Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is my colleague and friend Steve Malanga. Steve is our senior editor at City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. We’ve invited him to come on the show today to discuss his new essay, “The Bill Comes Due,” which details New York City’s budget dilemmas and the fiscal challenges facing its next mayor. Steve’s essay is featured in our new special issue, called New York City Reborn, which we’ve just released. The issue includes essays by long-time City Journal writers and others, on how New York City can regain order and prosperity as it rebuilds, following the COVID-19 pandemic. You can find the issue and request print copy on our website. Thanks very much for joining us as always, Steve.
Steven Malanga: My pleasure.
Brian Anderson: You write, in this essay, that Mayor de Blasio, from the time he took office in 2013, through the formation of his actual 2020 budget, boosted city spending by $25 billion. This is a very significant 34% growth rate. He added something on the order of 30,000 full-time positions to the city staff. This was the largest increase in municipal workers in 40 years. New York City provides its employees, of course, generous pensions and fringe benefits. And the mayor’s concessions to unions, as you note, including retroactive pay increases, have boosted the city’s personnel costs by billions. So, could you describe some of the policies that have contributed to the city’s bloated payroll, and offer your take on how these personnel costs could start being pared back?
Steven Malanga: Yeah, so, I mean, it basically falls into two categories, giving those who work for the city more, and making more of them, hiring more of them. There was an unprecedented, really, expansion of the city workforce by about the 30,000 full-time workers, that was about an 11% increase. We haven’t seen anything like that since back in the days, in the aftermath of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when the city had been forced to cut its workforce, really cut to the bone. We had gone down to only 200,000 workers in the city at that time, and afterwards, when the city recovered, it was allowed, of course, to finally build back up, especially its police force and its… The fire department too, both of which had been cut back dramatically. But de Blasio came in, and at a time when the city’s force was already at a significant high, he added 30,000 workers.
If you consider that the cost, the average cost of employing a city worker… Now, not high-end city workers, but the average city worker, it costs about $151,000, counting salaries and benefits. That’s what the average worker costs. Those are enormous costs, just expanding the size of the workforce that much. Now, some of that came because of individual programs. He had a lot of programs that were somewhat controversial and remain controversial. Certainly, his mental health initiative is one of those, it’s been highly criticized by people within the city council, for instance, because spent an awful lot of money. But in addition to that, there seems to be very little payback, and anyone who wants to understand, in great detail, why that’s the case, should read the City Journal law articles that we’ve published on the program. But there were thousands of workers added to some departments there.
The other big area, of course, was the board of education, and especially pre-K. The mayor started off with the idea that we wanted to have free pre-K for kids, lower income kids who were four years old, and he started with that. It’s somewhat controversial. [Kehan 00:04:12] Woods has written extensively about how there have been studies of pre-K, going back all the way to the 1970s, showing that the payoff, in terms of educational achievement, is very, very small, if anything at all. But beyond that, he started that modestly, but then expanded it to, kind of, universal pre-K, and then down into three-year-olds. And he even argued that, for the sake of equity, a word that’s thrown around a lot these days, we had to expand the program, not just to lower income kids, but to middle-class kids, because it was a matter of equity now. I mean, this is a kind of perversion of the word equity. Just imagine if every program we have for the poor and now every social program has to be expended to the middle class [crosstalk 00:04:58].
Brian Anderson: It becomes the universal entitlement.
Steven Malanga: Exactly. So, but what that did was, it created this huge jump in the workforce. At the same time, we talk about giving those workers that were already working, more. He did something else that was unprecedented, in Bloomberg’s final term, he had tried to negotiate significant givebacks from the city unions, particularly on healthcare, because they have… Their healthcare is not only premium, compared to those in the private sector, including those working at Fortune 500 companies in the private sector, but it’s even at a premium to those working at other cities and its State government in New York, they pay… Senior employees pay virtually nothing. And we also offer almost that same exact deal to retirees. So it’s if we’re paying for two workforces in the most expensive way possible, for healthcare. Bloomberg had tried to get that back. The employees… The unions had balked at at, and therefore did not even sign the contract.
They decided that they would outlast Bloomberg, hoping that they could get somebody better in the next election, and they hit the jackpot. What de Blasio did was, he not only didn’t ask for these givebacks, but instead, he gave them a retroactive pay increases for the Bloomberg years. So, for much of de Blasio’s eight years in office, we actually been paying workers bonuses and raises for work they did during the Bloomberg years. That’s, kind of, the definition, of course, of inefficient government, and it’s not something that anyone does regularly. And in fact, it’s so expensive that, even in the pandemic year, we were scheduled to make… The city was scheduled to make a $900 million payment to teachers.
Again, because of this retroactive pay, which these payments have been stripped out over eight years, the union was kind to the city, they said, “Well, we’ll only take half this year, and you’ll have to pay the half the next year.” But this is how long this has gone on for. So, these areas, in particular, vastly increase the spending, and more so than increase the spending, what they did was they increased what we call the baseline of the budget. Meaning the next mayor who comes in has to deal with all of this. It’s not like these were one-time expenditures that disappear. These are people who work for the city now. These are benefits and pay levels that are in contract right now. So, the next mayor will face this. And that’s part of the challenge that I say in my piece, which is really about the fiscal challenge that the next mayor is going to face. That’s part of the challenge.
Brian Anderson: Now, there’s a considerable amount of money in the stimulus, the new federal stimulus bill that will be sent to States and cities across the country, including New York City, in effect to, kind of, a bail out of the city’s current situation. I think New York City is facing a $5 billion or $5.25 billion budget deficit this year. How is that going to be affected by the stimulus?
Steven Malanga: Yes. So, first of all, I would call a generous amount of money an understatement. People have called this a bailout for dysfunctional governments in States and cities around America because everybody is getting a nice little piece, but it’s particularly helpful to places that were in trouble, not principally because of the pandemic. There’s no denying that the pandemic has created extraordinary expenses, but we’ve seen, around the country, that the economy has bounced back so fast that in many places, California, for instance, they’re actually running budget surpluses now, even without the Biden money. The larger issue is that there are places like New York, that had spent so much that they were just incapable of absorbing even a short time hit to their revenues. So, what the Biden money does is, it basically says that it allows de Blasio to not have to cut much his final year in office.
What happens is, he, right now, is crafting a budget which goes into effect on July 1st. And it’s… The new mayor takes all over next January, and a half of the year, this first half of year is actually de Blasio’s budget. But de Blasio was allowed. He doesn’t have to really cut any more in the middle of this fiscal year. And he can create a budget next year, that isn’t under a lot of pressure. But if you look at the accumulated deficits that are projected by the city itself, and by some of the fiscal monitors of the city, there we’re talking about as much as 13 to $14 billion in deficits in the next three to four years. Now, again, the Biden stimulus money is not continuing money, although I would imagine that Biden would try to continue it in the Democratic Congress, might look for ways to continue it, but they’ll probably, at some point, run out of good excuses for why they should be sending this much money to the States and cities.
So, because it’s not continuous money, because it’s one time money, the accumulated deficits that people are projecting in the next couple of years, far outstrip the money that the city is actually going to get. So, at some point, in the next mayor’s term, he’s going to face, I think, perhaps a significant budget challenge. A lot of what he faces will depend on to what extent the city’s economy rebounds. Even with an economy getting back to where it was heading before the pandemic, people were already projecting, and even de Blasio was saying, “Well, we’re going to have a problem here in 2020, and we have to deal with that.” Then the pandemic came along and the problems became much worse.
If the city’s economy, and there’s a lot of uncertainty here, doesn’t bounce back even to the pre pandemic levels, and there are reasons to think that might be the case, including remote work and these lawsuits that are going on from other States, saying, “You have to stop taxing our workers like in New Jersey and Connecticut because they’re no longer working in your city, they’re working remotely anymore.” Because of things like that, the next mayor could face significant budget problems, which were exacerbated by the fact that de Blasio increased the budget so much.
Brian Anderson: Now, de Blasio and some of his allies have proposed hiking taxes on wealthier residents in the cities, the city, to bring in revenue. But as you know, New York already is one of the most heavily taxed big cities in the U.S., if not the most heavily taxed, I’m wondering, what’s your view on the likelihood of a tax rate increase, and how that would affect the city’s budget, the city’s population? Would it indeed bring in more revenue?
Steven Malanga: Well, first of all, perversely, one of the good outcomes of the Biden stimulus is, I think that it mutes some of that discussion, even though there are a lot of far left progressives, both in the New York State legislature and in New York City Council, who would like to tax anyway, just because it’s fun. I don’t think they… I think that the Biden stimulus has somewhat muted that discussion. The Manhattan Institute did a survey of New York City residents, back in August and September, asking them about the condition of the city, asking them about what they thought were some of the best ways to get the city back on track. And Manhattan residents, who are hardly the most conservative voters in the world by any means, said, by an overwhelming amount, that they already pay much more in taxes than they get in services.
And a significant percentage of those we surveyed said they were thinking of leaving New York for a whole host of reasons, many of them actually having to do with the pandemic. But regardless of what reason people are saying, they are thinking of leaving the city. Even if it’s not specifically for taxes, when you have a large part of the population saying that they’re overtaxed, relative to the benefits they think they’re getting already, then taxing them only exacerbates potential of exodus of people from New York, that we’re very much watching closely because we just don’t know how this is going to play out. And we do know that during the pandemic, many, many people left the city, people with aware of all left the city, and some of them are not coming back.
Brian Anderson: We’ve gone through two previous recent crises in the city, 9/11 and then the financial crisis. How does the current situation, post pandemic, compare with those two earlier catastrophes that struck New York?
Steven Malanga: Well, one of the things I would say is that the pandemic is unprecedented because it does create something that people were talking about months ago, and they stopped talking to you about it now, but it’s still out there, and that’s the, kind of, the V-shaped recovery. The thing is that the recovery from 2008, which was a very deep financial driven recession, financial services driven recession, and even the recovery from 2002, which there were two things going on. Of course, you had 9/11, but you also had this nationwide economic decline and stock market decline that was driven by different factors, including the meltdown of NASDAQ and technology stocks in 2000 and 2001. In retrospect, of course, the city actually recovered from 9/11, far quicker than people thought it was going to, considering all of these uncertainties about New York City as a target city.
The recovery from 2008 was aided by the fact that the federal government, though they didn’t send a lot of money in stimulus money to cities and States after that, they did send $800 billion to financial services firms, many of which were located in New York City. So, that… You know what? Essentially, what happened is, while a place like Detroit saw its General Motors just collapse in the wake of 2008, we had a couple of Wall Street firms, like, obviously, Lehman Brothers collapse, but the rest of the firms actually picked up the slack, if you will. And also, the city, under Bloomberg, really tightened spending at that particular point and focused on making the city more efficient. So, this is so different. It’s just so hard to predict.
The economy around the country is already rapidly recovering, and more importantly, tax revenues are recovering. Now, this is crucial. After 2008, we had a very slow recovery of State and local tax revenues, so that it actually took States and cities to about 2016, on a inflation adjusted scale, to get back to where they were in 2007 and 2008 before the crash. Right now, we’re seeing States around the country already reporting, not just far beyond what their expectations were, but getting back to where they were before the pandemic. But for New York City, the comparison is just completely different, because it was the center of the pandemic, the real issue is whether all of those office jobs will come back. And the city officially has a 15% vacancy rate right now, but that means 85%… it’s 85% occupied rate, and yet, everybody knows that there aren’t 85% of the people who are supposed to be working in office towers in New York, actually in those office towers, they’re still working remotely.
So, the city is, I think, uniquely vulnerable because of the kind of office market it is, the kind of density it has, its reliance on its mass transit system. And so, it’s hard to compare at this point. Needless to say, caution and pro growth strategies, caution and spending, and pro growth, pro development strategies, pro economic development strategies are the things that are in order right now, but this is New York City we’re talking about, and the leadership there doesn’t always act as if New York is one of the financial capitals of the world, which of course it is.
Brian Anderson: All right. So, that leads to a final question. We’ve got a mayoral race coming up, and any number of candidates have thrown their hat into the ring. What advice would you give the next mayor of New York City to confront this situation? And what might be the single best measure that, that next mayor could take to bring the city’s economy back to where it was?
Steven Malanga: So, first of all, the mayor has far more control over the budget itself even than he has over the economy, not that mayors can’t do damage to the economy, they certainly can by their long range policies. But the real issue perhaps is keeping the city government effective and efficient, while at the same time, being able to deal with any shortfalls in revenues that might cause a budget crunch or a budget crash. This is not something that’s being discussed during the election. As you can imagine, the election is largely about the pandemic and how the city reacted. This is what the campaign debates are about. But inevitably, people always forget, in New York City elections in particular, they always forget that the number one task of a mayor is the budget. The budget controls everything.
That’s what the mayor is does in New York City. And so, there are… I guess the good news is that de Blasio expanded spending so much and so cavalierly that there’s a lot of rooms for cuts. There are a couple of things. Number one, you have to begin through attrition, meaning not hiring people, to get the city workforce down to a more manageable level. You do that partially through attrition. You also do that by looking at the programs he expanded, that had been highly criticized and not effective, like the mental health program, like the continued layer after layer expansion of the pre-K program. And you look at which of those can be pared back. So, but you have to cut back the workforce. The workforce is expensive, not just now, but it’s expensive in the future because retirement benefits are so expensive that once you get people into this workforce and they become part of the retirement system, they are very expensive to accommodate.
So, that’s number one. Number two is, you have to look at the benefits. There’s a tremendous amount of room, any number of people have studied this, including the Manhattan Institute, there’s a tremendous amount of room to save money, nearly by doing what the State is doing with its workers, and what other cities, big cities like Boston, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, are doing with their workers. Having them, first of all, contribute more to… Again, they contribute virtually nothing. So, to their own healthcare. Having retirees, we what we even do in New York is, once you qualify for Medicare as a city worker, a retired city worker, everybody in America who gets Medicare, you have to pay premiums. They’re very modest, but you have to pay premiums for Medicare B, it’s called. It’s just a couple of thousand dollars a year. But we even pay the premiums for the Medicare B of retirees, which is just something that you don’t see in the private sector or in much of government.
So, just having workers contribute 10% towards their healthcare costs, and making retirees pay for that Medicare premium themselves, or even pay just half of it, right? Would save hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re spending $2.5 billion a year on healthcare, just for retirees, just for people who aren’t even working in the city anymore, and none of that is typical. So, there’s a lot of saving there. There’s also savings in the pension system, which remains among the most generous and expensive in the country. And the Manhattan Institute actually produced a paper in the fall, which you can find on our website, about many different ways to save money there. Among other things, we know, because the Manhattan Institute itself has done surveys of city workers, for instance, teachers, in which, as many as 30 to 40% of teachers said, if there were a defined contribution option.
Meaning, of course, not a defined benefit, but a savings account where the city puts in a certain amount of money, and the worker puts in a certain amount of money, about 30 or 40% of teachers said they would choose that option because it’s portable and it has certain advantages, most especially just the idea that if you’re not committed to working for the city for the rest of your life, you can take that money with you. Whereas if you’re in a defined benefit plan, like the one the city uses, you only really benefit if you stay for 30 years, otherwise, it’s a lousy deal. So, these are all things which would actually create savings by giving workers choice, and ironically, the unions don’t want us to give workers choices because they want the most expensive plan and they want to make sure the most expensive plan is in place.
It’s a little bit like the same thing with the battle against school choice. They don’t want those choices out there. So, those are some things you could do. The other thing you could and should do is, one of the things de Blasio eliminated was something called the Program to Eliminate the Gap or the budget deficit, it was called PEG. Four different mayors going all the way back to Koch had used this program, and basically what this program does is, it requires city agencies, every year, to put out plans for how they’re going to be more efficient and save money. Some of the money savings are really small, like on food items and stuff like that. But when you do it every year, it accumulates, and over the years, it saves billions of billions of dollars.
Really very much in his kind of mode, as a progressive who thinks big government is fine, he eliminated this program for any number of years and just said to city agencies, “Well, if you can find some savings, find them.” And the actual savings that were recorded, many of them were not really even savings, they were just, kind of, budget gimmicks, but beyond that, they fell far beyond the, kind of, money that for just the Bloomberg administration and the Giuliani administrations would save through the program to eliminate the deficit. Now, that that program is finally brought back under pressure in the last year or so by Bloomberg… By de Blasio, but it’s not really saving much. So, that’s something else that the next mayor needs… That tradition has to be put back in office. Finally, I would say, New York State law makes it very hard to enact some kinds of savings, particularly personnel savings, other than firing people, which you can always do but it’s a, kind of, brute way of saving money.
New York City’s State laws make it difficult to save money because it gives unions the advantage in contract negotiations for a whole bunch of reasons, which is probably the subject of another podcast at some point. Because of that though, there is one way out, and certainly, given the pandemic and the situation that created, it’s something the next mayor should consider. There is a financial control board which was instituted in the 1970s in order to essentially oversee New York City’s budget because of the crises in the seventies. A mayor does have the option of asking the governor of New York State to institute that board, in other words, bring the board back. It’s already exists, but bring it back into active control of New York City, and that board does have the ability to aggregate contracts and to impose settlements.
And so, I would say, if they’re really emerges a crisis in the next administration because the city does not bounce back, I think I would advise the next mayor to consider invoking that board and getting some of these changes that the unions have been able to resist, because New York State law basically makes it hard to reform and reduce any kind of benefit once you’ve given it in a place like New York City. I would suggest the new mayor consider invoking the financial control board.
Brian Anderson: Thanks Steve, very much, for the illuminating discussion and for joining us today on the podcast. Don’t forget to check out Steve Malanga’s essay, it’s called “The Bill Comes Due,” it’s in our special issue, New York City: Reborn, which you can find on our website, and we’ll link to it in the description. You can follow City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. And as always, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us ratings on iTunes. So, thanks for listening and thanks, Steve, again, for joining us.
Steven Malanga: Thank you.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is a colleague and frequent guest on the show, Nicole Gelinas. Nicole is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and a columnist at the New York Post. She’s one of the most regular contributors on our website and in the magazine. But she’s here today to talk about a couple of lengthy essays she’s written about recently on New York City and its future. One is on Rikers Island and the other is on the public transit system. So, we’ll get her thoughts on the mayoral race, Governor Cuomo’s problems, and more, in addition to those two other topics.
As I’ve mentioned in the previous episode, a few weeks ago, the City Journal team has put the finish finishing touches on a new special issue of the magazine called New York City: Reborn. It has a lovely cover design. So, I encourage you to check out the article line up on the website, take a look at the cover art, and we’ll post it on social media sometime soon. Nicole, thanks very much for joining us.
Nicole Gelinas: Good afternoon, Brian. It’s nice to talk with you.
Brian Anderson: Yes. So, to start for our winter issue, you wrote about the plan to replace Rikers Island as the main correctional complex in New York City. More than a year ago, New York approved a bill to build four smaller high-rise facilities dispersed across the different boroughs of the city. The plan was slated to cost something like, I don’t know, $9 billion, and it’s already years behind schedule. Now, you note it’s undeniable the conditions at Rikers are abysmal, in your words, but you believe that improvements can be made in that prison complex, and the city’s plan is impractical. Could you elaborate a little bit for listeners on your views on this issue?
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, there’s no question that we need to build new, modern jails on Rikers Island. Just like much of the city’s infrastructure, the existing jail buildings are decades old. Many of them were built to be temporary buildings. They have people working and doing hospital work and other work out of trailers, for example. So, no one is saying we should condemn people who have not been convicted of a crime yet to unlivable, inhumane conditions. But, unfortunately, this overly ambitious project is delaying a rebuilding on Rikers Island and an evolution to more humane conditions for the inmates there who are awaiting trial or serving very short sentences. This project was supposed to be done by 2026. It is now been delayed to at least 2028. And yes, as you said, it will cost $9 billion to close Rikers Island and build high-rise jails in four different boroughs, so Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.
A lot of problems with building high-rise jails in four different boroughs, first of all, there are no examples of successful high-rise jails anywhere in the West. I mean, when the de Blasio team went out to Europe and looked at successful jail projects, the jails that they visited are all campus-style jails, which means they’re spread out on multiple acres. American jails that have been rebuilt over the past decade, also campus-style jails, where, yes, people-
Brian Anderson: So, that’s like Rikers, in other words, right?
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah. I mean, you want multiple, multiple acres, Rikers is 400 acres, so that you can have outdoor space. You can have exercise space. You can have urban gardening and farming, raising animals, doing all kinds of outdoor therapy, natural light. It’s very difficult to do those things in a high-rise environment.
I mean, even if you think about people who live in luxury, high-rise buildings, there’s not a lot of outdoor space. There’s a lot of issues with people waiting in line for elevators, inadequate common space. And imagine trying to do those things in a jail environment where there are also all sorts of security considerations. How many elevator banks can you put in a high-rise when you have certain inmates that can’t go near other certain inmates and they may not even know each other, just different gang affiliations? Your elevators take up a lot of room if you have to build in redundancy because you need five different elevator banks to bring people down and up for court cases. You’re taking out a lot of your space in your high-rise. How do you get natural light into a high-rise jail when you’re wedging them into four very dense neighborhoods?
I mean, one of them would be built on the outskirts of Chinatown. This is already a very dense neighborhood. So, the problems that are on Rikers, no question, again, that there are very real problems. Another problem is the transportation. But it’s just like getting to the airport. It’s far away, yes. But with better transportation connections, it would be much easier to bring family members, to bring lawyers to the Island. You could have ferry service. You could have more frequent bus service. I mean, the bus only comes an hour and a half during non-COVID times when you can have visitors. So, just have much more frequent bus service. Things like long, long waits for family members to go through security to go visit their relatives. You can add staffing, have more efficient staffing and have a much shorter week. So, all of the problems that people say, “Well, this means we need to close Rikers,” you’re going to have those problems wherever the jails are located. If you treat Rikers as an open campus, you could really do a lot with it that you cannot do in a dense urban environment.
Brian Anderson: And there is, of course, community opposition in the boroughs where these new high-rise jails were supposed to go up, right?
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, it’s striking that you have four very different neighborhoods, but all four neighborhoods rejected the new jails at their community board meetings two years ago. So, a middle-class neighborhood like Kew Gardens, Queens rejects the jail because they don’t want to see destabilization of a middle-class neighborhood. But a poor neighborhood, you look at Mott Haven in the South Bronx. This is a poor neighborhood, almost entirely black and Hispanic, but the community board there, they see it as very insulting that the government is saying, “Well, there’s no future for your young people, except for that a lot of them are going to end up in jail. So, we want to locate the jail in your neighborhood so it’s convenient for their relatives to visit them in jail.” I mean, what kind of symbol does that send to young people? And also, people say if when in the case of this is obviously, yes, it is a high crime neighborhood, unfortunately, but the vast majority of people are not engaged in crime.
When they have problems with young people engaged in gang violence, gun violence, drug sales, most of the people in the neighborhood, they want the small criminal elements, they don’t want them in the neighborhood. They want them taken to jail and taken out of the neighborhood. People are saying if the jail is put in Mott Haven, people are going to solve their problems on the street outside of the jail. So, you want to remove crime from the neighborhood, not build infrastructure to keep the crime in the neighborhood.
Brian Anderson: Your piece in the special issue, which is forthcoming, New York City: Reborn is the name of the issue, the essay is called How to Save Gotham Transit. And it’s about the MTA and the city’s transportation system. It’s obviously been a very tough year for New York City and you live in the city, and you’ve seen what’s been going on directly. Ridership on the subways, I think is still 30% to 40% down from where it was pre-pandemic. Now that’s rising a little bit, but for the most part, office workers, commuters, there hasn’t been a flood back into the city yet. What’s your take on the city’s transit system, its finances, and what it needs to do to help New York rebound from this very bad year?
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, if you look at ridership, there is a little bit of good news. We’ve had our first couple of days where we’ve almost reached 2 million daily riders. For a time, it was only in the hundreds of thousands. So, on a normal pre-pandemic day, you would have five and a half million people riding the subways every day. So, getting back to 2 million, certainly a good sign, but yes, the ridership remains very, very low at 30 to 35% of normal ridership. So, we’re not going to rebuild and recover New York City unless we get people back onto transit. I mean, a very dense high-rise city does not work with everyone in their own individual private car.
So, one of the main things New York has to do to convince people to go back into offices, hopefully, come back to entertainments and other leisure activities once those things start to open up is make them feel comfortable on transit. Only so much they can do until people are vaccinated, until people feel comfortable. I think people, gradually, they will want to do something. Doing nothing will necessitate them going on transit. And so, they’ll come back, they’ll get used to it, and we’ll rebuild the transit ridership from there.
But one of the sticking points now is high crime. I mean, we’ve had eight murders on the subway system in the course of a year, since last March. Normally, you would have one or two murders on the subway system every year. So, this is something that the city, which the city, rather than the state, is in charge of crime on the subway, the city has to make this a much secure feeling, both in perception and reality, to convince people to come back, especially if people have not been on the transit system for a year. So, they’re reading all of these stories and they’re understandably nervous about venturing back.
Brian Anderson: Sure. Mayor Bill de Blasio is wrapping up his final year in office, as you know. And you’ve had the opportunity to moderate some virtual discussions with some of the mayoral candidates. You’ve been following the race pretty closely. I wonder if you could share with listeners your view of the race as it currently stands?
Nicole Gelinas: Well, I think the good news and, yeah, the democratic primary is in three months. So, this race is coming up. We almost certainly will have a new mayor decided by late June. So, it’s important that people who can vote are paying attention. But I think the good news is that there is a full spectrum of choice. There’s kind of a myth that all of the candidates running are far left-wing candidates. They all are pushing the same policies, but that’s not really the case. I mean, yes, there are some candidates who fit that mold. But, for example, someone like Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, she said that yes, if people are using drugs on the open street, then yes, we do have to use the criminal justice system as a deterrent, that people have to be arrested if they are engaged in that behavior. She said people don’t have a right to live on the subway system, and that we also can’t put up with homeless encampments on the street.
And then of course, on the other side of the spectrum, you have a candidate like Maya Wiley, also from the de Blasio administration, really pushing a non-policing approach to dealing with crime. So, and then in the middle of there, there’s a lot of different candidates. Ray McGuire, former city group executive, business experience. But on the other hand, he says, yes, he does want to raise taxes. He wants the wealthy to pay a little bit more. And then Andrew Yang, tech nonprofit executive before he joined the race, he is really leaning against tax increases. So, there’s a lot there, and a lot for people to choose from.
Brian Anderson: Turning to the state level, Governor Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo has been under, obviously, an enormous amount of pressure lately, accused of inappropriate behavior by a number of women. Democrats and Republicans across the state have called for him to step down. There’s even rumors of an impeachment push. Now, all of this, of course, comes after it was revealed that his administration knowingly misled the public on the number of nursing home deaths during the height of the pandemic. So, one question that comes to mind is if Cuomo were to be removed from office or step down, what comes next? Democrats hold a majority currently in both parts of the state legislature. So, it’s entirely conceivable that the next governor could be more of a problem than Andrew Cuomo, at least for people on the right side of the spectrum.
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, Brian, I mean, there’s two ways of thinking about it, right? I mean, one way would be if the assembly and the Senate, if there are enough legislative votes to actually convict him in an impeachment, then he shouldn’t bring it upon the voters of New York to have to go through this long process if it is a foregone conclusion and have the negotiations over the budget, and all sorts of other pressing issues stretched out for weeks and weeks while they go through this investigation. So, Cuomo knows how to count votes. He can obviously see whether that’s the case and this is a foregone conclusion or not. But on the other hand, we have to think about the precedent that this is setting. Yes, he is accused of some very serious allegations, and one individual, for example, saying, frankly, that he groped her which would basically be a sexual assault, and, of course, these should be investigated and taken very seriously.
But on the other hand, so are elected officials saying that in all cases if they are ever accused of any kind of wrongdoing from now on that they will just step down and what is the threshold for that wrongdoing? Does it have to be illegal? Does it have to go against your workplace guidelines? Are we talking about corruption allegations? They are setting a different threshold. So, I think we should think about the precedent that that sets.
But what comes after Cuomo? I mean, you’re absolutely right. We have a much further, further left-wing state legislature. And the legislature is pushing right now a tax hike package, where even though we’ve just gotten this record federal relief money, New York State right now has more money than it knows what to do with, but they want to raise taxes and raise the top income tax rate by a full third. Not even because it’s an emergency and because they need the money, just as an ideological point of victory in saying that they raise taxes. So, I do think this is not the best time for chaos in state governments. Cuomo, he has also not ruled out tax hikes, but I think he would be a little bit of a pushback against that sort of far left advance.
Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Nicole. Don’t forget to check out Nicole Gelinas’s work at City Journal. We’ll link to some of the recent essays we’ve just discussed in the episode description. She also has a column, as I mentioned at the top, a weekly column in the New York Post, and you can follow her on Twitter, @NicoleGelinas. If you haven’t already, make sure to follow us on Twitter, @CityJournal, and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. As always, if you liked what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Thanks very much again, Nicole, and good to talk with you as always.
Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Brian. Nice to speak with you as well.
Like other great metropolises, New York seems prone to crises. A full list of them, ranging across the city’s four-century history, would require a thick tome and make one wonder how a city beset by such horrors could survive, much less thrive.
Defining a crisis, though, is subjective. Some, like 9/11 or the Covid-19 pandemic, clearly fit the bill. But what about the Great Garbage Strike of 1968, when 7,000 sanitation workers refused to collect trash for nine days? Or the summer of 1977, which included an infamous blackout, followed by rioting and looting—while serial killer David Berkowitz (a.k.a. Son of Sam) terrorized the city?
To simplify, I’ll restrict the definition of crisis to a few key categories: epidemics; invasions, revolts, and terrorism; conflagrations; riots; and financial or economic meltdowns. I’ll ignore events such as hurricanes, heat waves, worker strikes, blackouts, vandalism, and even serial killers, phenomena that tend to be isolated in their effects. And I’ll overlook long-term economic, social, and political issues like crime, governmental insolvency, foreign wars, or significant economic restructurings, which can be enormously influential but usually over longer periods, and which don’t normally correspond to our understanding of “crisis.”
If, using this framework, we add up the crises over nearly four centuries, we get about 140 in all, with an average of one every three years, or slightly more often than presidential elections. In a sheer statistical sense, New York City’s worst period was the half-century between 1830 and 1880, a time of major economic and social upheaval.
Today, the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging the city. It has fundamentally altered New Yorkers’ way of life, and we still have a way to go before it is vanquished. While pandemics might seem a rare shock, until about 1900, they were a regular part of city life. From 1791 to about 1893, New York experienced at least 27 of them.
The typical baseline mortality rate in New York City in the first half of the nineteenth century was between 25 and 30 deaths per 1,000 residents each year, but epidemics were constantly pushing the city above that rate. One of the worst years was 1849, when more than 5,000 people died of cholera, and the mortality rate spiked to 60 deaths per 1,000 residents. By comparison, in pre-pandemic 2019, the rate was 6.3 per 1,000 residents. The mortality rate for 2020 was about 9.8 per 1,000—57 percent above normal, due to Covid-19, but far below the mid-nineteenth-century rate.
One recurring health threat was typhus, spread through ticks and fleas. A report from 1866 chronicles the tragedies that it caused:
A man residing in the Eleventh Ward was sick with typhus fever, and died; a few days subsequently a daughter of the deceased, residing in the Seventeenth Ward, having visited her father while he was sick, was attacked by the same fever, and died. At the same time another daughter, whose residence was in Brooklyn, become ill with the fever she had contracted in her father’s sick-room, and she died; another sister residing in Avenue A, contracted the same fever while visiting the father and sisters when sick. Another relative, whose residence was in Sixteenth Street, also a son and another daughter of the first deceased patient, residing in Eleventh Street, were attacked with the same fever in consequence of their visits to the sick-rooms of the first and the second of the patients here mentioned.
Since the turn of the twentieth century, epidemics have thankfully become both less frequent and less severe. Still, the 1916 polio, the 1918 Spanish flu, the 1980s AIDS epidemic, and, of course, Covid-19 are grim reminders of the threats that microorganisms pose.
Since 1641, New York has experienced at least 20 events that can be classified as invasions, revolts, or acts of terrorism. The 9/11 attacks come immediately to mind, but during the colonial period, horrible violent events were not uncommon. The initial settlement of Manhattan was relatively peaceful, as Peter Minuit, in 1626, negotiated a treaty with the Lenape to settle on Manhattan Island. But in 1641, the little village on the Hudson almost came to a bloody end. The colony’s governor, William Kieft, drove the residents, contrary to their wishes, into a war against the natives. As the Dutch settlers expanded their agricultural footprints, tensions over land began to rise. In the summer of 1641, scattered Indian raids on outlying Dutch farms caused Kieft to overreact—he ordered 120 Indian men, women, and children killed while they slept in their encampment on Staten Island. The Indians retaliated by destroying villages and farms throughout the wider colony, while New Amsterdam became crowded with refugees. The Dutch West India Company appointed Peter Stuyvesant as Kieft’s replacement. He successfully managed New Netherland until 1664, when the British invaded and grabbed possession of the territory.
Like most colonies, New York depended on slaves, who from time to time revolted against their bondage. In the wee hours of April 7, 1712, the house of Peter Van Tilburgh, located on Maiden Lane near Broadway, went up in flames. This was a signal for a slave uprising. When the awakened residents ran toward the burning building, a band of slaves greeted them with knives and guns. As the melee grew, the governor called in soldiers from the fort, who fired on the slaves, driving them to scatter into the woods and swamps north of the city. In the end, 27 slaves were caught, and 21 were executed.
The city’s next invasion was by British soldiers, who took over New York at the start of the Revolutionary War and occupied the city for seven years. After the war ended and the United States was officially recognized as an independent nation, New York was spared external invasions (though British forces torched Washington during the War of 1812). Terrorism, however, remained a constant threat.
Arguably the worst decade was the 1970s, a period rife with terrorist activity. For example, on March 6, 1970, a member of the Weather Underground, a radical-left militant group, killed three of her comrades when a bomb accidentally detonated in her Greenwich Village apartment. The group had been planning to protest the Vietnam War. On January 24, 1975, a bomb planted in Fraunces Tavern killed four people and injured more than 50 others; the Puerto Rican terrorist group FALN took responsibility. Later that year, on December 30, a bomb exploded in a La Guardia airport baggage carousel, killing 14 and injuring 70. The case was never solved.
The following year, on September 11, 1976, terrorists hijacked a jet plane heading out of La Guardia to Chicago. When the plane landed at Montreal’s Mirabel airport, the hijackers forced the pilot to transmit the message that a bomb was sitting in a locker near Grand Central Terminal. Police found it, along with letters from a group called the Fighters for Free Croatia. The bomb was brought to an explosives range in the Bronx but killed an officer when detonated.
On August 4, 1977, a New York Times headline ran, “100,000 Leave New York Offices as Bomb Threats Disrupt City. Blasts Kill One and Hurt Seven”; FALN again claimed responsibility. On March 25, 1979, a suitcase exploded at the TWA terminal at Kennedy airport, and about two hours later, two bombs exploded in Union City, New Jersey; an anti–Fidel Castro terrorist group set off all three explosives.
“Since 1641, New York has experienced at least 20 events that can be classified as invasions, revolts, or terrorism.”
Fear of mass fire was ever present until the early twentieth century. Perhaps the first massive conflagration to hit New York City occurred at the start of the British occupation during the Revolutionary War. Those sympathetic to the revolutionary cause fled the city and left all their possessions, while loyalists arrived seeking refuge. Soon after, the British found themselves watching the city burn. On September 21, 1776, a fire broke out near Whitehall Slip and proceeded to spread up Broadway and Broad Street, destroying buildings as far north as Saint Paul’s Church. The origin of the fire has been attributed to revolutionaries, though the claim has never been proved. A second conflagration occurred in 1778. Much of the city would remain as char and rubble until the war ended.
After that, major fires took place, on average, about once per decade. Arguably, the worst two were in 1835 and 1845. But thanks to the opening of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842, advances in building technology, and fire protection services, such conflagrations appear a thing of the past.
Since 1788, New York has had at least 32 eruptions that can be categorized as riots, an average of one every seven years. The deadliest in the city’s history—in fact, in American history—were the Draft Riots of 1863, with at least 120 people killed and many more injured.
Urban riots were a common, if disturbing, part of urban life before the twentieth century. In 1849, for instance, the so-called Astor Place Riot exploded. As one chronicler put it: “Probably there never was a great and bloody riot, moving a city to its profound depths, that originated in so absurd, insignificant a cause.”
It began with a rivalry between two well-known actors: Edwin Forrest of New York and William McCready of London. Forrest had performed in London and was publicly hissed by McCready. McCready then decided to put on Macbeth in New York at the Astor Place Opera House (at East Eighth and Lafayette Streets). Forrest inspired an interest in Shakespeare among the rough and rowdy men of the Bowery.
During the show, Forrest supporters started to become hostile. McCready fled in fear, and the crowd went home. But a few days later, McCready put on another show. Despite precautions, some would-be rioters still managed to get tickets. When the police ejected them, they ran wild into the streets. A National Guard regiment marched up Broadway to meet them. The rioters began throwing stones at the soldiers, who then fired on them, which served only to antagonize the mob. After three volleys, the crowd finally dispersed, with about 25 people killed and 120 wounded.
From 1776 to the present, New York City has suffered through at least 41 economic crises or downturns, for an average of one every six years. The Great Depression and the Great Recession of 2007–09 are well known. Other crises, less remembered today, were devastating in their time, such as President Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 and the downturn of 1969–70, which ushered in a decade-long wave of unemployment and population loss, with more than 600,000 jobs disappearing.
The ups and downs of the business cycle remain an inevitable aspect of economic life. Rapid economic growth and meteoric rises in stock prices do not last forever. Some recessions are quick and mild; others are long and painful. Thanks to advances in monetary and fiscal policies, depressions have morphed into recessions, but in an earlier time, depressions were common.
The Panic of 1873, for example, generated a downturn that, until the 1930s, was known as the Great Depression. The panic followed a period of euphoria and free-flowing money in American financial circles and brought a wave of bank failures and credit crises. The panic itself lasted only a few weeks, but the economic decline it initiated lasted for 65 grueling months.
It was one of the first tests of confidence for the newly emerging Wall Street. As historian Thomas Kessner puts it: “Wall Street, venerated during the seven fat years as the awesome geyser of new business and gushing prosperity, was now denounced as a place riddled with deception and duplicity.” All aspects of New York’s economy were hard-hit, not just finance. Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson writes:
Between 1873 and 1877, as many smaller factories and workshops shuttered their doors, tens of thousands of workers—many former Civil War soldiers—became transients. The terms “tramp” and “bum,” both indirect references to former soldiers, became commonplace American terms. Relief rolls exploded in major cities, with 25-percent unemployment (100,000 workers) in New York City alone.
Workers’ wages also tumbled. In 1873, the daily rate for construction craftsmen was $5–$8 per eight-hour shift. By 1876, it was $2 per ten-hour shift.
New York’s Dynamism Will Triumph
On March 1, 2020, the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the New York City metropolitan region; soon after, the city was the epicenter of the pandemic. By the third week of March, Governor Andrew Cuomo had implemented policies aimed at stopping the spread. Businesses and schools were closed, and residents had to “shelter in place.” The initial reactions in New York were blame and fear. Blame: the city was responsible for the spreading of the virus; its density—long hailed as a boon for humanity—was now the source of its ruin. Fear: all that we cherished would be lost.
But the success or failure of big cities depends on how well they balance two opposing forces. All cities exist somewhere between the centripetal forces that pull us together and the centrifugal forces that push us apart. It’s in the interstices, one might say, between the costs and benefits of urban living that our cities operate. When the centrifugal forces are relatively strong, the city begins to decline; when the opposite is true, the city grows.
Among the centripetal forces are those that we cherish about urban living: cities are hubs for jobs, new ideas, and cultural and social vitality. The urban center holds because businesses cluster—they learn from one another, share resources, reduce their costs, and become more competitive. Firms with national or international ambitions find themselves gravitating to big cities, if only for the status it brings.
While smaller cities may have charm and some unique offerings, larger, global cities can do things that smaller ones cannot, such as attracting the finest talent and providing a more diverse array of services. In this way, large cities are a kind of self-perpetuating machine: jobs fuel income, income fuels spending, spending fuels jobs, and so on. This is the fundamental logic of why large cities endure.
If cities were all gain and no pain, each nation would need only one place for nearly its entire population. But this is not the case—centrifugal forces check urban growth. The Covid-19 outbreak is an obvious example. More broadly, the hurly-burly of urban life—from factors including pollution, congestion, crime, and expensive and cramped housing—takes a toll. These forces push some people out and stop others from moving in. Then there’s city competition. At any one time, some cities are looking for workers at a faster rate than others, and people are drawn to them as a result. Technological and historical changes can also render certain cities’ strengths obsolete; rising cities, with new advantages, take their place.
Amid the current crisis, if we take a step back and look at the positive and negative forces that have come to operate in New York, the city’s history offers encouragement.
New York City in 2019, for example, was a very different place from what it had been over half a century ago, when it began hemorrhaging jobs. Between 1960 and 1980, New York lost nearly half a million manufacturing positions; during the 1970s, its population shrank by 10 percent. New York seemed to be on a similar path as Detroit and other manufacturing cities. But after a generation of restructuring, New York saw a renaissance. It reinvented itself as a global services city, ideally suited to meet the needs of a high-tech, knowledge-based twenty-first-century world.
The forces that made New York so successful have never really gone away. New York’s centrality in the global network of cities has deepened as the world has become more interconnected. For a few decades, the negative centrifugal forces were giving the city serious trouble, and it would have taken a true visionary to see a bright future in 1975, but the positive seeds were there; they were just obscured from view.
To be sure, many people who have adapted to working at home during the pandemic will continue to do so, perhaps for the rest of their working lives. But those starting college this summer will likely think little of social distancing at work when they begin their careers in four or five years—just as today’s millennials know little about the crime that plagued the city before the 1990s. Those residents whom the crisis chases off will be replaced by those seeking opportunities when the crisis has passed.
The centrifugal forces that pushed people out before the pandemic were primarily based on the city’s unwillingness to grow its housing stock, improve its mass transit, and upgrade its infrastructure to accommodate economic growth, resulting in expensive housing and a congested transportation system. Until the Covid-19 epidemic is fully gone, New York, with a somewhat shrunken population, will have excess capacity. The city should take this opportunity to plan for its next growth spurt—it will be here before we know it.
Surveying the long sweep of crises allows us to draw a few conclusions that we might not see if we focused on them piecemeal. First, crises are deeply embedded in the fabric of New York City. While Gotham suffers blows to the institutions that keep it whole, the city itself endures. And as they recede into the past, the crises have helped forge the city’s collective identity.
Second, we learn from each crisis, though this may be cold comfort for their victims. Over time, these learning experiences make the city more livable. This can perhaps be seen in the mortality rate. By the end of 2019, it was the lowest in recorded history and will undoubtedly drop even lower after the Covid-19 epidemic passes.
A statistical analysis of crises shows that they are less common in modern times. There has not been a major conflagration in New York since 1845. The frequency and virulence of epidemics are weak compared with those in the nineteenth century. Riots are less frequent and less bloodstained than those of the mid-nineteenth century. However, New York’s 2020 rioting and looting, part of dozens of such episodes in cities across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, served as a reminder of the toll—human, economic, and psychological—that such events take on any community.
More broadly, the long view of urban crises reveals a relationship between larger social and economic transitions and the frequency and severity of crises. In other words, crises are often a negative consequence of wider societal readjustments. The three transitional periods in the city’s history demonstrate this.
First is the colonial period, when the city’s seeds were planted. There were barely 200 souls in 1626 when Manhattan was first settled, and along the way, it encountered many difficulties associated with its youth and size, including conflicts with natives and slaves and issues of governance and control. These events had to be resolved before the city could thrive.
The second period, from about the 1830s to the 1880s, coincided with America’s industrialization. The old New York, a city of artisans, merchants, and yeoman farmers, was replaced by one of workers and capitalists. Income inequality rose, class consciousness formed, and vast waves of non-Anglo migration—Irish and Germans, especially—arrived in the city. These combined forces produced hyper-density, extreme poverty, and class and ethnic divisions, leading to decades prevalent with financial panics, epidemics, and riots.
During the third period of transition, from about 1965 to 1990, manufacturing disappeared from New York, taking away hundreds of thousands of jobs. The loss of these jobs fueled racial unrest and especially affected black communities, whose residents originally had arrived to find work during the Great Migration. During this period, the civil rights movement flourished, aimed at ending racial injustice more broadly.
New York survives and grows despite its crises because its density sustains it. Businesses come to the city because they find that clustering makes them more successful. This generates jobs and income, which, in turn, creates more amenities and benefits, attracting more residents and visitors, and so on. Indeed, writing about the period of the city’s most virulent and destructive crises, one New York historian concluded: “From the opening of the Erie Canal to the outbreak of the Civil War, despite financial crises (1837, 1857, 1873), visitation of the Asiatic cholera (1832) and the yellow fever (1853), disastrous fires (1835, 1845), and formidable riots (1834, 1835, 1837, 1849), New York enjoyed a period of unexampled prosperity and growth.”
Finally, the city succeeds because it draws forth collective action. As urbanists from Jane Jacobs to Edward Glaeser have stressed, while density can cause crises, it also leads the way to faster and more efficient solutions. Density naturally generates diversity and competition—the two things needed for an evolutionary process to produce solutions.
The history of cities is the history of the constant struggle between the present and the future. When shocks hit, we turn to address the immediate problems and wonder how things can return to normal. But the shape of our society is more like that of a long river. Our individual boats may get stuck in currents or eddies, but the overall flow inexorably pushes us toward more promising waters.
Top Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images
I’ve always been a sucker for the romance of the neighborhood school. When I was a child, I walked by myself to the old stone building in suburban Philadelphia that housed the nearest elementary school. I memorized multiplication tables and traced cursive letters in classes filled with kids who lived within a mile or so of me; I ate after-school snacks in their kitchens, and on snow days, met up with them for sledding on a hill that our older brothers and sisters had told us about before they started acting cool. This all sounds like cornball nostalgia, I know, but a neighborhood school really does have the potential to turn strangers into neighbors and friends.
So when I moved to Brooklyn with my husband and our young children in the early 1980s, I didn’t hesitate to register at the local elementary school. The school looked like a jail, with its severe brick facade and barred windows, but it was known as a star in a struggling education system that had few of them. People paid heart-pounding sums of money to live in the catchment area; those who couldn’t afford it tried using an aunt’s or a friend’s address. In some respects, and despite its appearance, the school delivered on my hopes. I waited outside at the 3 PM pickup time and shared local gossip with other parents; on the way home, we stopped at the supermarket, where we sometimes ran into teachers grabbing groceries; my kids went for playdates to classmates’ homes, all within walking distance of our house. My husband and I still get together for every Super Bowl with a couple we met when our sons were in kindergarten together. Those sons are now 42.
A few years into our family’s relationship with that neighborhood school, Big New Ideas started percolating in the brains of New York City educators. By the time my second child started second grade, the traditional classroom had been discarded in favor of reading and writing “workshops.” Students chose the books that they wanted to read. They kept journals in which they wrote about those books but also about themselves, their families, and their thoughts. “Every child is an author,” a teacher explained as I stared at the jumble of barely decipherable words in my daughter’s journal during a conference. Grammar and spelling didn’t matter for now, she assured me; the important thing was that my daughter felt “good about being a writer.” To be fair, the class did do a “unit” on penguins. They read books with penguin characters, drew pictures and wrote stories about penguins, and they learned how penguins keep warm in the Arctic. Why penguins? I haven’t a clue.
I learned about the next Big New Idea—multicultural education—one day when that same daughter burst into the house. “Mommy!” she exclaimed. “Did you know that Thomas Jefferson had slaves?” How was that solitary historical fact the one that had wandered into her “student-centered” classroom? Were there penguins at Monticello? “Yes, I knew that,” I answered. “Do you know what else he did?” She did not. We had been told that multiculturalism would teach children respect for other cultures, a reasonable goal in our diverse city. How telling a child who still clung to her “binky” at bedtime about Jefferson’s slaves would accomplish this was beyond me. Our son had recently graduated from our little elementary school, and with some parental help, we placed him in a private middle school; we did the same with the Jefferson expert after fourth grade; when our youngest could barely read in third grade, we bolted the neighborhood school for good.
Now one of my daughters lives nearby, with her own children. Her eldest started kindergarten this year at the neighborhood school in a turn-of-the-century building at the end of her block. The schools chancellor had urged teachers to confront “white supremacy culture,” which includes “worship of the written word.” My grandson is white—the only white child in his immigrant-filled class, as it happens—and though he can be a little tyrant, the chances of his joining the Proud Boys are negligible.
No matter. I predict he’ll be taking a bus to a private school in some other part of Brooklyn soon.
For two decades, many New Yorkers had assured themselves that a return to the crime and squalor of the early 1990s was unlikely. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who presided over a 62 percent drop in major felonies from 1994 through 2001, proved that violence was not an urban inevitability. His successor, Michael Bloomberg, drove crime down further, through the 2008 recession and beyond. Both mayors set a benchmark for what was possible, preemptively discrediting any future mayor’s excuse that crime was beyond his capacity to overcome.
That assumption about the permanence of the crime drop was wrong. New York City in 2020 experienced an unprecedented one-year increase in homicides and shootings. Through December 27, 2020, the number of murders was up 41 percent from 2019 and 53 percent from 2018. Shooting victims were up 103 percent from 2019 and 109 percent from 2018; shooting incidents rose 97 percent and 104 percent. In gang-ridden precincts, the spike was even more startling. In Brooklyn’s Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods, there were 170 percent more shooting victims in 2020 than in 2019 and 151 percent more shooting incidents. Murder was up 94 percent in these parts of Brooklyn.
It wasn’t just gang areas that were afflicted. On December 29, a roving pack of young bicyclists in midtown Manhattan attacked a BMW, smashing a bike on top of the car and jumping on its windshield. The same group went after a cab minutes later. Office workers in the area have been chased by similar flash mobs.
The 2020 increase is actually worse than the annual numbers suggest. Street crime dropped from March 2020 to late May 2020, due to the coronavirus lockdown. The 2020 increase incorporates that early crime drop. Measured from June to the end of 2020, the rise in violence would be even more extreme. And it has continued into 2021. Shootings citywide were up 20 percent through February 14, 2021, compared with the first six weeks of 2020.
New York mayor Bill de Blasio has seemed almost blasé about this crisis as he begins his final year in office. The reason for that passivity is the same as the reason for the crime increase itself: the dominance of “antiracism” as the overriding policy concern among liberals and progressives. As long as antiracism remains the primary focus of New York’s leaders, the crime surge will continue.
De Blasio’s early mayoralty suggested that the Giuliani-Bloomberg benchmark was in fact checking the default leftism of New York’s leadership class. De Blasio chose as his police commissioner William Bratton. Bratton had engineered the crime turnaround of the 1990s as Giuliani’s first police commissioner. Selecting Bratton angered de Blasio’s left-wing base, which demanded a black or female commissioner (or, ideally, both). But de Blasio wanted maximal insurance against a crime increase, so he went with the sure bet. His next two commissioners were also white males, chosen for their likely ability to keep crime down, rather than for their race and sex. The Left was even angrier, but it could not overcome the power of the benchmark.
Over the last year, though, something even more powerful than a concern for one’s political legacy has arisen: the need to signal a commitment to fighting white supremacy. Following the death of George Floyd in May 2020, racial inequalities have become the obsession of the nation’s elites. Almost any public matter may be turned into a “race” issue, including Donald Trump’s battle in late 2020 and early 2021 to overturn the presidential election results.
The core concern of the antiracism crusade, however, is policing and incarceration. This is not a new focus, but in 2020, it became ever more destructive of law and order. For years, antipolice activists, academics, and liberal politicians have decried the overrepresentation of blacks in the criminal-justice system. Blacks make up about 12 percent of the nation’s population, but they account for one-third of the combined federal and state prison rolls; their per-capita rate of imprisonment is more than four times higher than the per-capita imprisonment rate of whites. Racism on the part of cops and prosecutors is the only permissible explanation for that disparity; acknowledging the vastly higher black crime rate is taboo. (The black incarceration rate is driven by convictions for violent crime—not, as popular lore has it, by convictions for drug offenses; 62 percent of black prisoners in state facilities, which house the vast majority of the nation’s prisoners, were serving time for a violent offense in 2018, compared with 48 percent of white state prisoners.) If, as antiracism orthodoxy dictates, the root causes of higher black crime—above all, family breakdown—may not be discussed, then the only way to reduce racial disparities in the criminal-justice system is to stop penalizing criminal behavior.
Such decriminalization efforts were ongoing in New York before 2020. The New York City Council and the New York State Legislature had lightened traditional penalties for a host of public-order offenses, such as public urination and public drinking. Bail was eliminated for misdemeanors and many felonies. The Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys competed for the most sweeping de-prosecution initiatives. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced that he would not prosecute turnstile jumping, calling it a crime of poverty. (Actually, it’s a crime of arrogance, as a retired NYPD chief notes.) Not to be outdone, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez stopped sending most youthful gunslingers into detention, diverting them instead into poorly managed social-services programs. Meanwhile, officers who put pressure on a resisting suspect’s back or chest to subdue his violence could now be criminally charged.
These antiracism initiatives were just warm-ups. The more frenzied dismantling of law enforcement began in mid-2020, triggered by the national riots over the death of George Floyd. Floyd died on May 25, 2020, after resisting arrest for allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit bill in Minneapolis; video captured an officer pinning Floyd facedown on the ground with a knee to the nape of his neck for nearly nine minutes. Though subsequent evidence arguably undercuts the claim that Floyd died from that police hold, the incident was universally treated as a manifestation of the lethal police brutality that blacks endure on a daily basis. Minneapolis was the first city to burn, and riots soon spread across the country. In New York City, caravans of looters smashed storefronts and made off with millions of dollars in luxury merchandise and dollar-store inventory alike; rioters burned police cars and attacked officers with bottles, bricks, cement blocks, and jagged metal pipes. Officers worked back-to-back shifts with no time to sleep; nearly 400 officers were injured. More than 200 police cars were vandalized. As darkness fell each night, the city cowered behind plywood barriers hastily erected over apartment building entrances and commercial storefronts.
De Blasio called the unrest “very justified” and asked the police to use a “light touch” because people are “undeniably angry for a reason.” Not surprisingly, the violence continued unabated, finally pushing the mayor to impose an 8 PM curfew. Manhattan D.A. Vance was not cooperating. Vance would not be prosecuting curfew violations and other riot-related offenses like disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, his office announced.
The capitulation continued. On June 15, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea announced that he was dismantling the undercover units tasked with getting armed felons off the streets. This abdication was being done in the name of serving the “community”—code for avoiding disparate impact. The so-called anticrime units were among the last NYPD entities that forthrightly used their constitutional power to stop, question, and sometimes frisk individuals engaged in criminally suspicious behavior—a legal tactic, contrary to what New York’s political class believes. Shea labeled it “brute force.”
It is true, as was widely reported after Shea’s announcement, that anticrime officers were involved in a disproportionate number of police shootings. What was not reported was how low that number of shootings was. In 2019, there were 25 incidents in which NYPD officers intentionally shot criminal suspects, the second-lowest number of officer-involved shootings since records were first kept nearly 50 years ago. Fifty-four members of the NYPD were involved in those 25 shooting incidents, of which 19, or 35 percent, were from anticrime units. By comparison, the roughly 600 anticrime officers were 1.6 percent of the total NYPD sworn force. Those 25 shooting incidents resulted in 11 civilian fatalities—also a historically low number. All the civilians killed by NYPD officers in 2019 appeared to be threatening officers with potentially lethal force; seven had loaded guns.
To put those 25 citywide shooting incidents in perspective: in 2019, the 36,397 members of the NYPD responded to more than 6.4 million calls for service. More than 64,000 of those calls involved weapons. Twenty-five shootings and 11 fatalities are remarkably few, given the size of New York and of the NYPD. The NYPD’s per-capita use of force is significantly below that of many other departments facing comparable population demographics.
For example, from 2015 to 2020, the Houston police, a department of 5,400 officers, killed an average of eight people a year. The NYPD, nearly seven times the size of Houston’s force, killed an average of nine people a year from 2010 to 2019. In 2018, the NYPD killed five people. The Houston rate, if translated to the NYPD, would mean an average of close to 56 civilian fatalities a year.
That anticrime officers were overrepresented among officers involved in shootings says nothing about whether they were trigger-happy or prone to excessive force. Confronting armed, violent, and resisting suspects was virtually their job description. The likelihood of an officer’s use of force is a function of how often he interacts with violent suspects. Three percent of anticrime officers discharged their weapons at suspects in 2019; that number, too, suggests restraint rather than brutality.
Shea should have lauded the anticrime officers for their professional contributions to “community” safety, rather than decommissioning them. Disbanding the units signaled that the department was “no longer in the arrest business,” says former police commissioner Ray Kelly. That message was heard. Shootings jumped 205 percent in the two weeks after Shea’s announcements, from 38 incidents over those two weeks in 2019 to 116 incidents in 2020. Gunshot injuries rose 238 percent. June 2020 became the most violent month, in terms of gunfire, in 24 years. Suspects knew that their chances of getting stopped with a gun had dropped enormously.
NYPD officers also got the message. In the month following the disbanding of the anticrime units, narcotics arrests fell 85 percent, gang detectives made 90 percent fewer arrests, subway and housing arrests fell by comparable amounts, and gun arrests dropped 67 percent. Through early December, arrests citywide were down 36 percent, though gun arrests had started rebounding. Too late: the increased gun arrests couldn’t keep up with the increase in guns on the street, and the year ended with a 100 percent surge in gun violence.
When proactive policing and public-order enforcement are universally denounced as racist, officers do less of those activities. When crime rises as a result, officers are charged with racism as well. Now, as shootings surged, the NYPD was accused of indifference to the “community.” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD sergeant and a fierce critic of the department’s stop, question, and frisk tactics, complained that his constituents were not getting the police response that they deserved. The police had allegedly not cracked down on illegal dice games and loud music at night, following resident complaints. But had officers tried to end those illegal dice games and loud music, they would have subjected themselves to complaints about their oppression of minority communities. Moreover, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez would have thrown out any summonses or arrests for such low-level quality-of-life problems anyway, so why should officers bother in the first place?
The most shameless hypocrisy came from Donovan Richards, formerly chair of the city council’s public-safety committee and now Queens borough president. Richards embraces Black Lives Matter ideology. He has called for the evisceration of Broken Windows enforcement, labeling it a “systemic wrong” that has “stymied progress” for black and Latino communities. Yet here he was, a month after the disbanding of the anticrime units, complaining that “communities are being held hostage by the cops and the robbers at the same time.” The cops allegedly engaged in such extortion by not delivering precisely the proactive enforcement that Richards calls a “systemic wrong.” When crime goes up, it is easier to lash out at the cops than to acknowledge the social ecology of crime—it thrives in an environment with neither informal social controls such as strong families nor formal controls such as police presence.
“A good economy is not the precondition for lowered crime; lowered crime is the precondition for economic vitality.”
New York’s slide into lawlessness is mirrored nationwide. The year 2020 likely saw the largest percentage increase in homicides in U.S. history. The local and the national crime increases have the same cause: making the avoidance of disparate impact the guiding principle of law enforcement. Given the vast disparities in crime commission, however, law enforcement will inevitably fall heaviest on blacks. But crime, too, falls heaviest on blacks. In order to protect law-abiding minority residents, officers have to operate more intensively in minority areas. There is no middle ground. In New York City, blacks made up over 74 percent of all known shooting suspects in 2019, though they are only about 23 percent of the city’s population. Non-Hispanic whites were a little over 2 percent of all known shooting suspects, though they are about 34 percent of the city’s population. Those suspect identifications come from the victims of, and witnesses to, shootings—overwhelmingly minority themselves. Shooting victims were over 71 percent black in 2019 and 2.5 percent white. Police do not wish these facts into existence; they are the reality of urban crime. The data mean, however, that the police cannot respond to shootings without being called into minority neighborhoods and being given the description of a minority suspect, if anyone is cooperating with the police.
The city has come back from the brink before. The crime turnaround that began under Giuliani and Bratton can happen again if the NYPD reinvigorates proactive enforcement—above all, Broken Windows enforcement. The anticrime units should be reconstituted and given political support. The city’s prosecutors must cooperate in imposing serious consequences for antisocial behavior. A jail or prison sentence is not always required. Being processed for an arrest may be enough to disrupt criminal behavior and discourage its continuation. But every city official must be unequivocal that lowering crime is the most urgent task facing the city as it tries to rebound from the economically disastrous lockdowns. As long as crime and disorder continue increasing, residents and would-be residents will stay away and businesses will have even less reason to bring their employees back to the city’s commercial core. A good economy is not the precondition for lowered crime; lowered crime is the precondition for economic vitality.
Unfortunately, all the candidates for mayor and Manhattan district attorney are committed to the systemic police racism conceit, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the NYPD is a civil rights organization—one dedicated to equalizing the benefits of safe streets across the city. With few exceptions, the would-be mayors and prosecutors are calling for more decriminalization and decarceration, not less. (Eric Adams has called for restoring the anticrime units in select precincts, on the ground that the “bad guys are saying if you don’t see a blue and white you can do whatever you want.”) Absent a change in New York’s reigning ideology, choosing a police commissioner for his crime-fighting prowess alone is over; diversity will be paramount. There is still time, however, for a mayoral candidate to emerge who can articulate the core function of urban government: providing the civil order that allows human creativity and entrepreneurship to flourish. If that doesn’t happen, New York may be heading back not just to the early 1990s but to the even grimmer 1970s.
Top Photo: A police officer responds to a December 2020 shooting outside the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan. (REUTERS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)