What Ford’s Crucifixion of New York Will Mean
November 10, 1975
You can bet your sweet life the politicians will be the ones least affected. Even after the full brunt of Ford’s crucifixion of New York intrudes on the lives of all of us, the rhythms to which politicians dance will continue to play. In some Brooklyn clubhouse, a young Abe Beame will still kiss arses in order to get ahead. Somewhere in Manhattan, another John Lindsay will plot ways to come to the public’s attention with promises of new leadership and schemes for spending money we don’t have. Fixers like Pat Cunningham and Meade Esposito will still meet for lunch and launch little deals to make themselves a little richer. And them is which one. It will also be regular, will hang around hoping to do favors in return for a suck on the public tit. Default will change none of this.
Our lives will change, not theirs.
It won’t happen right away. Like the stock market crash of ’29, the event itself will cage massive headlines but the actual repercussions will be felt only gradually. Think of a tooth going bad. At first the pain is slight and sporadic. As it slowly worsens, you first try rubbing it, and when that fails you try keeping it away from any contact. And all the time the level of pain keeps mounting until you lie awake at night and dream of taking it between your fingers and ripping it out of your mouth. Which is about the time most people go to a dentist. Only there won’t be any dentist for the kind of pain default is going to bring. It will just go on, getting worse and worse until whatever losses leaving New York will entail begin to pale by comparison to the kind of life staying here will require you to live.
A lot will leave, just as many have left already. You can expect a big run on three-room apartments in Westchester and Jersey. Especially Jersey. For those who stay, default, and more specifically the second year, say, after default occurs, will warp our lives with days of mounting disappointments, the endless toothache of our years. All we ever really asked of the miserable sons of bitches who run this city is that they let us live our lives in peace. With default, they have stifled all hope for that one, pathetic plea.
Nobody knows for certain what the city will look like after default’s slow squeezing process tias shifted into high gear. All one can do is give the outline and make some rough educated guesses. But the picture is going to be an ugly one.
There will be no such thing as an elected democratic government. That’s for sure. In fact, the process of changing over from elective government to dictatorship by executive fiat is practically complete already. Having spent much of October in California, I returned home one Sunday night recently to discover some peppery little weasel of a face on the eleven o’clock news explaining to a press conference what City Hall’s latest scheme avoid the inevitable was all about. I didn’t have the slightest idea who this runt was who was speaking for New York City. Nor do much care to find out. The important fact was he wasn’t Abe Beame. While I think Abe Beame has been a despicable mayor, I much crave is and how he got into power. The man on the TV screen stand-in for the faceless forces that have taken over. As I sat watching this nameless usurper I remember thinking, if it weren’t for his business suit this city would have all the trappings of a banana republic. So they don’t have very far to go before the takeover is complete.
What will be interesting to watch is how they handle the touchy question of politics. For example, will some executive overseer decide along around January that a special presidential primary in April is no longer cost effective and order it suspended? After default, it’s entirely possible that some outsider will have precisely that kind of power. It’s clear already that if they decide to, the board of overseers could order the legislature to revise the election calendar. After last month’s performance in Albany, they could order the whole.state legislature to jump oft a cliff and the only question our elected officials would ask them is which one. It will also be interesting to see whether our overseers allow New York to host the Democratic convention. Since the latest estimate of what that will cost the city is $3 million (it’s going to cost $5 million by next July, you wait), they may just decide to cancel the contracts. That’s the way junta generals function in a banana republic.
They will, in all likelihood, allow elections for mayor in 1977. By then the, process of gutting any semblance of real power from the office of mayor will have proceeded uninterrupted for three full years. The mayor’s job will be so meaningless it won’t matter to the overseers who winds up holding it. Conversely, anyone who bothers running for the job has got to be a moron. It’s not so much a question of whether or not they will hold the elections as whether anybody will bother to vote. Maybe they’ll make us vote just like they do in most functioning dictatorships.
But the important changes will come in the quality of life we, the community called New York City. Will be made to endure. What will the institutions that affect us most in our daily lives look like two years after the city defaults? Behold some of the “temporary inconveniences,” as our idiot president so inaccurately described them.
Education is not an essential service according to the President’s men in Washington, and when the overseers get through with our education system, it isn’t going to be an essential service to kids or parents either. Nobody knows for certain what the class sizes are like this fall. Al Shanker has been soft-pedaling the violations of his contract because his only other option is to strike again. Al doesn’t want another strike. But current class sizes are going to look heavenly compared to what awaits us a couple of years down the road. Classrooms with 40, 50, maybe 60 kids per teacher will become the norm. The schools will be stripped of security guards, and if your child, isn’t brilliant enough to make one of the special high schools, the only thing he or she will learn in 12 years of public education is the finer aspects of self-defense. High school graduates who can read and write will become so scarce, the paper will do a feature piece every time they find one.
We have to assume that everyone who can afford a private school already has his or her kid enrolled in one. The next step is for parents who can’t afford five grand extra for private schooling to form their own cooperative schools. Middle-class parents still fanatic over the need of their children to know how to read and write will start taking off half days to teach the kids themselves. After decades of 110 Livingston Street, we’re heading back to the one-room schoolhouse with a dozen kids of different ages. Slowly these ad hoc efforts will develop into a more formal relationship. The parents will rent storefronts and hire a teacher. There will be a lot of unemployed teachers around. The poor and the working-class kids will have no choice but to attend public schools, however. Scratch the old notion of a free public education so anyone can rise above his humble origins. It’s just too costly.
They won’t abolish welfare because of a legal technicality: federal law prohibits it. But they could decide to do away with Home Relief. That’s the part of welfare the federal government doesn’t support. The costs are split 50/50 by the city and state, and 145,000 people — mostly older people not yet eligible for Social Security — are in this category. So are junkies, the unemployable, ex-cons — in short, the rock throwers. Cutting Home Relief would save the city $86.3 million a year. Such a cut would be mirrored by an increase in crime, notably street assaults, since this is the only type of crime the underclass is capable of carrying out. As for the old people, you can look for a big run on cat food and a weekly report by the Health Department on the number of deaths due to starvation.
It’s so obscene you almost want to snicker. No, they probably won’t cut the police force, not substantially at least. That might produce some real savings. Instead, the overseers will order across-the-board budget reductions, and whatever slim chance a criminal has of being prosecuted in this city will go right out the window. It’s happening already. The Manhattan D.A.’s office had a federally funded “major felonies program” whose cost to the city was supposed to start picking up this year. The program guaranteed that a major felony crime would receive special attention in the D.A.’s office and not be allowed to slip away like your ordinary run-of-the-mill felony. Now the program is scheduled for termination because the city doesn’t have the dough. No doubt the overseers will rail as mightily against crime as our politicians do now. That doesn’t cost any money.
One cop to a police car is also in the cards. The cops will get more timid than they already are and more of them will die. More citizens, too.
Right now it’s a footrace between those who want to cut transportation completely and the riding public, who are more and more turning to private transportation because the subways and buses aren’t safe. After default the budget cutters will take a decisive lead. They won’t close the system entirely. Just shut it down after 8p.m. like they do in San Francisco. They’ll stretch out the night bus service so no one will bother using it and then turn around and say, “See, no one wants it.” End of night bus service. Not that all that many people will be affected. By the time night service is terminated there won be all that much to do downtown, and it will be worth your life to go there, what with all the cops driving around in their cars looking to stay alive. Give it five years, and the city won’t have any night life to speak of. This should make the people of Staten Island happy since they won’t have any night ferry service by then. There’s already talk about cutting it, and the big slash in the ferry budget hasn’t even been made yet.
If you want your garbage picked up, you’ll have to do it yourself. But not right away. Like transportation and education, garbage collection will go gradually, merely escalating an already existing trend. First they reduce collections to twice a week, then three times every two weeks. To the point where huge mounds of garbage become commonplace, the way filth in the streets became commonplace five years ago. Around then, block associations in the better neighborhoods will start making arrangements with private carters. For five bucks a week per person the garbage gets picked up. By then, of course, the block associations will also be responsible for street safety (already a reality on parts of the West Side) and education of the kids. Block associations are going to be very prominent in people’s lives as the city government gradually collapses. It’s called “Balkanization of the City.”
To knock out a boxer you kill the body. To knock out a city you strangle its money supply. That’s how they, the rest of the country, will destroy us. With luck, our banks may avoid total collapse. But the money they will have tied up in defaulted New York City notes will no longer be available to city businesses. Two people decide to open a restaurant. They put together some cash, go to their local bank, fill out the forms, and, then wait. A pleasant bank manager will finally call them in and say, “Your loan has been approved. Come back in two years, and we’ll give you the money.” The same type of thing will happen to people who want to buy homes or expand their businesses. Whatever is left of the home construction industry will shrivel up and die. Companies looking to expand their market will do so in Omaha. You don’t have to be a life-long friend of bankers to see where this trend will lead. Just visit Detroit any night after 5 p.m. It’s a ghost town. Open restaurants are like the old tollhouse back in the 1800s, one every 10 miles or so. No gas stations open. No theaters. No tourists. Just prostitutes and porno houses and a lot of empty streets.
And empty office buildings. If you think a lot of companies are moving out of New York now, wait until two years after default. The highways will look like they did in France after Paris fell to the Nazis. Already companies can’t get their best executives to move to the company headquarters in New York. Wait until the ones who are here start to quit rather than continue living in town. Watch the TV networks. When they leave, the advertising people will leave with them. And once the ad people go, the rest of the communications industry will have no choice.
If you don’t see any connection between the city default and the end of rent control, look again. Better yet, take a look at the lead editorial in Barron’s last week. Actually there is no connection, but the real estate people know a golden opportunity when they see one. The argument goes something like this: we have all this abandoned housing not paying any real estate taxes because the city has rent control. Take away controls and you not only get more taxes but you save on the salaries of the people who were hired to enforce the rent control laws. The argument is spurious, but that’s never stopped the real estate people in the past. The only thing that has is the politicians knowing that if they ever voted to do away with rent control entirely, the public would lynch them. But a board of overseers is not subject to such primitive persuasions. So all they have to do is wear us down.
And that they can do. If anyone had tried upping the fare to 50 cents last January they would have been booed off the stage. But a nine-month steady diet of crisis stories so blunted the public’s will that when the fare raise finally came hardly anyone bothered to protest. The same type of process is taking place with tax increases. By next month Carey will be calling for new taxes and passing them with a minimum of opposition only because the public is too weary to seriously object. Given time, the same techniques will work with rent control. The same kind of logic will also collapse the housing code. Don’t enforce it and not only can you cut back on housing inspectors, you can also clear court calendars of all those messy housing cases, which in turn allows for the laying off of more judges and court personnel.
City Construction Program
Forget it, there won’t be one. It’s hard to imagine what use the overseers will come up with for a school or a firehouse that is only 70 per cent constructed, so the chances are such structures will just stand vacant and uncompleted. It will give the kids a place to play, which they will need because we’re going to have an awful lot of closed parks. While these buildings slowly mold into sad eyesores, the real devastation will come in that part of the city’s construction program designed to bring in new industries or save old ones. According to the Times, there are already 11 construction programs endangered by the present cutbacks. After default, not only these but any other construction program in the city will be halted. Just another way to sap New York’s vitality. You halt pier construction, and the boats go to Boston or Philadelphia or Jersey. You squelch plans for an industrial park, and the industries that were thinking of locating there go somewhere else like Atlanta or Houston, and 500 more people line up for unemployment.
Museums, Libraries, and Parks
Do I have to say it? Culture has never been high on anyone’s list of necessities, even less so on a list made up by the Babbitts that run this world. The only reason the rich have contributed in the past to the extent they have was because of the tax write-off benefits. Since there will be no shortage of write-offs after the city defaults (Beame and Carey notwithstanding, the rich hold most of the city’s notes), we will get an accurate picture of just how much culture means to our ruling class. As for that part of the city’s budget that supports our museums, etc., forget it. They’ll close the Coney Island Aquarium, the Hall of Science, and the Museum of the City of New York outright, since these are almost totally supported by the city. To the extent that the other institutions — the libraries, the Metropolitan, Museum of Art, the Bronx Botanical Garden — are dependent on city funds, their programs will be curtailed. A little change in the law and you’ll see them starting to charge for the use of libraries. Of course, if you don’t have a buck to rent a book, they will probably let you read it for nothing between the hours of two and five on alternate Tuesdays.
It’s hard to get specific here but only because it’s difficult to know what services haven’t been cut already. An editor at The Voice told me last week to check and see what would happen to school crossing guards once the city defaults. Nothing will happen to them because they were all chopped last month in an earlier wave of cutbacks. The same could be true, and certainly would be true, of daycare centers, senior citizens programs, street repair, sewer construction and maintenance. Right now, whenever the city experiences heavy rains, whole sections of Staten Island and Queens flood out. Default will bring a certain amount of equality to this phenomenon. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere up in Albany there’s a bureaucrat laying out plans for the scrapping of the Medicaid program, and a few years from now it will be considered normal for city hospitals, the ones that are left open, to practice triage.
But the saddest part of this story is the fact that none of it ever had to have happened. With just a minimum of leadership the morons that have run this town for the last 20 years, New York could have prospered. But they were too busy. Too busy making accommodation to the civil service union leaders, who were part of their team rather than their adversaries. Too busy making deals with the real estate people so the tax rates on downtown building were septs artificially low. Too busy throwing up 110-story tributes to their own warped sense of destiny. Too busy making speeches about how much they were going to do for us next year, after we reelected them, to bother doing anything right then and there to stop the city from slipping through their fingers.
Even now, good leadership could pull us through. Instead of calling for demonstrations in the street, which won’t change a goddamn thing, we could start fighting the people in Washington who are indeed kicking us in the groin. We have lots of government buildings in this city. We could take them over. We pay an awful lot of taxes to the federal government, we could stop it. If our governor and mayor let us, we could shut down the goddamn government in this town. They have a lot of gold down in the Federal Reserve Bank on Pine Street. We could take it and hold it. Ring the place with New York City cops and let the courts sort the mess out for the next five years or so. We could go over to Brooklyn and grab one of their goddamn precious aircraft carriers, tow it out into the harbor, and pull the stinking plug on it. Then maybe they’d start to negotiate with us. Right now there’s no negotiations. We’re just on our knees begging. And like any beggar, the best we can expect is a dime toward a 25 cent cup of coffee.
Instead of sending busloads of people to Washington we should send busloads up to Pocantico Hills and sit in with some style.
But none of that is going to happen because the leaders we have are the reason we’re in such a sad and sorry shape. The notion of Abe Beame taking on the bankers is ridiculous. Abe Beame is nothing more than a bank employee on temporary leave. The notion that Hugh Carey would take on Rockefeller is absurd. Carey would love to do nothing more than build another Albany Mall in Brooklyn. He just doesn’t have the chutzpah to do it. And the supposition that the rest of the country is going to come to the aid of the city is the biggest joke of all. Ford knows this. They hate New York precisely because we have always been the capital city, like London or Paris or Rome. Live in Chicago awhile, and you’ll see how much the idea that they are the “the second city” preys on that city’s mind. They hate New York because they know that even if we sink into chaos, Chicago will always be a second city.
What Carey and Beame have done is to couch the whole discussion of the city’s fiscal plight in a set of absurdist distortions. Going to one of their press conferences (when they let Beame hold a press conference) is a little like attending a Genet play. The joke is not in the play, it’s in the audience. Yet these are the leaders we have chosen. Perhaps what is about to happen to our city is the retribution we must pay for electing these people to public office year after year. I don’t know. What I do know is that now is the time to look closely at whatever grandeur there remains in New York. For soon enough it will pass away.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 26, 2020