Getting Better All the Time

Inside New York's Quiet Success Stories

Fifth, they were not sports facilities, football stadiums, new aquariums, more tourism, or any of the other baubles of urban redevelopment that turn the heads of modern mayors and governors. I mentioned Richard Ravitch as a key figure in the early days of the transportation turnaround. But another key figure was Marcy Benstock of the Clean Air Campaign. She played David to the Goliaths in the New York real estate and construction industries who wanted to build the Westway Highway and River Development Project. Her successful stand blocked this boondoggle, and sent a billion or more dollars into the public transit system, where they belonged. The next generation of real estate and construction czars now lobby as hard for an unneeded football stadium, unneeded subway extension, and unneeded tunneled portions of West Street that are, if anything, even more useless than Westway was nearly 20 years ago. The trouble with all the Westways and sports arenas and construction-for-construction's-sake schemes is not just that they are wasteful and costly. They also distract attention and talent and resources away from the more essential needs of a great and growing city: better subways, improved public safety, affordable homes and apartments, effective schools. These are the bones, hidden but essential, of a hearty and powerful city.

What's next to be done? While these three remarkable achievements were taking place, New York schools remained static or slightly declined, and New York children's health deteriorated. Graduation rates remained stubbornly stuck, while asthma rates soared.

That's why the bold and aggressive actions of Chancellor Joel Klein, the recent clashes in the City Council, and the widespread brawling over how best to improve the city's schools should be seen as welcome developments—the players tuning up for what may prove to be the next remarkable civic performance. New York has become much more than the center of great theater, opera, and art: It has once again become the incubator, the stage, of great urban change.

illustration: Patrick Arrasmith

Michael Gecan is a senior organizer with the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.

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