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Against the Giuliani Legacy

Giuliani at a fundraiser in Texas. Still Image from Giuliani Time.

Upon the premiere of the documentary Giuliani Time, directed by Kevin Keating and produced by Keating and the Rail’s Williams Cole, we are pleased to the run the following excerpts from Cole’s series “Against the Giuliani Legacy,” which ran in the Rail from the spring of 2001 through the winter of 2002 —Ed.

Part One: (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 that 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 chased 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, 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, it is 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?

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, to 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 superficially targeted effect that cannot be credited with genuinely “turning around” New York City.

As a white male I can be relatively sure that plainclothes NYPD 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 police 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% last year alone;

• New York is now the number one major city in inequality between rich and poor;

• In 1999 more than one in every four NYC renter households paid more than half its income for rent and utilities. Between 1991 and 1999, NYC 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.

Part II: Indecency and the Free Market

Obscenity is a moral concept in the verbal arsenal of the Establishment, which abuses the term by applying it not to expressions of its own morality but to those of another—Herbert Marcuse

Given the recent private actions that have become public, perhaps criticism of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s attacks on “indecent” art and behavior perhaps would be like digging a hole in new topsoil—it’s easy unless you go deeper. But Giuliani’s marital woes—and the definitions of “decency” implicit in them—conceal more serious issues: Who defines “decency” and what is the real political and economic effect of attacks on “indecent” or “obscene” behavior and expression in New York City?

What are the concepts of “decency” and “obscenity,” as envisioned by Rudy Giuliani? There’s no need for yet another dissection of Giuliani’s character, especially since he’s had to evaluate public criticisms of his personal behavior, which, many would argue, has been less than “decent.” But the personalization of politics and policies is a slippery slope. Regardless of his own hypocrisy, it is the war that the Giuliani administration has waged against First Amendment rights, sex shops, and, most importantly, public funding of expression, that has a social/political effect on the fabric of this city. An effect that is tangible, censorious and counterintuitive to the diversity and freedom that New York City represents across the nation and the world.

Private vs. Public censorship

Late in his administration, Giuliani thus filled the air with Helmsian jingoism and his arguments about how public monies were being put toward “obscene,” “indecent,” or “offensive” material aroused the fiscal ire of taxpayers. But, in one sense, Giuliani merely reinforced the argument that “offensive” or controversial art can and should be supported only in the “private” world and that public funds should not be involved in provocative art.

Aside from the obvious problem involved with assessing such subjective definitions, this argument is troubling because it is predicated on the idea that the private sector does not censor and that everyone has the same access to the same private resources and can show their art easily. These arguments ignore the root of the philosophy behind a public institution in which there is, ideally, there is more accountability, more protection from market censorship, and, in the realm of expression, more space to criticize and provoke for the good of the public debate.

By further neutering expression in the public sphere. Giuliani helps sustain and is part of a larger contemporary American myth: that the private world is where “freedom” thrives and where First Amendment rights are truly protected. While the drafters of the Constitution surely had a healthy suspicion of government, times have changed and there is no denying that corporations and their very influence on government are the holders of mammoth power. But the power they hold is not as accountable because they are in the private sector and are not under the same mandates of disclosure and responsibility. This trend to push the arts into the private less accountable marketplace is the triumph of the neo-laissez-faire.

Giuliani’s unwavering adherence to the blind-the-public policy of privatization and the free market has led to billions of dollars being given away to corporations in the form of tax breaks, subsidies, and incentives. Besides giving well over one-billion to financial entities like the NYSE and NASDAQ in the middle of their flush days, tens upon tens of millions were given to media companies like CBS, Time-Warner, and News America (owner of the New York Post). These billions of dollars should have been public monies and while these kinds of deals are now the status quo in government they should, nevertheless, be seen as indecent.

Part III: “Respectability”
and the War Against the Poor

We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. —E.M. Forster

The “new” New York is giddy and gleaming for many, a place where it is acceptable to be satisfied with simplistic ideas about the poor and their behavior; where it is fine to revel in wealth (or credit) and not be publicly confronted with the homeless, as in the past; where it is fine to publicly flirt with stereotypes about “welfare mothers” or the “liberals,” the likes of which Rush Limbaugh demonizes. Given this atmosphere, the question I want to ask goes deeper than an attempt to contextualize the decrease in crime rates or evaluate “decency”: what kind of city do we collectively want and what objectives should we as a diverse city aspire to?

“Welfare to Work” and the Increase in Poverty

“One of the greatest things I have done in New York City, and one of the things I will be remembered for years from now, is workfare—putting people back to work! It is probably one of the best things I have done. When students read history books . . . twenty years from now they are going to see that I took a city of dependency and made it into a city of workers!” —Mayor Giuliani, 1998 Town Hall Meeting

Just how has the Giuliani administration applied its policies to bolster their version of “bourgeois respectability” and values in poor communities? As with “quality of life” policing, countries all over the world are looking to Giuliani’s New York as the model to rollback welfare in order to save money and gain political favor. Welfare reform and welfare-to-work is nation-wide and spreading to Western Europe and other industrialized countries. But what is it really made of? In New York City, there has been much ballyhoo about the success of the welfare-to-work program that statistically shows the rolls have gone down by over one-half million since the early 1990’s. As Wayne Barrett has argued, although welfare reform is the largest social experiment in the modern history of the New York City, no one, even those who helped frame the policy, have put resources toward figuring out where those who have left the rolls have gone.

The Giuliani administration consistently boasts about these numbers as “ending welfare.” But a closer look into the techniques that allow such dramatic numerical reductions to occur reveals the administration gives nearly nothing to those whose lives are already in crisis. Here is a brief summary of the main elements of the administration’s program:

Income Support Centers to “Job Centers”

By most accounts, the transition from “Income Support Centers” to “Job Centers” is first and foremost a policy of active deterrence. In other words, if you go to get help, no matter what your situation in life is, they tell you government benefits don’t exist anymore, that you are not eligible to apply.

In fact, there have been federal, state, and local lawsuits against the Giuliani administration’s changes to welfare centers. One 1999 decision still in appeals found that New York City’s Job Center staff illegally discourages and denies needy people from applying for Food Stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance. Most recently, an August report by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York noted that while public assistance rolls dropped by almost half since 1995, “rising requests for emergency food and growing numbers of homeless people in city shelters point to worsening conditions for the poor.”

Work Experience Program (WEP)

WEP, the crowning glory of the Giuliani administration’s welfare-to-work program, is premised on the idea that one must work for the little survival money one gets because it will “instill the work ethic” into the recipient. WEP workers many times work alongside city workers who make real living wages doing the exact same thing. Most of the jobs WEP workers fill were once salaried city jobs that were taken away in the early cutbacks of the Giuliani administration and reinstated as close-to-unpaid WEP jobs worked on by welfare recipients. Many times the work does not provide real skills and, worst of all, since 1995 twenty-one thousand students have abandoned their studies at CUNY because of the WEP program.

Conclusion: Rudy’s Real Legacy

If we are so prone to looking down on “welfare cheats” in mainstream American society for the supposed millions that they suck from our tax money then let’s at least also look to economic strata above. From the Savings and Loan debacles to defunct hedge funds to massive tax breaks, there are millions upon millions of tax dollars that are absorbed in the echelons far above the average hard-working middle class American.

Looking down on the poor is just the gateway to a whole worldview that has gained ground in New York City under the Giuliani administration. It is a view that marries the jingoism of conservative “voices” from the Heartland who excoriate “welfare mothers” with an urban bourgeoisie that is not willing to face the ills of society.

The Giuliani administration can preach polices tantamount to forgetting about the poor and embracing privilege without social responsibility. That is fine for some short-term politicking, but over time such a mindset will destroy the city’s progressive democratic traditions. It is impossible not to give Giuliani credit for change. But it is the type of change that should be critically evaluated. It is ludicrous to mistake short-term policy aimed at alleviation of numbers with needed long-term policies for education and training. While the welfare system has problems, money must be spent on long-term solutions. The ethos of “shocking” people off the rolls will ruin lives and families. It is simply cruel.

It is important to dissect, challenge and investigate how and why the “new” New York City has “turned around.” It is an issue of not only what kind of city we want in the future but what kind of society we essentially strive for. It is not an easy task and there are no simple answers. But the tendency to put forth simple answers, statistics and proclamations—about quality of life, decency or the poor—is the primary legacy of the Giuliani administration. For the sake of all people suffering in poverty, let’s hope the next mayor does not follow this tradition.

Postscript: All the Media is A Stage

History’s ledgers are filled with the names of men who in moments of crisis rise above themselves to achieve greatness. Men like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy are some of these great leaders. It is among these names that Rudolph Giuliani will take his place. —Cigar Aficionado magazine (December, 2001)

From network morning shows to Nightline and Larry King Live, from the hosannas of David Letterman and Tom Brokaw to international headlines and the standing ovation from all of the United States Congress, Rudy Giuliani in the weeks after the September 11th attacks experienced a rise in stature that even the best PR firm and millions of dollars could not have achieved.

Giuliani, fraught with personal troubles and faced with no obvious post-mayoral political opportunities, was a figure long since out of the national spotlight that the short-lived Senate run gave him in 2000. But after he became, with no small help from the mainstream media, the collective face of New York and its rescue effort, his rise in prominence reached meteoric levels complete with titles like “General Giuliani,” “Captain Courageous,” and a “Civic Saint.”

In a media snowball effect, the mayor went from network and cable news shows to Letterman and Oprah to long interviews with Tim Russert and Larry King. He toured Ground Zero with Kofi Annan, who called him “Mayor of the World,” before Giuliani addressed the United Nations on October 1st, the first time that a mayor of New York has addressed representatives from all over the world in fifty years. French President Jacques Chirac called him “Rudy the Rock,” while Barbara Walters said “This New Yorker might not have an English accent but today some people are calling him Winston Churchill in a baseball cap.” David Letterman said that it was Rudy who inspired him to do his show for the first time after the disaster and that, “Rudy Giuliani is the personification of courage.” He was a ubiquitous presence at Yankees games broadcast on his pal Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network, donning combinations of Yankee and NYPD or FDNY paraphernalia and enjoying an abundance of television close-ups sometimes inter-cut with Old Glory waving in the wind.

From Canada to Germany to China there were news pieces about Giuliani’s return to popularity and how everyone wanted to keep him on as mayor of New York City. From cover stories in The New York Times Magazine to those in the National Enquirer and Cigar Aficionado, to international headlines like Le Figaro’s “Rudy Giuliani, Maire de coeur des New-Yorkais,” the mayor of New York City was now the best-known mayor in the world. The New York Post and Daily News printed supplement tributes complete with ingratiating ad-cum-paeans from the New York Stock Exchange to J&R Music World praising Rudy. Of course, we can’t forget his honorary Knighthood from England’s Queen Elizabeth herself.

In the aftermath of the utter tragedy we experienced on September 11th—and as the economy declines deeper into recession and there is more intense need for social services—there will be much talk of the good days of Giuliani’s historic mayoralty when the world envied New York, opportunities were all around, and those who were critical were discounted as misled. Before he has even left office, such nostalgia for Rudy, sad to say, is already well in the making.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2006

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