Getting Better All the Time

Inside New York's Quiet Success Stories

Peter Goldmark, past president of the Port Authority and the Rockefeller Foundation, used to say one problem with New York is that it takes its successes for granted.

That's especially true when the successes are both too recent and rapid to be noticed by historians and too distant and slow-developing to be covered by reporters. Compare the extensive coverage given to the newest hare-brained proposal for a new stadium on the city's West Side, announced last month, to the almost universal lack of attention given to the rebuilding of almost every abandoned building and vacant lot in the entire city. This "success" made its way into a recent New York Times piece grimly titled "One Housing Woe Gives Way to Another." You could almost hear Simon and Garfunkel whining in the background.

It's time to focus on the fact that New York has been the host, sponsor, and beneficiary of three great civic successes over the last 20 years. Only one of these achievements—the extraordinary improvement in public safety—receives any extensive comment. The other two—the improvement in public transportation and the rebuilding of much of the city's housing stock—are rarely mentioned. And the three together never receive the attention they deserve. Yet taken together, they have fortified New York. They have helped the city withstand a terrorist attack, a terrible economic slump, and years of very unsettled and distracted political leadership at the state and local level.

illustration: Patrick Arrasmith

First, let's look at the improvement that receives the most notice and has the highest profile—in part because former mayor Giuliani made public safety his number one priority and bet the reputation of his mayoralty on his crackdown's success or failure. It drives the Giuliani crowd crazy, but credit has to be given to former mayor Dinkins and former City Council Speaker Vallone for pushing through the increased funding to hire more cops and set the stage for the revolutionary improvement in police performance that Giuliani, Bratton, Safir, Kerik, Dunne, Esposito, and Kelly implemented. But it's also important to say that more money and more cops would not have been enough without a dramatic change in the culture of the department.

Local leaders and organizers in east Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and elsewhere used to hear police at all levels say exactly what the last defenders of the old educational culture say today: The problem is in the community; the families are dysfunctional; the drug problem is global; and so on. Police administrators specialized in finger pointing and excuse making, useless programs, and public relations gimmicks (the state's McGruff the Anti-Crime Dog pamphlets, a Cuomo-era brainstorm, were probably the worst).

All through the '80s and early '90s, chapters of our Industrial Areas Foundation kept pressing for targeted, focused, relentless policing—with our leaders and the vast majority of good citizens willing to risk their lives to provide information and feedback to the best and hardest-working cops. Finally, when the Giuliani team arrived, it began to happen. Instead of chasing precinct commanders for pointless meetings filled with hand-wringing and whining, the precinct commanders and narcotics cops were calling us the day after a big bust to get our leaders' evaluation. The numbers are clear: A murder rate that peaked at 2,250 in 1990 dipped to 580 in 2002. A new Nehemiah homeowner who lives on New Jersey Avenue in East New York, all five feet and one inch of her, takes a walk in the evening with her lady friend through streets that used to be too dangerous for DEA agents wearing bulletproof vests.

The shocking and tragic death of an eight-year-old boy caught in a cross fire in November reminds us that the job is not finished. Criminals and killers have burrowed deeper into communities, particularly the stairwells and hallways of public housing developments and into the shrinking number of housing hellholes like Noble Drew Ali Plaza in Brownsville and Fulton Park Plaza in Bed-Stuy. And within the department, there are still cops who cross the line. A few weeks ago, two involved in drug activity were caught, making every citizen who notices a dealer perched arrogantly on a picnic chair across from a Bronx precinct worry about a return to the bad old days. Cops who bully, abuse, or long to pull the trigger still operate. But the overall culture of the department has changed more radically than any other public agency that we have seen or dealt with. Its performance continues to improve. And it seems prepared to meet any of its ongoing or newer challenges.

The second achievement is the remarkable improvement in public transportation. In 1982, subway trains broke down every 7,000 miles. Today they run more than 100,000 miles without a major problem. Ridership is 39 percent higher than in 1982, peaking at 1.4 billion riders, a 50-year high. More than one third of the stations have been renovated. Subway crime has plummeted. Veteran New Yorkers remember a dogged Richard Ravitch traipsing into editorial boardrooms in the early '80s with a vision for revamping public transportation in New York. Almost no one thought it was possible. But then-governor Cuomo paid attention long enough to get the ball rolling. The late Stanley Fink, the assembly speaker at the time, stayed focused long after Cuomo grew distracted. And the incomparable Robert Kiley, head of the MTA, helped bring the program home.

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