Reminiscing about how squalid a slum our Upper West Side neighborhood used to be, an acquaintance was telling me about how he and his then-young son, pausing to rest in Riverside Park, would lean their bikes against a fence for ten minutes—“and they’d be stolen,” he said, “right under the windows of the $2 million Riverside Drive apartments!”
“Um, they weren’t $2 million in those days,” I countered.
He stopped to remember. “Come to think of it,” he mused, “in 1977, I found a fabulous parlor floor-through in a Riverside Drive mansion for $350 a month. A mansion! I looked everywhere for two other guys to share it. Nobody had the money, so I couldn’t rent it.”
My memory went back even further, to the perfect $65,000 limestone townhouse just off Riverside Drive I didn’t buy in 1971. I would have said that I couldn’t afford it—but had I known that 40-odd years later, it would be worth nearly 100 times that amount, I would have tried to beg and borrow the money—as a friend did successfully when she heard in that same epoch that “they were giving away apartments on Park Avenue,” as she put it. And sure enough—though it sounds almost incredible now—an older acquaintance getting divorced then had to sell his beautifully decorated Park Avenue duplex penthouse, with broad terraces on all four sides, for $80,000, less than 1 percent of its present value.
But nobody wanted to own a piece of a dying city, losing 1 million people a decade as the prosperous and educated fled the crime, dirt, and disorder of the 1970s and 1980s. “Good riddance to Shit City,” one friend snarked, with an implicit “you sucker,” as she headed off to her new house upstate. She had young kids, after all, and didn’t want them mugged on their way to school.
So when we talk about the miracle wrought by Rudy Giuliani–Bill Bratton policing, and sustained by Mike Bloomberg and Ray Kelly, let’s count up all the billions of dollars in value that miracle created—not just in Extell Development’s gross new Towers of Babel for kleptocrats to stash their money in what’s now a safe place, but in ordinary neighborhoods, some shabby-genteel only 25 years ago and some, like mine, just plain shabby. Look at the gusher of wealth that poured forth when safety and order replaced the muggers, panhandlers, and burglars.
I’ve been walking around the Upper West Side for more than 50 years, and for decades I assumed that what I saw was an unchanging fact of nature—the same buildings, in the same dirty state, with now and again a store changing on Broadway, though not often. Oppenheimer the butcher, Rosenbloom’s deli, Steinberg’s Dairy Restaurant (where Isaac Singer held court), the Hungarian Rendezvous Restaurant, the Town Shop corsetière (whose proprietor’s unerring fingers determined a customer’s bra size before she knew what hit her), the beer-logged West End Bar, the Tip Toe Inn at the very bottom of my beat. The few alterations were for the worse, as landlords stripped off balconies and cornices as the cheapest way of complying with the façade inspections of Local Laws 10 and 11, and the beggars—crazier and scarier—multiplied. Of course, it never occurred to me that someday I wouldn’t hear Yiddish spoken daily—or ever—on Broadway or West End Avenue.
So I gaped with amazement the first time I saw power washers stripping decades’ worth of grime off a familiar building to reveal that its brick wasn’t gray but yellow. Another one turned out to be tomato-red, with creamy terra-cotta ornament. Slouching doormen began to stand up straight in smart new uniforms, in lobbies with marble floors polished to their 1930 luster, or mosaic ones cleaned 1910-new. These were all rental buildings in the process of conversion to co-ops, and in the bluest of blue neighborhoods, the new property owners—who had chosen to fight, not flee—then joined the other die-hard New Yorkers who elected Giuliani in 1993 to create a safe and orderly city that they could continue to gentrify.
Which we did with a vengeance—myself included, since I was part of the early wave of co-op buyers. It wasn’t just the outsides of the buildings that underwent abracadabra transformations but the insides as well, with fancy new kitchens, old oak floors sanded and polished to a lustrous gold, worn-out wiring and plumbing replaced, new shifts of doormen hired. In the two decades after Giuliani took office, the value of apartments in my neighborhood increased nearly eightfold—not the hundredfold increase that the pioneering optimists achieved, but, when you total it up, it’s a huge creation of value nevertheless, a lot of which went to contractors, appliance dealers, and building workers who were members of 32BJ, the property-service workers’ union. And, New York politics being as blue as they are, the tax rolls rocketed up even faster than the property values. In the process, now-safe Columbia University became a “hot” school, bringing even more money into Gotham and spurring even more investment as the campus pushes ever northward. (Downtown, New York University cashed in, too, transforming itself in its newly safe and trendy neighborhood from a commuter school to almost an Ivy League university, flush with out-of-town tuition dollars.)
Just as the new residents who’ve moved up here assume that the neighborhood was always just like this, so tourists in midtown take for granted the safety of Times Square and the subways beneath it, the lush tranquillity of Bryant Park, the show-off starchitecture of the Bank of America Tower, doubtless thrilling if you’re from Dubuque or Des Moines. Why, after all, should they have any idea of the Herculean effort it took to reclaim that area from the drug pushers, pornographers, pickpockets, three-card-monte flimflammers, and prostitutes of every gender—dirt and depravity missed only by one or two aging New York Times writers? Why should they know that once upon a time, normal New Yorkers were scared to go there and relieved to get out safely?
But again, think of the wealth generated there, not only by the glitzy new office buildings. The cash registers are jingling at hotels, restaurants, tour-bus companies, food trucks, bars, and theaters. Even rickshaw drivers make a living. To old-time Gothamites, it’s as if Aladdin rubbed his magic lamp.
But the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, could also vanish in an instant, if the hordes of tourists from all over the nation and the world no longer felt safe and comfortable coming here. All it would take is a few more tourists slashed by a madman with a machete, as a young girl in Bryant Park was in June, or savagely bludgeoned by a two-by-four across the face, as a drunken “homeless” bum did to a Chinese tourist on 42nd Street more recently. All it would take is a few more naked women panhandling to keep tourists who don’t want their children to see such things away from Times Square—and the rest of New York.
And while we’re talking about wealth creation, let’s remember that, as tourism has become a mighty economic engine for gentrified New York, the hospitality industry has flourished luxuriantly, providing employment to bellhops, waiters, dishwashers, hotel maids and porters, and the like. Many of these are immigrants, illegal and legal—a major component of that “Other New York” that Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned to uplift. But if the mayor or city council doesn’t let the NYPD keep up its quality-of-life policing, and if crime and disorder creep back up, the tourists will go elsewhere, and the people most hurt will be all those low-wage hospitality workers who will have no jobs—the very people de Blasio promised to help, not harm.