New York’s future depends on its quality of life—that was the message of both the 1993 political contests and a survey of current and former New Yorkers commissioned by the Commonwealth Fund. In the Autumn 1993 City Journal, Julia Vitullo-Martin outlined the findings of that survey: while the city’s economy continues to draw the young and ambitious, quality-of-life problems like crime, disorder, and incivility are driving many New Yorkers to leave.

At a recent symposium jointly sponsored by the Manhattan Institute and Citizens Union, Vitullo-Martin was joined by a panel of distinguished scholars and New York City Council members. They discussed the importance of the quality of life, the historical and political roots of the city’s current problems, and the practical steps political leaders can take to improve matters.

The meeting was chaired by Robert F. Wagner Jr., in one of his last public appearances before his death of heart failure at age 49 on November 15, 1993. Wagner, one of New York City’s most devoted public servants, had served with distinction in an impressive range of positions both in and out of city government: first deputy mayor, Board of Education president, chairman of the City Planning Commission, and, most recently, chairman of Citizens Union. At his death, Wagner was at work with Vitullo-Martin on a book, The Future of Cities, and an article for the City journal about innovative public housing leaders.

Wagner cared deeply about the future of New York City; his untimely passing is a loss to all New Yorkers.


The quality of life is not a new issue in New York, though it has probably gotten more attention this year than in the past. Jacob Riis raised the issue in 1896 in his book How the Other Half Lives. And E. B. White, in his 1949 classic Here Is New York, said about New Yorkers: “They sit in stalled subways without claustrophobia, they extricate themselves from panic situations by some lucky wisecrack, they greet confusion and congestion with patience and grit—a sort of perpetual muddling through. Every facility is inadequate—the hospitals and schools and playgrounds are overcrowded, the express highways are feverish, the unimproved highways and bridges are bottlenecks, there is not enough air and not enough light, and there is usually either too much heat or too little.”

I would like to pose the question why the issue of quality of life is different today than it has been in the past.


We used to be able to take some comfort in the argument of urban historians that cities are better off today than they were in, say, the mid-nineteenth century, when the objective conditions of poverty and distress were far worse than anything we’ve got today. Historians like Dick Wade had shown this pretty conclusively. Presumably, we believed, if we’d progressed this far since the last century, we could progress further.

For New York City, looking back on the kind of statement that E.B. White made was of particular comfort. After all, if New York was filthy, dangerous, and disordered in the “good old days,” when it was unquestionably a great city, then surely filth and dangerousness aren’t impediments to greatness. Maybe everything was OK.

Bob Wagner asks why these issues are important today when they didn’t seem to be that important five years ago. When the Commonwealth Fund decided to do its survey, I remember people saying things like: “Shouldn’t the foundation be concerned with fundamental issues, like poverty and homelessness, rather than these frivolous matters like dirt, noise, disorder, and litter?”

But quality-of-life issues are fundamental. The much-heralded information revolution is here. That means we now have—in this city and in the world—a rather footloose economy in which jobs and people can move pretty much where they please. People have choices they never had before. I’m inclined to think that over the next few decades, American public policy will be shaped by a new politics of choice in every area. Choice will have particularly profound effects on cities. New York—and Chicago and Los Angeles and every U.S. city—will have to be competitive as they’ve never been before.

New York has lived off its luxurious intellectual and economic capital for some time now. But it can no longer afford to live off the greatness of its past. We’re at one of those crossroads, where city hall is going to have to make some very serious decisions about the city’s direction.

I would like to make three basic points. First, quality-of-life issues matter. The Commonwealth surveys—and the many copycat surveys—showed this. People come to New York for jobs and the economy, but they often leave in disgust over quality-of-life issues.

Second, these issues reflect the competence of city government. If the government cannot do relatively simple things—keeping the streets clean, fixing the sidewalks, filling the potholes—then how can it do anything truly difficult?

Take the question of noise in New York. Various mayoral administrations have tried to do something about this issue. When my husband and I moved to New York, the Lindsay administration was working on it, and the problem still persists. One of the Greenwich Village newspapers recently ran an article about “boom-box cars”—cars with radios that are so amplified that you can hear them from blocks away. These boom-box cars are illegal. But it turns out the police cannot issue any summonses to the offenders, no matter how noisy their cars, unless they measure the decibel level with a noise meter. The police, however, are not authorized to use the noise meters—only the Department of Environmental Protection inspectors are—and the environmental inspectors cannot issue the summonses. It’s a wonderful example of the problems in New York: we have this fairly simple problem of illegal boom-box cars, but we have so entangled ourselves in ridiculous regulations that it’s almost impossible to do anything about it.

Third, the combination of quality-of-life problems and the government’s inability to deal with them inevitably leads citizens to ask, “What am I getting for my taxes?” New York City residents are very heavily taxed. I think that for many New Yorkers, high taxes didn’t really matter all that much—until they started wondering, “What are we getting for them?” and coming up with the answer: not very much. People then ask, “Why am I here?” and, “Do I have to be here?” Multiply that by a large number of people, and New York has a problem.

There’s a pervasive sense of decline in New York City today, which I think is relatively new. Just in the past year, even very faithful New Yorkers, very liberal West Siders, have been feeling a sense of decline. It reminds me of the days of the fiscal crisis, but without the drama. The sense of decline seems to be incremental and relentless.

Casey Stengel used to say, “Once you start losing, everyone commences to play stupid.” This applies to city government: once you start hitting these terrible declines, nothing goes well, services get worse, expenditures rise, and everyone plays stupid. It is imperative for the new mayoral administration to make these issues a very high priority. If it fails to do so, New York will keep heading downward.

Historian, Cooper Union

The quality of life is not just a New York problem. In Philadelphia, a popular columnist calls himself “the marquis of debris”: during the late 1980s, one of his favorite columns was about trash storms in Center City Philadelphia. Mayor Edward Rendell made his mark early on by literally scrubbing City Hall—cleaning rooms that had never been cleaned.

In San Francisco, the last mayoral election was decided on quality-of-life issues. An unknown challenger, Frank Jordan, defeated incumbent Art Agnos by campaigning almost entirely on issues like homelessness, graffiti, and particularly aggressive panhandling. In 1992, tolerant San Francisco approved Proposition J, prohibiting “harassing or hounding acts in connection with soliciting money or any other valuable thing.” The proposition argued that “aggressive solicitation undermines the public’s basic right to enjoy public places without fear and jeopardizes the city’s economy”—just the point Julia Vitullo-Martin made.

In Los Angeles, MCA has built Citywalk, a 100-million-square-foot, two-block-long shopping and entertainment center in the ethnically mixed but middle-class San Fernando Valley. (The San Fernando Valley, by the way, talks about seceding from Los Angeles.) Citywalk was built as an exact replica of Venice Beach and Sunset Boulevard—but indoors and minus graffiti and homelessness.

In the recent L.A. mayor’s race, candidate Michael Woo set off a firestorm when he said: “My goal has never been to turn Hollywood Boulevard into an antiseptic, artificially sanitized area.” (This was not actually a danger.) “Hollywood Boulevard,” Woo continued, “will be an exciting, diverse and exotic place. Homeowners will see kids with ghetto blasters. I don’t want to drive away the eccentric and interesting people who are no harm to anyone else; I want to encourage real street life.” That last phrase—”I want to encourage real street life”—came back to haunt him. Woo lost by eight points in an election where he had the demographic edge.

By and large people would rather not have to choose between the antiseptic and the antisocial. The shame of our contemporary cities is that we so often seem forced to make such a choice. Bob Wagner asks: Why has it come to this? I think it relates to a failed experiment in effectively decriminalizing what were called victimless crimes: public drunkenness, panhandling, loitering, public prostitution, and the like.

The idea of a victimless crime has a venerable history. Jeremy Bentham described “drunkenness and fornication” as “imaginary offenses, acts which produce no real evil, but which prejudice, mistake, or the aesthetic principle has caused to be regarded as offenses.” His far more influential heir, John Stuart Mill, said such “self-regarding behavior” should stand outside both public scrutiny and the law.

In the United States of the 1960s—the Aquarian Age of sociology—these older arguments were revived and given new clothing. An NYU sociologist, for example, stated that “past support for laws regarding public conduct involved unsubstantiated assertions of the horrible consequences likely to follow from decriminalization.” He continued: “As empirical data and realistic analysis replace misinformation and stereotyped thinking, neither the long-standing existence of criminal statutes nor a majority adherence to the norms and values it seeks to uphold is likely to be accepted as sufficient justification for maintaining standards of public conduct.”

Sociologists turned the tables on the proponents of public order by arguing that the cure was worse than the disease. The problem, they contended, was not public prostitution or panhandling, but the policing of such behavior—the constricted morality of “squares” attempting to impose their values on others.

The bullets forged by sociologists were fired by police chiefs and legal reformers. Policing vice, they argued, was inherently corrupting, and maintaining civility by arresting drunks and crazies was derided as social work as opposed to “real police work.” And the most important claim, made again and again by both police chiefs and professors, was that decriminalizing vice and minor offenses against civility would free the police to deal with major crimes.

One Great Society report captured this consensus: “Only when the load of law enforcement has been lightened by stripping away those responsibilities for which it is not suited will we begin to make criminal law a more effective instrument of social protection.” As I speak today, the debate is on over whether the National Guard should be called out to fight crime in Washington, D.C. What went wrong?

First off, the reformers, straining to be “hip,” often trivialized the collateral consequences of the behavior they wanted to decriminalize. “That prostitution tends to encourage derivative kinds of criminal activities,” argued a West Coast sociologist, “can no more be denied than it can be denied that kissing may lead to illegitimate births.”

New York was in the vanguard of decriminalization—it’s been carried furthest here. In New York, not even running a red light was considered criminal. Traffic tickets were defined downward, to use Senator Moynihan’s term, in an effort to unclog the courts. We saw the consequences of that a few months ago when there was a rash of serious accidents caused by unlicensed drivers.

Let me close with the comments of a prominent sociologist who acknowledged the risks of decriminalization, comments that capture the spirit in which this experiment was carried out. “Under certain conditions, certain societies, like certain people, are better off dead—at least if we maintain that there are values whose preservation is more important than that of the survival of people or societies.” He went on: “American society has much that is worth protecting, but that protection may only be had on the strict circumstances which involve permitting the free sway of Epicurean behavior unless or until such a time as such behavior clearly threatens the existence of others or of the society.” This sociologist concludes, “It’s possible that the point of no return, however, may have long passed before its existence is noticed.” But we have noticed, and we haven’t passed the point of no return, though we’ve been heading in that direction.

Criminologist, Northeastern University

As Fred Siegel mentioned, there has recently been talk of calling out the National Guard to fight crime in Washington, D.C. I would like to begin by talking about how President Clinton might go about deciding whether or not to send in the Guard.

What if the president sneaked out late at night and met with residents of the neighborhoods in which so many killings are taking place, with no TV cameras, reporters, other politicians, or community leaders present—just residents? What he’d learn—and this would be true in any big city—is that in the minds of citizens, the crime problem is, first and foremost, things like disorder, prostitution, panhandling, graffiti, and drunken youths taking over parks. However tough the neighborhood is, these are the problems that people notice. If the president asked the next question—What can the military do about this?—he would quickly realize that this isn’t the best idea in the world.

Most of the hotly debated crime issues, like the question of sending in the military, have little to do with the real crime problem. Take capital punishment. Nobody believes that capital punishment is going to make any difference. It has no relevance for the issues that city residents care about most. What about gun control? I’m sorry, but it’s out of the barn. There are so many guns out there that we could pass serious gun laws right now and for fifty years we still wouldn’t be able to deal with the guns already on the street.

In contrast, some of the most serious crime issues have received very little publicity. A series of court decisions have gutted the ability of police to maintain public order. Recently, whether most of you know it or not, New York lost its antipanhandling ordinance. In the Loper case, it was decided that panhandling is a form of speech that has political content. As a result, New York City’s antipanhandling ordinance was declared unconstitutional. That decision will probably have much more impact on your lives than any federal crime bill.

The Loper decision and other, similar decisions embody a set of assumptions about urban problems that are consistent with what Fred Siegel just described. If one reads the Loper decision, the first thing that stands out is that legal and political advocates have succeeded in framing the issue of disorder as one of “homelessness,” neediness, and economic inequity.

A few years ago, I did some consulting for the Transit Authority on the problem of disorder in the subway. At that time, all the advocates agreed that the problem was “homelessness” and that the “homeless” were going to be victims of police actions aimed at them. As a matter of fact, that was not the goal of the programs at any time. We were not concerned about people’s economic status. We were concerned about the behavior of people in the subway that threatened and intimidated other riders. Framing the issue as the well-to-do versus the needy and “homeless” was a political ploy. This is not the well-to-do riding the subway versus the poor panhandling; subway passengers are working-class people who have to use public transportation.

The second thing one notices about Loper and similar decisions is that the courts have trivialized the consequences of street disorder. James Q. Wilson and 1 developed what is called the “broken windows” argument: Disorder makes citizens fearful to go out into the streets, which are thereby ceded to criminals. Wesley Skogan’s research empirically demonstrated the link between fear, disorder, and serious crime. But the courts have considered only a crude caricature of this argument. They ask, in effect: You mean to tell me that one beggar standing on the street is going to become a serious criminal? Of course nobody’s saying that. The argument is much more subtle.

The third striking feature of these court decisions is outright hostility toward the police. Tampa, Florida, had laws barring loitering for the purpose of prostitution and of drug dealing. The latter, in particular, helped Tampa manage the drug problem as well as any city in the United States. But the courts threw out both laws. When they threw out the prostitution law, they argued that police wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between prostitutes hailing johns on the street and housewives hailing their husbands and that they would use the law to harass minority women.

Haven’t these judges been on the streets? Don’t they understand what police do? Today in New York City there are probably going to be ten thousand encounters between police and citizens, often under very confusing and ambiguous circumstances. Yet at least 99.9 percent of those will go just fine.

I do not want to dismiss the problem of police abuse. But it is terribly misguided to assume that police are abusive as a rule and, on that basis, to deny them the authority they need to provide effective police services—which are especially needed in poor neighborhoods. Self-described advocates for the rights of the poor have been virtually silent about the right to live in safe communities. As a result, citizens, except for the most sturdy, are left with little alternative but to retreat from public spaces.

City Councilman (D-Manhattan)

It’s very refreshing to hear people talking about issues that for too long have been taboo. It’s good to see many people coming out of the closet and saying out loud what everyone has been thinking in silence and in anger. The underlying issue we’re discussing is lowered expectations about what sort of behavior is tolerable. We bump over bodies on the street. We see drug dealers on the corners and around our schools. We see vagrants in our hallways and on our streets. And I agree with George Kelling—”homelessness” should not dominate the debate over what goes on in our streets. Not everybody who’s on the streets is homeless. And if they are, it’s not necessarily because they’ve lost their apartment or because a sleazy landlord has raised the rent or kicked them out. The truth is that you have multi-symptomatic people on the streets. Some are there because they choose to be there, because we allow them an open market to sell stolen goods. Others are there because we’ve deinstitutionalized them without providing them care or protecting the community from those who are dangerous.

When we talk about what we as New Yorkers should tolerate, we must look into ourselves and rid ourselves of some liberal guilt. I’m not saying that liberals are bad—I consider myself to be one of them—but we must recognize that failed social policies have caused the quality of life to deteriorate for the majority of the people in this city.

We need to get back down to basics and listen to people. People are saying that they’re moving out of New York City because they can no longer tolerate the little things—which are not so little any longer. They can’t tolerate the stench of urine in front of their buildings and in the subway stations; they can’t tolerate tripping over bodies or being accosted—not just verbally any longer, but physically—for a buck. Something is wrong and we need to solve it.

City Councilman (D-Queens)

It is possible to improve things in the city. On Hillside Avenue and 175th Street in Queens, there’s a little park about two blocks long, which is the gateway to southeastern Queens. Historically it was a beautiful park, but the neighborhood changed and it started to become a nesting ground for derelicts and winos. The police of the 103rd Precinct ignored the problem, until, together with the civic association, I put the precinct captain on the spot. I said: “This is against the law—public drinking, sleeping in the park—and if you don’t get them out of there, you’re going to get out of here.” I told the Parks Department: “Cut the grass; clean up the dirt and the litter.” We’ve got some bureaucrats and civil servants so insulated by rules and regulations and union contracts that they just don’t understand what their first obligation is. We’ve got to get a level of outrage and respond to these abuses.

For years, a lot on 175th Street and 111th Avenue had been the site of a car stripping operation. The police did nothing about it until I said to the commander of the 103rd Precinct: “How, year in and year out, can this site on a residential block be used for stripping stolen cars?” The police wound up arresting a young man who lived across the street. He was stealing cars, parking them near his house, stripping them, and leaving the remains. The police will do a job when we make them do a job. It doesn’t matter what the structure is; the heat must be put on them.

That said, I’m optimistic about the future of this city. I still believe that it contains a critical mass of intelligence and other ingredients that sustain its vitality and viability.

City Councilwoman (D-Bronx)

The National League of Cities recently asked me to participate in a seminar titled “Los Angeles as a Third World City: What Shall We Do?” Thirty people were there, all either mayors or council members from large and small cities. Two themes emerged—one was quality of life and the other, which I would like to emphasize, was education.

I have been saying, for about five years now, that very soon we will be serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner in our schools. Not that I want to, but it’s a fact of life. We have to do something about the buildings where kids will be from 7:00 in the morning until 7:00 at night.

The schools will have to provide social services to newly arrived and disadvantaged kids. I don’t really want to do that—that’s not education—but we have to do it. We also will have to provide an enriching education for middle-class kids. And we will have to provide something for the intellectually gifted kids.

The people at 110 Livingston Street may have the desire to do something, but the system is just not working, and if we don’t do something about that, the city is in trouble. I’m not an expert on education, but we must do something—and I am willing to try almost any experiment today.

Not too many years ago, poor and immigrant children, if they had the will to learn, could expect to get a good education in the city’s public schools. It’s tough now to say to people: You can get a good education if you really want it. There’s a question as to whether you can get it.

Maybe there is not a monolithic solution—maybe we have to attack the problem with different solutions. But there is no question that if America’s cities are to have a bright future, we have to do something about public education.

Contributing Editor, City Journal

This has been a remarkable meeting. The speakers have covered both the small and the large elements that constitute the quality of life in a city. And we are an audience of people of all kinds—black, white, Latino, Asian—all deeply concerned with the quality of life. This is not a white issue, and it’s not a class issue.

When I retired from the New York Times, I moved to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Every afternoon at 5:45 I get on the bus home from New York, and the population of the bus is about 20 or 25 percent black and Latino. These are people who work in New York City. They go through the ordeal of taking a bus at 5:00 in the morning, and then another one at 5:45 in the afternoon—three hours a day of commuting.

We live in interracial communities. But nobody tried to achieve integration—it naturally happened because people of similar tastes and similar income managed to find places where they could live comfortably in beautiful surroundings. I asked them privately why they left New York when they still work there. I’ve gotten many answers, and one of what I call the big reasons I remember most vividly. It was given by a man who is doing a highly technical job for a very large corporation. This gentlemen not only commutes to New York, but when the bus gets to the city, he turns around and takes the PATH to Newark where he actually does his work.

This man said to me: “My two grandfathers were both sharecroppers. I was educated at Queensboro Community College and then at NYU; I’m a computer specialist and a very good one.” He went on: “What I didn’t find in New York for me and my family was a place to live that made me feel that I was living in the style that someone who had achieved what I think I have achieved is entitled to.”

I spoke with an Italian couple, both of whom work in New York City. They had lived in Richmond Hill, Queens, in a two-family house. The problem was that they had no place to park. They left New York City simply because our planning didn’t provide adequate space for them to leave their car on the street. This is one of the little reasons why people are dissatisfied.

Another of the big reasons—and I’m delighted that June Eisland touched on it with great strength—is education. One part of the quality of life is the expectation that your children will do better than you.

And another important reason is the fear of crime. We have crime in the country too, usually involving people who know each other. But one isn’t afraid of crime on the streets, because each of the subdivisions in which these ex-New Yorkers live is watched by its own hired patrol.

Archie Spigner talks about what he does for his community. He’s a legislator, but he’s acting as an administrator or an executive. His stories tell us that there’s something wrong with the government of New York City—it doesn’t have an executive function at the neighborhood level, so legislators have to try to deal with these issues. And everything they do has to go through the central government.

New York’s health is vital, not only to those of us who live here, but also to those who work here. If the city doesn’t regain its economic power, the interracial communities in Pennsylvania will fail. There’s no way those people could live on the salaries they would earn up there.

The quality of urban life is also crucial to the country as a whole. We must solve these problems, both small and large. The government has to be changed so it can carry out its most vital responsibilities. And personal attitudes must be adjusted so people will take responsibility for such simple things as asking: Don’t you want to pick up that piece of paper you’ve just dropped on the sidewalk? As our speakers have eloquently pointed out, there is much that can be done about the issues, both big and small, that make up what we call the quality of life.


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