New York City

The Unsinkable City

A new book explores how New York has transformed itself since the crises of the 1970s.

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Sometime around 1978 I was on line to use an ATM near Columbia University when a deranged man wrapped in a moving blanket came up to the young woman in front of me and began screaming his vilest fantasies at her. The poor woman, like everyone else in line, pretended the man didn't exist. But the ravings only continued; he was practically screaming rape in her ear.

Finally I started screaming back. I'm not sure what I yelled—I just hoped I could bluff him into quitting. Amazingly, he began to slink off, but not before cackling as he revealed a bread knife that, in memory, looms as large as a cavalry sword.

Such was everyday life in the apocalyptic New York of that era. The city was essentially bankrupt, its residents were moved to extraordinary levels of violence, and Gotham's vital circulating system—its graffiti-encrusted subways—was near collapse. Schools, roads, public housing, you name it: It was all failing. People who could afford to leave fled in droves. It's hard to believe that anyone who lived through those times could have foreseen the astonishing resurrection of the place that followed. But even at its worst, the city never lost its profound vitality.

Since then New York has made like Lazarus, not just rising from the dead but also following its most famous statue's advice by welcoming the immigrants who have played a crucial role in revitalizing the city. In coming back to life, it has overcome crime, default, crack, blackouts, hurricanes, 9/11, the COVID pandemic, and even Bill de Blasio.

In a book as marvelous and maddening as the city itself, Thomas Dyja tells the story of this remarkable resurrection. New York, New York, New York opens on Valentine's Day 1978, when pols and celebs braved a snowstorm to launch a desperate new "I Love New York" marketing campaign. From there the book races around town and across 36 years spanned by four mayors, sticking to the headlines but also getting behind them, parading and prodding the rich and famous. It makes the case, sometimes unwittingly, that government works best when it recognizes its limits, that capable people can work miracles when engaged, and that New York may well be unsinkable. At least pending rising sea levels.

Dyja's energetic storytelling, eclectic interests, and supple prose make New York, New York, New York a tour de force, and his intellectual integrity overcomes the passionate political convictions that help to make his chronicle so pungent. Still, it's frustrating at times to be dragged around town by someone who seems to see the bad things that happen as divine retribution (for the usual sins of capitalism, whiteness, etc.) and who averts his eyes from some inconvenient aspects of the story.

Crime was the overwhelming issue of the era and brutalized the most vulnerable New Yorkers, yet it gets little attention until it's time to cover its conquest. The public employee unions that exercised such vast and doleful influence get barely a nod. Dyja slaps around the conservative Manhattan Institute without seriously engaging with the liberal ideas and assumptions that accounted for much of the city's trouble. He lauds the government's efforts to build affordable housing but ignores the many factors that historically made housing in New York so scarce and shabby, including rent control, arcane zoning rules, hostile NIMBYs, and an endless approvals process.

Back in the 1970s, for example, a developer tried to put a market in the grandly vaulted space under the Manhattan side of the Queensboro Bridge—a grimy cavern used at the time for storage. City agencies, politicians, and residents locked horns, litigation ensued, and it was 22 years before the plans came to fruition. Another example: the two miles of Second Avenue subway New York managed to build after decades of delays cost more than $2 billion per mile, five or 10 times the cost in other expensive cities around the world. At these prices, you can't much develop outlying neighborhoods because you can't afford to install transit. No wonder it's so hard to build anything but condos for tycoons.

It's also unfortunate that Dyja says nothing about how the City University of New York, a historic ladder to prosperity wrecked by open enrollment and self-serving bureaucracy, was restored to health and function. It's a case study in how delusional idealism harmed the very people it was supposed to help—and how city institutions were salvaged in the city's rise from the ashes, in this case by a chancellor named Matthew Goldstein.

Enough already. Those who want a different perspective on big government's impact in New York can look to important earlier books by Charles R. Morris (The Cost of Good Intentions) and Vincent Cannato (The Ungovernable City), among others. Dyja is up to something else entirely, painting a vaster and more dynamic canvas that does vivid justice to the infinite complexity of the nation's most important city. So we get not just mayoral politics and business improvement districts, but Saul Steinberg and Bernhard Goetz, Elaine's and Patti Smith, Andy Warhol and hip hop. We also get the important figures—like park saviors Gordon Davis and Elizabeth Barlow—who rolled up their sleeves and did the CPR, pumping the city's chest until it was ruddy once again with life.

Dyja is tough but fair on the four mayors—Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Bloomberg—who pass beneath his microscope. Being New York's mayor is a thankless if not hopeless task, and a political dead end too, so it's not surprising that seekers of this office might tend to be slightly crazy. An earlier mayor, the photogenic liberal John Lindsay, was thoroughly masticated by his two terms, and the financial crisis that came to a head under one-term hack Abe Beame (whose unironic campaign motto was "Beame knows the buck") delivered the city into the unsentimental hands of a panel of financial overseers.

Even under the best of circumstances, mayoral authority has long been quite circumscribed. As Lindsay learned, the unions ran their domains and the state controlled much of the rest. It took legislation—hotly contested—from Albany just to require city dwellers to pick up after their dogs. Mayoral control over such crucial functions as transit and education has waxed and waned over the years, but the voters blame the incumbent regardless.

New Yorkers remember Ed Koch for his eagerness ("How'm I doing?!") and pugnacity. Even as Dyja tags him for indifference toward blacks and for refusing to come out as gay (which he may or may not have been), the author credits him for important management reforms needed to turn what had long been a disorganized patronage machine into a functioning city government. His successor, the ever-courteous David Dinkins, is Dyja's favorite, yet also the weakest. The most liberal of the quartet, he also hired Ray Kelly as police commissioner and found the money to add thousands more cops (hired after he left office) as part of Kelly's extensive crime-fighting plan. These actions (at the very least) coincided with the start of a long and multi-mayor decline in the city's horrendous crime rate—at the end of which New York would be the safest major metropolis in America.

Dyja dislikes the unlikable Giuliani even more than he does Koch. We can tell because his animosity gets the better of him and he mocks the new mayor's eight-year-old son, who during his father's inaugural address "jutted his chin like a mini-Mussolini, pumping a fist as he chanted along with his father's oddly imperial closing. 'It should be so and it will be so!'" Still, Dyja gives the future devil his due in recounting the mayor's steadiness and dedication on that bright September day 20 years ago when two hijacked jets smashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Having just finished cancer treatments, "Rudy Giuliani led the way through it all."

Dyja is aghast throughout at the affluence of plutocrats and yuppies alike (rich artists like Jeff Koons get a pass), yet he sees billionaire Mike Bloomberg as a great mayor. Even in condemning the stop-and-frisk policing that was a blot on the administration, the author observes: "The City had helped break the fever of crime with some extreme measures akin to chemotherapy. But chemotherapy stops." Bill DeBlasio, by contrast, is eviscerated in a brief and devastating epilogue that portrays him as vain, ineffectual, and expedient—even if he is the most progressive of the lot. In short, Dyja's judgements about such things are honest and do not always accord with what you might expect from his politics.

By the end of this bravura performance, you may even find yourself nostalgic for the New York of the bad old days. Take my advice: Get over it.

New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation, by Thomas Dyja, Simon & Schuster, 544 pages, $30

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45 responses to “The Unsinkable City

  1. Sea level rise caused by Earth’s natural warming cycle suggests low elevation NYC is very sinkable.

    1. Yeah, I saw the graphic in the major newspapers 15 years ago. The Chrysler Building and Empire State Building should be underwater by now.

      1. the Miami Marlins played a game last nite despite Sports Illustrated promising their stadium would also be underwater by now.

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    2. Sea level rise is plodding along at its usual 8″/century. At that rate, it will take a long time for NYC to disappear.

    3. This is a great business opportunity. Buy glass-bottomed boats and sell tours of the sunken city.

    4. I didn’t read the article either, just came here for the climate change comments.

  2. And of course the progressive discriminatory policy of covid passports isn’t going to help keep New York afloat either.

  3. I think the book is out of date by about eight years.

    1. Yup.

    2. People really do forget, to their peril, what a shit-hole NYC was. And while it’s nowhere near the cesspool it was in the 80s, I understand it’s certainly making its way back.

      As a 18yr old yokel in the 80’s and on leave in the city, I remember seeing Guardian Angels running after some mofo, incredible sight! And one trip into the subways removed any notion I had of the “sophistication” of the Big Apple.

      I’ve never been back, and I understand it’s nearly unrecognizable from what it was in the 80s, much like DC, whose change I did witness. I’d hate to see the progress in quality of life there go back in the dumps, but it’s probably inevitable due to the horrible financial decisions that are being made in this country.

  4. Does anyone give a shit about NYC?

    1. Sorry to offend anyone who lives there but yes there’s a lot of fancy things and good people but it also smelled like piss, garbage, and had little green space or quiet places. I can see why we get some of the insane policies we do like the passport from their when behavioral sink is happening to them every day.

      1. and to follow that up philly may be worse.

    2. I give a shit about all my tax dollars that are shoveled into the hands of that city and the billionaires living in that city courtesy of the federal government.

  5. Once upon a time (like in the 17th century) New Amsterdam had an admirable focus on free commerce, and thus incidentally on a free society, especially compared to the Puritan ass holes in Massachusetts. It has gone down hill ever since.

    1. And the Dutch people are still the tallest in the world because of it.

  6. By the end of this bravura performance, you may even find yourself nostalgic for the New York of the bad old days.

    Hell of a recommendation, Daniel.

  7. I’ve never seen a place with so much money that is so awful in so many ways.

    1. I drove through in the early 90s. We hit a detour on I95 and had to drive through the Bronx at about 2 a.m. Every surface was covered in graffiti. It was like a movie set. I’ve never felt any need to see it again. Concrete, graffiti, and piss bums. You get to pay double for everything so that you can be part of this country’s largest slum.

    2. I guess you never saw 9th century Rome or 17th century Paris.

    3. Isn’t that kind of every big city?

      1. Every North American city.

        I used to travel a lot with a job I had, mostly to Europe, but also Dubai, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul. I was used to how, even in the same continent, cities like London, Barcelona, Frankfurt, Edinburgh, Warsaw, etc. are radically different from each other.
        The first time I visited New York was 2013, and I was struck mostly how unremarkable and not unique it was. Manhattan was reminiscent of any eastern North America downtown core x10. I saw mostly aspects of Toronto, Boston, Calgary, Chicago and Cleveland. It was a bit of a let down.

        1. And here is where you make your mistake–

          The first time I visited New York was 2013, and I was struck mostly how unremarkable and not unique it was. Manhattan was reminiscent of any eastern North America downtown core x10. I saw mostly aspects of Toronto, Boston, Calgary, Chicago and Cleveland. It was a bit of a let down.

          But it is a forgivable one.

          What you miss is precedence. New York is not reminiscent of those other cities, THEY are reminiscent of New York.

          In fact, across the world, most cities are. With older cities, you have the pre-NYC core with NYC style areas welded on. With newer ones, they just copy and weld traditional elements on.

          When you see it in the right order, the perspective shifts radically

    4. Never took a vacation in California?

  8. More than 50 years ago, a candidate for mayor “had the guts to tell the truth.” Not enough Noo Yawkers listened; John Lindsay won, and the rest, as they say, is history.

  9. Well at least idiot DeBlammo is leaving, and Cuomo (hopefully).

    New Yorkers have a least some chance of doing better. But I won’t ever set foot in that place.

  10. Dyja is tough but fair on the four mayors—Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Bloomberg

    4 mayors in a 40 year span. That might be part of the problem.

  11. New Yorkers remember Ed Koch for his eagerness (“How’m I doing?!”) and pugnacity. Even as Dyja tags him for indifference toward blacks and for refusing to come out as gay (which he may or may not have been)

    I’m sure that would have worked out well for an NYC mayor in the 70s and 80s.

  12. in the 80s I was strictly verboten from sneaking into NYC for Yankees games but *was* allowed to goto Baltimore for Orioles games. probably the other way around if now

    1. The whole city went to hell when Cal Ripken left.

      1. Thea team went to hell when Angelos morphed into Jerry Jones. He still makes money and the lemmings still buy tickets.

      2. I liked Mark Belanger better anyway

  13. “Challenge accepted”, sayeth the current leaders.

  14. Sometime around 1978 I was on line to use an ATM near Columbia University when a deranged man wrapped in a moving blanket came up to the young woman in front of me and began screaming his vilest fantasies at her. The poor woman, like everyone else in line, pretended the man didn’t exist. But the ravings only continued; he was practically screaming rape in her ear.

    You described Seattle yesterday afternoon.

    1. Subway, eat fresh

    2. This happened in Seattle just recently. Literally what should be the safest building in the city is the most dangerous fucking place to be.

      After sexually attacking a woman in a restroom inside the King County Courthouse Thursday morning, Clint Jory propositioned a Seattle police detective for sex, according to an attempted second-degree rape charge King County prosecutors on Friday rush-filed against him.

      The charges, which note Jory, 35, was released from the King County Jail six days before Thursday’s attempted rape, include a rapid recidivism aggravator. Because the felony charge was filed Friday, Jory did not make an initial court appearance for a probable-cause hearing and he remains jailed in lieu of $750,000 bail, jail and court records show.

      He is to be arraigned Aug. 12. Court records don’t yet indicate which attorney is representing him.

      Jory was released from jail on July 23 after serving 21 months for indecent liberties with forcible compulsion and three counts of fourth-degree assault, two of them with sexual motivation.

      This maddening “released” after repeated dangerous crimes is by design of the city Attorney, Pete Holmes, and is being codified into law by the city council.

      1. He was arrested in May 2019 after groping one woman as he pinned her to a wall, slapping the buttocks of two other women, and grabbing a fourth woman in a bear hug before she fought him off, court records say. The women were all strangers to Jory and were assaulted in quick succession at their workplaces in Pioneer Square, according to the records.

        King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers said Thursday was the worst day at the courthouse since 1995, when a man shot three women, killing two of them, outside a family law courtroom.

        He said his bailiff quit because of Thursday’s attempted sexual assault and said he himself was nearly shot on July 15 as he walked through the park on his way home.

        Rogers has repeatedly called attention to safety concerns of courthouse employees and visitors due to assaults and threats from residents of a homeless encampment in City Hall Park. He and other judges have called for the immediate closure of the park.

        It’s an UNSINKABLE CITY! Just ignore the policies that got us here, or (God fucking willing) the policies of the people that will dig us out.

      2. Numerous discussions were underway Friday about courthouse security protocols, according to Rogers, who said ballistic glass was installed in all the windows facing the park up to the courthouse’s third floor because of bullet strikes to the building. One round entered a commissioner’s chambers.

        “As bad as it is outside, there was a feeling you could come inside, go to work and be safe,” he said. “That feeling you can be safe at work is gone.”

        But others, including King County Public Defender Anita Khandelwal, have cautioned against swift action to close the park because it could lead to new encampments nearby.

        This is a platinum-plated case study on how voting for the wrong local political candidates can have real and damaging consequences.

  15. Unsinkable my foot.

    New York is plenty sinkable. As evidenced by the fact that it almost sunk. And may well be on the way to sinking once again. New York survived by virtue of specific policies put into place and changes made to its government. Notably, Dyja rejects and derides just about every one of them. And Akst seems to concur, or at least have no particular objection. I mean, David Dinkins?! The guy was an utter disaster. And yet he seems to be Dyja’s favorite. But, Giuliani, the mayor who actually did the most to turn the city around gets attacked with the notable exception of 9/11, when his major accomplishment was mostly PR. And it’s funny that he dislikes DeBlasio, given that he seems to mirror the policy mix Dyja sounds like he advocates.

    And the most disastrous part is that the city has been systematically dismantling all the changes that brought it back from the brink. It’s as if New York’s political class agrees with Dyja that the city is unsinkable. So full steam ahead to that iceberg on the horizon!

  16. New York is a garbage city. The people there are so miserable they think everywhere else is like them, then are shocked to discover what the real world is like when they eventually leave.

    It’s like People in the bay area moving to Red states to continue their idiotic voting habits

  17. NYC is the major city in New York.
    Every ten years the Census is used to reapportion the House of Representatives. States losing population in relation to the U.S. lose seats, states gaining population gain seats.
    The last time New York broke even was 1940. Every Census since then the state has lost at least one seat in the House. It will enter the 2022 election with 19 fewer Representatives than it had in 1942.
    The 1970s were indeed a disaster; New York lost five seats in the 1980 census alone. But it has yet to reverse its 80-year decline.

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