While it’s become profoundly safer in New York City over the past 10 years to walk to the corner market late at night, one cannot say the same thing about the short trip to the kitchen faucet. The quality of the city’s water-90 percent of which sluices down from the Catskills-has become questionable enough to elicit interest on the part of the federal government. And for some reason, our local elected officials have failed to grasp the very real consequences of what happens when a world-class city has third-rate water. Instead, they have treated the city’s water as if it were an abstract principle instead of a priceless commodity which, once lost, will cost untold billions to regain. Which is exactly, of course, the bill New Yorkers may soon be forced to pay.
How did this happen? Back in 1997, the feds stepped in and demanded that the city build a $6 billion filtration plant, just the sort of enormous expenditure to strain the city’s economic vitality. Consumers would see their water bills climb significantly. The city quickly promised the Environmental Protection Agency that it would take steps to protect its water. In exchange, the E.P.A. would grant a five-year waiver on the filtration plant, with the understanding that, if the water was better protected, the plant might never have to be built. But now the E.P.A. reports that the city has not kept its end of the bargain. The message from Washington is clear: The next mayoral administration better start pricing multibillion-dollar water filters.
The E.P.A. found that the city has failed to modernize sewage treatment plants and has not purchased enough land around the reservoirs. Upstate residents have no love for New York City, and would love to sell their land to real estate developers. Now that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is not running for Senate, he should be more aggressive in tweaking upstate sensibilities by asserting the city’s right to the watershed land, and seize the property by eminent domain if necessary.
It may not be too late to save the city from paying $6 billion for a decent glass of water.
Rudy, Nasty and Nice
Now that Rudolph Giuliani has eased himself out of a Senate race and a bad marriage, and suddenly become the city’s cuddliest politician, there is the risk that the final 18 months of his term will go all too gently into that good night. Especially as the public pays more attention to the Rick Lazio–Hillary Clinton wars than it does to the latest goings-on at City Hall. A slackening of tension and resolve on Mr. Giuliani’s part would be a shame; he has been one of New York’s best mayors, and he did so by staying true to his character and blasting through layers of bureaucratic bedrock which had paralyzed the city for years.
The recent warm-and-fuzzy announcement of the new budget, in which the Mayor even agreed to increase city funding of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, is evidence that conviviality can breed productivity. But what does the Mayor need to focus on next? Foremost, of course, is his health. That said, there are other areas that require vigilance. Because of term limits, most of the city’s major elected officials-public advocate Mark Green, comptroller Alan Hevesi, Mr. Giuliani, over half of the City Council-will soon be exiting their jobs and campaigning for new ones. This feverish climate must not distract Mr. Giuliani from a strong finish.
One area that will require toughness is the one upon which the Mayor built his first term, namely, quality of life. Fighting crime and cleaning the streets-without these essentials, nothing else is even worth discussing. Next, he might want to tackle the housing crisis: Ambitious college grads are being priced out of decent neighborhoods, as are most middle-class professionals. Without a major push for private development of new housing, the city’s success may only end up helping the suburbs. Then there’s education. Schools chancellor Harold Levy has come up with some refreshing ideas, such as finding a way to recruit teachers from other careers, people who don’t necessarily have a teaching degree. Mr. Giuliani has a vigorous reformer in Mr. Levy, and he should work with him to overhaul the city’s most embarrassing debacle, its public education system.
None of these things will be easy. But that shouldn’t be a problem. While the “new Rudy” has many attractive features, the old model is what brought New York to its current prosperity.
A West Side Winner
With the federal government’s approval, the much-anticipated Hudson River Park has moved closer to reality. In five years or so, the West Side of Manhattan from the Battery to 59th Street will be transformed from a rotting hulk to a five-mile stretch of park. Many of us no doubt will wonder why we neglected such an obvious natural resource for so many years. But this is not just a victory for Manhattanites who might enjoy a stroll along the Hudson; it represents a victory over the old way of doing-or rather, not doing-things. For nearly a quarter-century, obstructionists had their way, as project after project around the city was stopped, sometimes with good reason, but often on spurious grounds. The New York that built the George Washington Bridge gave way to a New York that didn’t want anything built. The new park will prove that the city can benefit from a large-scale public project which has private development as a key ingredient.
The green light from Washington, D.C., means that the park’s opponents can do very little. Governor George Pataki deserves credit for challenging the status quo-it is not hard to imagine his advisers telling him to stay away from the politically contentious, and not particularly friendly, West Side.
Future generations may indeed marvel at the achievement, in the same way that many of us thank the men and women who left the great legacy called Central Park.