A MayorWon’t Solve Our Problems

We’re looking in the wrong places for the best beast to be king of the beasts in the jungle of New York. We’re picking up the rocks of our ideologies, Republican versus Democrat, liberal versus conservative, bleeding heart versus heart of stone. We think that the Mayor will make decisions that will help or harm neighborhoods based on ethnic loyalty or sympathy with the very poor or the very rich. We think, in other words, that our city is a civilized city-state like Florence or Athens. We think that someone of good will could get the trash picked up, keep the cops from shoving sticks into citizens and make our children into literate, rational, noncriminal, computer-wise contributors to the public weal.

We think that someone has the key to good hospitals for both the poor and the rich, and that someone out there, maybe even one of the candidates, knows what to do about the drug-runners, and the lost souls who hear voices, and the women with too many children, and the children who are stored in foster homes and the constant bumping into one another of groups that want their streets cleared of maniacs and civil libertarians who believe in free speech whether or not it’s sensible.

We think someone can curb the incivility of the public, cut the bureaucracy and pump Prozac through the air-conditioners. We think someone has the right method up his sleeve to keep the market up, the parades coming, and the Yankees’ and the Mets’ win-lose ratio positive. In other words, we think that the Mayor is a pivotal figure in our deeply desired, always urgently required salvation.

Wrong. The Mayor may be a father figure, or a mother figure, a ribbon-cutter, an enthusiast, a moralist or a tennis player, a feminist or a booster of parochial schools. It really doesn’t matter when it comes to how the city will be run and what will happen to all of us. The Mayor’s job comes with lots of patronage, and that’s nice for someone. If the Rev. Al Sharpton had become a candidate for Mayor and then won, some folks he knows personally would experience a jump in income and the Jews would shiver in their boots, unnecessarily. Except for inciting riots, which would be a lot less appealing to him if his administration had to pick up the pieces afterward, there’s not much he could do. Park Avenue would still have doormen who were Serbs. The cabdrivers would still be Pakistanis. The schools would still be overcrowded. And it would still be better to be rich than poor, and even if with all his heart he would like to empty out the Dalton School and move its science lab to Bedford-Stuyvesant, he couldn’t. Maybe he would like the Korean grocery stores handed over to his ethnic group of choice. Dream on, Al, it’ll never happen. Maybe he would like the Harmonie Club turned into a soup kitchen, and perhaps he would prefer to have the University Club leased to a Baptist church, but he hasn’t a prayer.

pIn the parts of this population who don’t hang around in the summer, we think of Al Sharpton as a liar’s liar, Rudolph Giuliani as a breath of frigid air and Ruth Messinger as a knee-jerk of times gone by. But what could any of them do to make things worse? Right after the election, the unions, the fat cats, the landlords, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, would be back on their feet, making sure the logjams were not unjammed.

Don’t imagine that if Serpico himself were elected, police brutality would end. The evil hand on the billy club will always be there. The line between cop and criminal will always wiggle and blur. What practical means we can use to build trust between cops and the neighborhood will be done by good managers, by baby-step good will efforts, not by Republican ice packs or Democratic heat. Only on Sesame Street will the policemen be kindergarten teachers in costume.

I don’t think Mr. Giuliani wants a police force on the rampage through the streets. I don’t think anyone does. That is not a political position. I don’t believe that any mayor wants children abused or neglected in foster homes, or families spending nights in offices, but the best good will in the world isn’t going to change the situation. The difference between us and Calcutta lies not in our Mayor but in our microchips, our grasp of financial markets, our sanitation and transportation. And we could argue that the difference is not as great as one might suppose.

As long as I can remember, there have been unacceptable slums in New York where rats run up and down urine-stained staircases. I do not believe that the most white-shoe, Republican of mayors liked it that way. I do not believe that any Democratic mayor strolled through the bad streets at night and said, “Who cares? I’m on my way to the opera.” Nevertheless, all efforts have been mere drops in the bucket, temporary, cosmetic scenery over the windows of abandoned buildings. The commissioners of this or that ride around in cars and carry briefcases back and forth, and nothing changes. If all the city commissioners were Hispanic, Washington Heights would still be a good place to get killed if you’re driving a gypsy cab. If every City Hall appointee were a member of Louis Farrakhan’s mosque or the Lubavitcher’s court, we’d still have teenagers with babies and schools with classes like the packed rafts that brought so many Haitians to their last swim in the Caribbean seas.

We overestimate the power of the Mayor. We overestimate the matter of ethnic solidarity of those we elect. We pay too much attention to rhetoric and not enough to picking up the piece of paper the guy in front of us has just tossed on the curb. We think that some principle is at stake with mayoral elections. Nothing is at stake because those on top will stay on top, and those on the bottom will fill up the jails. We might as well resurrect Boss Tweed. At least then, you knew what office door to knock on if you wanted a permit to do something impermissible. Now you have to go to Donald Manes’ grave and sacrifice a chicken.

We tend to think in terms of heroes who will return our civic virtue. But a good mayor is a middle-level manager who can keep the lid on. A really bad mayor is sloppy, and the problems that a good mayor would have swept under the rug become all too visible. A really good mayor manages the things that can be managed and doesn’t talk about the rest. A really good mayor is a technocrat who hires efficient people to run what can be run. Most of this city can’t. Most all of our civic problems arise from the nasty way both machines and humans have of breaking down and needing expensive repairs. Most of our real problems, the ones that truly matter, will not be solved by a mayor who comes from the party you prefer, which ever party you prefer.

Which is why I want to write George Clooney’s name on the ballet. He at least looks good while defusing a nuclear bomb.

A MayorWon’t Solve Our Problems