With a mayoral election rushing up in November, New York City finds itself in a strange place. After 20 years of sensible—and, at times, inspired—leadership from Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, who brought the city back from near-ruin and made it again a symbol of urban flourishing, New York faces serious challenges to its prosperity and well-being. Yet the mayoral debate so far has mostly ignored those challenges. Hence this special edition of City Journal, which describes the “state of the city” at the sunset of Bloomberg’s tenure and says what his successor should do to keep the city healthy in the years ahead.
One of the biggest threats to New York’s future is fiscal, warns Steven Malanga in “The Coming Budget Crunch,” which opens the issue. Malanga notes that several mayoral candidates are tossing around billions of dollars’ worth of new spending plans, as though surplus revenue were flooding the city. The reality is starkly different: an imminent “fiscal nightmare” as the bill for excessive government spending and borrowing comes due. The key to bringing the budget under control: reining in municipal-worker compensation costs. That means political strife, Malanga acknowledges, but unless the fisc gets fixed, crucial public services will suffer.
Taxes are a second major problem. In “Overburdened,” E. J. McMahon points out that no city in America imposes so many. Giuliani managed to reduce taxes slightly and held the line on increases. But back in 2002, Bloomberg pushed for and won an 18.5 percent hike in the property-tax rate. Coming on top of onerous New York State taxes, the city levies make Gotham a remarkably expensive place to work or live. With competition for investment and people intensifying among localities, New York must find a way to bring its tax levels more in line with national norms. McMahon offers some smart suggestions. And in “Growth Engines,” economist Edward Glaeser echoes McMahon’s call for lower taxes and adds that less red tape would make Gotham friendlier to small businesses. That’s vital, Glaeser explains, because entrepreneurial small firms can grow into the giants of tomorrow and have proved to be “the wellspring of long-term economic success.”
Nothing has been more important to New York’s turnaround than the city’s triumph over crime, as City Journal has tirelessly argued. In “What Is a Mayor’s Job?,” Myron Magnet reminds us that for New Yorkers of his generation, “a keynote of our youth was fear,” and he eloquently evokes what the city was like when you had to avoid eye contact (lest you draw the unwanted attention of some drug-maddened thug) and triple-lock your doors to keep the bad guys out. The crime turnaround—murders down from 2,262 in 1990 to just 414 last year, the lowest per-capita rate ever recorded in the city, with other felonies similarly plummeting—resulted from the proactive, data-driven policing introduced by Giuliani and his first police chief, William Bratton, during the 1990s and maintained and refined by Bloomberg and his top cop, Raymond Kelly, over the last 12 years. In “Safe Streets Ahead?” Heather Mac Donald anatomizes the legal and political forces that threaten to reverse that policing revolution and make the streets safe again for predators.
Economics, the budget, and crime are only part of the issue’s policy brief. Kay S. Hymowitz shows how the next mayor will confront pressure from activists and elites to water down the work-first principles of welfare reform, which has rescued so many in the city from government dependency; Nicole Gelinas sketches a blueprint for a desperately needed revitalization of New York infrastructure; Sol Stern and Marcus Winters give workable advice on how to improve the city’s schools without breaking the bank; Howard Husock proposes a new, market-based model for housing; and much more. It all adds up to a comprehensive policy vision for protecting—and advancing—the achievements of New York’s last two decades.
An editorial note: the issue abounds in references to a recent Zogby Analytics poll of New Yorkers’ attitudes commissioned by City Journal’s publisher, the Manhattan Institute. The poll contains much of interest, and readers can find it at www.manhattan-institute.org/nyc2013.
—Brian C. Anderson