Bloomberg Facing Two Big Questions

I didn’t think Michael Bloomberg would be our Mayor in a million years, much less this year, and I said so in this space with some asperity. So I qualify as one of several thousand pundits in whose advice he should be utterly uninterested. But here are two pieces anyway. You paid $69 million for the job, Mr. Mayor; pontifications from blowhards come with it.

The best moment of his first week was probably the official swearing-in before the city clerk on Dec. 31, when Mr. Bloomberg paid 15 cents for the relevant form. His little parable, as he counted out the 15 pennies, about how big jobs begin with small steps, was right on the money. The administrations of his two predecessors were shaped by small steps, taken early on. David Dinkins let Sonny Carson, a black bigot, harass a Korean-owned fruit stand with a racially inspired boycott. Rudy Giuliani swept up the squeegee men who guarded our bridges like bouncers at a velvet rope. Mayor Dinkins, by his little step, showed that he would not say no to anyone, however poisonous; Mayor Giuliani, by his, showed that he would say no to everyone, however pathetic.

Mayor Bloomberg has already cited quality-of-life crimes as one of his concerns. Well he might, for cracking down on them was the first step in cleaning up the city. New Yorkers, given an unimaginable reprieve from the dirt and disorder that ruled the city from John Lindsay through the Summer of Sam up to Crown Heights and Larry Hogue, looked anxiously for signs of slippage as 2001 wound down. A friend in Chelsea tells me that the kids in the projects across from his walk-up are getting restless. Presumably they don’t read the papers. But their higher-ups in the drug industry do, and they may have alerted their field reps that better times were coming. Or maybe the crooked cops, who exist among the heroes, passed the word that they would be working less, so the un-uniformed crooks could work more. Or maybe the diversion of resources to homeland defense after Sept. 11 encouraged friskiness. Whatever the cause, Mayor Bloomberg and his team should pay attention.

Then there are the homeless, beginning to appear in their blanket tents and their appliance-box huts. When some scaffolding went up in my neighborhood (when isn’t scaffolding going up?), a young derelict told a nearby doorman that they were building his house. In midtown, as Heather MacDonald wrote in The Wall Street Journal , the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church has gone to court to defend its right to let bums camp by its walls at night. Not inside the church, mind you. This is not the charity of giving what you have, but the charity of annoying your neighbors. The homeless, meanwhile, do have an alternative, for there are shelters where they can, and should, go. The traditional complaint, before Giuliani time, was that the shelters were crowded and dangerous. The real reason for the reluctance of many derelicts to use them was that the shelters enforced minimal standards of behavior (no drugs, no drug-dealing). This, too, could be a portent.

Sheltered beings, such as you and me, notice these problems when they appear in the nicer parts of Manhattan. But the people who suffer most when the gears of order start slipping are the poor. When their neighborhoods start to go, they don’t become unpleasant, they become unlivable. They don’t just lose purses to muggers; they lose lives in gun battles. Their limousine service is the subway. The social gap between them and our first billionaire Mayor is as great as it can possibly be. But he must be their front line in the war against disorder, because they, not he, are on the firing line when disorder breaks out.

Another question, which will not be resolved for months or even years, is already on the agenda: What to do with the site of the World Trade Center? John Whitehead has announced that the Twin Towers will almost certainly not be reproduced. That is the right decision: They are icons, but (now the truth can be told) they were never lovely. There must be a memorial, and it must be as grand as it is sorrowful. Please do not give this commission to some rusted-metal modernist. But many New Yorkers–including, unfortunately, former Mayor Giuliani–want the whole site to be set aside for remembrance and grief. This would be a terrible mistake.

One reason we don’t want office buildings to rise again is our superior attitude towards commerce. If the victims of Sept. 11 had been murdered in some religious or cultural institution–a church, a college, an art gallery–we would not feel the same unwillingness to rebuild. Worshippers, scholars and connoisseurs, we would think, could go about their business with a seriousness appropriate to the place. But brokers?

This is unfair to the people who worked, and died, in the World Trade Center. All the obits in The New York Times showed hundreds of young people getting a start on their lives; hundreds of immigrants, from dishwashers to keypunchers, getting a leg up on life in the bush; hundreds of suburbanites, whose main interests were their families or their pastimes, but who sustained them with their jobs. In the great overture to his History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson , Henry Adams wrote that reactionary Americans and snobbish Euros both looked on the average Yank as a greedy money-grubber. His real motive, though, Adams wrote, was imagination. “[They saw what] any inventor or discoverer must have seen in order to give him the energy of success …. Within a moment, by the mere contact of a moral atmosphere, they saw the gold and the jewels, the summer cornfields and the glowing continent.” Work can be a moral enterprise. It happens in the world, but it works through the world, and changes it. That is why Osama bin Laden, who knows only death, pride and his own pinched understanding of Allah, hates it.

If we turned the entire World Trade Center site into a vast cemetery, we would not only be false to the victims; we would be agreeing with their killers. The terrorists we are hunting down are besotted with death. From the Ayatollah Khomeini on, every Middle Eastern radical movement has been intoxicated with martyrs, religious or secular. The young men studying how to blow themselves up; the boys in their radical madrassas who, between memorization and groping each other, are taught to be sacrifices: They worship death, and prepare to be dead people. We have better things to do. We now know, if we didn’t before, that death is our companion; there is a place for him, as for Elijah, at every feast; we all meet him, sooner or later. But to make him a house in the greatest downtown on earth would be to join the other side. Bloomberg Facing Two Big Questions