Getting Better All the Time

Inside New York's Quiet Success Stories

There's no way to measure the critical role played by NYPIRG's Straphangers Campaign, led by Gene Russianoff and others, who kept pushing for improved and affordable public transit and who never lost hope. Nor can anyone put a dollar value on the hard work and persistence of the women and men who drive trains and buses, repair tracks, and upgrade the system, in unsafe tunnels, at great personal risk. Under the new leadership of Roger Toussaint and Ed Watt, the 40,000-member Transport Workers Union has emerged as the most intriguing and pivotal player in the otherwise confused labor scene in New York.

The third achievement is the new construction and gut rehabilitation of more than 193,000 housing units since 1987—4,000 new, affordable Nehemiah townhouses built by East Brooklyn Congregations and South Bronx Churches; thousands more two-family and three-family structures built by the business group called the New York City Partnership; 4,000 apartments revitalized by the Northwest Bronx Clergy Coalition; thousands of units renovated by leaders as different as the Reverend Calvin Butts of Harlem, Father Lou Gigante of the Bronx, and Common Ground's Rosanne Heggarty. More than 15 percent of the entire supply of housing in the Bronx was built or renovated during these years. Home ownership increased in New York—a renters' city—from 28.7 percent to 32.7 percent, mostly in African American and Hispanic communities. This means there was an explosion of new minority equity—new wealth in the hands and wallets of people who waited a long time and earned it many times over—all across the city. When I last checked with city housing officials, I was told that there were only 105 abandoned city-owned buildings left in the entire city. The Times estimated the number at 800—still a 95 percent drop from the truly grim and woeful days of the early 1980s. Compare that to Philadelphia or Baltimore, where there are more than 30,000 abandoned structures in each shrinking town.

Who gets the credit for this? Well, Mayor Ed Koch certainly played a key role. He understood the vast scale of the challenge and began to raise and invest the billions of dollars that made this turnaround possible. But it never would have happened if there hadn't been topflight housing professionals in place to deliver the goods. The pioneer "inside man" was a woman, Felice Michetti. She was the deputy housing commissioner under Koch, commissioner under Dinkins, and currently is the president of Grenadier Realty. Another person—Mike Lappin, president of the Community Preservation Corporation—organized and channeled billions of dollars from banks and pension funds into the revitalization of entire communities. And a dozen or so of the larger local housing and citizens organizations were critical—in raising the issue, pressuring government, and delivering the homes and apartments. Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood and the late, great Francis J. Mugavero stand out in the east Brooklyn effort, as do Father Bert Bennett and Reverend Heidi Neumark in the South Bronx, along with the late I.D. Robbins and Lee Stuart and Ron Waters on the development end. The list of major important players literally goes on and on.

illustration: Patrick Arrasmith

What can you say about these achievements—are there any common threads or themes? I believe they are bound together by what they are not.

First, they were not the product of one charismatic leader, one mayor, one celebrity. Each achievement was the product of a mix of leaders primarily from the public and voluntary sectors, who liberally borrowed both tactics and talent from the private sector. The great entrepreneurial leaders of New York in the past 20 years did not operate on Wall Street. They worked underground in the subways, or on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn, or in a Bronx borough police headquarters right off the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Second, they were not quick in coming about. The swiftest achievement—in public safety—took 10 years. The housing and transportation work took 20 years and is not finished yet. And each is a work—an action—in process, always in need of constant attention, of rethinking and reorganizing. Unfinished, they fall into the gray area between history and journalism—too fast and fresh for most academics, too slow and incremental for most reporters.

Third, they were not cheap. Each cost many billions of dollars. But the housing subsidies alone generated a chain reaction of positive developments—a vast increase in equity that dwarfs the cost of the city and state subsidy, more purchasing power, more tax revenues, more citizens who have a sense of ownership, literally and figuratively, in their neighborhoods and their city. And how do you measure the yearly "savings" that 1,700 fewer murders represent? Here's one way: Black male life expectancy has dramatically increased since 1990.

Fourth, they were not done harmoniously. There were no meetings of "all the stakeholders," as the process types like to call them. There were no focus groups run by a highbrow university that got everyone to yes. These achievements were done in typical New York style—with claws out and voices raised and, at times, blood flowing. Many of the participants hated one another. But maybe, just maybe, this culture of confrontation and contention, so often derided by the goo-goo crowd, was integral to the success, rather than an obstacle. People cared and fought passionately about these issues, and worked as the Old Testament figure Nehemiah did: with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other.

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