“The Rotting of the Big Apple” September 1990


The Decline Of New York

If, as Lewis Mumford wrote, cities were created as “a means of bringing heaven down to earth” and “a symbol of the possible,” New York is the epitome of those dreams. No other city’s skyline thrusts so aggressively toward the heavens, pulling down the clouds like a monarch shrugging into a cloak. No other city’s history so embodies the idea of innovation and achievement in such a dazzling range of human endeavors. “There is no place like it, no place with an atom of its glory, pride and exultancy,” novelist Thomas Wolfe rhapsodized in 1935. “It lays its hand upon a man’s bowels; he grows drunk with ecstasy; he grows young and full of glory, he feels that he can never die.”

That is why New York was for more than two centuries — and still is — a beacon for the best, brightest and bravest people from all over the U.S. and all around the world. They come to test themselves against the toughest competition, to make a buck, to reinvent lives that seem stale in any other setting. As the song that has become the city’s unofficial anthem puts it, “If I can make it there, I’d make it anywhere.”

In virtually every category, New York has the best, the biggest, the most — except for civility, of which it has the least. With a flood of new arrivals from Europe, the Soviet Union and the Third World, New York’s population has rebounded from its 1980 low of 7 million to an estimated 8 million, more than twice as many as runner-up Los Angeles. Washington may be the home of Congress and the President, but New York is the financial capital of the world. Even with the rise of Japan and Germany, the New York Stock Exchange remains the world’s most prestigious financial market, on which stocks worth trillions of dollars are traded.

In culture too, New York remains a pacesetter. Other cities would be proud to have one world-class performing troupe. New York has dozens, including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the American Ballet Theater, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Manhattan Theater Club. As a showcase for theater, Broadway has few rivals — unless they are the city’s own off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions. Its collection of museums is a gallery in itself.

But just as the sheer size of New York’s population makes possible a dazzling smorgasbord of urban delights, it also magnifies a myriad of social ills. Only about 1 of every 100 New Yorkers is homeless, but that adds up to 90,000 people huddling in shelters or eking out a life of not-so-quiet desperation on the street. A mere 1 in 300 New Yorkers may be a victim of AIDS, but that totals 27,000 people, a staggering 19% of all confirmed cases in the U.S. Says Paul Grogan, president of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., a nonprofit housing-development organization: “New York is the same as every place — only more so.”

Until recently, the negative aspects of New York living were more than compensated by the exhilaration of simply being there. As architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable says, “When it is good, New York is very, very good. Which is why New Yorkers put up with so much that is bad.” Over the decades, Gothamites have evolved a hard-boiled, calculating approach to life that enables them to enjoy the city’s manifold pleasures while minimizing its most egregious hassles. Says Brigette Moore, 19, a college student from Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay section: “I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up in any other city. I think people in other parts of the country are more limited. In New York you have the privilege to be anything you want.”

But that balance has now begun to shift. Reason: a surge of drugs and violent crime that government officials seem utterly unable to combat. Eight other major cities have higher homicide rates, but New York’s carnage dwarfs theirs in absolute terms. Last year 1,905 people were murdered in New York, more than twice as many as in Los Angeles. In the first five months of this year, 888 homicides were committed, setting a pace that will result in a new record if it goes unchecked.

The victims have been of all races, all classes, all ages. This summer, in one eight-day period, four children were killed by stray gunshots as they played on the sidewalks, toddled in their grandmother’s kitchens or slept soundly in their own beds. Six others have been wounded since late June. So many have died that a new slang term has been coined to describe them: “mushrooms,” as vulnerable as tiny plants that spring up underfoot.

The city was still absorbing those horrors two weeks ago when Sean Healy, a prosecutor in the Bronx district attorney’s office, was cut down by a hail of gunfire as he selected a package of doughnuts from the shelf of a neighborhood grocery. That same day Vander Beatty, a former political power in Brooklyn attempting a comeback by running for district leader, was shot to death in his campaign headquarters. The prime suspect, according to police, was a longtime friend who was allegedly angry over the manner in which a lawyer who had been recommended by Beatty had handled his alimony case.

Then last week came the murder of 22-year-old Brian Watkins, an avid tennis buff from Provo, Utah, on a subway platform in midtown Manhattan. Over the years, his family frequently made a pilgrimage to watch the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Queens. En route to dinner at Tavern on the Green, a popular tourist attraction, the family was attacked by a group of eight black and Hispanic youths. After one of the gang cut open his father’s pocket to get at his money and punched his mother in the face, Brian jumped to his parents’ defense. He was stabbed with a four-inch butterfly knife and died 40 minutes later at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

The shock of Watkins’ death was intensified by the venality of its alleged motive. According to police, the suspects are members of F.T.S. (an abbreviated obscenity), a Queens youth gang that requires its members to commit a mugging as an initiation rite. They were reportedly trying to raise cash to finance an evening of frolicking at Roseland, a nearby dance hall, where six suspects were arrested. Two others were rounded up later.

Like the brutal rape of the Central Park jogger and the murder of Yusuf Hawkins in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn last year, Watkins’ death quickly assumed a larger symbolic meaning. Outside the city it confirmed what most Americans already believed: New York is an exciting but dangerous place. Among New Yorkers it reinforced the spreading conviction that the city has spun out of control. A growing sense of vulnerability has been deepened by the belief that deadly violence, once mostly confined to crime-ridden ghetto neighborhoods that the police wrote off as free-fire zones, is now lashing out randomly at anyone, anytime, even in areas once considered relatively safe.

New Yorkers were quick to notice that the Watkins family were attacked even though they were traveling in a group of five, including three men. But such a precaution did not prevent them — or thousands of city residents — from being victimized. “Crime is tearing at the vitals of this city and has completely altered ordinary life,” says Thomas Reppetto, president of the Citizens Crime Commission, a private watchdog group. “Worst of all, it is destroying the morale of our citizens.”

The looming question in many minds was what, if anything, people could do to protect themselves when children were no longer safe in their beds. “New Yorkers can put up with dirty streets, poor schools and broken subways,” warns Mitchell Moss, director of the urban research center at New York University. “But New Yorkers cannot take uncertainty — risks, yes, but not uncertainty.”

At times the city has seemed so consumed with crime that it was incapable of thinking about anything else. Nursery-school teachers in some of the city’s tougher neighborhoods train children barely old enough to talk to hit the floor at the sound of gunshots. They call them “firecrackers” and reward the swift with a lollipop.

What has most dismayed many New Yorkers is the tepid response of the city’s leaders to the surge of mayhem. Like everyone else in New York, Mayor David Dinkins and his handpicked police commissioner, Lee Brown, seem at a loss for remedies to the worst crime wave to hit the city in a decade. “New York is in desperate need of leadership,” says Moss, “and it simply isn’t there.” A TIME/CNN poll of New Yorkers taken during this summer’s rash of killings showed that only 47% approved of Dinkins’ performance, and an equal number believed he is no different or worse than his abrasive predecessor, Edward I. Koch.

New York’s plunge into chaos cannot be blamed on Dinkins, who has been in office for only nine months. In fact, he has inherited the whirlwind sown by decades of benign neglect, misplaced priorities and outright incompetence at every level of government. If during the city’s close brush with bankruptcy during the 1970s Gerald Ford was willing to let New York drop dead, the Reagan Administration seemed eager to bury it. Since 1980, cutbacks in federal aid have cost New York billions, with funds for subsidized housing alone dropping $16 billion. Despite a series of state and local levies that now place New Yorkers among the most heavily taxed citizens in the nation, the city has never recovered from those setbacks.

Most brutally hit have been basic social services. Even with the addition of 1,058 new police officers in October, the force will still be 14% smaller than its 1975 level of 31,683. Meanwhile crime, fueled by the drug epidemic, has jumped 25%. Since 1987, the number of street sweepers has been slashed from 1,400 to 300, trash collections in midtown Manhattan have been reduced by a third, and what used to be daily rounds in the outer boroughs have been reduced to twice a week. Epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis and syphilis have pushed the health-care system to the breaking point. As many New Yorkers are waiting for public housing as there are existing units, leading occupants to double or triple up in a frantic bid for shelter. “The chickens have come home to roost,” says Madeline Lee, executive director of the New York Foundation, which supports community projects for the disadvantaged, “and New York doesn’t let anyone escape from the reality of that.”

That reality includes an infrastructure so dilapidated that the very streets seem to be rising up in rebellion. A year ago, a series of exploding steam pipes spewed carcinogenic asbestos into apartment houses in Manhattan. When some residents moved back into their homes after a protracted cleanup, objects of value had been stolen.

During the roaring 1980s, it appeared that New York might slip by. High finance and a booming real estate market transported New York to a paroxysm of unbridled capitalism, with all its attendant glitz and excess. At the height of the bull market, 60,000 new jobs were being created annually, luring droves of hyperambitious baby boomers to the canyons of Wall Street and midtown Manhattan. Nicknamed “the Erector set,” a stable of real estate developers transformed the cityscape, throwing up 50 million sq. ft. of glistening office monoliths within Manhattan alone. New fortunes upended the city’s social lineage, shoving Rockefeller and Astor aside for Trump, Steinberg and Kravis. The new barons redefined wealth beyond Jay Gatsby’s wildest dreams, ensconcing themselves in palatial aeries groaning with old masters and nouveau exorbitance.

But behind the blinding glitter of the new multimillionaires, the city was failing the bulk of its citizens. Even the basic rudiments of civil behavior seemed to evaporate along with the glitter of the boom times. Every day 155,000 subway riders jump the turnstiles, denying the cash-strapped mass transit system at least $65 million annually. The streets have become public rest rooms for both people and animals, even though failure to clean up after a pet dog carries fines of up to $100. What was once the bustle of a hyperkinetic city has become a demented frenzy.

Skyrocketing real estate prices (a one-room apartment that rents for $800 a month is considered a bargain) have driven middle-class families out of Manhattan and are threatening the creative enterprises that make the island a cultural oasis. Twenty years ago, about 50 or 60 new productions opened on Broadway each year. Today soaring costs have driven the price of an orchestra seat to $60, and a healthy season yields no more than 35 new shows, only 12 of which are deemed successes. In dance alone, New York lost 55 world-class studios in the past four years. Others, including Martha Graham Dance, are considering following the example of the Joffrey Ballet by establishing second and third homes in other cities. That means a shorter season in New York. “This is the most expensive, difficult and competitive city for arts organizations,” says David Resnicow, president of the Arts and Communications Counselors, which arranges sponsorships for corporations and cultural institutions. “You don’t have to be in New York to make it. ”

The daily litany of problems seems all the starker now because of the feverish boosterism that characterized Koch’s three terms as mayor. The 65- year-old Democrat lived and breathed New York, taking the pulse of the city through his own. “How’m I doin’?” was his constant question as he flitted from fire to shooting to gala to press conference. For much of his 12-year tenure, the answer was “O.K.” But rampant corruption within his administration and the widening economic and racial fissures in the city ultimately soured New Yorkers on their tireless but tiresome mayor.

Last November New Yorkers turned to Dinkins in the hope that the cautious and gentle veteran clubhouse politician would heal the rifts among them and offer a modicum of racial peace. “A Gorgeous Mosaic” became the 63-year-old grandfather’s metaphor for his divided city, and he pulled together an ethnically diverse electorate to become New York’s first black mayor by a narrow margin. Dinkins has named more minorities to top-level staff positions than any mayor before him and has drawn on a national pool of talent to fill posts in his administration. With little fanfare, the silver-haired insider fashioned a slash-and-tax $28 billion budget that met with grudging approval from unions and business leaders alike.

But the battle for survival is being fought on the sidewalks of New York, not in the ledger books. And so far, Dinkins’ lackluster performance has strengthened the unsettling sense that he is simply not up to his job. In the war against crime, Dinkins’ initiatives have been piecemeal and halting, ranging from a stillborn gun-amnesty program (only 35 illegal firearms have been turned in) to the hiring of less than a fourth of the additional 5,000 officers that police commissioner Brown contends are needed to win back the streets.

Part of the mayor’s problem is style. Unlike the prickly Koch, Dinkins rarely raises his voice and disdains the finger-in-your-chest aggressiveness that has characterized New York politicians since the days of Tammany Hall. He is far more comfortable in quiet back-room negotiations than in public confrontations with unhappy constituents. His finest hour may have been the lavish hero’s welcome the city provided in June for South African leader Nelson Mandela, for whom New York’s warring ethnic groups seemed to put aside their differences during a three-day celebration of racial harmony.

A more serious drawback is Dinkins’ reluctance to attack problems in a direct and forceful way. Since January, for example, the Flatbush section of Brooklyn has been roiled by a black boycott of two Korean grocery stores that began after a Haitian woman accused the Koreans of assaulting her in an argument over a dollar’s worth of fruit. The shopowners obtained a civil court injunction ordering the protesters to remain at least 50 ft. away from the shops’ entrances, but Dinkins has not ordered the police to enforce it. Instead, he appointed a commission to review his handling of the affair. Not surprisingly, the report it issued two weeks ago praised the mayor’s conduct and lambasted Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes for not vigorously pushing the investigation and prosecution of the Haitian woman’s original complaint.

Despite the mounting unease about his leadership, Dinkins remains unfazed. His response last week to demands that he publicly condemn the Watkins murder was characteristically orotund. Quoth the mayor: “I say that if two nations are in dispute and one diplomat says to the representative of another government, ‘Her Majesty’s government is exceedingly distressed,’ everybody knows that means we’re mad as hell. Now, however, I’m prepared to say I’m mad as hell, not simply ‘We’re exceedingly distressed.’ ”

Even so, Dinkins’ remark was a significant shift from his earlier pronouncements. At times the mayor has attempted to downplay the crime wave as a public relations problem: “This administration is doing all it can to win back our streets. Some of it has been to address the image of the city. People need to feel secure, and ((a bad image)) adversely impacts business and tourism.” He has also portrayed the outbreak as a local manifestation of a national crisis beyond his control: “If the problems of drugs and crime were only in New York, then you could ask, What is it that you folks are doing wrong? But all of our urban centers are afflicted similarly. The fact that it’s happening somewhere else doesn’t mean that I don’t have a problem to address. But the fact that the problem is regional or nationwide does say that the Federal Government should assist in addressing it.” Says Dinkins: “You have to have credibility. People have to have faith in you.”

These days faith is in short supply. So is money. Megadeveloper Lew Rudin, who heads a corporate cheerleading organization, Association for a Better New York, estimates it would take $5 trillion to bring his city back up to par. Although its annual budget is larger than that of all but two states, New York City is in a financial straitjacket, and the nation’s economic downturn, more harshly reflected in the Northeast than elsewhere, offers little hope for future relief. Says financier Felix Rohatyn, who devised the plan that saved New York from bankruptcy 15 years ago: “I just don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, we cannot turn our back on the city now.” Facing a $1.8 billion shortfall, the Dinkins administration has been forced to raise taxes $800 million and cut city services more than $200 million.

Such cutbacks mean that for average New Yorkers the struggle to attain what other Americans take for granted will become even more grueling. The challenge is especially tough for families with children. New York public schools are burdened with educating 940,000 students, representing 150 countries and speaking more than 100 languages. Less than half read at or above grade level, 1 out of 3 drop out before their senior year, and those who do stay in school often take five to seven years to graduate from high school. The system itself is rife with troubles. Almost a third of the city’s 32 local school boards are under investigation for corruption, building maintenance has chalked up a $500 million backlog, and a basic in-school service like nursing care has been slashed 86%. An impossible caseload of 1,000 high school students for every guidance counselor makes a mockery of the profession.

Other New Yorkers are waging private wars for safe and affordable housing. Willie Olmo, an electronics technician who supports his wife Mabel and five daughters on a salary of $30,000, had nowhere to go last year when the landlord abandoned the apartment building in which the family lived. When police declined to drive away crack users who had set up a drug den in the building’s basement, Olmo picked up a baseball bat and chased them out himself. He then bought walkie-talkies with his own money and started a tenants’ patrol, which has since expanded into a neighborhood watch committee. Next he persuaded his neighbors to lease the building from the city and manage it themselves. “We’ve tried to improve the neighborhood so we could live here,” says Mabel. “Rents everywhere else are too high.”

For those who can afford it, the increasingly attractive choice is to leave New York behind. According to the Household Goods Carriers’ Bureau, which tracks the business of the city’s six largest moving companies, 12,000 more customers moved out over the past two years than moved in. For the first time in this century, fear of crime is the main catalyst for this burgeoning exodus. “People may want to be here,” says Richard Anderson, head of New York’s Regional Plan Association, “but the things that drive them away are bubbling to the surface.” Says Laura Ziman, a native New Yorker who recently fled to upstate New York with her husband and their two toddlers: “I love the city, but it’s just becoming unlivable.”

So far the exodus from New York is no more than a trickle. But it could become a flood if the fear of crime begins to overshadow the city’s unique combination of pizazz and opportunity. Unchecked violence has already dulled the luster of the Big Apple. The daunting task before its leaders is to prevent it from rotting to the core.

CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 1,009 New York City residents for TIME/CNN on Aug. 2 to 5 by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. Sampling is plus or minus 3%.

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