This issue of the City journal comes at a turning point in New York City’s civic life. The voters have just elected a new mayor—one who ran on a commitment to make fundamental changes in the governance of this troubled city. It is now Mayor Giuliani’s burden and opportunity to make good on his commitment. To help him, modestly, in sorting through the myriad possibilities as he engages his agenda and sets his priorities, our issue begins with "advice to the mayor" from a panel of distinguished New Yorkers. But in a larger sense, the entire issue offers advice to the mayor and his administration.
Twenty-five years ago, Edward Costikyan argued in a brilliant and prescient article for New York magazine that for essential municipal services to be delivered effectively, they must be devolved from the huge central bureaucracy at city hall to the boroughs and neighborhoods. As the New York Times has reported, decentralization is receiving serious scrutiny from the Giuliani administration. It is with great pleasure that we reprint Mr. Costikyan’s seminal article here.
Freedom from centralized management is also the theme of two more articles in this issue. In "Debbie Meier and the Dawn of Central Park East," Seymour Fliegel, a former New York City school superintendent, describes what happened when teachers in East Harlem were given the freedom to run their own schools. The amazing success of these East Harlem schools has sparked a vital movement with the potential to transform all the city’s schools. In "Neighborhood Cops," George Kelling cautions that community policing will not work unless we recast the centralized patterns of command and jurisdiction built into NYPD’s structure over the course of a century.
While decentralization is imperative to make city government responsive at the bottom, clear lines of agency responsibility and ultimate mayoral accountability are also needed to make it responsive at the top, as Ross Sandler points out in "Putting the Mayor Back in Touch."
What better way to approach the seemingly intractable problems of New York than to learn from the efforts of another reformist big-city mayor? Ed Rendell, in "America’s Cities: Can We Save Them?" describes how he vanquished the vested interests, balanced the budget, and improved services in Philadelphia.
Essential as all these reforms may be, any new administration will quickly discover that its plans can easily run aground in the Alice in Wonderland political culture of New York, well illustrated by three stories in this issue. Heather Mac Donald contrasts the hysterical public reaction to the asbestos "crisis" in the city’s schools with public indifference attending the far more deadly and immediate peril of New York’s growing TB epidemic. Richard Miniter explains how federal regulations may force upon the city a Hobson’s choice between massive capital outlays and war with the upstate neighbors of its reservoirs—all to mitigate a nonexistent threat to water purity. And Walter Olson gives us yet another glimpse of the ludicrous workings of New York’s judicial process as it rewards a mugger with millions of dollars because of injuries sustained in his apprehension.
Finally, putting the fundamental purposes of municipal government in perspective, is the "At Issue" feature, devoted to a symposium of scholars and political leaders on New York’s quality of life.
New York, for all its problems, remains America’s most vital and wonderful urban enterprise. The city deserves a more effective government, one that can make its problems more manageable and prevent them from undermining or chasing away its nonproblematical households and activities. It is in this spirit that we "advise" the new administration at city hall, as it assumes the daunting mission of governing this seemingly ungovernable city.