New York is, simply, the greatest city that has ever existed. One approaches it by air with the greatest respect, at least if the air is clear, for the immensity, the staggering size of the city would impress even the most deadened mind. The city is, from the air, a complete, masterly statement of human accomplishment.
But from the ground, New York City is an expression of something else. It is an expression of great human achievement betrayed, greatly betrayed, by an underlying fever of destructiveness. The City is frightening, and mean: often, in the manic tangle of rush-hour stampedes, the sweltering, gloomy, dark and violent subways, the pounding din of road and sewer excavation, the vicious stares of strangers, one realizes that the City is not so very far away from the edge of civilization. And one wonders how this City came to be as it now it.
If one is a stranger with time to spare, one questions, one looks, one journeys across the City for answers to the question. From the manager of a once-luxurious hotel now housing welfare cases, the answer is simply "the blacks." From a caseworker in the City Welfare Department, the answer is "capitalism." From a parole officer in the Police Department, the answer is "the welfare system." From an executive in a large employment agency, it is "the tax structure." From others, one hears "crime," "drugs," "Lindsay."
New York's troubles stem from a deeper root. This City, the shrine/citadel of American liberalism, is so imbued with the tenets of its religion that it cannot face the reason for its failures. The reason is politics.
New York's religion is Government, Social Necessity, Public Good, and attendant lesser sacraments. It has taken the faith very seriously, because it convinced itself early on that social awareness is very noble and very necessary—in sum, very humanitarian. (Or, to be more accurate, the overwhelming bulk of New York's financial and social élite convinced itself of this.) Politics correspondingly became the focus of interest and endeavor; teachers, garbagemen, sewage personnel, welfare workers, welfare recipients, construction employees, and organized crime entwined their interests in those of the political machine and created a system which nourished their special interests.
Unfortunately, it turns out, while each special interest picks the pocket of everyone else, its own pocket is being picked in turn. This fact, dimly registering, has prompted the spread of the practice known as "Abandon Ship". Municipal employees exchange their urban dwellings in favor of suburban or triple their energies to secure fat pensions and salaries from the ruins of the City's economy. Unions press for special favors and restrict the supply of skilled tradesmen. And meanwhile, of course, productive private industries—essential to the City's tax base—run off helter skelter. The City is doomed.
Such a realization, perhaps, prompted Mayor Lindsay to remark recently that New York City "is probably ungovernable." He is so right—at least as long as the freedom of entrance and egress prevails—because productive people will inevitably seek out the areas in which they are least governed. The conclusion for the City, then, is simple. If New York is to have its betrayed greatness returned, politics and the destructive spirit it has engendered must be recognized as evil and abolished.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "New York—Death of a City".