In Prospect

Autumn 2010
Brian C. Anderson
Twenty Years of City Journal

Twenty years ago, the Manhattan Institute launched City Journal as an intellectual and journalistic response to New York City’s downward spiral and to the illness of the American city generally. Most observers believed that illness fatal; City Journal did not.

Several things, the magazine argued, were killing cities. The first and most pressing was crime. Recall New York in 1990, a city of fear. More than six people a day lost their lives to violence. Along with those 2,262 murders—an all-time high—came rape, assault, burglary, auto theft, and other crimes. Some inner-city neighborhoods were like war zones, with nightly drive-by shootings and police nowhere to be seen. New Yorkers grew accustomed to barring their windows, triple-locking their doors, and looking nervously over their shoulders. The same was true of residents of most other American cities.

Disorder was equally pervasive. In New York, aggressive panhandlers shook down pedestrians on corner after corner; parks were homeless encampments; graffiti scrawled its ugliness over everything. And nothing could be done about any of this urban pathology, the experts said, short of some kind of radical transformation of American life: the crime and disorder were understandable responses to an uncaring, selfish society.

Yet “uncaring” was a wildly implausible charge. In fact, American cities were being harmed by a hypertrophy of care. Since the sixties, most cities had become vast welfare agencies, providing cradle-to-grave services to the poor. Instead of helping the poor get ahead, however, the municipal welfare state caged them in dependency. By the nineties, welfare rolls had expanded dramatically, reaching more than 1 million in New York City.

To help pay for these services, taxes skyrocketed, harming urban economies already challenged by the postindustrial era. Businesses fled, as did many residents. Cities increasingly became handout-seeking wards of the federal government.

Declining schools were another big problem. New York City’s schools had once been excellent, helping generations of immigrants assimilate into their new country. By the time ’s first issue appeared, though, many schools in New York and other cities were bureaucratic failures, dominated by trendy but unproved pedagogy, ineffective teachers impossible to fire, and student brutality. Minority kids suffered the most, dropping out in droves, their futures lost, while teachers’ unions resisted reform.

Small wonder so many people gave up on cities and left for the suburbs. But City Journal rejected the idea that the urban crisis was inevitable. Change the policies, and cities could thrive. After all, as Jane Jacobs and other urbanists had shown, cities had been the primary source of economic growth and cultural dynamism throughout American—and world—history. They could be so again.

And in New York, it happened. During the 1990s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani implemented many ideas championed by City Journal, later saying that if there were “a charge of plagiarism for political programs, I’d probably be in a lot of trouble because I think we plagiarized most of them, if not all of them, from the pages of City Journal.” On the crime front, the magazine was an early advocate of George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s Broken Windows theory, which holds that if a city lets beggars, hookers, and pushers conquer public space, graver crime will follow, since the authorities are sending a message that no one is in charge. Crack down on quality-of-life infractions, and potential wrongdoers hear the opposite message: that someone is watching. After Giuliani and his first police chief, William Bratton, adopted this approach and combined it with key managerial and accountability reforms, crime began to plummet, with murders down 56 percent in six years and all felony crimes dropping even more.

Giuliani introduced welfare reform, too—cutting the welfare rolls from 1.1 million when he took office to 462,000 when he left—and he began to make the city more business-friendly, among other changes that City Journal had long promoted. The result was one of the greatest public policy successes of our times: the rebirth of Gotham.

The city has maintained these Giuliani-era policy changes under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his top cop, Ray Kelly, who has driven crime to historic lows. And as City Journal has documented over the years, other cities that eventually adopted similar policies, like Los Angeles during the 2000s—where Bratton brought his crime-fighting expertise after leaving New York—saw gains as well. People again began to want to live and work in cities, to experience the excitement, the cultural vitality, and the sense of economic and existential possibility that urban life at its best can convey.

The revolution in urbanism remains unfinished—city schools, in particular, are a dark spot—and always threatened with reversal, as this special anniversary issue, “The Past, Present, and Future of the City,” reports. Many American cities never embraced the reforms that saved New York, and they fell deeper into crisis. Detroit and Newark are prime examples, former powerhouses reduced to hollowed-out shells by crime, fleeing populations, and economic collapse. But at last, Steven Malanga observes in “The Next Wave of Urban Reform,” these troubled cities have leaders—former NBA star Dave Bing and Cory Booker, respectively—pursuing solutions at home instead of shaking a tin cup in Washington. Both are working to open their cities to investment; both recognize the importance of smart policing.

In “The Sidewalks of San Francisco,” Heather Mac Donald wonders whether the City by the Bay—a locale blessed with great weather, beautiful architecture, and a high standard of living—will reclaim public space from the thuggish street punks, enabled by homelessness advocates, who make life miserable for small businesses and pedestrians. Much will depend on the fate of a November ballot measure that lets police keep people from obstructing sidewalks.

New Orleans was another city battling high crime and economic decline when Hurricane Katrina flooded it. But instead of defeating the city, Nicole Gelinas argues in “Big Easy Rising,” the shock of Katrina led to a renaissance in citizen initiative, with engaged residents keeping a watchful eye on politicians, making sure that they used recovery funds to rebuild and improve things. New Orleans has regained more than 80 percent of its pre-storm population, and its economy now outpaces the nation’s. As Gelinas notes, the Big Easy is teaching the rest of the country, still staggered by the financial and economic crisis, how to do recovery right.

Since our first issue, City Journal has held that cities can and should be the drivers of economic growth, so it’s fitting that a package of stories in this issue offers a cutting-edge assessment of the economy of cities. The nation’s leading urban economist, Edward Glaeser, describes in “Start-Up City” how entrepreneurs built New York—and how they’re the keys to its successful future. Mario Polèse’s “Why Big Cities Matter More than Ever” explains the seven reasons that “urban agglomerations” will be the new millennium’s engines of prosperity. And Brandon Fuller and Paul Romer show how “Cities from Scratch”—newly built metropolises, operating under special charters—can provide a promising new path for development.

City Journal has always had a broad sense of urbanism—one of our earliest issues featured V. S. Naipaul’s “Our Universal Civilization,” a moving defense of the genius of the West—and the reader will find plenty here exploring the culture of city life, from André Glucksmann’s “The Original Birth of Freedom,” on what we owe ancient Athens, to Claire Berlinski’s “Weimar Istanbul,” a chilling look at a city verging on political catastrophe, to Myron Magnet’s “How American Press Freedom Began on Wall Street,” recounting a 1735 libel trial whose outcome has resonated ever since, to Theodore Dalrymple’s account of Britain’s rediscovery of its architectural heritage, to Andrew Klavan’s “The Windows.”

There’s much more in the issue, but let me close with thanks to the readers who have made the first two decades of City Journal so memorable, including the millions visiting our website, www.city-journal.org, every year. We’d like to think that the next 20 years will be a time when the twenty-first-century city comes into its own as a place where freedom flourishes, crime is low, commerce and culture blossom, and all families can send their kids to good schools—and that the ideas developed in City Journal will help bring about that future.