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.

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.


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.

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.


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

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