Letting the City Down
The Rise and Fall of New York City.
by Roger Starr.
Basic Books. 272 pp. $17.95.
A decade after it began, New York City’s fiscal crisis appears to have eased. After going to the brink of bankruptcy (and, some say, technically into it), New York is again able to obtain credit in the financial markets. The loans once secured by desperately needed federal guarantees are being repaid ahead of schedule. Although built upon the usual optimistic assumptions, the city’s budget looks reasonably sound and new public employees are now being hired after a long period of layoffs and attrition. While the price of the last decade is visible in the subways, streets, and elsewhere, this year’s mayoral election is unlikely to have the life-or-death overtones of previous ones.
Yet as Roger Starr writes in The Rise and Fall of New York City, the possibility that New York may soon face another financial emergency should not be underestimated. Despite the last decade’s creative and sometimes heroic efforts to curb the city’s spending and borrowing habits, a change in the political weather could readily bring on a new round of credit-straining excesses. The reason, says Starr, in a bold and insightful analysis reminiscent of the classic urban sociology of Max Weber and Louis Wirth, is that the real crisis facing New Yorkers was moral more than it was fiscal, and little about the last ten years suggests that it has been solved.
The conventional interpretation of New York City’s problems takes a different view. It holds that they were the result of good intentions, too eagerly pursued. In trying to help the poor, immigrants, and other groups that came to New York in search of opportunity, its leaders made commitments to a wide range of public services, the like of which existed in no other city. Eventually, the costs became too great because—here analysts differ—the manufacturing base declined, federal aid programs were curtailed, middle-class taxpayers moved to the suburbs, municipal unions became too powerful, or other factors intervened largely beyond anyone’s control or expectation. Through a variety of fiscal tricks, the services were kept going, but ultimately the day of reckoning arrived. Nevertheless, according to this standard view, if their conduct was imprudent, New York’s leaders at least could not be faulted for their ideals.
Starr challenges this notion by arguing that at the heart of New York City’s crisis was, in fact, the reluctance of its leaders to make moral distinctions. In providing public services, no need was deemed unworthy, no behavior more deserving of reproach than of help. Hence, as the numbers of illegitimate births and single-parent families rose, as crime rates increased, as classrooms became more disorderly, and as low-income housing was vandalized, public and private leaders and opinion-setters usually watched tolerantly, not willing to take steps to impose “their values” on other groups and sometimes even justifying activities and programs that were causing great harm. Deprived of the kind of moral guidance that other migrants to New York received, many of the poor, and especially of the black poor, failed to acquire the traits necessary for upward mobility and instead became even more dependent upon the public services that were being so generously supplied by the city.
Since financing all these programs required industrial and middle-class taxpayers, New York politicians, says Starr, created a variety of subsidies for housing, transportation, and other items to keep such taxpayers in the city. This effort was bound to be fruitless, partly because the subsidies themselves cost a great deal of money. (The fiscal crisis was, in fact, triggered by the credit problems of an agency that underwrote moderate-income housing projects.) A tendency to disparage people who owned businesses or property as being insufficiently public-spirited for wanting to make a bit of profit also did not help. In any case, the growing disorder among the poor, and the apparent unwillingness of the city’s leaders to do anything about it, could hardly be kept from alienating everyone else.
As a result, in contrast to its halcyon post-World War II days, New York has become a less attractive, uncivil, demoralized place except in enclaves, mostly in Manhattan, where the relatively small proportion of people who set the tone of its cultural and political life live and work. Being affluent, they are more interested in doing good than in creating wealth. Being successful, they care more for self-expression than for self-discipline. Being independent, they want others to be free of conventional restraints as well. In short, they subscribe to the sorts of beliefs associated with contemporary liberalism. The values and politics of these “elites,” not merely the lack of restraints on government growth, are what led New York to the edge of bankruptcy in 1975 and could do so again.
To anyone who has read the traditional writings on the culture of cities, this argument will sound familiar. Most observers, though usually not so extreme as Thomas Jefferson, who looked upon “great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man,” have expected urban life to take a high toll on social norms. To Max Weber, the city was a place of liberation from feudal ties, governed only by impersonal (and hence, less secure) commercial and bureaucratic relations. To anthropologists like Robert Redfield and Oscar Lewis, it was where folk cultures were transformed into secular ones, often producing social disorganization as well. To Louis Wirth and the “Chicago school,” the city was marked by so many kinds of functional differences that deviance was, in effect, the rule. Whether they felt the individual freedom it provided was a blessing or a curse, few writers on the development of the city have failed to appreciate the difficulty it created for maintaining a decent level of social order.
Albeit not in so many words, Starr has ingeniously revived this classic perspective as a way of understanding the problems besetting today’s cities. In their reluctance to assert moral leadership, he suggests, New York’s elites (and their counterparts elsewhere) have behaved like quintessential urbanites. Valuing individualism above all else, they have become unmindful of the social rules needed to enable diverse people to live together. By infusing politics with a cosmopolitan outlook, they have torn it from the moorings of group or neighborhood interests that made it succeed. And as all this was occurring, advances in public health were making for a larger population, and a growing squeamishness about punishing lawbreakers stripped the city of some of its former defenses. Ironically, Starr’s provocative analysis implies that the emergence of New York as the world’s premier city, the epitome of urban life, also sowed the moral seeds responsible for its subsequent miseries.
Starr possesses a wealth of knowledge about New York’s history and politics, which he puts to great use in charting its decline. Still, one wishes that he had more to say about just who the current elites are and why they seem so indifferent to the fate of their own city. To take just one example, The Rise and Fall of New York City contains practically no discussion of the city’s powerful publishing and broadcasting industry, an omission made understandable but no less regrettable by the author’s current occupation as a member of the editorial board of the New York Times. Nor does the book adequately explain why New York’s more conservative elites—bankers, clergymen, merchants, developers, and the like—so easily put on (or failed to resist) the new anti-judgmental fashions. Such an account, however, would call for an assessment of American culture—and in particular of American liberalism—much broader than the specific (though probably trend-setting) case of New York City.
Whether new elites who are urban without being urbane may emerge, as Starr hopes, is anyone’s guess. Starr does single out Mayor Koch—a self-styled “liberal with sanity”—as a possible prototype, while noting that Koch’s approval of middle-class attitudes on economic issues is combined with support for less orthodox personal behavior (as in his position on gay rights). Though New York would undoubtedly have been worse off without him, many of Koch’s policies remain flawed by attitudes not unlike those of his predecessors. In any case, notes Starr, Koch has yet to displace the established liberal elites, of which he was once a leader, but who now oppose him and stand ready to return to business as usual as soon as he leaves office.
Perhaps the solution lies not just in new leaders but in new social institutions. If modern urban life, aided by contemporary liberalism, inevitably tends to dull moral sensibility, corrupt politics, and give rise to social disorder, then a return to the village—or at least its nearest urban equivalent—may be called for. Indeed, in New York as well as many other large cities, something of the sort is already well advanced. This new “de-urbanization” takes the form of neighborhood-development associations, anti-crime block watches, community school boards, and the like. While hardly a substitute for the full range of municipal activities, they do afford city dwellers the opportunity to set standards and bring some degree of control into those areas of urban life with which they are most directly concerned.
Such arrangements are not curealls. If they lack valid social ties, they may only exacerbate the disorder of urban life, as the community-control experiments of the 1960’s showed. Nor, as Starr points out in connection with proposals for enterprise zones, would much be gained if economic incentives improved but hostile attitudes toward entrepreneurship did not. For some groups, such as lower-class blacks, urbanization may already have taken so great a toll that virtually nothing can restore a sense of cohesion (though even that may change). And many problems can only be addressed citywide: subways and streets must connect across neighborhood boundaries while jails and shelters for the homeless are not likely to be eagerly welcomed within them. As long as large numbers of strangers live closely together, cities are not going to be merely collections of urban villages.
But the impact of urban morality need not extend into every aspect of life. Outside liberal enclaves, more traditional standards can sometimes prevail, with considerable human and financial benefits. Thus, the Koreans and other newly arrived ethnic groups, who have so far managed to preserve the best of the old culture while acquiring the skills of the new, have been so successful that they are scarcely mentioned by Starr. Is it too much to believe that more settled residents also have social strengths that can be better tapped to achieve legitimate goals? And that the leaders of New York and other cities can devise ways of doing so?
In New York, Philadelphia, the District of Columbia, and other cities, some encouraging signs can be found. Nonetheless, as long as the reigning political philosophy denies the legitimacy of upholding traditional standards, little will really change. New York’s “moral crisis” will eventually engender another fiscal one. If so, thanks to Roger Starr’s book, which comes closer than any other to the truth of what happened the first time, the city’s elites will not be able to escape blame by claiming their intentions were good.