Part One: The (Ine)Quality of Life
In a recent New York Times Magazine article James Traub sums up the “death of liberalism” in New York City by quoting the Manhattan Institute’s Myron Magnet, author of The Dream and the Nightmare, a book that George W. Bush says influenced him second only to the Bible. According to Magnet, “We no longer believe that in order to solve crime we have to deal with the root causes of poverty and racism; we now believe that we can reduce crime through good policing. The root causes of crime are not poverty and racism. They’re criminals.”
Such a disturbing statement shows how comfortable some conservatives now feel in the “new” New York and how, while poverty has persisted and in some areas gotten worse, criminalization has become the central idea of policy-making. Mayor Giuliani’s “quality of life” policing campaign is one of the most high profile manifestations of this kind of short-term approach. It has succeeded in lulling the media into a standard storyline about how there is a wholly “new” New York under the tutelage of Giuliani.
A quick database search reveals almost a thousand individual news pieces equating Giuliani’s New York “renaissance” with the disappearance of “squeegee” operators, for example. Yet, according to a 1993 report, there were only 73 of them throughout the city in the year before Giuliani was elected.
From Spokane to Singapore, reporting on our city makes it clear Rudy Giuliani has won a war of perception concerning how he has “cleaned up New York” and changed its very fabric. One recent example from the Montreal Gazette gushes, “It’s easy to see why Rudy Giuliani is the most popular mayor in modern New York history. Not only has Rudy cleaned the streets, he’s cleaned them up…taken the pimps and pushers off the streets and made them safe again…and chase the homeless and the squeegee kids away.” In mainstream media this kind of story is tired and worn out, yet still continues.
Columnists, pundits, tourists, friends, and relatives all perpetuate a seemingly inescapable message that New York City is a different city. And, of course, we have heard this incessantly from Giuliani and his tightly controlled administration. Bathing in triumphalism, Giuliani, his press office, and his commissioners dole out their own statistics and discount anyone who protests or questions as “advocates,” misled or part of some romantic cult that wants to take the city back to the dark ages.
It is time to explode and explore some of the canonized myths that the “new” New York is built on and question what is behind the quality of life ideas that have become a blanket policy for all the city’s ills. All of us who have come across the refrain, “but the city does look better and feel safer,” need to evaluate what this means to each of us and for others.
No doubt is it difficult to broach this complex subject amidst such constant glorification, but I do want to make one thing clear right away in case someone is inclined to react: “So you want squeegee people back! You want drug dealers and dirty streets! You want muggers! You want anarchy!” No. This is not a question of defending unaesthetic graffiti, drug dealers, and the act of panhandling—and, of course, not a defense for serious crime. It is rather a plea to question the kind of policy that incessantly glorifies quality of life effectiveness that is short-term, superficial, and many times, cruel.
The point is not to romanticize prostitutes, drug dealers, and dirty streets, but it is also not to romanticize Disney, fast-food courts, and the cultural sterilization of streets. It is about asking whether those panhandlers and drug dealers are really gone and dealt with at the root causes, or simply cosmetically cleaned up, pushed away, locked up, only aesthetically ameliorated? Has the “renaissance” of the city helped a majority of people economically, or is it just another case of the rich getting richer?
A New Idea? A Lot of Mileage!
Rudy Giuliani spent eight years high up in the Reagan Department of Justice before he decided to try a run for mayor of New York City. In 1993, he was voted in by a slim margin—in large part because the image of the City’s recent torrid history had already been created and pitched in hyperbole worthy only of political spinsters. This vision of Gotham was full of squeegee guys crowding intersections, garbage piled everywhere, graffiti covering buildings, the homeless harassing and attacking citizens, and the streets out of control.
The folks at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank connected to private business, saw their chance. They advocated the privatization of virtually everything and a campaign to “take back our public space” through an aggressive implementation of George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory—which holds that going after the little crimes is an effective way to reduce the big ones and improve the “quality of life.” Most of Giuliani’s mayoral platform was based on this idea and so one of the first things he and the new Police Commissioner William Bratton did was to round up the “squeegee pests,” heralding a quick and initial success.
Thus began a high-profile “quality of life” campaign that created an array of new criminalizable offenses and possibilities for arrest and soon became a cover for policing based on zero tolerance.
The dark side of Giuliani’s campaign quickly appeared, setting the stage for policies that systematically violate the rights of tens of thousands of New Yorkers. In fact, during 1994-1995—the first year of the “quality of life” campaign—there was a 39 percent increase in Civilian Complaint Review Board filings against police officers.
It is quite evident that police presence went far beyond making some streets more pleasant and went over the line of aggressive zero tolerance policing, thus widening the gap that already existed between the city’s law enforcement and huge communities of New Yorkers.
Don’t kill compassion, but make sure to embarrass it.
The aforementioned New York Times Magazine article by James Traub exhibits perfectly the white middle class liberal dilemma of many New Yorkers regarding Giuliani and the “quality of life” campaigns: since many things look better and people perhaps behave better, then Giuliani has proved that his policies work.
Futhermore, Traub reports that Giuliani has effectively gnawed away at any remaining sympathy towards policy based on promoting racial and economic equality and nullified, even disproved, the liberal fabric of policymaking in the city. In Traub’s words, “Giuliani hasn’t killed compassion, but he has exposed its inadequacy as policy.”
Traub does acknowledge that many “minorities,” and even some middle-class whites, completely disagree with Giuliani. But because of his underlying assumption that people of all colors have accepted Constitutional violations in order to bring down crime, he never really explores the magnitude of how people are affected and the intense disparity of who was affected.
Here is a little taste:
*Between 1996 and 1997, a 10-month period, an estimated 50,000 people and counting were illegally strip-searched by jail guards after being arrested for minor infractions like littering or disorderly conduct. This will cost the city an estimated $50 million.
*In 1997 and 1998, the N.Y.P.D.’s plainclothes Street Crime Unit, the same unit that killed Amadou Diallo, “stop-and-frisked” 45,000 people but made only 9,500 arrests, prompting multiple local, state, and federal investigations.
*One investigation by N.Y. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer found that the Street Crime Unit disproportionately stop-and-frisked blacks and Latinos, many times without having the legal grounds of “reasonable suspicion” as granted in the Constitution.
And, under the Mayor’s direction, the N.Y.P.D. was forced into a veritable low-grade war with the public. According to the N.Y.P.D., in 1993 there were 100,000 summonses meted out, while in 2000 there were 600,000. In the spring of 1999, James Savage, the acting president of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association stated that the increased pressure on quality of life infractions was a “map for a police state,” putting pressure on the N.Y.P.D.’s relationship with all kinds of communities in New York.
Sometimes the increases in arrests are astounding: according to a recent Daily News study, in 1992, 720 people were arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges. In 1999, 33,471 people were arrested—a 4,549% increase.
For all the Republican talk of fiscal constraint and the money wasted on literacy and youth programs, job training, and other “compassionate” policies, Giuliani’s policing policies have required a massive public expenditure. The overall budget for the N.Y.P.D. has gone from $1.6 billion in 1990 to $3.1 billion in 2000. While a fraction of this increase was due to the merging of the Transit and Housing police into the N.Y.P.D., the budget grew by $500 million over the last few years alone and now accounts for one-fifth of the city workforce. N.Y.P.D. figures also show that in 1994, there was $112 million paid in N.Y.P.D. overtime while in 2000 the figure more than doubled to $247 million. If that’s not enough, the money the city has been required to pay out for “personal injury resulting from police actions” doubled between 1993 and 1999 and, because of litigation from the aforementioned strip-searches, will soon skyrocket even more.
Changing the Terms—the Real “Quality of Life”
The very epitome of short-term politicking is the need to cut back policies of inclusion and rehabilitation and, instead, criminalize and incarcerate. These ideas of criminalization and incarceration are the basis of Giuliani’s “quality of life” policing that has been studied and emulated around the globe. Of course, businesses thrive, more tourists visit, and streets are more pleasant when nobody sees the homeless or panhandlers. But this is only a glossy and superficial targeted effect that cannot be credited with genuinely “turning around” New York City.
As a white male I can be relatively sure that plainclothes N.Y.P.D. officers won’t jump and frisk me, and living in a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn allows me a level of comfort that I hope all could enjoy. And that is the point: quality of life is not about cleaning the surface. The effect of that is short-term, superficial, and most of all, disproportionate.
Traub’s article attempts to postulate that Giuliani’s New York rebukes liberal assumptions that crime, poverty, and homelessness are driven by “vast, impersonal forces” such as racism, inequality, and the economy. But while crime, through intense political activity, has decreased here, as it has nationwide, homelessness, poverty, a living wage, and affordability in the Big Apple have not. For example:
* The city’s poverty rate remains the same as it was during the 1989-1992 recession, nearly twice the national average, and is even rising for families with children and the working poor.
* The city had 750 food pantries when the mayor took office. Today there are 1,150. The amount of food distributed at these emergency food programs rose 36 percent last year alone.
* New York is now number one in inequality between rich and poor.
* In 1999 more than one in every four N.Y.C. renter households paid more than half its income for rent and utilities. Between 1991 and 1999, N.Y.C. lost more than 510,000 apartments with gross rents below $500 per month.
* Only the richest one fifth of the city has seen an increase in spending power in the last decade.
Real quality of life is about making living better for the majority of people, regardless of their race, job, or socio-economic status. During these last eight years of tremendous growth, low unemployment, a Bull market on Wall Street and record tourists, the real sense of quality of life for most New Yorkers has evidently not increased.
New York City under Rudy Giuliani has indeed shown that a business-friendly, white-friendly, zealously policing mayor can succeed in creating an atmosphere where policies as short-term as criminalization and incarceration can reign and influence the nation and the world.
But the real question is where real change will come from, and who will initiate it. Admittedly, some New Yorkers during the present era have stereotypical qualities—cynicism, greed, self-obsession, etc.—that on the surface might lead them to wholeheartedly accept Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaigns. But will they accept the ludicrous, tautological explanation that “criminals cause crime”? Here I would say that New Yorkers may be many things, but stupid is not one of them. And I, for one, am ashamed that in the “new” New York such an utterly simplistic statement can even be made.
To be continued…