Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

A mayor is only as good as his city

By Zachary Karabell
October 25, 2013

The New York City mayoral race is entering its final days, and it seems all but certain that Bill de Blasio will be the new master of City Hall. That’s prompted anxiety among some in New York, best encapsulated by an ad run by Republican challenger Joseph Lhota warning that the city would revert to a 1970s crime-ridden cesspit if de Blasio is elected.

Not only is this fear misplaced, but it represents a deep misunderstanding of what has transpired in New York, the United States, and much of the developed world in the past two decades. The transformation of New York and a plethora of American cities into thriving and relatively affluent hubs in the past 20 years is not, as is widely believed, the product of astute mayors and innovative policing. Rather, cities have been transformed because their residents and industries have transformed them.

That is not the common story. In New York, the legend goes that Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg the city turned to the innovative policing of two-time commissioner Ray Kelly to end the deleterious waves of crime, reduce the red-tape, repair crumbling infrastructure and make the city hospitable to business and commerce.*

Undoubtedly, New York became a vastly safer place over the past 20 years, with violent crime falling 75 percent since 1990. It also became a far more affluent place as the rise of Wall Street and high finance enriched the city’s coffers (though not as much as many believe, given how many of the winners of the finance sweepstakes do not live in New York City itself). The burgeoning of new media and startups during the Bloomberg years and the attraction of the city as a hub for entrepreneurs in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan only cemented that process.

Yet how do we explain the fact that these trends occurred throughout the United States in city after city, when those cities had their own mayors, their own police chiefs, and none of which did the bidding of New York?

The common belief is that the drop in crime is due to astute policing, especially to the “broken windows” theory that pointed officers toward small crimes in the belief that preventing petty lawlessness would prevent more serious crime. That approach was embraced by Giuliani and by mayors around the country. Yet many criminologists doubt those claims, and question whether different policing had much to do with the stunning drop in crime throughout the United States over the past two decades.

Outside of New York, there have also been astute mayors in many cities during these years: John Hickenlooper in Denver, Thomas Menino in Boston, Gavin Newsom in San Francisco, Wil Wynn in Austin, Shirley Franklin in Atlanta, and Richard M. Daley in Chicago. All of those cities and many more witnessed similar drops in crime along with a substantial revival in economic activity, a revitalization of decrepit neighborhoods, and an improvement in city finances and infrastructure.

You would be hard pressed to find too many commonalities in these mayors. Some adopted similar policies, but so did mayors in cities that did not fare so well, like Rochester, New York or Wichita, Kansas. Other cities also boomed in these yeas — Tulsa, Omaha, Houston, all of which benefited immeasurably from the rise of select commodities such as oil and gas in Houston and Tulsa and grain in Nebraska.

The only commonality is the influx of the same middle and professional classes that had fled many urban areas in the late 1960s and 1970s. While mayors may — may — have helped draw those classes back, it was that migration that sparked urban revival.

This influx then triggered a surge in income and the flowering of local industry or industries, notably a next wave of finance in New York and high-tech in San Francisco. Anchored by a vibrant industry, cities then attract what some have called “the knowledge class,” who increasingly propel a post-industrial America. That influx then triggered a series of cultural changes that saw sharp drops in crime and substantial improvement in the quality of life. Each city had its own specific story, its own cast of characters, but because it happened in so many places simultaneously, it is difficult to convincingly argue that these shifts happened because of who was mayor or police chief.

It is also true that the cities that have declined and gone in the opposite direction saw a continued flight of the professional classes and were often ill-served by their elected local officials. Detroit is of course Exhibit A, but even with a better local government, Detroit would have been hard pressed to stave off the immense pressure caused by the rapid changes in the auto industry, which had been the region’s lifeblood.

So the fear surrounding a de Blasio administration would appear to be excessive, stoked as it is by an incorrect reading of the past two decades. With his promises of higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for universal pre-K education and his rhetoric of a more equitable distribution of rewards and services to all the city’s residents rather than the elite who have thrived enormously, de Blasio has certainly tweaked the comfortable classes. But their lives — and the city — have improved over the past decades less because of what its mayors and police have done than because what millions of people have brought about by the energy and dynamism that they pour into their communities.

The revival of cities is a product of their industry, and the best evidence of that is that it’s happened across the country, in cities that rely on different industries and different people and different administrators. Of course, it’s better to have a good mayor, a competent police force, and a responsive government that represents all residents and not just the elite. But the future of cities will lie with its people and with the mysterious forces of affluence and drive and creativity that define healthy cities. There is little sign of that abating, and that force — thankfully — is more powerful than any mayor ever could be.

*CORRECTION Oct. 28: This piece originally implied that Rudy Giuliani appointed Ray Kelly as police chief. He did not.

PHOTO: Democratic New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio (L) is greeted by supporters during the New York State Nurses Association rally outside City Hall in New York October 17, 2013. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Comments
17 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Good points, I think it is all too common for the “people” to assume they share no responsibility in the quality of their city or region. I assume it is because they get caught up in all of the rhetoric of the politicians and other manipulators (religions). Which politician has ever said, “we’re not going to do well if you lazy people don’t start working harder”? Well, none, and most keep yacking about the “hard working people” etc., which we know is nonsense in many cases. However, how does a politician get elected if they don’t manipulate people. I have serious doubts that Americans will ever wise up and become rational people on the whole, and so at best I think we’ll get little pockets of acheivement surrounded by mostly squalor, because squalor doesn’t cost much and those that can be convinced it is their lot in life are much easier to control and manipulate for profit and political power. We’ve known forever that education leads to higher acheivement yet we really suck at educating people. We’ve known that self determination (liberty and responsibility) leads to rewards that motivate an individual to acheive, yet we live in a rubber room country with no personal responsibility. We need a merit based society yet we reward political loyalty. Your points about cities that improve being mostly due to the business and people may be true, but I have serious doubts that most of the US will catch on to that.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive
 

I miss “Fun City”. NYC is more like Hong Kong now.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive
 

Many in San Francisco hardly considered Gavin Newsom to be an “astute” mayor. He looks good, talks a good game, and is respected for his early pro gay marriage stance, but on urban issues he was a mediocre performer at best. A rampant homeless population and ineffectual urban transit were only two of the many issues that afflicted his term. And they continue to affect SF, despite the recent high-tech boom.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive
 

Very well sid @botherkenny4. The big WWII benefits and the minor cold war spoils are about exhausted now.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

I think you are absolutely crazy. I lived in NY City in the 80′s, you didn’t. Stupid liberal BS.

Posted by smit1610 | Report as abusive
 

There’s another common factor that few people have even thought about;

Leaded gasoline was phased out in the 1970′s, and finally banned nationwide by 1995. As leaded gasoline became rarer, fewer lead pollutants were in city air.

One researcher asked herself, “Why did the crime rates plummet so dramatically in the past couple of decades, from rates that were astronomically high in the 80′s?”

She plotted the crime rate changes over time, by city and even by neighborhood. She also compared the graphs with lead particulate pollution in those same cities and neighborhoods, where the data was available. And came up with a startling but not too surprising finding.

The curves were identical, but separated by approximately twenty years. That indicates a very strong correlation; as people grew up in the inner city, the lead particulates they were breathing growing up damaged their brain development. We know what the effects of lead poisoning are. As the lead pollution tapered off, fewer children were exposed, and approximatly twenty years later, crime rates fell.

The EPA might, unintentionally, be the most effective crime fighting agency in the world, in this case.

Posted by Burns0011 | Report as abusive
 

“even with a better local government, Detroit would have been hard pressed”: there’s the opposite example, set by Pittsburgh — so it’s not clear that Detroit couldn’t have been saved.
“Yet how do we explain the fact that these trends occurred throughout the United States in city after city, when those cities had their own mayors, their own police chiefs, and none of which did the bidding of New York?” Can’t believe nobody has appealed to conspiracy theories yet! OK, I am somewhat joking, but surely there must be hordes of Tea Partiers out there who see this as yet more evidence for Agenda 42 or whatever.

Posted by MBmb | Report as abusive
 

Karabell, you have no idea what you are talking about. You have had your nose in too many books. Those of us who lived and worked (teaching)in the outer boroughs, Jamaica, Queens know from experience that Giuliani, his commissioners and the NYPD dramatically changed culture of lawlessness that was pervasive throughout this city. Just because other mayors were ineffective in employing the broken windows strategy does not men it did not work here.

Posted by agathawan | Report as abusive
 

“But the future of cities will lie with its people and with the mysterious forces of affluence and drive and creativity that define healthy cities.” Baloney! (not bologna) The people and these “mysterious forces” are but available resources, to be ignored, squandered ineffectively, or put to good use by those “in charge”.

The fundamental difference is ALWAYS that those cities whose citizens elect those who have a passion for their particular community and are competent or inspired LEADERS are always in the parade to prosperity. Even if the “best and brightest” in a community isn’t the brightest light in the harbor, if they CARE passionately enough they will attract enough local support to at least identify and copy what seems to be working for similar challenges elsewhere. That is usually sufficient to keep them above the median in municipal performance and achievement.

“…squalor doesn’t cost much and those that can be convinced it is their lot in life are much easier to control and manipulate for profit and political power.” Balderdash. Detroit is the poster child for how much squalor costs. The scale must weigh not only the “out of pocket” cost, but also consider the “worth of opportunity/time lost” when crooks and incompetents are elected and bring in their cronies and unions to loot a city’s credibility and credit.

Solid city planning and leadership leverages available community assets, both human and financial, via credible planning. A city “with a plan” is always more likely to substantially revive local economic activity and replace decrepit neighborhoods. This improves city finances which, in turn, makes possible improvements in necessary infrastructure.”

People must be made to believe a “corner has been turned” before local industries can attract a “wave of finance” or “high-tech”. That stimulates the “flowering of local industry” which THEN attracts “the knowledge class,” who demand the cultural changes that put a community back on the solid fiscal foundation necessary to reduce crime and improve the local quality of life.

It isn’t politically correct to bring this up, but in Houston, Texas, whole blighted communities have been bought up, leveled, and new medical facilities and related enterprises, town homes, etc. constructed. The community and tax base are much improved, however, it is NOT the poor souls who earlier resided there that reap these benefits. It is, instead, the “knowledge class” who buy into and live out these dreams.

The “underclass” is not removed and excluded so much by force of law, but by the realities of income. They literally cannot afford to live where they once did. The illusion that America is a classless society is just that, an illusion. I choose to be honest and admit I have NO PROBLEM with such reality.

No society can yet promise all it’s citizens the “good life”. For the foreseeable future, each who enjoy that must inherit or earn it, AND CONTINUE to maintain their “place on life’s merry-go-round”. We all live with this reality…it’s just that some would rather live in perpetual denial of the truth than even glimpse it in the mirror,

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

I think the critical reason is make by urban geographer Enrico Moretti. It is not only that the educated middle class returned to the cities but also that this group constituted the new knowledge/technical class (as manufacturing declined dramatically throughout the U.S.). And while one manufacturing job created about one and a half other jobs, a job in the knowledge industry had a multiplier effect of five, five new jobs for each knowledge job created. Also, the higher percentage of college grads in an urban area, the higher the income of non-college grads. So there is a large spillover effect as well as a multiplier effect. And that is why Toledo, Detroit, Cleveland,Buffalo, and other rust belt cities are struggling and why New York, Columbus, San Jose are advancing.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive
 

NYC went to stop and frisk and stopped crime.
As the author recognizes violent crime falling 75 percent since 1990.

On the other hand Detroit stopped stop and frisk and their crime went up. Detroit learned the lesson and is NOW going stop and frisk, their crime is high,
they know they need it.

Stop and frisk was not the only issue that reduced crime.

But that reduction in crime was a major contributing factor to renovation of NYC.

As a younger person I literally recall kicking crack vials as I walked the sidewalks. My car window smashed in while I was in a restaurant. Visitors complaining the streets smelled of urine.

No one wanted to live in the areas because of crime. Brooklyn was a scary place.

20 years of crime prevention lead to the city regeneration.

Now NYC goes backwards, while Detroit realizes their error.

Very unfortunate memories are so faulty and politicians promise anything to get elected, despite the probably ruinous results that may occur. Especially in a down economy.

Jail is not the answer, I am not saying it is, but prevention and policies like stop and frisk are necessary.

Detroit will prove it once again.

THE BOTTOM LINE People MOVED OUT OF THE BRONX, HARLEM, BROOKLYN, MANHATTAN BECAUSE THERE WAS CRIME, they needed a safe place for their children and moved if they could.

People returned to NYC because it was safer. NYC Times Square was revitalized because it was safer. Brooklyn etc. was revitalized because it was safer.

IT IS NOT THE CITY IT IS THE MAYOR -

Posted by Alexaisback | Report as abusive
 

.

” Detroit would have been hard pressed to stave off the immense pressure caused by the rapid changes in the auto industry, which had been the region’s lifeblood. ”

Oh come on, does anyone believe this ?

Detroit had the infrastructure, the trained employees, AS WELL the brain power, the smartest auto engineers in the world were working and living there for YEARS. They had family roots, generations living there and working there.

IT WOULD BE HARD TO COMPETE WITH DETROIT, unless of course stupid planning ruined Detroit so corporations no longer wanted to work there and the brain trust and those who could afford to moved out.

And we all know that is exactly what happened.

Competition didn’t ruin Detroit.

Detroit ruined Detroit and made itself uncompetitive
so competition sprouted.

- What rapid changes in the auto industry took place ?

Come on, there were no rapid changes, it was a slow death
made by bad choices made by bad politicians.

.

Posted by Alexaisback | Report as abusive
 

.

To the writer who wrote this:

” I think you are absolutely crazy. I lived in NY City in the 80′s, you didn’t. Stupid liberal BS. ”

Exactly.

I can tell you story after story. I got lost once and pulled over and asked 4 police officers sitting in a car for directions.

Why 4 police officers in a car. They were scared too. They yelled at me, what the h–ll are you doing here. Get the h–ll out of here. Thank God they were there.

Ever walk in Central Park, h–ll no. You were afraid to. Unless of course you had 4 or 5 people with you and even then you were on edge.

Ever take a subway, you kept your head down, held strong to your belongings, usually you never sat, never looked at or spoke to anyone. After dark you didn’t take the subway you took a cab.

Once I decided to walk from Grand Central to Penn Station and was followed for blocks by several young men. I kept my head down, doubled my pace and never looked back. I knew if I looked back I would be confronted and probably beaten and robbed. I never walked it again.

It is very funny well actually not funny, to read these ‘experts’ give advice. They never lived it, they have no idea what they are talking about.

.

Posted by Alexaisback | Report as abusive
 

. To the poster who wrote ” Karabell, you have no idea what you are talking about. You have had your nose in too many books. Those of us who lived and worked (teaching)in the outer boroughs, Jamaica, Queens know from experience that Giuliani, his commissioners and the NYPD dramatically changed culture of lawlessness that was pervasive throughout this city. Just because other mayors were ineffective in employing the broken windows strategy does not men it did not work here. ”

I agree.

. But I do not blame the author for his naivety and stupidity.

While he was at Harvard and later if in NY taking limousines

many of us were walking the sidewalks or taking subways.

This author has no idea what he is talking about.

. Middle class in New York know he is a clown.

He just does not know any better.

.

Posted by Alexaisback | Report as abusive
 

Alexaisback — don’t confuse your racial paranoia for reality…

most people in the city know what ‘Giuliani time’ was (and is)…

Posted by wilhelm | Report as abusive
 

.

always the way, isn’t it – quick label the rational poster as a racist, because there is no other way to discuss it. if you can’t agree but can’t explain why, quick, label the poster a racist !

there is no racial bias here

and you have no idea whether or not I am black or white
or any other heritage, or what my family composition is. And I say black because I am sick of every one being labeled African American when my family, for example, is not from Africa that I know of. Well maybe if you go back 1,000s or 100,000s or a million of years ago, but then if you do that, aren’t we all African American; Homo erectus and Homo ergaster were the first of the hominina to leave Africa, 1.3 to 1.8 million years ago.

Well all know NYC improved, from the Bronx to the Rockaways, to Brooklyn to Manhattan, and we know a good portion of that was due to safety in neighborhoods.

If you think stop and frisk is a bad thing, you are welcome to your opinion, but you do know that Detroit is now going back to stop and frisk, why not call them racist ?

.

Posted by Alexaisback | Report as abusive
 

I did not live in New York when Giuilani was elected, but I visited the city every few months both the year before that and for a few years after he was elected. And if I hadn’t see the change in that city during just his first year myself – I would have never believed how much a city could so totally change in so many ways in such a short period of time.

I can understand your skepticism, but I personally witnessed that change and when it comes to New York miracle – you are totally, 100% wrong. As further proof, when Bratton came to LA – our out of control murder rate and overall high crime rate – almost instantly – began to decline and has continued to do so every since under the programs he implemented,

I have also seen during that same time period – under a succession of LA Mayors with less ability than Bloomberg – Los Angeles lose its stock exchange, most of its major banks & savings and loans, all of its airlines, all of its major department store chains, most of its corporate headquarters and now it is losing its film, TV, media and the tech industries to New York for two main reasons.

The lack of civic leadership in Los Angeles (and in California’s legislature) and the effective leadership of Bloomberg – and of many other mayors in other cities.

Posted by BradyW | Report as abusive
 

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