Twenty years ago, the streets of the city resembled Travis Bickle’s New York. Crime rates were high as the city succumbed to a crack epidemic. Every square inch of every subway car was covered in graffiti, drug dealers plied their trade openly in public parks, Times Square was home to a stretch of strip clubs and homeless encampments, and no one could enter the city without being accosted by a “squeegee man” who would menace “tips” from people looking to spend dining and entertainment dollars in town. The city was thought to be “ungovernable.” And in a sad sign of surrender that matched the malaise of even the city’s political and business leaders, cars sported diamond-shaped white flags—“No Radio” signs.
Enter Rudolph Giuliani.
Mr. Giuliani, a Flatbush native, began his famed New York City cleanup as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in the ’80s. He devoted special energy to drug dealers and organized crime leaders, ultimately wiping over 4,000 criminals off the streets—including 11 members of New York’s Mafia families. The mob was in full-scale retreat, thanks to convictions, guilty pleas and the new reality of conducting a criminal enterprise in New York: your own recorded conversations would be used against you and would turn your underlings into cooperative government witnesses.
Mr. Giuliani ran for mayor in 1989, expecting to take on Ed Koch, who was seeking a fourth term. Instead, David Dinkins beat Mr. Koch in the Democratic primary and managed to squeak by Mr. Giuliani in a bitter election. More than 2,000 New Yorkers were murdered in each of the four years of the Dinkins administration, and one in seven city residents was on welfare. Something had to give.
In an equally bitter rematch four years later, Mr. Giuliani prevailed, and in January 1994, facing a nearly impossible task, he entered office as New York’s 107th mayor. Because of his reputation as a crusading prosecutor, expectations were high that he would “get tough” on crime, dirt and incivility. On the other hand, conventional wisdom was that NYC was too big to tame: too many neighborhoods in decline, too much diversity, too much power in the hands of unaccountable labor unions, too sprawling to manage—and with a gigantic deficit to boot. Maybe New York would just keep wearing its grime and meanness as a badge of toughness.
Mayor Giuliani reversed the city’s slide and transformed its safety, its look and its attitude. He lowered taxes and crime rates dropped significantly—the murder rate was cut by 66 percent, the administration claimed—and Times Square was transformed into the family-friendly tourism center it is today.
Although as mayor he was unafraid to make opponents into critics or enemies, Mr. Giuliani’s most enduring legacy will be his admirable leadership in holding the city together during its most devastating ordeal, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Following the attacks, Mr. Giuliani was everywhere, urging the city—and the nation as a whole—to unite and rebuild. David Letterman gave words to what many New Yorkers were feeling: “It’s terribly sad here in New York City—you can feel it, you can see it … Watch how this guy behaved, watch how this guy conducted himself, watch what this guy did, listen to what this guy said. Rudy Giuliani is the personification of courage. To run the city in the midst of this obscene chaos and also demonstrate human dignity, my God, who can do that?”
With Mr. Giuliani as its leader, New York City scrambled to its feet, stronger and prouder than ever before. Mr. Giuliani was knighted by the queen of England and named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. And his endorsement of Michael Bloomberg, during a time when Mr. Giuliani was at the peak of his popularity, helped ensure that the city would maintain the momentum his own administration had fought so hard to establish.