The Quality of City Life

To the Editors:
The City Journal’s exploration of the quality of life in New York is a worthy and serious effort to deal with a question now facing many city residents—if living here is not as safe, healthful, and pleasant as living elsewhere, why stay?

In exploring issues of crime, schools, housing, and transit, the authors found that the actions and inactions of the city government are not particularly effective at enhancing the comfort and welfare of the people who live here.

Today’s disillusionment with government on all levels, in many countries, is based in part on the increasing awareness that the bureaucracy, or nomenklatura, is self-serving. The studies suggest that the providers of government services should place the public interest before their own.

It is time to evaluate these proposals, to explore other areas like race relations and immigration, and to determine how citizens who want to stay and fight for a better city can help. The City Journal studies should be the beginning of a process of civic reform.

Henry J. Stern
Citizens Union
New York, N.Y.

To the Editors:
The City Journal deserves commendation for giving its readers seven stimulating essays on those elements of urban life that define its quality. Everyone talks of the "quality of urban life," but it took the Manhattan Institute and the Commonwealth Fund to give seven urban experts the freedom to explore its relevance to crime, the use of public spaces, schools, housing, transportation, planning, and job development.

How are all the good ideas in this issue going to be put in effect? Good ideas, after all, are not automatically translated into law or government policy. The changes in housing policy suggested by Professor Peter Salins, for example, will not begin to be possible without a public atmosphere in which an elected official could sponsor them without risking his political life. Your publication has an important role to play in creating such an atmosphere.

The City Journal, in short, has taken on the crucial job of exposing what’s wrong with the city while recognizing the city’s greatness that makes it worthy of the hard job of changing it.

Peter M. Flanigan
Managing Director
Dillon, Read & Co.
New York, N.Y.

Putting Schools First

To the Editors:
The article "Putting Schools First: Changing the Board of Ed’s Priorities," by Raymond J. Domanico and Colman Genn (Spring 1992), is riddled with inaccuracies and misinterpretations of fact. The authors make the somewhat incredible point that the budget crisis was largely created by my decision to award a salary increase to teachers which neither the schools nor the city could afford. This is an interesting point of view, but of course it is totally untrue. The city administration, not the chancellor’s office, agreed to the economic agreement with the teacher’s union. The budget crisis in our schools and city was caused by the enormous economic downturn and the current recession. Because of this, our school budget has been cut by $725 million over the past two years. The "costly" teacher contract negotiated in fiscal year 1991 was comparable, in actuality, to the wage increase offered to all city employees, since the teachers deferred $40 million of their wage increase in exchange for a no-layoff pledge in February 1992.

The article also says that I "admitted" that the city had provided $30 million for additional security. This is also totally untrue, as I have repeatedly stated. The city placed $33 million in the board’s budget for Safe Streets, Safe City programs. At budget adoption, $30 million of these funds were removed from the board’s budget. When the board objected, the city indicated that the $30 million removed were not Safe Streets, Safe City funds but "other funds." Regardless of what the city wants to call them, the schools did not receive a $30 million increase in funds.

With regard to the board’s general expenditures for security, we currently employ 2,400 school security officers, the nation’s seventh-largest police force. My commitment to school safety, in spite of the budget crisis, is well known to the public. Through reallocations in the school budget and better deployment of staff, our security program was actually enhanced during this time of cuts.

The information in the article about per-pupil spending is equally misleading. New York City now spends $850 per pupil less than the statewide average. This is 16 percent less than an average spending district in the state. Just one year ago, that figure was 10 percent less. Fifteen years ago, the city’s per-pupil spending basis was 20 percent more. This indicates the degree to which education spending in New York City has declined. In spite of the paucity of resources, New York City schools have raised math scores and reading scores. And over the past two years, compared with the Chicago schools touted by the authors, we have a significantly lower dropout rate. In fact, the most recent statistics show a significant decline in our dropout rate in response to Project Achieve, a school-based approach to dropout prevention.

New York City also has the lowest rate of administrative spending in the state, according to independent researchers. The few magnet schools touted in the City Journal article are laudatory, but so are the 143 high school magnet programs recently judged to be a "national model" in a four-year longitudinal study by professional researchers at Teachers College. In addition, through our New Visions Projects and other collaborations, we are developing dozens of new partnerships for high school innovation and excellence, some with business, others with universities, and still others with community organizations.

The recent reforms in the city’s public schools are well known to researchers and knowledgeable New Yorkers. The authors of the article, two disgruntled former Board of Education employees, should know better than to attempt through untruth and innuendo to cheapen the meaningful accomplishments that have taken place in our schools.

Joseph A. Fernandez

New York City Public Schools

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Raymond Domanico replies:
Chancellor Fernandez’s claim that our article is "riddled with inaccuracies" is curious, for virtually all of our information came from Board of Education documents. The chancellor’s criticisms are not primarily over matters of fact, but of analysis: He takes us to task for not presenting the facts in such a way as to put his administration in the best possible light.

Our article was not, however, an attack on Chancellor Fernandez’s two-year-old administration. It was, rather, an assessment of how twenty years of education reform have been stymied by the failing institution which the chancellor inherited.

On the matter of per-pupil spending, I have acknowledged, both in this article and an earlier one published in the City Journal’s Summer 1991 issue, that per-pupil spending is higher in the rest of New York State than it is in New York City. In both articles, I also argue that this is largely the result of the city’s spending priorities, not the state’s. The chancellor makes the same point in his current battle with city hall over $67 million in state education aid that the city intends to siphon to other uses. In any event, there is nothing misleading in pointing out that per-pupil spending in the city is much higher today than it was ten years ago.

I do not quarrel with Chancellor Fernandez’s claim that his initiatives have been responsible for a reduction in the dropout rate. However, that reduction has been quite modest: The four-year graduation rate for New York City high school students rose from 37.7 percent to 38.9 percent in the last year. The graduation rate remains lower than it was in 1986, and even then it was deplorable. The biggest impediment to reform is an unwillingness to face the fact that the system is failing too many of our youngsters. If the chancellor is encouraged by a graduation rate that is so low, it is hard to argue that the school system has turned the corner after decades of failure.

Chancellor Fernandez may call me a "disgruntled former employee," though I believe it is an unfair characterization. In Colman Genn’s case, it most assuredly is. Mr. Germ concluded a thirty-year career in the city’s schools by putting himself on the line to stand up to corrupt and racist school board members in Queens. The City of New York and the Board of Education itself honored him as a hero. For Chancellor Fernandez to dismiss Mr. Genn as "disgruntled" is nothing short of outrageous.

Park Preservation

To the Editors:
Fred Siegel’s excellent article, "Reclaiming our Public Spaces" (Spring 1992), should have mentioned that the tremendous cuts in the Parks Department budget during the past two years (40 percent) constitute the merest fraction of "savings" for the City of New York. This decimated Parks budget formerly represented but 0.7 percent of the entire $29 billion budget for the city of New York. The draconian cuts have reduced Parks’ share of the city budget to a starving 0.4 percent. This in effect constitutes a penalty for a city agency which has been, as Mr. Siegel suggests, unusually creative in seeking partnership alternatives to bolster its financing and improve the way in which it delivers services to the public. The undermining of government creativity and the callous suggestion on the part of some critics that government association with private organizations erodes public accountability are disheartening. On the contrary, there is a powerful synergy operating when such partnerships succeed.

Currently the New York City Parks and Recreation Department and the Central Park Conservancy are working together with the Parks Council, the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, and other public agencies and private organizations on the development of a plan which will embody some of the hopeful strategies Mr. Siegel discusses. This coalition has been convened under the name "Public Space for Public Life." Its mission is to outline a plan, and the finance and governance strategies necessary to implement it, which will make a strong and realistic case for our present and future public spaces—that is, both the active places of urban social intercourse and tranquil oases which connect city dwellers to the world of nature.

Mr. Siegel cautions that "someone searching for serenity and solitude today would do well to avoid the heavily wooded northern sections of Central Park, where solitude can only be pursued by risking robbery or worse." I would like to point out that a number of programs are currently underway by the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Central Park Conservancy to make this beautiful woodland both tranquil and safe. Park paths and pedestrian bridges have been reconstructed and steps reset or bypassed to allow small police and maintenance vehicles access to the Ravine and Great Hill. A team of volunteers has been working in the woodlands removing trash and opening up views as they replant the native American forests there. Conservancy-funded programs at the North Meadow Recreation Center are turning the Upper Park into a resource for recreational activities of all kinds, including an Outward Bound-inspired Challenge Course.

Thus the Conservancy, in partnership with New York City Parks and Recreation, seeks to ensure that all of Central Park, not just part of it, is as clean, safe, and beautiful as the people of a great city deserve.

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
Central Park Administrator
Department of Parks and Recreation
New York, N.Y.

Breaking the Gridlock

To the Editors:
Dick Netzer ("Congestion by Default: New York’s Haphazard Transit System," Spring 1992) correctly recognized the tremendous progress made in the last ten years to improve the transit system, but it is disappointing to see that so much of the information in his article is either incomplete or just plain wrong.

Since Mr. Netzer’s piece deals with expanding the capacity of the subway, it is surprising that he fails to mention that in 1990 we identified several ways to expand capacity in an assessment of the region’s capital needs over the next twenty years. The projects identified in our "20-Year Needs Assessment" include an extension of the Flushing line into New Jersey, a rail link to LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, and a possible Long Island Rail Road link to Manhattan’s East Side.

In fact, in our next capital program, we are proposing a project to expand capacity significantly on one of the most overcrowded lines in our system. The project would connect the Queens Boulevard lines (E and F) to the 63rd Street line in Long Island City. The connection will increase capacity at rush hour by 15 trains per hour, considerably reducing current overcrowding and offering an opportunity for further service expansion.

The federal funding for the projects is available, but we need the matching state and local share, which is contained in our $10.6 billion, 1992-96 Capital Improvement Program. The plan, which went unmentioned in the story, is currently awaiting approval in Albany.

Mr. Netzer’s oversight is surprising because the program addresses many of the problems he has with our system. For example, about $1.6. billion is earmarked for station projects that will dramatically improve our stations’ environment, making them more inviting for our customers. In addition, $556 million is dedicated to complete the installation of automated fare collection (including security measures and power upgrades), which will simplify the process of paying the fare on the system. The capital program will continue the good work of transit rebuilding, which Mr. Netzer praises as making subways "more reliable, faster, and more presentable."

Mr. Netzer also misses the point on why the Transit Authority opposes vans. The vans that operate on TA routes do so illegally and unsafely. Moreover, the majority of illegal vans are uninsured, unregistered, uninspected, unlicensed, or all of the above. Eighty-five percent of illegal van drivers have no driver’s license. One such driver, while recently making an illegal U-turn on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, lost control of his vehicle and smashed into an Army recruiting center, killing two pedestrians. The TA welcomes legal and fair competition from vans. In fact, the TAs parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is currently conducting an extensive study into the role of private van services in the transit system.

Mr. Netzer suggests that vans are the "obvious solution" to provide service for the TA’s lightly-used bus routes. The reality is quite different. Vans currently exist only on the TAs busiest and most profitable routes and only during rush hours. In addition, vans ignore large segments of the community such as the elderly, the disabled, and students, all of whom have access to the TA’s 24-hour bus service.

A few historical points that were somehow missed in the story: Mr. Netzer is correct to say that more trains operated on certain lines in the 1960s than today. He fails to mention, however, that the number of trains was reduced as a result of an operating rule change following a fatal accident in the late 1960s. Until then, operating rules allowed trains to "stop and proceed" at a red signal. After the accident, the rule was changed to "stop and stay," which makes sense from a safety point of view. Surely, Mr. Netzer would not suggest that we jeopardize safety for the sake of adding an extra train.

Mr. Netzer is also correct to say that as late as 1965 the Transit Authority was ordering buses without air-conditioning. He fails to note, however, that so was everybody else in the United States and Europe. In fact, today Paris and London, with which our system is usually compared, have little or no air-conditioning on their buses or subways. Compare that with our buses, which are 98 percent air-conditioned, and our subways, which are 95 percent air-conditioned.

The improvements in air-conditioning, car reliability, and on-time performance were made possible by the MTA’s Capital Program over the last ten years, during which time some $16 billion was invested to rebuild the transit system.

John Cunningham
Press Secretary
Metropolitan Transportation Authority
New York, N.Y.

Dick Netzer replies:
It is a bit surprising that an agency that is in the thick of controversy, like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, should be so thin-skinned—or at least its press office is. Mr. Cunningham’s nose is out of joint even about a criticism of the Transit Authority’s practices way back in 1965 (pace Mr. Cunningham, the TA was in fact the only large transit operator in North America still ordering buses without air-conditioning in 1965).

Mr. Cunningham raises two issues that are not ancient history. First, he is offended that I did not praise the MTA’s planning documents’ proposals about expanding rail capacity. The 1990 projects cited by Mr. Cunningham have something to be said for them, but they would be horribly expensive and no financing for them is in sight. And, as Mr. Cunningham knows very well, nearly all outside experts have condemned the MTA proposal for the use of the 63rd Street tunnel as an expensive way of providing minimal congestion relief, which also will worsen existing subway service for other riders. In the article, I did note one alternative that many experts (for example, the Regional Plan Association) prefer: use of underutilized LIRR tracks in Queens for subway service—rejected mainly because of scandalous political opposition by, among others, the leading Democratic candidate for the Senate this year, Geraldine Ferraro.

Second, on the matter of vans: Operators of unregulated buses, vans, jitneys, and the like of course will prefer the busiest and most profitable routes, but if there is any consequential demand for service on other routes, and if the operators are legalized and free from harassment, there will be bus, van, and jitney service there too, albeit less frequent. If there is no demand, then neither the TA nor anyone else should be providing service. The TA, like holders of governmentally created monopoly positions everywhere, asserts that any competition must be bad and uses safety as a stick to defend itself. We don’t need the TA to instruct us on the safety of its competitors; if van operators are uninsured, uninspected, and unlicensed, they violate ordinary motor vehicle laws (just as if they were operating private cars for personal use), which can and should be enforced.

Finally, another safety-as-the-last-refuge-of-scoundrels point: Safety on the subways can be improved by running even fewer trains than at present, and maximized by running no trains at all. All the experts agree that there is no reason why operating trains with two-minute headways should be unsafe, as is done in numerous cities throughout the world and on two TA lines even now, and was done on numerous TA lines in the 1960s.


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