Giuliani saved N.Y. from blight of stupid ideas

John Leo

1/7/2002 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
NEW YORK -- Why was New York City in free fall 10 years ago and believed to be ungovernable? "Because of ideas," Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in his farewell address. The city got itself tangled in "political philosophies and political creeds and ideologies." Very few politicians would point to stupid ideas as the cause of urban disintegration, but Giuliani was right to do so.

Consider where the city was a decade ago. Social breakdown had reached the point where tourists stayed away in droves and more than half of the adults living here, according to a New York Times poll, had plans to leave the city. An army of the "homeless," a euphemism for alcoholics, addicts and released mental patients, camped out on sidewalks and in parks. A second army, made up of do-good lawyers, fought to create the right to live, sleep and defecate on city streets. Nobody seemed to litigate the right to a livable city or to parks free of human waste.

Disorder seemed to be everywhere. Turnstile-jumping, getting into the subway without paying, became the city's favorite sport. Together with other subway scams, it was costing the transit authority an estimated $60 million a year. (One of the early joys of the Giuliani administration was heading down to the West Fourth Street subway station to watch cops round up a few hundred turnstile jumpers and bus them away for a three-hour adventure at police headquarters.)

A million people were on welfare. Around 25 cabbies a year were murdered. The menace reached the most stable neighborhoods. Two Korean grocers at the end of my block were savagely beaten by some 20 thugs. My neighborhood had its own "wilding" incident too. A gang of teen-aged girls with baseball bats and assorted pieces of lumber burst out of the subway and ran down the block clubbing people at random. In Brooklyn, someone said it was once possible to enjoy the city by staying out of certain neighborhoods, but now there was "almost no place to run, no place to hide."

So what were the bad ideas that brought about this disaster?

(1) Disorder and low-level "victimless crimes" are not worth bothering with. As Giuliani said of the city, "we were too busy" to do anything about street prostitution, aggressive panhandling, graffiti, and low-level drug-dealing on the street. But these behaviors signal a loss of social control, demoralizing residents and setting the stage for serious crime and neighborhood decline. This is what the "broken window" theory predicts, and a lot of evidence now shows it is true.

It is probably impossible for non-New Yorkers to understand how deeply the anti-Giuliani establishment here resents any attempt to control disorder. But here's one example: The New York Times, which likes to run anti-Giuliani editorials disguised as news stories, ran a Page One story two years ago mocking police for attempting to deal with the spread of heroin in a diverse area of Brooklyn. The article suggested that the local police were "mindlessly impos(ing) the mores of Mayberry on what is a classic rough-and-tumble Brooklyn neighborhood."

(2) The crime rate can't be brought down without dealing first with the root causes of poverty and hopelessness. Not much is left of this theory. The crime rate and the murder rate have been cut by two-thirds. Last year Chicago had more murders than New York City, with less than half the population.

The fallback position of the anti-Giuliani people is that the drop would have occurred anyway because of the 1990s economic boom. But the city crime rate dropped 30 percent in Giuliani's first two years, before the economy improved, and the boom did not seem to reduce crime in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit. As much as a quarter of the national decline in crime is accounted for by New York's dramatic gains. Most other crime-cutting cities have had crime rises in the past year. New York's rate is still falling.

(3) Living on the street is a right to be defended, given the economic pressures that cause it. Not so, Giuliani insists. Homelessness is a sign that says, "I have a very big problem and I need help. You should try to help me. And trying to help me means first of all dealing with the basic idea you have to be indoors, not out on the street."

(4) Policies promoting middle-class values are just attempts by the comfortable to impose their way of life on the oppressed. "New York politics is mostly about striking caring poses," writes Fred Siegel, a historian who is probably our best academic expert on urban problems. "Liberals like former mayors John Lindsay and David Dinkins spoke endlessly of what the city owed the poor, but they delivered rising rates of crime and welfare. Mr. Giuliani spoke in the middle-class language of what the poor owe to rest of society, and he delivered more peaceful neighborhoods and a rising standard of living." Minorities and the poor made some of the biggest gains under Giuliani.

The simple truth is that Giuliani saved New York from going the way of Detroit. Whether the dead policies of the past will return under the new mayor is still anybody's guess.