Tuesday, July 13, 2021

New York's Lazarus Moment?

Obviously, the coming advent of New York’s new mayor, Eric Adams has provoked a certain optimistic glow in the city’s denizens. First, because Adams has a background in policing. Second, because anyone would be better than comrade de Blasio.

And yet, Adams also proposes to deal with crime by instituting universal dyslexia screenings and by appointing a woman to head the New York Police Department.

There, that will solve it. 

Of course, today’s reigning narrative has it that Covid did not destroy the city, and that it is coming back. This is a nice narrative, but it overlooks the simple fact that, in blue cities across America, it was the politicians and the bureaucrats who were destroying cities, not the virus. 

After all, New York State decided to raise taxes on the wealthy, that is, on those who pay most of the state and city taxes. If they happen to pack up and leave, there goes the tax base.

And let us not forget the crime problem. All of America’s great blue cities have large crime problems. It is not obvious that clowns like Lori Lightfoot can get a handle on crime.

This weekend Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar, one of the better liberal columnists around, took the measure of the issue. Her essay contains both good and bad.

Before claiming that New YOrk is having a Lazarus moment-- its rising from the dead-- Foroohar begins with a balanced assessment. 

We are at one of those Jacobian pivot points now. In New York, where I live, the city is coming to life again. Parks are packed, restaurants are full and moods are up. But so are housing prices and crime, something true in a number of American metropolitan areas. Parts of the city that used to be known for luxury condos and spendy foreigners are deserted. Suddenly, unfashionable areas are booming. 

True enough, people are out on the street. It’s the summer, after all. And people are partying. But housing prices are going up, along with crime. The rich and the tourists have deserted the city, and with them has gone the tax base.

She continues to remark the number of lost jobs, of closed restaurants and shops. But, she adds, we now have sidewalk or street side cafes. Rumor has it that New York’s downtown is very much a party scene. Uptown, not so much.

For the record, in midtown and uptown the streetside restaurant business is not a reasonable facsimile of Paris.

Roughly 40 per cent of the 900,000 jobs lost have come back, but many restaurants, shops and offices remain shuttered. Yet streets once clogged with traffic now overflow with patrons of overbooked eateries spilling on to the sidewalk in covered spaces that remind us all of Parisian cafés. 

Of course, the issue for the citizens is more the crime rate than the virus. And, of course, bad governance:

Crime is a different story. For the first time since 1993, crime — not just policing — was an issue in last month’s mayoral primaries, reflecting anxiety over spiking violence. May statistics from the New York Police Department tell a frightening tale: the overall crime index in the city is up 22 per cent year on year, driven by a 46.7 per cent increase in robberies and a 35.6 per cent increase in grand larceny. The number of people shot almost doubled. The previous month’s numbers were even worse: crime grew more than 30 per cent compared to the previous year, and shooting incidents tripled. This mirrors increases in violent crime rates in some other American cities.

Here, Foroohar’s reasoning goes slightly askew. She does not quite recognize that the spike in crime is a direct outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement and of the general insouciance of local leaders to last spring and summer’s riots. Local politicians declared that these riots were protests, not riots, largely because the perpetrators were Democratic voters:

The Black Lives Matter movement, which had a huge presence in my neighbourhood before Covid-19 via joyful rallies and marches complete with music and dancing, has completely tipped the tables on policing, putting every cop on notice that brutality is no longer tolerated. This is, needless to say, good.

Actually, this is not so good. It amounts to a direct assault on policing. This, as much as anything else, has contributed to the rising crime rate. Again, the notion that the problem with city crime was white policing has caused violent crime to increase substantially.

Foroohar nods in the direction of the truth here.

Police are also wary. With media scrutiny following the death of George Floyd and police reform a moving target, many are obsessed with protocol: how to use force, how to touch a subject (or not), even exact word choice. 

The uncertainty and wariness this creates for cops on the beat is a reason many officers and citizens I’ve spoken with believe criminals feel emboldened.

While Foroohar lauds the public schools her children attended, she does not remark on the fact that the New York school system, both public and private, has veered sharply to the left. Schools are providing reading lists focused on critical race theory and have taken to indoctrinating children in white privilege and other oppression narratives.

We do not know how this turn will change the composition of schools, but more and more children in California, for example, are now going to be homeschooled. Other parents will seek out other solutions, but at the least, the radicalization of the school system is not going to encourage parents to keep their children in New York schools, either public or private.

But then, Foroohar resurrects her great hero, one Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, among other urbanist tomes. Jacobs thought that cities were like living organisms, a peculiar idea that should be discarded along with all such cheap analogies. Jacobs was an optimist, which is nice, and which will stand you in good stead at your next cocktail party:

She was, after all, an urban optimist and would have shaken her head at the post-pandemic predictions of big city demise. These lines, from her work in 1961, seem particularly resonant today: “Vital cities have marvellous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties. Perhaps the most striking example of this ability is the effect that big cities have had on disease. Cities were once the most helpless and devastated victims of disease, but they became great disease conquerors . . . The surplus wealth, the productivity, the close-grained juxtaposition of talents that permit society to support advances” such as the science that brought us a successful Covid vaccine in a year “are themselves products of our organisation into cities, and especially into big and dense cities.”

She is saying that without the big cities we would not have had a vaccine against Covid. Dare I say, it is a stretch. Property values are making it far too expensive to house biomedical research facilities in large cities. Fair enough, the Pfizer headquarters are located a few blocks from your humble blogger. And yet, the Pfizer vaccine was developed in Mainz, Germany. It is mostly manufactured in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The Moderna vaccine is being manufactured in Norwood, Massachusetts.

Besides, many city dwellers discovered during the pandemic that modern computing and the internet had made concentrations of people less essential. Or better, they had made it possible for people to disperse around the country, in search of  cleaner air and lower crime rates. Some companies, like Goldman Sachs, are moving entire divisions out of the city.

Today’s great cities are comprised largely of the rich and the rest. The great middle class has been hollowed out; it has become a ghost of its former self. The large office buildings in midtown Manhattan are still largely empty. In principle, workers will return in greater numbers by the fall. It remains to be seen.

Yet, the richest 1% pay nearly half the taxes in great cities like New York. With the pending tax increases, with less education, fewer police, less municipal services, and a crime wave on the streets and in the subways, one has a right to add a dash of skepticism to the mix..

It takes more optimism than I can muster to imagine that the great cosmopolitan metropolis is coming back any time soon.


Sam L. said...

My family took me to NYC yearrrrrs ago when I was maybe 10 or 12. I have no desire to go again.

370H55V said...

Were those who voted for Adams expecting Frank Rizzo?

Walt said...

I think Adams’ “tough on crime” was bait and switch. Not that it will matter but I’ll go with Sliwa.