As the mayoral election approaches, New York is a city in crisis. A deep recession continues; the public schools are mostly inadequate; citizens live in fear of crime. The list could go on.
But in crisis there is opportunity, and the mayoral election affords an enormous opportunity for New York to regenerate itself—but not unless the candidates heed Stephen Berger’s call to "Get Down to Basics." If the mayoral campaign becomes a clash of personalities or a conflict over race, all New Yorkers will lose. If, on the other hand, the candidates engage the debate over city government’s fundamental priorities, New York’s future will be much brighter.
This issue of the City Journal is about priorities. In "Fate of a World City," Nathan Glazer traces the city’s current problems to a shift in its priorities. Beginning in the 1960s, he explains, the city government became less concerned with doing the things a city can do well—maintaining the infrastructure, policing the streets, picking up the trash—and more concerned with solving social problems, something a city government cannot do well.
The result, as Julia Vitullo-Martin describes, is a government that is unable to provide the services and amenities that make a city livable. Drawing on a series of surveys commissioned by the Commonwealth Fund, Vitullo-Martin shows that New Yorkers, drawn to the city by its economic and cultural vitality, are often driven out by its poor quality of life. In an increasingly competitive economy, the city can no longer afford to give short shrift to such concerns.
Even when it comes to social programs, as three City Journal articles describe, government too often has the wrong priorities, opting for policies that have rhetorical appeal but disastrous results. Heather Mac Donald reports that the philosophy of "community treatment" for the mentally ill, drug addicts, and the homeless has been carried forth with no concern for the needs of communities. Neighborhoods saturated with social-service facilities have witnessed a proliferation of crime, drug dealing, and disorder. In some of New York’s most politically progressive communities, a new wave of activists has emerged, fighting to reclaim their neighborhoods from an insensitive government and a failing social-service establishment.
William Grinker and Dennis Smith explain how the Human Resources Administration (HRA), the city’s chief social welfare agency, has responded to budgetary pressures. It has cut its small staff of planners and analysts, under the rationale that they do not directly serve the poor, leaving HRA unable to evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts—and almost certainly dooming them to failure.
The idea of enterprise zones, Philip Kasinitz and Jan Rosenberg argue, is another case of misplaced priorities. The policy aims to bring employment opportunities into the inner cities, but does nothing to prepare local residents to get and keep jobs.
In "A Memo to the New Schools Chancellor," Raymond Domanico and Nathan Glazer propose breaking down the centralized school bureaucracy, for which good education is all too often a low priority. And Kay Hymowitz looks at one of the bright spots in the city’s school system: the South Bronx’s Mohegan School, where principal Jeffrey Litt is educating inner-city youngsters with a rigorous, challenging curriculum.
Our "City Watch" and "At Issue" features profile two mayors, Chicago’s Richard M. Daley and Jersey City’s Bret Schundler. They are from different political parties, different backgrounds, and vastly different cities, but each has a definite idea of what his city needs and is willing to act in innovative ways to make his vision a reality.
New York is a great city, and will remain a great city if its leaders can develop and act on an intelligent set of priorities. We hope this issue of the City Journal will provide food for thought, both for New York’s mayoral candidates and for its voters.