For New Yorkers of my generation, a keynote of our youth was fear. Deserted streets at night felt as ominous as a film noir, and if footsteps echoed behind you, they rang with menace. As you neared your apartment building’s entrance, your heart pounded as you fumbled to get your key at the ready, so you could unlock the front door and slam it behind you, before an unseen mugger could run up and push into the lobby behind you, as happened once to me—and I still don’t want to talk about it. This typical mugger’s trick befell one of my Morningside Heights neighbors, a bank computer programmer, much less lucky than I: his assailant didn’t just rob but also killed him.
Home, when you got there, was a mini-fortress. We had triple locks on our doors, and we were expert in the competing merits of the different varieties—the deadbolt, the Segal (though debates raged on the most pick-proof cylinder), and the top-of-the-line Fox Police Lock, with its four-foot steel bar wedging the door shut from a steel-lined hole in the floor. We had steel accordion-grates over any window that opened onto a fire escape. The fire department deemed them illegal, but our fear of death by fire was nil compared with our fear of death by housebreaker—all the more so, for me, when I found an inexplicable hatchet one morning on my seventh-floor fire escape. Still, all the locks in the world availed naught for a friend of mine mugged at gunpoint late one night on the Upper West Side. The robber emptied his wallet, saw from his ID that he lived just up Broadway, forced him to march there and unlock his door, tied him up, and stole everything he could bundle into the sheets stolen from his victim’s bed.
Late one night, unsettling sounds drew me to my apartment window. In the street below, a large black man fiercely swung a length of two-by-four at another, much smaller white man. Thwack! “Why are you doing this to me?” the victim cried. Thwack! “Why are you doing this to me?” The police came minutes after I called them, but a lot of damage can happen in a minute. Some years later, returning from the action thrills of the newest James Bond movie, I saw the flash of police-car lights and a crowd in the street outside my building, too thick to see what was happening. Entering my apartment, I found my wife and her sister with chairs drawn up to the dining-room window, watching spellbound as a rubber-gloved forensic cop bagged evidence, while the janitor of the building across the street hosed away the blood of a man just shot to death by the drug dealer he’d tried to cheat.
A New York–born friend says that for him, the emblem of those days was the drug gang he’d pass on his daily walk across the scraggly dust bowl that neglected Central Park had become. He’d give the dealers a hard, law-and-order stare as he strode by, as if to say, “You can’t do this in my park.” But they would return a stare so murderously malevolent that they soon cowed him into dropping his eyes as he passed. It’s their park now, he concluded ruefully. On the street, too, and especially on the subway, we all studiously avoided eye contact. Who knew?—some maniac or monster might interpret a look as a challenge and answer with a knife or a box cutter. As for the dirt-caked, tangle-bearded homeless people—mostly deinstitutionalized or never-institutionalized madmen—they might be harmless, but one of them would push somebody in front of a subway regularly enough that you couldn’t be sure. So they’d make the adrenaline flow.
When taking a walk, you knew to carry as little cash as you might need, but not so little that a mugger, enraged at the paucity of his take, would punish you with violence. The official police message was: Never resist, never talk back, or else the robber might decide that he had to hurt you. It was easy pickings for the thieves, while the law-abiding felt like eunuchs. Reader, you cannot imagine the secret, guilty glee of New Yorkers when four young men tried to mug a skinny nerd on the subway in 1984, and, saying that he had five dollars for each of them, Bernhard Goetz stood up, reached into his pocket—for his gun—and shot them all.
So you can picture my incredulity when I read a New York Times story reporting that young New Yorkers now don’t know what a mugging is. IS NEW YORK LOSING ITS STREET SMARTS? the metro section’s Page One headline asked. Clearly yes, the article’s examples showed. A 24-year-old thought that the man who grabbed her from behind and demanded all her money was joking—until his accomplice ripped her handbag from around her neck and fled. A thirtysomething Brooklynite who’d carelessly crammed her wallet into her wide-open coat pocket as she chattered on her cell phone was amazed to find that a pickpocket had lifted it. On dark streets or midnight subways, as one criminologist put it to the Times, Gotham’s young people increasingly live in the “blithe assumption” of public safety.
That amazing story appeared almost nine years ago, and, as crime has continued to fall—with last year’s 414 murders the lowest number since 1928 and the lowest per-capita rate in Gotham’s recorded history—the expectation that you’ll be safe in the street and in your home has only strengthened. Meanwhile, the knowledge of the heroic effort it took to bring about that sense of security has dissipated. Since New York is always a city of newcomers, how many even know that, within living memory, when there was no such thing as a cell phone, you often couldn’t find a public telephone that worked, thanks to vandalism? That the subway cars, the overpasses on the potholed highways into Manhattan, and the city’s buildings, mailboxes, and even delivery trucks were smeared with graffiti, “tagged” with the nicknames of subliterate urchins proving that no one could stop them from doing whatever they wanted to the property of individuals or of the community? That the streets, doorways, and subway stations reeked of the urine of the homeless? That Times Square hosted a sex trade as degraded and dangerous as it was flagrantly visible, driving out wholesome businesses and attracting the bums, the crazies, and the criminals like flies? That the parks were deserts or jungles, not works of urban artistry?
Only we graybeards, who had picked our way around the piles of excrement, canine (in those pre-cleanup-law days) and sometimes human, on the cracked and broken sidewalks, as panhandlers aggressively accosted us and zonked-out bums slept on the benches and pavements next to stolen shopping carts filled with their pathetically motley belongings, recall the omnipresent specter of fear—inevitable in a city with more than 2,200 murders a year in 1990, an average of six per day. In ghetto neighborhoods, where crime raged most fiercely, the fear was worst: housing-project mothers put their kids to sleep in bathtubs for protection against stray bullets from gang wars. The New York Post summed up Gotham’s angst in that era when it exhorted newly elected mayor David Dinkins in an exasperated 1990 headline: DAVE, DO SOMETHING!
He didn’t—not enough to matter. But in 1994, ex-prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani took over city hall and conjured up perhaps the most miraculous urban transformation in history, one whose lessons every New Yorker should understand, especially as a mayoral election nears. Every urban and social policy expert should study those lessons, too, for they go to the heart of what government is for.
Lesson One: Crime kills cities. That’s a corollary of the principle that every political philosopher since ancient times has stressed: Government’s first job is keeping the citizens safe in the streets and in their homes. True, there’s a great deal of ruin in a metropolis like New York: people will put up with a lot to have world-class museums, great music, exciting jobs, good mating prospects. Even so, in Gotham’s bad old days, people and businesses were fleeing elsewhere rapidly, and those who stayed were afraid to venture out for the nightlife, so restaurants and theaters withered. In a city without such accumulated urban capital, crime kills quickly. Observe how swaths of lawless Detroit, with its car-industry presence shrunken, are turning back into prairie, as once-fine houses crumble into ruin. Newark is on life support; Camden has flatlined. Chicago is teetering on the balance, like New York 30 years ago. While reform of education, taxes, and regulation are all key to urban flourishing, none of these matters without public safety. Schools can’t succeed if they are disorderly and students feel too threatened to concentrate. Low taxes and prudent regulation won’t keep businesses from leaving if their workers get mugged on the way home.
Lesson Two: Policing cuts crime. The root cause of lawbreaking is not poverty, injustice, racism, or inequality. It is criminals. Therefore, cities can’t curb crime by poverty programs or affordable housing. They can curb it by intelligent policing, of the kind that Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, put into practice and refined over years of experience.
How you manage your police force, and what strategy you direct it to carry out, matter more than its size, though size counts. Bratton declared that the NYPD’s strategy would be to prevent crime, rather than just catch criminals after the fact. Cops would smash crime’s infrastructure, putting chop shops and fences out of business, so burglars and car thieves had no place to sell their loot. Police would search everyone who gave them probable cause for the guns that are the tools of the criminal trade (a policy that current, long-serving NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly has commendably intensified), and they would question them about where they got their weapons, so they could go after the gun dealers as well. They’d stop people for quality-of-life crimes like public drinking or radio blasting, check their IDs, and arrest them if they were fugitives or repeat offenders. They could then see if they were carrying weapons and pump them for information about other criminal activity. The quality-of-life enforcement made clear to the lawless and to the larger community that the police wouldn’t tolerate lawbreaking—so don’t try it. When police turn a blind eye to wrongdoing, even if it is minor, they foster crime by emboldening the ill-intentioned, who will conclude that no one cares what they do, as seems to have happened in shoot-’em-up Chicago.
Bratton changed the NYPD’s management structure, too, giving precinct commanders so much authority that each precinct resembled a mini–police department in itself. But he held those commanders strictly accountable for results, swiftly demoting those who didn’t measure up. And “measure” is the operative word: the department devised a computerized gauge of crimes and arrests, precinct by precinct, that grew so precise that it produced detailed crime maps, showing where crimes clustered, when they occurred, and whether they were rising or falling. Top brass relentlessly grilled the commanders in weekly group sessions that highlighted failures to focus cops on crime hot spots. The meetings also allowed the department to share and refine advances in strategy, sending in the narcotics squad, say, if increased dope dealing correlated with a spike in shootings. In the first year, murder fell by 18 percent; by the time Giuliani left office in 2001, overall crime had dropped by 57 percent.
Lesson Three: A single leader can change history. Individual men making Decision A rather than Decision B—not vast, impersonal forces—are the shapers of the world. The Victorian biographer and historian Thomas Carlyle once scoffed at the view that history’s great men emerge because the times call them forth. “Alas, we have known Times call loudly enough for their great man; but not find him when they called!” he wrote. “The Time, calling its loudest, had to go down to confusion and wreck because he would not come when called.” Ever more New Yorkers, as crime began its inexorable rise beginning in 1968, came to feel that they didn’t want to live in disorder, filth, and fear, and by 1990, they were calling, in unmistakable tabloid headlines, DO SOMETHING!
But do what? From the political right came proposals to fire up the electric chair, and in 1995 New York governor George Pataki, fulfilling a campaign pledge, signed a bill reinstating capital punishment (though by injection)—a law that the Court of Appeals struck down. On the left, the timeworn root-causes argument—that lawbreaking won’t abate until society ends the injustice that supposedly forces people to commit crime as an economic necessity or a manly, quasi-political revolt against racism—yielded a 1994 Clinton administration anticrime bill that proposed, among other things, to spend millions on midnight basketball programs that would give inner-city youths something more constructive to do than sticking up their neighbors.
At just this moment, the newly elected Mayor Giuliani and his top cops began to provide the right answer. Not that Giuliani or even Bratton formulated the whole policing program single-handedly, of course. The essence of political leadership is knowing what you want to accomplish, choosing the people and measures you think can make your vision a reality, and having the will and courage to provide them with the support they need to do the job. That single-minded force of will is key when you envision something pathbreaking or radical. All the forces of reactionary orthodoxy will form ranks against you and battle fiercely to avoid being proved wrong and losing their careers, reputations, or self-regard.
Since Giuliani and Bratton focused their efforts on crime hot spots, and since New York’s criminals and their victims are disproportionally African-American, the new policing strategy required flooding cops into previously unpoliced ghetto areas. Because the reigning elite orthodoxy held that it is racial injustice that impels many criminals to crime, and that punishing them for what is really society’s fault compounds the injustice, the orthodox reactionaries in the press and in the university criminology and sociology departments smeared Giuliani and Bratton with the most toxic slur that modern invective knows: racist. The cops were arresting too many blacks, went the charge, despite demonstrations that blacks were arrested or stopped no more frequently than their crime rate (according to victims’ reports) warranted. And on those few occasions when officers, whether through error or through the psychopathology that no police force can entirely screen out, shot or harmed an innocent black New Yorker, that event became irrefutable proof that the whole NYPD was out to oppress blacks. Through all the vilification, Giuliani didn’t waver, defending his cops and their enterprise steadfastly. He had the vision and the courage to see it through.
Lesson Four: Many people can’t—or won’t—see what’s in front of their own eyes. Experience is the oracle of truth, James Madison liked to say, and, for all the carping, you’d think there finally could be no arguing with the spectacularly successful result of Giuliani’s policing strategy. His administration’s great triumph, it allowed the city to come back to life, resuscitating many once-blighted minority neighborhoods, too. But pundits, profs, and pols, along with grievance mongers, race hustlers, and social-services racketeers, had too much invested in the old errors to stop nattering. As the election nears for a replacement for Mayor Michael Bloomberg—whose signal success is his unflinching support for Commissioner Kelly in continuing and refining Giuliani-style policing and driving crime down still further—the nattering is growing louder, especially since candidate Joseph Lhota, a former Giuliani deputy, has made the success of such policing a campaign issue, even as a court case challenges a key NYPD anticrime tactic.
The recent death of Margaret Thatcher reminds us that great leaders of strong conviction, who tear up deep-rooted shibboleths to effect epochal change, need iron willpower and vast reservoirs of self-confidence. But their very successes can shade those virtues into arrogance, impatience, and contempt—whose expression will give opponents ammunition to deride the leader and devalue the successes. So in their commentary about Prime Minister Thatcher’s death and funeral, left-of-center pundits, who never forgave her for being correct, stressed not her achievements but her alleged “divisiveness.” Similarly, the New York Times, in reporting on Mayor Giuliani’s support for Lhota’s mayoral bid, calls Giuliani “a ferocious rhetorical bomb-thrower,” describes his “law-and-order policies” as “rigid,” asserts (incorrectly) that his “pursuit of a better-behaved New York” regularly “ran afoul of the First Amendment,” and tells readers that “what will grate on you” in Lhota’s candidacy will be “Mr. Giuliani’s return to the campaign trail.” There’s not a flicker of acknowledgment that those “rigid law-and-order policies,” which the paper never stopped criticizing, saved the city, or that maintaining law and order is a mayor’s chief responsibility.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, says an old saw. But if, as another old saw has it, journalism is the first rough draft of history—and if ideology often distorts that rough draft, as is happening now to the history of New York’s last two decades—it is little wonder that the past’s lessons illuminate the present murkily. New Yorkers should hope that at least one of the mayoral candidates proves an apt and truthful teacher.