It was a different city then, and not a better one. When The New York Observer first appeared in lobbies on the Upper East Side and at a scattering of newsstands in Manhattan, the fat years of the 1980s were over, the ebullient mayoralty of Ed Koch was ensnared in scandal, the AIDS epidemic was creating a hole in the heart of a generation, and out-of-control crime, crack and taxes were combining to drive businesses and families beyond the five boroughs.
There was a sense that the boom of the mid-1980s was a cruel illusion, that the city was on the verge of falling backward, back to the awful 1970s, to yawning budget gaps and cuts to vital services, to a terrible feeling the city’s best days had come and gone.
The New York Observer did not claim to have the answers to the problems that so perplexed this emerald city. But it promised to deliver new ideas, fearlessly. It promised to introduce new voices, regularly.
And, more than anything else, it offered the unconditional love that the city so desperately needed.
There was nothing objective about this new journal’s relationship with the city it covered. The Observer’s gimlet-eyed writers may have been horrified by this development or that policy—from the art world to City Hall to the Stock Exchange—but there was never a doubt that the brilliance of their criticisms and the passion of their arguments came from an absolute love of a city that could never let them down.
And so this curious amalgam of viewpoints called The New York Observer took hold. Those accustomed to weeklies that tailored coverage to predetermined points of view were puzzled. What sort of newspaper was this, anyway? How was it that the editorial page could assail the mayor one week and praise him the next? Why was it that one writer insisted that the titans of commerce were but midgets on stilts, while another saw only brilliance on Wall Street?
Was this new journal part of the Democratic Party’s Amen Corner? Or was it another desperate Republican affiliate determined to press on despite the odds?
In those early years, the newspaper was described as both liberal and conservative, depending on which outlet was misreading its contents. The paper came with no warning label, no telltale clues, no signature point of view. No wonder so many were confused.
The Observer was, and remains, neither left nor right, neither Republican nor Democrat. It is a newspaper that has endorsed Bob Dole and Barack Obama, Mario Cuomo and Mike Bloomberg, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney. The Observer supports gay marriage and opposes hiking the minimum wage.
If you are asking for consistency, you are asking the wrong question. If you are searching for partisan attachment, you may seek, but you shall not find.
The Observer, from its very beginning, has expressed nothing but impatience for cant and ideology. It has brought in writers who ask questions based on knowledge and keen observation, not on dogma. It has cultivated thinkers who understand how the world works in practice, not how it might in theory.
Over the quarter-century of its existence, The New York Observer has witnessed an extraordinary evolution in the city’s political culture. Once it was enough for candidates for local office to mouth pieties about issues far afield from the everyday business of running a city. Some neighborhoods thought “economic progress” was a contradiction in terms. Crime was so rampant many simply considered it a convenience fee.
All that has changed. The era of 2,000 murders a year belongs to a distant past. Ideology has given way to common sense on tax policy (although taxes still are too high), school reform (although much more is needed) and development (there are still too many rules, but the skyline continues to change).
New Yorkers have grown accustomed to pragmatic problem-solvers in City Hall and elsewhere, and that has led to a notable shift in expectations. This year’s field of mayoral candidates can expect to be asked about their plans for everything from waste disposal to teacher tenure rules. They will not be asked about how they will change the world. They will be asked how they will maintain the city’s remarkable quality of life.
New York City today not only is the safest large city in the United States, it is among the best-
governed. The city remains raucous and chaotic and passionate, but New Yorkers have come to expect competence and accountability, not pieties and pandering.
Through the years, The Observer has cultivated writers who shared the paper’s institutional impatience with accepted wisdom. These writers, then and now, demand the attention of readers who refuse to be intimidated by semicolons; indeed, the compound sentences and baroque rhythms of the paper’s long-form narratives have brought readers stories and reflections they cannot find anywhere else.
The media world in which The Observer was launched belongs to another age, a digital age, in the sense that so much was done by hand, from the production of pages to, well, the turning of pages. The Observer of a quarter-century ago was updated on Wednesdays and was sent to subscribers by mail. Today’s Observer is accessible on a phone and updated several times an hour.
Historians one day will regard the last quarter-century as an era in which New York reinvented itself. That process has not been smooth, and it has not been painless.
But 25 years after the city seemed on the verge of another collective nervous breakdown, it is now the very model of a governable city. Experts come here to see how we solve our problems.
The Observer has been on hand to chronicle this extraordinary change. It has been our privilege, and we hope yours as well.
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