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1980-1989: The Decline and Fall of the New York Empire

“The decade began with the fear of the mugger and it ends with fear of the mug­ger, but in the interim a new element of danger has been added.”

by

Moscow on the Hudson

“Overturn, overturn, overturn! is the maxim of New York. The very bones of our ancestors are not permitted to lie quiet a quarter of a century and one generation of men seem studious to remove all relics of those who precede them,” Philip Hone, an upper class mayor of New York, told his diary in 1845. He would have written the same thing had he been around in the 1980s. Overturn, overturn, New York was again pulling down the old and replacing it with the new as small groups of anti­quarians rushed from one street to the next throwing themselves in front of landmarks to protect them from the wrecking ball. Donald Trump announced his intention to erect a shaft so high its shadow would turn the city into the world’s largest sundial.

Yet the earlier building booms were happier building booms. This decade ends with millions more square feet of spanking new office space and the grow­ing conviction that, physically, the city is going to pieces.

The decade began with the fear of the mugger and it ends with fear of the mug­ger, but in the interim a new element of danger has been added. The fear of death by drowning in the Holland Tunnel, or death by falling if you’re unlucky enough to be on the Queensborough Bridge when it goes down. Graffiti, that mark of civic shame, has been scrubbed off the subway cars, but not the queasy thought that the next water main break may flash flood half the system, killing thousands, or es­cape with such force that it undermines the foundations of a highrise tower. The condition of the paving on Madison Ave­nue, one of the world’s most famous thor­oughfares, is that of the main drag of a western mining camp in the 1880s.

The deterioration of the city’s physical plant began long before Mayor Koch’s time. A celebrity/politician of a type com­mon in our era, Koch let it continue. Such office holders are afflicted with a form of St. Vitus’ dance that sends them everywhere around the globe but to their desks. George Bush is the same, another man who’d rather be on a jet airplane than doing the hard labor of making government bureaus work as they are sup­posed to. New York in this decade has had a mayor who loved the title and the perks, but didn’t do the job. The work bored him. Tiffs with Jesse Jackson, run­ning for governor, sounding off in semi­nars, globe trotting in Europe and the Middle East, were more exhilarating and satisfying. His deputies could do the scut work of seeing to it that the hospitals performed and school principals didn’t bill the City for their 900 number sex calls.

In the course of the ’80s, the city came to have an air of Moscow about it. More than any other municipality in the Unit­ed States, New York regulates, super­vises, prescribes, proscribes, and pro­vides — on paper that is. It has the apparatus and the apparatchiks and, as in Moscow, you’ll stand on line and whis­tle forever while hundreds of thousands of municipal employees keep the city on the hold button.

And just like in the communist coun­tries, New York subsidizes the archaic and uncompetitive, paying to keep its foremost business anachronism, the sky­scraper, on life support. An artifact of the early 20th century city, Manhattan’s high density mountain ranges soak up public money in subsidies and service costs, but even so, company after company has found the cost of doing business too high and has fled. Nevertheless, the decade has seen the Himalayas on the island’s southern end and the glass and steel Alps girdling the middle grow and move closer together. The valleys of Murray Hill and Hell’s Kitchen are all but gone. Will Gra­mercy Park and Chelsea be next?

For much of this century the culture of New York has been Brechtian; the place has its own version of the humorous cyni­cism for which Berlin is also known. In the ’80s something else has been added­ — complicity. Other people living on a col­lection of islands who found out their bridges were in a state of advanced de­composition because somebody stole the money to paint them would have assem­bled in front of city hall in large numbers with a stout hemp noose. The absence of furious indignation and enraged taxpayer reaction in the face of the scandals of the 1980s marks a departure from the past.

New York’s middle classes have been compromised. The people who brought a measure of probity to the public life of the community, by example and political activity, now hold on to their Mitchell­-Lama apartment by hiding the Mercedes­-Benz and the house in the Hamptons. There is the story of the billionaire landlord who always has a high quality rent controlled apartment in reserve for judges, journalists, and communication executives. Everybody’s got a little racket going, if it’s only a tiny, unmerited tax abatement on the co-op. A civic demoral­ization has set in among members of groups that once trooped the streets bearing aloft the gonfalons of reform.

The effort to keep New York a middle income, middle-class family city irretriev­ably failed in the decade that witnessed another half a million such families depart. In the 1980s the average household size in Manhattan dipped below 2 per­sons as the island became the New Age citadel of yuppies and homosexuals. (Even in Queens household size was go­ing down, but the rate was slower.)

Although New York hemorrhaged na­tive born families, the city grew in the 1980s. According to the estimates of the Regional Plan Association, three quarters of a million immigrants flocked into the city, and their contribution is prodigious. They have revitalized retail business all over the city, catering to every income level in every neighborhood.

While many are persons of color, for a multiplicity of reasons, few of the foreign born are to be met on the streets begging. Unlike the parasitical professions — law, accountancy, and investment legerde­main — which return nothing for what they get, the immigrants give value. They are producers. Immigrant manufacturing in clothing, furniture, and jewelry is rean­imating the city’s economic base. It is a reminder that before New York became the world center for swindling junk bond salesmen it was the biggest manufactur­ing center in the United States.

True, much immigrant economic activ­ity is off the books and under the counter to escape taxation and regulation. Exam­ples of conduct have been set for immi­grant business people in this regard. The ’80s was the decade in which the best names from the finest old families collud­ed with the most exclusive bijouteries to cheat on their sales taxes.

Now comes the ’90s and nobody knows what will happen. From the immigrants, New York can draw hope. From its sister city Moscow, some touring mayor might bring back the gift of a little perestroika for Gotham. ■

NEXT…

An ’80s Memoir: A Decade of Death 
By Gary Indiana

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 7, 2020

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