Richard Ravitch, the former real-estate developer, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman, and lieutenant governor, was many things, as his numerous obituaries have chronicled. In the mid-1970s, when other investors were fleeing, he built dense housing in Manhattan and the Bronx. A savvy financier, he helped broker the deal that saved New York City from its fiscal crisis. As MTA chairman under Governor Hugh Carey in the early 1980s, he convinced both parties in Albany to enact new taxes to rescue the subways from decades of disrepair. After the 2008 financial crisis, he devised a plan (largely ignored) to get New York State’s finances back on track. But what Ravitch, who died last Sunday, would most like to be known for was why he did all of those things: he fundamentally loved New York. He stayed immersed in its people, its culture, its policies, and its politics until his very last days—which he spent, fittingly enough, in the city.
The first time I met Ravitch was in late 2004. For a young writer semi-obsessed with the subways and semi-obsessed with 1980-era New York City history, meeting Ravitch was like meeting a rock star. I was writing a City Journal article about transit and wanted to talk to New York’s legendary transit hero.
He had had, for decades, instant access to the city’s top editors, reporters, and columnists. He could pick up the phone and call any of them if he had something to say about transit. He had no reason to speak with me; my portfolio at the time was a handful of eclectic articles in the New York Post. He also had no reason to talk to someone just hired at City Journal, as City Journal was viewed as being on the right, and Ravitch was an ardent Democrat. But Ravitch’s secretary called me right back: yes, he’d be happy to talk with me.
Walking into his office at Rockefeller Center, I was met with a scene so classic that it could have come out of an act in a play, with set directions stipulating, “office of prominent and powerful New York men, circa 1980s.” Ravitch sat at an ample desk covered in papers. He juggled multiple land-line calls at once, conducting simultaneous conversations with family, friends, colleagues, competitors. Yes, tickets to that opera, Wednesday night. No, X can’t come, change the dinner reservation. Yes, he’s going to run, but he has no chance. Tell him I’ll meet with him next week but it doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t keep up. Paul Volcker, Ravitch’s office-mate, wandered in and out.
In between his calls, I tried to ask Ravitch some questions about the MTA, but he kept asking me questions. Where did I come from? Where did I go to school? Why did I care about the subways? Why did I want to work for the Manhattan Institute? He’d barely begin answering one of my questions before the phone rang again, and he was off giving advice to some candidate about fundraising or asking when someone’s flight was landing.
At the end of my requested hour, I gathered my things, figuring that he wouldn’t want to squander any more time past our scheduled meeting, and I didn’t want to interrupt him on the phone to say goodbye, and thank you. He called after me, looking annoyed. “Where are you going? Where is she going?” he asked his secretary. “I figured our time was up,” I said.
“We’re not done talking,” he said. So I sat back down, and we continued in the same manner for another two hours. He answered all my questions, and then some—but he also listened. Though he had decades more knowledge and practical experience than I did, he asked for my ideas about how to save the MTA’s finances and seriously considered them, debating pros and cons.
For nearly two decades, we kept up this conversation—over lunch, dinner, drinks, at parties, in his office, at his apartment. As I had learned quickly at our first meeting, Ravtich never talked with just one person at the same time, never stuck with one topic, and easily mixed policy, politics, vote-counting, and plain old gossip. So-and-so would never be able to accomplish anything in his appointed position because another so-and-so held all the real power, and that so-and-so didn’t like the first so-and-so. Here’s why this MTA chairman could never get anything done, and that MTA chairman could. Here’s why one idea was flatly politically impossible, but why another idea might happen with the right people at the right time. Here are the editors you should meet.
When Covid-19 hit New York three-plus years ago, Ravitch was not one to cut and run. He made it only as far as East Hampton. (I don’t think he really knew where Florida was.) During the Zoom months, he participated in panel after panel, patiently providing context on the Covid crisis’s economic and fiscal aspects. Despite his age (he died just weeks shy of 90) and frail health, he went back to lunches at the Century Club and at his office as soon as the state and city let people gather again. He could not wait to see his friends and discuss New York’s future with them in person.
Ravitch knew that Covid and its aftermath posed a major challenge to New York, and he had advice for state and local leaders, calling pandemic-era state tax hikes “inappropriate and stupid.” But he was forever an optimist about his city. People would return to Manhattan, he believed, because, like him, they wanted to be in close proximity to one other.
The last time I saw him was in early April, at his new office on Lexington Avenue, where he had moved from Rockefeller Center. He was physically weak, frustrated that he was unable to move around without help, and unable to eat much. But at a time when half of the city’s office workers still weren’t (and aren’t) going to the office, he wanted to be in the office, in the heart of Manhattan, at the center of activity.
His failing health annoyed him, he told me, because “my mind is just fine. I have so many things I want to do.” He wanted to start a venture to engage young people in state and local government, diverting them from Washington. He wanted to write this op-ed and that op-ed. He was envious that I was going to London, as he wanted to return there soon to eat his favorite meal, Dover sole, and see an opera.
From childhood on the Upper West Side through adulthood on the Upper East Side and until his death at a Manhattan hospital, Dick Ravitch lived nearly his entire life in person in New York City. If he had gotten another five years, he would have spent it doing what he most loved to do: living, working, and playing in New York, thinking of new ways to help his city recover and succeed.
Photos: Bettmann/Getty Images / C. Taylor Crothers/Getty Images