For Richer or Poorer

It’s become something of a popular myth that the strength in New York City’s economy has enriched the rich while leaving the middle class and poor far behind. This fits nicely with the concept that the pretext of the Giuliani Administration has been to coddle the wealthy and let everyone else fend for themselves. That this is far from the truth is seen in a striking new survey from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which shows that it’s not just the Wall Street hotshots and dot-com kids who have benefited from the city’s economic vitality.

The survey, conducted since 1965 by the U.S. Census Bureau, reports that from 1992 to 1998, the median income in the city rose by 13 percent, compared with a national rise of 9 percent. The survey also found that poverty in city households was reduced from 21 percent to 18 percent between 1995 and 1998. If one takes into account that between 1997 and 2000, the city’s unemployment rate dropped from 10.1 percent to 6.2 percent, spread out among all five boroughs, the depth of New York’s economic renewal becomes clear. These numbers clearly show up in the reborn retail environments of formerly distressed areas. For example, a Barnes & Noble store recently opened in the Bronx, in a neighborhood that a decade ago the city had pretty much written off.

The statistics are particularly important because various interest groups don’t want the good news to spread. Take the Community Service Society, which caused a stir when it reported that poverty rates in New York had risen among educated, intact families. As reported by GothamGazette.com, that study conveniently downplayed the fact that the last decade has seen a large increase in foreign-born workers, who are educated and have intact families, but who will need a few years to bring their skills to fruition. In other words, they are not chronically poor, but rather ambitious immigrants.

New York’s ongoing revival has clearly touched the lives of the majority of its citizens. Of course an eventual downturn in the city’s financial services sector could have the opposite effect. This rising tide may be lifting all boats, but that’s no excuse for not preparing for stormy weather.

A New Zoning Diet

Joe Rose, director of New York’s Department of City Planning, has taken a look at a dusty old document that was drawn up in the era of bobby socks and automats and proposed a welcome rewrite. That document is the city’s 1961 zoning resolution, which grew out of a 1950’s urban renewal mind-set that favored mega projects such as giant towers and universal high-rise housing, and ignored the role of pedestrian life. Mr. Rose’s plan is heading for the City Council, and has provoked a lengthy attack by The New York Times’ architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp.

Most observers hated the 1961 resolution, and so it was amended hundreds of times. Now the document is at war with itself. It is either too restrictive or it allows just about anything to be built. No one-including architects, civic leaders and developers-understands the current 975-page swamp. Which means it actually favors those developers who try to bend the rules. The new zoning proposal will allow the city to enter the 21st century with a reasonable and intelligible zoning system. The Uniform Bulk Program, as it is called, would take into account the needs of individual neighborhoods, rather than treating them all alike. Specifically, it would set height limits on new skyscrapers, ranging from 360 feet to 720 feet, with some exemptions for commercial areas. Mr. Rose also suggests a design review panel, made up of architects, which would examine requests from developers looking to get around the new zoning laws. Cities such as Paris and Barcelona do very well with such design referees. Mr. Muschamp’s objection was that the panel would have too much power; but since the panel would be accountable to the Mayor, voters would still have the ultimate final say.

Mr. Rose deserves credit for re-imagining New York’s skyline. One trusts the City Council will help him break ground on his vision.

Hillary’s Partisan Police Report

Cynics might say that the timing of the United States Civil Rights Commission’s 250-page report attacking the New York City Police Department for, among other things, racial profiling, is a bit suspicious, coming as it does in the heat of a Senate race in which one of the likely participants, Rudolph Giuliani, is Mayor of that city. Cynics might note that because the commission actually takes the words of Al Sharpton, the bigoted, media-hungry, riot-inciting enemy of the Mayor, and Norman Siegel, the knee-jerking head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, at face value, the rest of the report is equally suspect. Cynics might point out that, because the head of the commission, Mary Frances Berry, has contributed to the campaign of Mr. Giuliani’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, the report is clearly ideologically driven and intrinsically corrupt. Those cynics, of course, might be right.

Now, there is no question that there are problems with the police in New York, and that the department needs to do more to recruit minority officers. But compared with other cities, New York’s fight against crime has been conducted with a minimum of weapons fired and lives lost. In fact, many lives have been saved: Brooklyn, which has always been one of the higher crime areas of the city, now has a lower murder rate than similar counties in eight other cities, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia. Indeed, in the last several years, the murder rate in Brooklyn has dropped significantly more than the decline nationwide.

Should Mr. Giuliani remain in the race, expect to hear Mrs. Clinton refer often to the commission’s report. Since the facts don’t support her contention that the city has failed to protect its citizens, she’ll be leaning pretty heavily on the commission’s skewed treatise, which from its inception has looked an awful lot like a classic effort to use federal government resources to influence a local election.