New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation, by Thomas Dyja (Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $22)
Many wonder whether New York can recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, but the city was already ailing from years of mismanagement and drift under Mayor Bill de Blasio, from last summer’s riots, and from a sense that its energy has been drained over the last few decades. New Yorkers should be celebrating the city’s post-1975 renaissance, but instead they’re anxious. Enter Thomas Dyja’s New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation, a dizzying tour of recent New York history that offers an insightful but ultimately frustrating interpretation of how the city rescued itself from the depths of despair and arrived where it is today.
Motivating Dyja’s book is the pre-Covid feeling that “while so much had gone right in New York, way too much had gone wrong.” New York, Dyja writes, “had experienced the most dramatic peacetime transformation of a city since Haussmann rebuilt Paris.” With safer streets and a revived economy, Gotham became fashionable again, not just for artists and urban pioneers but for college-educated professionals, young adults, and immigrants. But this transformation left many New Yorkers sour. Such books as Jeremiah Moss’s 2017 Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul railed against the “hyper-gentrification” that accelerated during the Bloomberg years, while the social-justice craze took dead aim at NYPD policies that helped drive crime down to historic levels. It added up to disenchantment with a city that, just a few years earlier, had been seen as a national success story.
Dyja attempts to explain this reversal with a quirky but myopic history. From the perspective of his native Upper West Side, he takes a view heavy on culture and the arts but lighter on economics and finance. His writing strains to emulate the subversive edge of Tom Wolfe; his sensibility resembles that of a liberal who benefited from the city’s transformation but feels guilty about it. The book’s title comes from sociologist William “Holly” Whyte’s answer when someone asked him to name his three favorite American cities. This is a Manhattan-focused book; the outer boroughs appear only in a discussion of the origins of hip-hop. The book contains plenty on Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat but has little to say about middle-class homeowners in Queens, small-business owners, or even recent immigrants.
Dyja divides New York’s transformation into four parts. First came a “renaissance” under Ed Koch, as the city dug out from under its 1970s fiscal crisis and a stock market boom filled its coffers. Next was the “reconsideration” under David Dinkins, who tried to revive the city’s liberal traditions. After that came the “reformation” under Rudy Giuliani, as crime plummeted and the city again blossomed. Last was the “reimagination” under Michael Bloomberg, who sought to use the resources of the newly safe and prosperous city to remake and redevelop it.
Dyja is ambivalent about Koch, repelled by his “neocon” tendencies but appreciating his talents as a politician and mayor. Like many liberals, he wants to give Dinkins credit for the success of the 1990s but also understands that the mayor “let the city go adrift.” The book is best in its discussion of the Bloomberg administration, which Dyja calls “the most effective City Hall in memory—at what it chose to be effective at.” Indeed, the billionaire mayor hired talented staffers and enacted ambitious reforms from bike lanes to schools to redevelopment. Yet as New York became a “luxury city” under Bloomberg, complaints added up. (Dyja doesn’t devote much space to the de Blasio mayoralty and does not seem impressed.)
Dyja can’t come to grips with Rudy Giuliani, whom he calls “one of the most venomous mayors in city history.” He characterizes Giuliani as a barely disguised racist whose successes owed to policies inherited from Dinkins. Dyja’s judgment stems partly from the damage that the former mayor did to his reputation during Donald Trump’s presidency and partly from a racial progressivism that casts policing and welfare reforms in the harshest light. To Dyja, the Giuliani administration was little more than the embodiment of white supremacy.
Dyja even identifies City Journal and the Manhattan Institute as malignant forces in New York’s body politic. He blames the Manhattan Institute for sponsoring George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, books he describes in a cartoonish manner. He sees only white supremacy in City Journal articles about public order. “Communitarian ideas often found in City Journal that involved letting ‘average’ New Yorkers determine standards,” writes Dyja, “assumed that ‘average’ meant ‘White,’ a cauldron of majority mores passing as melting pot nostalgia.”
Busy attacking, Dyja distorts the factual record. He spends two pages mischaracterizing a 1991 City Journal roundtable that featured, among others, Nathan Glazer, Fred Siegel, Joe Klein, and Jim Sleeper. In Dyja’s telling, Klein’s praise for a more decentralized, less bureaucratic way of delivering government services demonstrates that City Journal argued that “the poor weren’t really citizens. . . . And if the poor aren’t really citizens, then social services are no longer a basic responsibility.” Come again? Dyja cites another quote claiming that post-1960s “moral foundations” had “shifted,” concluding that, in the roundtable’s view, “no matter what you tried to do for [poor New Yorkers] it wouldn’t make any difference.” Liberal sociologist Jonathan Rieder indeed wrote in the roundtable, “Our moral foundations have shifted.” He then continued: “The Sixties marked a major change in the sensibility of liberalism. Liberalism emerged as a righteous and patrician upper-middle-class endeavor, at odds with both the pragmatic bread-and-butter ethos of the New Deal and the gritty, plebeian spirit of working-class ethnic neighborhoods, which includes the communal sanctions that keep people on the straight and narrow path.” Later in the discussion, Rieder calls the “rights revolution” of the 1960s a “remarkable triumph, despite its excesses.” Dyja leaves out this context, misrepresenting Rieder’s nuanced and reasonable argument.
Such a flawed retelling of the city’s past produces shallow recommendations for its future. Dyja complains that “the White, moneyed establishment of New York has always . . . dictated how New York would change.” The city needs to “make sure everyone has access to all the different kinds of capital being produced and has agency in how they get them,” and should seek not only to “preserve the huge network of New York but make that network bigger and denser.” Communities need to become stronger: “Live in your community, not on top of it,” Dyja advises. “Public administration must be as nonpartisan as possible,” we are told. New York “must follow through on the promise to deliver the benefits of growth to all New Yorkers” and create a city “built on a bedrock of justice, not just noblesse oblige.” Finally, Dyja repeats calls for police reform, demanding that the city “must purge its police department of racism” and “stand up to the police union.”
These proposals represent a standard combination of good-government rhetoric mixed with moderate social-justice ideology. Anyone looking for plans to grow the city’s economy while making sure that prosperity is broadly shared, or to prevent crime and violence amid a new surge of both, will be disappointed.
New York, at its best, balances itself between order and disorder. The city has become a victim of its own success and now finds that the forces of disorder are growing. The widespread angst regarding New York’s future spans ideology, race, and class. But Dyja’s New York, New York, New York works less as a history of the city’s recent past than as a primary source documenting why some New Yorkers have grown disillusioned with their city.
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