in huge numbers. A flight of Fortune 500 firms. Residents decamping for suburbia. And accompanying it all, the widespread view that New York was ungovernable.
City Journal rejected—and continues to reject—such pessimism. Most of the pathologies killing New York and other cities resulted from bad ideas. Change the ideas, and the thriving, governable city could come back. As former editor Myron Magnet recounts in “What City Journal Wrought,” beginning in the mid-1990s, the magazine’s vision of reform was broadly embraced by successive New York mayors—Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg—and Gotham was reborn.
Crime marked the biggest turnaround. Rethinking policing based on theories championed by City Journal, Giuliani’s first police chief, William Bratton (now the city’s top cop again, under Mayor Bill de Blasio), cracked down on low-level offenses like aggressive panhandling, and he modernized crime tracking. Crime plummeted, making New York the safest big city in America. Welfare reform was another major City Journal cause, and here, too, the change was profound, with work requirements and other policy changes rescuing countless New Yorkers from reliance on handouts and giving them the chance to build dignified lives.
Education reform has been less successful, says Sol Stern in “What I Saw in the Schools,” his account of two decades covering New York’s education scene. Progressive pedagogy has corrupted teaching, and the teachers’ contract remains a drag on classroom productivity. Stern does see the seeds of positive change in a pilot program, initiated by Mayor Bloomberg’s schools chancellor Joel Klein, using the content-rich curriculum proposed by education scholar E. D. Hirsch.
Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio is part of a new generation of progressive leaders who reject many of the last two decades’ lessons, instead emphasizing the income gap between rich and poor urbanites and promising to achieve greater equality through redistribution. For economist Edward L. Glaeser, opportunity is what matters, not inequality, as he argues in “A New Urban Opportunity Agenda.”
Many newcomers to American cities take today’s comparative safety for granted, but that may not last much longer, warns Heather Mac Donald in “The Decriminalization Delusion.” The movement to reduce incarceration traffics in myths, she reports. The biggest: that America’s prisons are filled with nonviolent drug users. The reality: the prisons are dominated by thugs and serial thieves. Mac Donald’s pathbreaking work on law enforcement and punishment has changed the national debate on crime.
Readers will find more in our extra-size anniversary issue on what is working—and what isn’t—in American cities from Buffalo to Baltimore, Nashville to New York, Oklahoma City to Atlantic City. Finally, a note of thanks: to our readers, for their ongoing interest, and to the Manhattan Institute, for making it all possible.
—Brian C. Anderson