Rudy Giuliani campaigned against David Dinkins for Mayor in 1993 by calling for “one standard, one city.” And far more than even his admirers are aware, he has delivered on that promise. As he leaves office after eight memorable years, it’s worth recalling just how much he changed city politics, the Mayoralty and the city itself.
New York politics is mostly about striking caring poses. Liberals like former Mayors John Lindsay and Mr. Dinkins spoke endlessly of what the city owed the poor, but they delivered rising rates of crime and welfare. Mr. Giuliani spoke in the middle-class language of what the poor owe to the rest of society, and he delivered more peaceful neighborhoods and a rising standard of living from Mott Haven to East New York. For all of Fernando Ferrer’s assertions that Mr. Giuliani abandoned “the other New York,” the city’s poorest neighborhoods experienced the sharpest drop in crime and biggest rise in income.
None of this was predestined. No other city has made comparable gains. Past booms in the 1960’s and 1980’s failed to revive the city’s distressed neighborhoods. And very little of this would have happened had David Dinkins been reelected in 1993.
When Mr. Giuliani took office on Jan. 1, 1994, conventional wisdom had it that fear was the price people had to pay to be in New York. Not everyone agreed: In the closing years of the Dinkins administration, tourists stayed away in droves, while businesses and residents were racing for the exits in what seemed like an evacuation. Had Mr. Dinkins been reelected, the flight from fear would have become a flood.
In the early 1990’s, when the city already had lost hundreds of thousands of jobs, union leader Dennis Rivera captured the spirit of the Dinkins years. He proposed tax increases on the grounds that “if the quality of life deteriorates any further, they [those who can] will leave anyway.
“What’s going to happen to New York,” he explained, “is a repeat of Detroit; those who can escape will.” And there were plenty of reasons to escape. It seems like a memory from a distant time now, but recall that during the Dinkins years, a crowd in Washington Heights cheered when a heavy bucket hurled off a roof fatally struck a young housing cop working to clear double-parked cars so that fire engines could get through. Then there was the week of violence in Jamaica, Queens, when marauding “kids” smashed windows and looted displays in a shopping area once hailed as a haven for the black middle class.
You didn’t have to see the Whitney Biennial, featuring a photo of five black males with the words “What You Lookn At” written across it in bold letters, or the first Batman movie, which depicted a Gotham held in thrall by an artist criminal, to worry that New York might be terminally ill. You just had to listen to city leaders like former union leader Victor Gotbaum, who denounced those who were “enamored of middle-class, two-parent families with children who don’t have sex” because “middle-class values” were “contrary to the environment and lives of [New York's] students.” New York’s future was being written off.
The change under Mr. Giuliani-almost a rejoinder to Mr. Gotbaum’s disdain for middle-class values-was best encapsulated by a large billboard along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It read in giant letters: “Citi: The Bank for the Upwardly Normal.” Under Mr. Giuliani, the ideal that Mr. Gotbaum rejected-the ideal of upward mobility-once again became the defining credo of a city whose policies and politics had been based, before Mr. Giuliani entered office, on the assumption that the pathological was routine. A city once organized around the presumption that the poor were caught in a permanent depression, so that the best we could do was to make poverty comfortable, returned to the ideal of giving people a chance to make better lives for themselves. As Mr. Giuliani himself said, for many years “we blocked the genius of America for the poorest people in New York.”
Breaking the Rules
“New York’s mayors,” explained Times columnist Joyce Purnick, “have always played by unwritten rules that demanded they get along with the leading players in government.” Mr. Giuliani governed against the grain. He achieved greatness by repeatedly breaking those rules. Ed Koch had tried and failed to reform welfare and to merge the city’s transit and housing police into the NYPD. Mr. Giuliani, impervious to the criticism from powerful interests, succeeded in both cases. “The usual yelling and screaming about this program, that program,” he explained, wasn’t going to stop him. He understood that in New York, the hospitals and schools and social services were often run more for the benefit of employees than the people they were supposedly serving. In case after case, he asserted the general interest of the city as a whole over the special interests accustomed to having their way.
His successes produced not only accolades, but also anger and envy from those whose power had been diminished. The result has been numerous efforts to denigrate his accomplishments. These usually take one of three forms.
The first assertion is that crime has fallen everywhere, so Mr. Giuliani had little to do with the decrease in crime in New York. This argument was made by Mr. Ferrer, WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate, New York 1 anchor Dominic Carter and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, among others. None of these critics supplied specifics-with good reason. Crime didn’t fall everywhere, as anyone from Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit or a host of other big cities could have explained. In fact, much of the national decline in crime (anywhere from one-seventh to one-fourth) was a reflection of New York’s achievements. And just as important, in some of the cities where crime had dropped, such as Los Angeles and Boston, it has, unlike in New York, been rising again the last few years.
A corollary of the above argument has it that Mr. Giuliani was just lucky. In the words of Mr. Ferrer, it was the national economy that saved New York, and “Alan Greenspan has been … one of the greatest crime fighters.” Not true: Crime dropped by 30 percent in Mr. Giuliani’s first two years-in other words, before the 1990’s boom really took off. But even more important, the economic booms of the 1960’s and 1980’s were accompanied by rising rates of both crime and welfare. It was different this time.
Finally, the usually astute political consultant Hank Sheinkopf and a host of others have argued that nothing was accomplished in Mr. Giuliani’s second term. A popular argument has it that the only thing Mr. Giuliani did since 1997 was to harass vendors and cabbies, censor art exhibits and defend rogue cops. This caricature ignores a long list of accomplishments that received only a fraction of the publicity of the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation exhibit, but has had a far greater impact on the life of the city. These include the Herman Badillo–led reform of City University, which reintroduced academic standards to an institution long on the slide; reform of the once violence-ridden Rikers Island jail under Michael Jacobson and Bernard Kerik; the success of the Nick Scopetta–led Administration for Children’s Services; and Jason Turner’s transformation of the welfare department from an agency that handed out checks to a place where people are pushed to find work. But the biggest accomplishment of the second four years, made possible by the continued drop in crime and welfare, has been the revival of numerous neighborhoods from Harlem to Bushwick. This is an accomplishment unmatched by any Mayor since Fiorello LaGuardia.
The shadow of Rudy Giuliani’s accomplishments in reviving neighborhoods and reducing fear, welfare and the city tax burden will fall over every decision made by incoming Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mr. Giuliani has raised the bar for what we expect of New York Mayors. Before Mr. Giuliani, the conventional wisdom insisted that New York was ungovernable. New York’s problems were said to be an expression of national problems, social trends, right-wing Republicans or a variety of other bogeymen. We know better now, and we also know more about how government works, thanks to the light that Comstat has shed on New York policing. It will be harder for crime to creep up on us again, because New Yorkers can go online to get weekly crime statistics for their neighborhood precinct.
Above all, Mayor Giuliani should be remembered as the man who saved New York from self-destruction. He leaves office as “America’s Mayor,” a hero of 9/11 who is greeted with chants of “Rudy! Rudy!” wherever he goes.
But it was his response to the first crisis he faced eight years ago-when the city was careening toward disaster-that recreated the New York allure which other Americans responded to when terror struck in September.
In his final appearance as Mayor on Saturday Night Live on Dec. 15, Mr. Giuliani sang the Shirelles rock standard “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” The answer is yes-so long as New Yorkers remember how he restored the promise of American life for the city’s poorest neighborhoods.