Most of America's older cities are in decline. Detroit is the most depopulated; Washington, D.C., the most violent; Philadelphia, the closest to bankruptcy. But New York is the only American city with a national reputation. Its leaders are national figures; its struggles are reported by journalists from around the world. Few Americans care about local politics in Chicago or Los Angeles, but everyone has an opinion about New York.
A recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer explained the roots of our love and fear of the Big Apple. The editorialist confessed that he doesn't like to read stories about crime in his own city, but he enjoys reading about New York thugs. Hometown crime, he said, is depressing. New York crime…well, that's theater.
It's the melodramatic nature of New York life that makes the city endlessly fascinating to those of us in the provinces. Compare new arrivals to New York City with their counterparts in Washington, D.C. People come to Washington to be conformists, to join a collective crusade with people who dress, think, and act exactly as they do. People come to New York in the hope that the city can become the backdrop for the drama of their lives.
Washingtonians yearn to be courtiers; New Yorkers strive to become products one cannot live without. If the Washingtonian desires to be as provocative as a government report, the New Yorker wants her life to be as packed with incident and adventure as a Victorian romance. Other cities can barely manage a campfire of the vanities, but New York always offers a full and hearty bonfire.
Most writers describe only a portion of Near York life. But Joan Didion, in the January 17 New York Review of Books, attempts to capture the voice and spirit of the city as a whole. The center of Didion's article is the affair of the Central Park jogger. For the first half of her piece (lengthy even by NYRB standards), she describes the basic facts of the case, how the jogger was assaulted by a gang of brutal thugs who nearly killed her. The case interests Didion because it is Rife with Mythic Significance. The jogger was raped and beaten in Central Park, so Didion gets to give us the history of the park, "an artificial pastoral in the nineteenth-century English romantic tradition."
Then she discusses why New Yorkers don't like to compete; how bribes have ensured that the city has few supermarkets (a supermarket, she helpfully explains, "is a market that does an annual volume of two million dollars"); why Mexico City is more efficient than New York; why the city bans trash compactors ("a kitchen appliance accepted throughout the rest of the United States as a basic postwar amenity"); the experiences of innocent tourists maimed by thugs; why blacks feel paranoid about whites; the curious history of the Rev. Al Sharpton; and many other subjects.
Didion's prose is the literary equivalent of unflavored yogurt. It is digestible, nutritious, and naturally sour. But the hard edge her work had in the '60s has been lost. She does not interview anyone, content to hide in the library and flood the reader with information. Further, her conclusions are hardly original. "What is singular about New York," she writes, "is the minimal level of comfort and opportunity its citizens have come to accept." (The city doesn't work very well.)
"It was only within the transforming nature of 'contrasts' that both the essential criminality of the city and its related absence of civility could become points of pride, evidence of 'energy.'" (Crooks love New York.) "This perception that something was 'wrong' in New York had been insidious, a slow onset illness at first noticeable only in periods of temporary remission." (The city doesn't work very well.) The problem with Didion's article is that she offers no solutions and no diagnoses of how New York became as decayed as it is. Such an article would be difficult to write, as the author would have to combine the literary talents of a great novelist and the analytic skills of a master social scientist, the strengths of Tom Wolfe and Charles Murray. But articles can be helpful if they provide case studies of New York's decline. Take Peter Hellman's "How to Cut the Budget" in the January 21 New York.
Hellman notes that while New York City's population in the 1980s stayed constant at 7.3 million, the city boosted its workforce from 292,000 to 363,000 and its budget from $13.3 billion to $28.1 billion. As developers and banks fail, the city's tax collections are steadily falling, and New York is already the most taxed city in America. (The combined state and local income-tax rate for New Yorkers earning over $12,400 is 11.5 percent; citizens of "Taxachusetts," by contrast, pay a 5-percent income tax.) But Hellman reveals that these taxes, rather than funding useful services, give New York municipal employees some of the most generous benefits in America.
Many of these perks were provided before and during New York's last financial crisis in the late 1960s and the 1970s, as mayors John Lindsay and Abe Beame gave the unions goodies to prevent strikes. For example, 120 people work full time for city-employee unions, but their wages (totaling about $3.6 million) are paid by taxpayers. At school headquarters, six employees of the American Federation of Teachers get government salaries; the union pays another 27, but the city provides their pensions. Why should unions get tax subsidies? According to one of John Lindsay's executive orders, such work is "time devoted to the public interest."
Not surprisingly, New York unions act not in the public interest but in their own interest. Many of the stories of union waste, fraud, and chicanery Hellman tells have to do with the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the city's main police union. Thanks to PBA negotiators, New York cops get two days off every time they donate blood. When a cop has to meet with an assistant district attorney to discuss the details of an arrest, his visit usually involves a 14-hour wait in "one of the sorriest sights in all city government"—a waiting room where the police "snooze, snore, munch, and play cards for hours on end" while making $29 an hour in overtime pay.
But the union most successful at negotiating cushy deals for its members is one of the city's most obscure—the school custodians' union. The custodial contract, says Hellman, is "the most egregious of all city labor agreements." Until recently, he reports, custodians could demand massive "admission fees" to keep schools open in the afternoons. These fees have since been turned into a $6,000 increase in salary, but school officials still have to pay huge amounts for routine chores not covered in the union contract. One school board member was charged $400 by a custodian to open a school at night—even though the board member had a key to the front door.
Even when custodians decide to take on extra work, other unions block them. Recently the school custodians agreed to paint 20 percent of the city's schools each year. The painters' union sued, and the custodians agreed to paint only to a height of 10 feet—which, in old schools with 14-foot ceilings, left four feet for the painters.
The antics of the school custodians are perhaps trivial, but they suggest a wider problem. Taxes, bureaucracy, and unions have clearly clogged New York's economic, cultural, and social arteries. But while most commentators contend that the city will likely suffer the financial equivalent of a massive coronary, Peter Salins, in the January 21 New Republic, observes that the city, while sick, is far from dead.
Salins, a professor of urban planning at Hunter College, notes that New York City is still a haven for immigrants. With only 3 percent of the nation's population, the city attracts 15 percent of America's immigrants. These new arrivals—Koreans, Vietnamese, Middle Easterners, Russians, and Hispanics from many nations, help New York in two ways. First, they create jobs and enrich the economy. In the 1970s, 40,000 apartments were abandoned in New York each year; in the 1980s, immigrants reclaimed once depopulated areas, with the result that "housing abandonment has been reduced to a trickle."
Second, the diversity of these immigrants lowers the odds that New York's melting pot will be replaced by ethnic voting blocs. Only 24 percent of New Yorkers are black, the lowest percentage of any major city east of the Rockies. David Dinkins, argues Salins, was elected not because of his skin color but because Hispanics, Jews, and whites found Dinkins's promise "to rise above racial politics" attractive.
Salins, appropriately, is a contributor to NY, a new Manhattan Institute quarterly that includes a dose of optimism in every issue. NY—a cross between The Public Interest and The New Yorker, combining reporting and analysis of social problems with cultural critiques—has at least one article in each issue about improvements in the city.
In the winter issue, Roger Waldinger, a sociologist at the City University of New York, notes that immigrants have revived New York's garment industry. For example, at least 250 Korean firms make clothes; their small size ensures that they can quickly shift their production lines to meet the needs of the rapidly changing women's fashion market. Far from being a "quaint relic" of the past, says Waldinger, "the health of the industry is a vibrant indicator of the city's strengths." In the same issue, George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, discusses ways that New York's subways have been made safer and cleaner without excessive spending or needless infringement of people's rights.
At its best, New York has a vibrancy and flair most cities lack. As Salins observes, the city may be an "ethnic cauldron," but such bubbling activity is far better than the fate of most American cities, where urban renewal and zoning have created "newly rehabilitated but half-empty downtowns surrounded by a sea of physical, social, and population decline."
Martin Morse Wooster is the Washington editor REASON.