Will The Real New York Liberal Please Stand Up

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City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics, by Alex S. Vitale, NYU Press, $40.

This is an important book that doesn’t seem to understand its own message. Despite author Alex S. Vitale’s stated intent of revealing the social forces and the political restructuring inherent in the punitive, “quality-of-life” response to New York’s seeming decline in civic comity in the 1980s, this is not really a book about the depths of urban disorder, and it certainly does not offer a particularly detailed or nuanced analysis of New York City politics.

What Vitale, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, best accomplishes instead is a deconstruction of the understanding – to which many in New York City policy-making circles cling – that a liberal consensus shapes public life here.

Vitale argues that, although we think of ourselves as living in a liberal city, we actually inhabit a rather elitist place that has responded to global trends and out-of-control markets with temporary, inadequate and inequitable fixes. He sees tragedy in our lukewarm liberalism, asserting that the city has created unequal development opportunities by offering massive subsidies and incentives for luxury businesses while penalizing small firms. He says our devotion to centralized decision-making – while, he asserts, city agencies continually resist a more substantive role for community review and oversight – has led to less power for grassroots groups and neighborhood activists, a situation he calls “empty empowerment.” And, despite continual verbal tributes to New York’s diversity, Vitale criticizes the city’s liberal policy makers for exhibiting “hollow tolerance,” maintaining that “segregation in New York City is as prevalent now as it was at any time in the twentieth century.”

Vitale points out that global trends hit the city hard, creating a housing and employment crisis due to increasing gentrification and a loss of manufacturing jobs. Yet liberal politicians from Mayor John V. Lindsay onward have attempted to push blue-collar businesses out of Manhattan (many took the hint and left the city entirely) while handing out billions in subsidies to white-collar firms to get them to stay put. And, despite decades of debates about the decline in affordable housing – and periodic municipal investment in the production thereof – he notes that the city’s housing policy has long been largely predicated on supply-side economics: subsidizing development of luxury and market-rate apartments, and hoping that rents as a whole will trickle downward as a result of the increased supply.

This book ought to be a clarion call for a return to true liberalism: intervening dramatically in markets when the operation of those markets hurts the majority of the inhabitants of the city, developing a populist approach to public participation in government, and creating real opportunities for economic advancement rather than just paying lip service to the city as a melting pot.

But Vitale hides these conclusions behind a not-very-satisfying analysis of the “quality-of-life” campaign for social order. His argument bogs down in a needless attempt to prove that the push to criminalize non-violent but seemingly threatening public activities—such as the large number of homeless people who slept in Grand Central Terminal and the flocks of squeegee men who occupied major intersections—started long before Rudolph Giuliani became mayor. Others have already demonstrated this—and Vitale’s retelling adds little to the argument, shedding scant light on the social forces behind citizens’ less-than-sympathetic response.

At the same time, Vitale ignores some areas where he could make a solid contribution. For instance, is it possible to write meaningfully of the menacing street life of the 1980s and early 90s without talking about crack—why it came and why it disappeared? Vitale tries to ignore crack, and it doesn’t work.

What’s more, is it really true, as Vitale would have it, that Rudy Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” approach to public nuisances was the sole reason he beat David Dinkins in 1993? This leaves out all sorts of other extremely significant factors. For instance, on July 20, 1993, then-Governor Mario Cuomo released a hugely critical report on Dinkins’ handling of the Crown Heights riot of 1991. [For those who don’t remember, or didn’t live through it, Crown Heights ignited when a car in the motorcade of a highly revered rabbi lost control and skidded onto the sidewalk, killing a young West Indian boy. Later that evening, a crowd angered by what they saw as an uncaring official response to the accident surged through the streets of the neighborhood, throwing rocks, looting stores, and killing a Jewish man.] The report created a huge stir because it appeared to suggest that Dinkins had ordered the police to go easy on the rioters. Dinkins was relentlessly lampooned in cartoons and columns as an appeaser, a do-nothing mayor more interested in the cut of his clothes than in governing the unruly city. Yet, despite all the bad press, the 1993 election was no landslide: Dinkins, who bested Giuliani by just 47,000 votes in 1989, lost to him by only 53,000 votes in 1993.

Finally, Vitale doesn’t touch the current reality in the city – yet we are living in the dangerous aftermath of the “zero tolerance” era. For instance, what are the NYPD’s efforts to harass the bicyclists of the Critical Mass rides, and to arrest hundreds of people who exercised their constitutional rights by demonstrating against the Iraq war at the Republican National Convention but examples of misguided, over-the-top devotion to public decorum? And can we not agree that the fatal police shooting of Sean Bell outside Club Kalua in Queens was a tragic – and tragically predictable – outgrowth of the city’s continuing dedication to enforcing this spurious sense of public order? Vitale would have done well to include the Bloomberg Adminstration in this book.

Still, even with these shortcomings, “City of Disorder” offers something bracing for liberal policy-makers in New York: a blueprint for the realization of their humanistic values through an array of more muscular, activist policies. They should study it and learn from it.

– Robert Neuwirth

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