The “Lights Out Club” used to meet for monthly lunches in the early 1990s, my late friend Lorian Marlantes, then chief of Rockefeller Center, told me. Why the name? Because Marlantes’s fellow members—the CEOs of Consolidated Edison, a couple of big Gotham banks, and a few other firms whose core business chained them to New York—thought that soon one of them would be the man who’d turn the lights out forever on a city that was dying before their eyes, killing their companies along with it.
In those days, you didn’t need to be Nostradamus to make such a dire prediction. The evidence was everywhere—on the graffiti-scrawled buildings and mailboxes, the potholed streets, the squalor of the panhandlers, the dustbowl that had been Olmsted and Vaux’s sublime Central Park, and the pervasive stench of urine, thanks to the bums who were turning the capital of the twentieth century into a giant pissoir, with the carriage drive of Grand Central Station the urinal of the universe.
In 1983, the Mobil Oil Corporation, to show Mayor Edward Koch why it was contemplating leaving New York, videotaped the sordidness around its 42nd Street headquarters, near Grand Central. The camera caught the rotting trash, the pee-filled potholes, the degradation of the homeless hordes—some crazy and some shiftless—through which Mobil employees had to pick their way into the then-shabby, billboard-plastered station to catch trains home to their orderly suburbs, fragrant with new-mown grass. After shots of corporate headquarters located in similarly bucolic suburbs, the wordless video closed with the written question: “What do we tell our employees?”
Mobil’s answer, in 1987, was to move to Fairfax, Virginia. More than 100 of some 140 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Gotham in the 1950s asked the same question and reached the same conclusion, pulling out their tax dollars and leading their well-paid workers into greener pastures in those pre–Rudolph Giuliani decades. They were among the million New Yorkers, many of them the elderly rich and the well-educated young, who fled Gotham in the 1970s and 1980s.
The squalor was only one problem. Another was crime. Of course, much of the disorder—the open dope-dealing, the public drinking, the streetwalkers serving every almost-unthinkable taste, the three-card-monte cardsharpers and their pickpocket confederates preying on the crowds they drew, the window-rattling boombox radios—was itself against the law. But these minor crimes deepened as a coastal shelf into burglary, car theft, armed robbery, assault, rape, and murder—one killing every four hours every day of the annus horribilis 1990.
Those New Yorkers who could afford it tried to insulate themselves with doormen and limo services, as in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 bestseller The Bonfire of the Vanities; those who couldn’t, like the protagonist of Saul Bellow’s 1970 Mr. Sammler’s Planet, envied the guarded doors, the trustworthy drivers, the hushed private clubs—islands of civility in a sea of chaos—as they held on to the strap of the lurching, graffiti-fouled bus, watching the pickpocket ply his craft, or walked down their own dark streets, adrenaline rushing at the sound of every footfall.
Just as the crack of a jungle twig cocks every ear, tenses every muscle, and sends birds screaming indignantly into the sky, apprehension was as characteristic a New York feeling as was ambition in those days. If we didn’t quite live in “continuall feare, and danger of violent death,” as in Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature, “where every man is Enemy to every man,” we were sufficiently on edge. And no wonder. One friend, robbed at gunpoint on Broadway of his wallet, which the thief searched for his address, was then marched to his apartment, forced to unlock it, and tied up, while the gunman coolly stuffed everything of value into my friend’s bedsheets and carted it off. For the sheer thrill, a gang of teen girls swarming up from Morningside Park stomped the girlfriend of a fellow graduate student unconscious and blood-drenched in front of the Columbia University president’s mansion one afternoon. A neighbor, pushed into his lobby as he unlocked his building’s unattended front door after a very long day’s work—the typical thief’s M.O. in that era—was not only robbed but also killed. Another friend, raped at knifepoint on a filthy hallway floor in a neighborhood where she had gone for a purpose she never mentioned, had her satisfied assailant ask her for another “date,” a proposal she declined. But in a way, on the street, in the subway, in the parks, we all felt continually violated and continually asked to go through it again. That people were leaving town all around us came as no surprise.
What to do? A Manhattan Institute seminar on Gotham school reform I attended in the late 1980s, as Koch’s 12-year mayoralty drew to a sadly sordid close, caught the temper of the times. Its chairmen were wily national teachers’ union chief Albert Shanker and New York Board of Education president Robert F. Wagner III, a long-valued friend. Maybe we could try X, a panelist suggested. No: union work rules forbade. How about Y? No: the state legislature . . . the budget. . . . And so on for two hours. The profoundly depressing expert consensus: the more you knew about New York, the more you knew that there was nothing nothing nothing we could do to fix a calamitous mess. After all, wasn’t this the “ungovernable city”?
But it wasn’t. The first shoot of renewal had already pierced the dirt. By the late 1980s, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Robert Kiley and his Transit Authority chief, David Gunn, had erased the graffiti that covered almost every subway car. In 1990, they supercharged the electric sense that the authorities, not the vandals and lowlifes, were in charge underground, by naming William J. Bratton Transit Authority police chief. Bratton cracked down on fare-beating, littering, and pickpocketing, using uniformed cops as well as plainclothes decoys, seemingly easy marks until they snapped on the handcuffs. For the first time in decades, subway riders like me began to think that problems created by human failures, even those as deep-rooted as New York’s, were capable of human solution. And the first issue of City Journal, appearing in the fall of 1990, breathed just that can-do spirit.
Yet when I took its helm in the fall of 1994, the magazine, filled with good sense, hadn’t quite found its balance. And the resurrection of New York City had a long way to go: the subways, for example, after Bratton returned to Boston as police chief in 1992, had again become scary, as swarms of the mentally ill homeless made them feel like a German Expressionist movie, threatening violence whenever some mumbling lunatic’s demons urged him to stab or push someone onto the tracks. Even so, the 1992 unveiling of the Bryant Park Corporation’s transformation of the dope-pusher-, mugger-haunted dustbowl behind the stately New York Public Library into a velvet-lawned oasis in Manhattan’s heart, suddenly humming with urbane crowds, reinforced the sense that Gotham didn’t have to die. When Rudolph Giuliani became mayor in January 1994, and Republican George Pataki won the governorship that November with a pledge of fiscal restraint (honored for one year) and crime control, it seemed that City Journal could have some real influence—especially since I recalled watching Giuliani scribble notes nonstop at an all-day Manhattan Institute seminar on fixing the city just before his 1993 campaign. Then–Manhattan Institute president William M. H. Hammett had been asking me for two years to run the institute’s still-wonky magazine; and with the political stars lined up so propitiously, I left Fortune, grateful for its peerless education in magazine journalism, to accept Hammett’s offer to take over City Journal.
The results turned out better than any journalist’s wildest dream. Imagine having a politician actually listen to your proposals! Giuliani, to whom we always sent preview copies of the magazine, once flourished a copy of City Journal in a speech and said, “I don’t know if you can plagiarize policies, but if you can, this is where I plagiarize mine.” Beyond having that dream come true, imagine further getting to see those policies actually work! A couple of years ago, I walked into Central Park at West 100th Street, followed the watercourse north from the Pool (where a heron waded) to Harlem Meer, stopping to get lost in the North Woods, and marveled that what had once been a no-go zone of danger and ruin now thronged with bird watchers, well-behaved families of every ethnicity, courting couples, and tourists, all touched by the elysian beauty of what had once been wasteland. Then I walked over to the south end of now-lush, emerald-green Morningside Park, even more miraculously transformed, since it had once been scarier than the North Woods. How moving to think that City Journal had played its part, with many others, in working that magical transformation.
Desperate over rampant crime, New York’s mostly Democratic voters had elected Republican Giuliani, a mob-busting ex-U.S. prosecutor, expressly to restore law and order. He sharpened his crime-fighting knowledge in seminars with Manhattan Institute scholar George Kelling on the Broken Windows policing theory that Kelling had framed with political scientist James Q. Wilson and had further expounded in City Journal, starting in the magazine’s second issue and continuing to this day. So Giuliani felt sure that cops could not just catch criminals but actually reduce crime by cracking down on the drunks, pushy beggars, drug bazaars, and squeegee men who frightened ordinary citizens. As Kelling and Wilson had posited, public disorder shows that the authorities are not in control, emboldening the lawless to think that they can commit serious crimes with impunity. But a police crackdown on low-level, supposedly victimless crimes of disorder, along with a city cleanup of the filth and graffiti that made public spaces seem to belong to madmen and vandals rather than to the public, would do the opposite. Such policing would also let cops search the disorderly for guns—a practice that quickly dissuaded thugs from carrying firearms and that also led the NYPD to arrest many suspects ducking criminal warrants.
As City Journal readers well know, Broken Windows, along with computerized crime-mapping (known as CompStat) to show precinct commanders where crime thrived and hold them responsible for rooting it out—both implemented aggressively by Bratton, brought back to New York as Giuliani’s first police chief—worked wonders, cutting murder by 68 percent and overall felonies in half within only five years. Cracking down on fences, chop shops, dope rings, and gun dealers cut burglary, car theft, drug-related crime, and shootings like magic. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s police commissioner Ray Kelly refined such tactics, driving crime down further, so that murders, averaging one every four hours in 1990, averaged fewer than one a day in 2013.
But however dramatic the success, the carping from “progressives,” whether academic criminologists or the New York Times, persisted. The Left never abandoned its belief that crime could fall only if we ended its supposed “root causes”—racism, lack of opportunity, and inequality—despite the dazzling evidence of their error unfolding before everyone’s eyes. Nevertheless, solving those unjust “root causes” was the heart of the liberal faith in those days, and faith is stronger than reason. So in the pages of City Journal, lawyer-turned-writer Heather Mac Donald, as brave and tenacious a reporter (fluent in Spanish, to boot) as she is a brilliant analyst, with an assist from fellow writer and then–family court chief prosecutor Peter Reinharz (a recruiter for “Attica Prep,” he ruefully cracked) and occasionally even from Bratton himself, tirelessly piled up the evidence—which Giuliani took to the voters, more clear-eyed than the experts.
Of course, the writers made City Journal what it was. Quirky, brilliant, matured by the most various real-life experiences, they turned our monthly editorial lunches into spirited seminars in social policy, from the loftily theoretical to the grittily concrete. Many had started on the political left and had thought their way to the right—“Were you at Altamont, too?” one writer exclaimed to another, surprised to learn that both now-conservative journalists had been at the 1969 drug- and violence-laced rock festival just east of Berkeley. Our political journey meant that we had considered policy questions from different sides, and, because so many of us had grown up in the “question authority” era, we challenged the orthodoxies of the Right as well as the Left in our meetings and in our frequent phone conversations, temperamentally disinclined to embrace any dogma by faith, without examining evidence and first principles. Some of the most stimulating intellectual experiences of my life were the many hours I spent on the phone with Heather, as she mercilessly probed her facts and arguments for any weakness, any inconsistency, and laid out possible objections to her conclusions to be sure she’d preempted them, before her articles met her exacting standards of clarity and perfection. Because we were in New York, City Journal’s staff felt free of that Washington “realism” that prides itself on its skill in counting legislative votes and rejecting novel ideas as impracticable or unorthodox. We felt, and fostered, that exhilarating sense of intellectual freedom that nurtures new ideas.
Part of the excitement was learning from one another. William J. Stern, for example, amazed us with tales about The Racket. After a meteoric business career, Bill had run two of his tennis buddy Mario Cuomo’s political campaigns and then found himself head of the Urban Development Corporation, charged with building the vast Convention Center on Manhattan’s West Side. The job title was grand; the job wasn’t. Everywhere Bill looked, he saw mobsters, corruption, and flagrant pilfering. Every contract, even for window cleaning, was not so much a business as a political negotiation, involving an exchange of cash or favors. Horrified, he called his friend the governor.
“Mario,” he said, “you can’t believe the amount of stealing going on here.”
“Well, Bill,” replied Cuomo at last, “isn’t that the way construction is done in New York?”
So Bill quit. But before he did, he learned, from overseeing the Convention Center and the master plan for rebuilding Times Square, that Gotham’s byzantine zoning laws and building code made real-estate development less an engineering and construction enterprise than a political operation, needing lots of well-paid and well-connected expediters and heavy political contributions for variances and approvals. Developers participated both out of fear of blowback from refusal and because they knew that the complexity of the racket ensured them a cartel that outside developers lacked the arcane political savvy to crack. And the gains could be staggering, as witness Extell Development’s recent $66 million tax abatement at Manhattan’s One57 in exchange for building $5.9 million worth of “affordable” housing in the Bronx.
Bill taught us that state government wasn’t a matter of Democrats or Republicans. Rather, Albany was one giant Insiders’ Party, with every legislator giving the other party money for its favorite contributors—hospitals, say, or unions—in exchange for like consideration, with no concern for the burden on taxpayers. After all, so small a percentage of New Yorkers paid so large a chunk of the income taxes, and so large a percentage received government benefits, that a state or city tax revolt was mathematically unlikely. With reform so hard to achieve, shameless corruption, both political and moral, flourished like weeds on dung—as witness the current indictments of the chiefs of both legislative chambers. And Bill learned from Times Square that, beyond freeing police to chase out the hustlers and rezoning to root out the pornographers, government played no role in the area’s revitalization—another Broken Windows confirmation. Private enterprise, not central planning, worked the rest of the magic.
If only New York would allow it to work at full strength—which it won’t, as Manhattan Institute vice president Howard Husock, then a Harvard Business School official, showed in a powerful series of articles. With the rents of so many of Gotham’s apartments under government control, people don’t move when their kids grow up and leave, so as not to lose their city-protected bargain-rate housing, and landlords have little financial incentive to improve their properties. This corner of The Racket slows the normal churn and renewal of housing to a trickle, and rents for newcomers rise stratospherically. Add in the archipelago of grim, often crime-ridden public-housing projects, which stand as barriers to gentrification, and Gotham’s housing market threatens to become, as Howard put it, frozen.
At first, we thought that rescuing New York meant solving all its major ills—crime, failed schools, crushing taxes and regulation, and swollen welfare rolls—at once. But with experience as our most trusted teacher, we learned that better policing was the sine qua non, producing dramatic improvement by itself. Once ordinary citizens felt that they were safe in the streets and in their houses and hotels, New York’s legacy advantages—the world-class cultural institutions that Gotham’s Gilded Age tycoons had built; the city’s finance, publishing, journalism, and design enterprises within a highly diversified economy; the excitement of its concentration of ambition, opportunity, and peerless achievement in everything from medicine to magazines to mergers and acquisitions; its restaurants and entertainment, its cosmopolitan tolerance, its beautiful beaux-arts and art-deco architecture, and its fast (if still gritty) subway—all these allowed Gotham to spring back to vitality almost overnight.
But we also saw how a small group of New Yorkers generated so many of the city’s problems. This was the minority underclass, defined not just by its high crime rate (blacks and Hispanics, a combined 53 percent of the city’s population, were 92 percent of its murder suspects and 97 percent of its shooting suspects in 2013) but also by intergenerational poverty and welfare dependency, unwed childbearing, drug abuse, school failure, and nonwork. Aside from its other costs, such social pathology imposed a heavy tax burden to fund welfare, disability, food stamps, housing projects, homeless shelters, foster care, special education, jails, and (often corrupt) social-services agencies—all requiring overcompensated armies of employees to run, staff, and maintain. For us, therefore, what created the underclass, and how to turn its kids into productive mainstream citizens, was always an urgent concern.
I had come to City Journal with a theory that the dramatic cultural changes of the 1960s, as they filtered down to the most vulnerable members of society, had brought the underclass into being. The cause couldn’t be the legacy of slavery and racism, for economist Thomas Sowell had already documented the strong improvement by every measure that black America had made after World War II, which suddenly reversed around 1964. It wasn’t too little opportunity or too much welfare, since immigrants easily found jobs, and welfare had existed since the New Deal, three decades before the underclass arose. Instead, as the sexual experimentation of the elites in the 1960s, along with the destigmatization of divorce and illegitimacy, the glamorizing of drugs and of dropping out of the 9-to-5 grind, the questioning of all established authority that even we at City Journal had absorbed, the elites’ horrified guilt over America’s racist history and the resultant belief that black Americans deserved some reparation or special consideration for the damage that we had unjustly inflicted (a strange imputation of inferiority)—as all these new attitudes trickled down through all layers of society, through the press, Hollywood, popular music, the schools, even the pulpits, they changed the beliefs and removed the inhibitions of those at the bottom, sparking an epidemic of sexual predation, child abuse, lawlessness, resentment, and contempt for all authority, especially that of cops and teachers.
The first writer I hired, Theodore Dalrymple (the pen name of English psychiatrist and prison physician Anthony Daniels), had come to a similar conclusion from much talking with, and close observation of, his patients in the slums of a once-great English industrial city—with the interesting difference that his underclass patients were white Englishmen, so race played no part in the mix. But what impelled their behavior—so similar to that of the New York underclass—was the belief system in their heads, which had trickled down from “advanced,” nanny-state British culture, a blend of 1940s socialist orthodoxy about equality and “fairness” and 1960s let’s-do-it-in-the-road anarchism. A precise, ironic, and wisely judgmental observer, with sincere rather than condescendingly ersatz sympathy for his patients, as well as a literary man’s appreciation of their Dickensian linguistic inventiveness, Tony saw how utterly, if secretly, self-aware his patients were about their attitudes and their consequences, and he saw, too, with an aching sense of the tragic, how underclass women conspired, wholeheartedly but not unmindful of the consequences, in their degrading and sometimes violent fates. The knack of describing all this in often hilariously ironic yet heartbreaking detail, with comparisons to his experiences as a young doctor in Third World countries or as an observer of Third World totalitarianisms and revolutions, made his articles not journalism but literature—a standard to which we all aspired.
You will find this hard to believe, but in 1994 I didn’t understand why underclass women were having so many out-of-wedlock children. After all, I reasoned, with my 1960s assumptions, doubtless everybody wants to have sex, but everybody also knows about cheap and universally available birth control. It was Kay S. Hymowitz who set me straight. Women, she explained politely but firmly, want to have babies. Accordingly, underclass girls, she argued from many interviews in a landmark City Journal article, have a different vision of life from that of middle-class girls. They haven’t been nurtured by diligent parents to develop the sophisticated cultural traits—orderliness, self-discipline, deferral of gratification, goal-oriented ambition, and so on—that prepare middle-class girls to go to college and professional school, defer childbearing, get married to Mr. Right, and become doctors or dealmakers.
Everything in underclass culture, where fathers are absent and marriage is dismissed—as useless as a bicycle to a fish—tells girls that sex before 14 is normal, and an out-of-wedlock baby at 16 is the mark of maturity. The grandmas in their thirties are as excited about the new baby as the teen moms, who imagine that finally someone will love them unconditionally and who revel in showing off their shiny new strollers and cute baby outfits. When the babies begin to toddle, their signs of independence and contrariety spark maternal disappointment. An all-too-common underclass cultural pattern has the oldest sibling left in charge of the younger ones when the grandmother won’t babysit, while the mother goes off on new adventures. As for careers or even work, most of Kay’s informants had only adolescent dreaminess, not plans.
Here, then, was striking confirmation of how the 1960s transformation of mainstream American culture had indeed produced seismic changes at the bottom of society, creating a self-subsisting underclass subculture with its own mores—its own life-script, in Kay’s apt phrase—which policymakers had to decode to understand underclass behavior, let alone change it. In years of wise, carefully observed, and irrepressibly witty articles on women, marriage, sex and sex roles, child rearing, and early education, Kay never lost sight of this central insight. And given the thinness of underclass culture, starting with the many fewer times that underclass mothers talk to their children than middle-class mothers do, with the result that their kids start school with much smaller vocabularies and fewer concepts than their middle-class counterparts—some teen moms themselves haven’t learned to do a budget or brush their teeth—it’s hard not to worry that even the best schools can’t fully make up the deficits in childhoods that are so culturally, intellectually, and often emotionally impoverished.
But the education that these kids generally get is far from the best, and Sol Stern, an alumnus of the glory days of the New York public schools, pondered for two decades how to restore their luster, scrutinizing them up close while his own sons went through them and his wife taught in them. Starting out as a writer for far-left Ramparts magazine and finding that the Black Panthers, whom Ramparts had romanticized as political radicals, were mere thugs and killers, Sol indelibly learned to inspect evidence with a cold eye and take nothing for granted, including his own assumptions.
I leaned hard on those assumptions early on. Hearing that Gotham’s Catholic schools were successfully educating the siblings, cousins, and housing-project neighbors of the minority kids who were failing in the public schools, I sent Sol to find out if that was true—and why. Still harboring childhood apprehensions of Catholic anti-Semitism, Sol began his visits reluctantly, but he became an instant convert. Here were schools that fostered a culture of self-discipline, orderliness, and hard work, beginning with their students’ neat uniforms, and that rejected the condescending multiculturalism and “social justice” pedagogy taught in the ed schools, believing instead that their largely minority and non-Catholic pupils could master the basic skills and fundamental texts of Western civilization. Much higher graduation rates and standardized test scores than the public schools achieved with the same low-income kids vindicated that faith in high intellectual and disciplinary standards. And all this success came at one-third the per-pupil cost of the public schools, with a tiny administrative bureaucracy and with no unions or tenure to shield incompetent teachers.
In story after story, Sol, always a step ahead of other pundits, searched for ways to expand and replicate this success, whether through vouchers that would let kids leave failing public schools in favor of private (including religious) ones, or through nonunion charter schools—which politicians indebted to teachers’ unions strove to quash—or through ed-school reform or alternative-teacher qualification, or through standardized testing, and finally through stressing the importance of learning real content as opposed to “learning to learn,” as the ed-school orthodoxy puts it. Meanwhile, Mayor Giuliani believed that the solution was finding a schools chancellor as visionary and iron-willed as he, and he searched in vain for such a prodigy, while Mayor Bloomberg believed that funneling private charity into the public schools was the secret, which had the unintended consequence of starving the Catholic schools of philanthropic dollars. So I left the editorship with this problem unsolved and with Sol still seeking public education’s philosopher’s stone.
I came to think, though, that America’s decades-long emphasis on closing the racial achievement gap was misplaced, since policymakers seemed not to care if it got closed by lowering the top performance or by raising the bottom. New York, I thought, should return to its old model of providing talented or ambitious or hardworking kids with as much opportunity as they can take advantage of, both for the kids’ sake and for the city’s. So even if research could show (to take the most modest example) that charter school students had an edge in having parents caring enough to apply for admission, no concept of justice could demand that those kids be stuck in low-performing unionized schools, for the benefit of teachers or of kids from less concerned families.
After musing to Manhattan Institute president Lawrence Mone that City Journal needed a writer like Steven Malanga, the brilliant executive editor of Crain’s New York Business whose stories about the political machinations of Gotham’s nonprofits were continual revelations, I finally proposed hiring Malanga himself. Go and try, said Larry; and Steve, raised in a New Jersey city he called “Nerk,” soon joined our ranks. Modest, thoughtful, probing, original, a master of statistics and their interpretation, he began turning out a pioneering series of articles on public-sector unions, those strange organizations that even Franklin Roosevelt thought public servants with civil-service protection didn’t need and shouldn’t have. If Sol Stern had shown how malign was the influence of teachers’ unions, Steve showed how the public unions all together, through their contributions and campaigning, composed the most powerful force in local politics, essentially getting to elect their own bosses. Long before other journalists were on to the story, Steve showed how this power had won public workers higher salaries than similar private-sector workers while enjoying lax work rules and low performance standards and—much more important—how these public workers boasted health-care and pension packages much richer than the taxpayers funding them would themselves receive. Since these were benefits that today’s politicians could promise but tomorrow’s officials would have to pay, the sky was the limit—until tomorrow finally arrived, and municipal bankruptcy loomed. In this way, public servants had become the public’s master and the potential destroyers of the cities that they supposedly served. But Mayor Bloomberg seemed blind to the problem. For him, the tax money would always be there.
Steve had just hit his stride—and Giuliani, having made New York “the safest big city in America,” as he liked to say, was getting bored as his second term neared its close—when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers that brilliantly cloudless September morning in 2001 and changed so much so radically, City Journal included. We realized, with our autumn issue just about to go to the printer, that we’d have to scrap everything and start over. After all, this was our city, and we felt obliged to be first with advice about how to limit the damage to the local economy, how to rebuild the wreckage downtown while avoiding the urban-planning mistakes of the original World Trade Center, and how to understand and defend against the new threat that the city faced. We even asked our architect friends from Franck Lohsen McCrery to draw up a plan for restoring the street grid at Ground Zero and designing the buildings that might rise there, while the great Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart designed a beautiful memorial, so much more profound and moving than what actually arose (or sank, more accurately) there. We had long written about architecture—on Winston Churchill’s apt insight about cities: “We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us”—and our sense that the city’s spirit needed a rapid rebuilding of Ground Zero gave this theme a new urgency. To no avail, alas, as officials dithered for a decade. But our appeals to reject totalitarian European modernist architecture in favor of buildings in the tradition of the early-twentieth-century American skyscraper—the Woolworth or General Electric Buildings, for example, or River House—had modest success, as witness 15 Central Park West.
For our 9/11 issue, Daniel Pipes wrote the first of our many articles on Islam, as we struggled to understand that even though all Muslims are not terrorists like those who attacked us, Muslim terrorism is nevertheless a logical, if extreme, outgrowth of Islam, not an utter distortion of it, and that a troublingly large number of Muslims approve of jihadi violence. That first article cautioned that, while safeguarding the rights of peaceful Muslim-Americans, the United States should carefully scrutinize Muslim would-be immigrants and bar radicals. Since then, Muslim immigrants to America have increased in number, from an estimated 1.7 million to 2.7 million, and New York Muslims have become the largest group on the National Counterterrorism Center’s watch list. City Journal began to pay close attention not just to Islamic immigration but to immigration in general.
By 9/11, New York had the resilience to bounce back more quickly than anyone expected from so grievous a blow, and we at City Journal saw that the problems facing Gotham had become as much external as internal—and our focus shifted. Now we had to be interested in the War on Terror. Our concern with the power of culture made us one of the first conservative magazines to express skepticism when the war in Iraq, which we supported, began to shift from fighting the Muslim terrorism that had attacked our city to nation-building and the “freedom agenda.” You cannot make democratic republicans, faithful to the rule of law, out of tribal people, with tribal loyalties and hatreds—not easily, certainly, and not in a single lifetime—wrote anthropologist Stanley Kurtz in our pages. Nor did American democracy spring up as the magical production of nature, wrote George Will in City Journal. It wasn’t an expression of “the universal values of the human spirit.” Americans rightly believe that their “political arrangements, and the values and understandings of the human condition that those arrangements reflect, are superior to most other nations’ arrangements.” Our “attachment to freedom,” wrote George, is “the product of complex and protracted acculturation by institutions and social mores that have evolved over centuries—the centuries that it took to prepare the stony social ground for seeds of democracy.” And it required, as well, the alchemy of such great men as George Washington, James Madison, and John Marshall—men who also do not spring up by magic or by nature but grow, when they do grow, out of a particular culture, one very different from Iraq’s.
This reality led us to examine even more closely our own culture, as articles by Brian Anderson, Victor Davis Hanson, Stefan Kanfer, Ben Plotinsky, Harry Stein, and indeed all our writers anatomized how old values, old popular music, old movies, old comic strips, and old kids’ books had made our culture and how the tone of political discourse, the new TV shows, the new communications technologies, the new mating rituals—and the curriculum, speech codes, and admissions policies of universities—were remaking it, for good and ill.
Part of that new technology remade us. Stefan Kanfer and my wife had been urging me to set up a City Journal website, and I asked Brian Anderson, then my deputy and now my excellent successor, to use his much better cyber-sense than mine to go ahead and do it. My only stipulation was that, since the Manhattan Institute’s trustees were paying us to disseminate our shared worldview as widely as possible, the website must be free, without any advertising or distracting clutter. Brian succeeded brilliantly. By the time I turned over the editorship to him at the end of 2006, our website attracted almost 1 million readers yearly across the Anglosphere, exceeding our print readership by orders of magnitude. And now, amazingly, we have topped that annual number many times over—and we’re still growing.
In the old media, I had been reading with instant admiration the freelance New York Post opinion pieces of an irreverent, insightful financial analyst named Nicole Gelinas, whom I rushed to hire in 2005. I’d never met anyone who learned so quickly—skills, information, ideas—than this soft-spoken, independent-minded, and sharply observant young woman. From the start, she poured out a torrent of articles and Internet pieces not only on such intricate financial issues as Social Security reform, union-led shareholder activism, and the 2008 financial crisis, but on anything her insatiable curiosity lighted on, from charter schools to infrastructure to the rebuilding of hurricane-devastated New Orleans. And the torrent hasn’t stopped yet.
I hope that when Brian reports to you five years from now, when our 30th anniversary arrives, that the technological power that so vastly extended our magazine’s reach—and that, in Uber, for example, has weakened what seemed an ironclad city-protected cartel—will have abolished still more of New York government’s myriad conspiracies against the public, always with deeply concerned support and help from City Journal’s richly talented and public-spirited team of writers.