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?