It is fitting that the world will be turning to New York City and Times Square to mark the beginning of 2000. For no other city in the world has absorbed the past century with such poise, wit and enthusiasm, nor is any city better positioned to take on the next 100-or 1,000-years. In some ways, the essence of New York has never changed. At the turn of the last millennium, Manhattan was being farmed by an indigenous people who called themselves the Lenape, whom a European settler would later describe as “very rudely and rovingly, shifting from place to place … never confining their rambling humours to any settled mansions.” Sound familiar?
For all of its breathtaking physical grandeur, its landmark buildings, magnificent bridges and sweeping parks, New York City takes its true shape from its people. We began this century with an influx of immigrants, the Irish, Jews, Italians, Russians, Germans, Poles and Eastern Europeans, and we are ending this century with a similar replenishment, this time from Asia, the Caribbean, Africa and the former Soviet Union. Whenever there’s a disruption overseas, citizens of the beleaguered countries come to this city to better their lives and the lives of their loved ones. In the process, New York’s communities are revitalized, and potent elements of foreign cultures quickly become part of the restless New York mindstream.
We are a city in transition-politically, demographically and technologically. We will have a new mayor early in the new century, and while he or she is bound to be old-school, very 20th century, a new generation of political leaders is waiting in the background, ready to stake a claim on power. Most of the City Council will be retired thanks to term limits. The 2000 U.S. Census will remind us that we are in the midst of a population change comparable to the late 19th century. And we are bidding farewell to an era that saw us become a global capital in a literal sense, and welcoming a century that will determine whether we can remain a global capital in the virtual sense.
The final years of the last decade of the 20th century have indeed been glorious for New York. We have been blessed with strong leadership, a booming economy and a sterling public image. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who made New York the safest large city in America and perhaps the world, has set a new and welcome standard for the responsibility a mayor must take for the safety of his citizens. His successors ignore that imperative at their own peril. And whether one embraces or disdains Mr. Giuliani, his greatest accomplishment is the monumental task of actually changing New Yorkers’ minds. As a city we have gone from believing that “you can’t do anything”-about dirty streets, rampant crime, education fraud-to believing you can do everything. This unbridled optimism has its own risks, of course, but it was such confidence that led John Jacob Raskob to build the Empire State Building at the beginning of the Great Depression, and John D. Rockefeller to build Rockefeller Center just a few years later. Both these men saw new horizons where others simply saw the gloom of an economic debacle.
Or look at Times Square: Just 25 years ago, it was a haven for drug dealers, pornographers and prostitutes. People were afraid to walk there. Now, on Dec. 31, the world will be tuning in to see one of the country’s best-known media-entertainment complexes, a neon-splashed maze of restored Broadway theaters and sleek new office towers that is beamed morning and night into America’s living rooms from the studios of Good Morning America , Late Night With David Letterman and the MTV network.
The turn of time’s odometer reminds us, however, that nothing lasts forever-centuries, decades, bull markets, declining crime rates, our very selves. The public face we show the world from Times Square on the last night of the century will seem self-assured, but there can be no denying the questions we have begun to ask, quietly, as we contemplate our transition to a new era.
The political stage is already being set for what might be called a post-Rudolph Giuliani era. If the Mayor wins a U.S. Senate seat next year, his remarkable tenure in City Hall will come to an end, and Public Advocate Mark Green will succeed him. A great political scrum will follow. The list of likely challengers to Mr. Green for the Democratic Party’s mayoral nomination in 2001 is already long and feisty: Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, former Deputy Mayor Fran Reiter and New-York Historical Society president Betsy Gotbaum. Again the nation will be watching our local race. It’s no accident that Rudy Giuliani versus Hillary Clinton is a lot more exciting than Al Gore versus George Bush.
The issues that New York takes into the new century are as familiar as Mr. Vallone’s Queens cadences or Mr. Hevesi’s inclusive style. Race remains a potential flash point, the topic that never goes away. It requires wisdom and experience, not youthful idealism. Just as challenging is the city’s economic future. New York has been America’s capital of commerce since the days of the Erie Canal, but the digital marketplace will change the way we do business. While some fields lend themselves to nostalgia, for the days of Alfred E. Smith and Fiorello La Guardia, the Brooklyn Dodgers and five-cent subway rides, business is not so sentimental. New York can’t simply wish away the coming changes in commerce. It must adapt.
That said, it’s hard to imagine a place more ready. In a time when the World Trade Organization couldn’t even hold a simple meeting in Seattle, the real center of global trade is here in Manhattan, where we’re trading in ideas, services, fashions and finance. The Observer is proud to be part of this renaissance and to have the good fortune to be reporting on it.
At this time, we thank our readers, subscribers and advertisers, and wish all a happy new year.