November 1, 2007
When I arrived in the South Bronx in the fall of 1990, the reality matched the legend. Half the buildings in the neighborhood were burnt-out shells. The sidewalks were covered with broken glass and empty crack vials. The nights roared with raucous music, argument, and gunshots. Drug dealers brazenly hawked their products right from their own front steps. Friends advised me to avoid subway violence by riding in the front car, where the engineer might protect you. In chic midtown Manhattan, you had to step around or over the many homeless stretched out on the subway grates for warmth. On summer days, rats undulated in packs through piles of putrid garbage bags waiting on the streets for sporadic pickup.
People were afraid the whole place would either implode or explode. In 1993, polls showed that almost half of the residents of New York would move away if they could.
David Dinkins was the mayor. He had defeated two-term incumbent Ed Koch in the 1989 Democratic primary and had gone on to beat Republican Rudolph Giuliani, then the U.S. Attorney for New York City, in the general election. There was no trick to that: Dinkins, the former borough president of Manhattan, was a respected public figure; an African-American, he was thought the best to ease racial tensions; and of course, he was a Democrat in a straight-ticket Democratic town.
Four years later, he was blamed by many for bringing the city to its knees.
"My verdict on the David Dinkins years is simple," Ed Koch later wrote. "Very nice man, very poor mayor."
Dinkins was unable to come to grips with the circumstances and events that were afflicting most major cities at the time: crime, homelessness, racial division, loss of the tax base by suburban flight, compromise of the infrastructure. And he dithered in crisis, most notoriously during the rioting between Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991, when he waited three days before sending the police in force to put it down.
Giuliani saw his chance. In 1993, running on a law-and-order platform, he faced Dinkins a second time. Voters were not happy with either choice. Koch wrote that people would come up to him on the street and implore, "Mayor, you must run again, you must run again!" "No," he would respond, "the people threw me out and now the people must be punished!" — at which they would cry, "Oh, Mayor, we have been punished enough!"
Democrat Koch eventually endorsed Giuliani, fearing that New York was "on the brink of disintegration." Giuliani won by two percent.
The tough guy, the prosecutor, the commander: Many who voted against him, myself included, were secretly relieved to see him in.
Things turned around. Under Giuliani’s first police commissioner, William Bratton of Boston, the crime rate fell sharply. In my neighborhood, undercover cops began using the bell tower of St. Augustine Catholic Church to monitor the corner "drug stores"; soon the dealers went undercover themselves and the open hawking stopped. Violence in the public housing projects and subways was tamped down by folding the ill-trained housing and transit police forces into the NYPD, and by enacting stringent gun-control laws. People in poor communities like ours were fearful of the police, but grudgingly glad they were there.
Then there was the "quality of life." Despite protests, often justified, homeless persons were swept off the grates and into shelters. Subway stations were refurbished, and the ubiquitous graffiti on the cars were promptly removed. The "squeegee men," the bane of every urban driver, were driven away by the police. Big-bomb firecrackers, available year-round in Chinatown, were banned and confiscated, and noise-abatement laws curtailed the late-night throb of ultra-bass speakers in apartments and roving cars.
Giuliani was the right man at the right time. The economic achievements of his administration that he touts in his present wrestles with Mitt Romney — balancing budgets, cutting taxes — were mostly the result of the general surge in the economy during the Clinton years. His fundamental accomplishment was to restore order to a city verging on chaos. With order, confidence returned, and New Yorkers once more began to feel that their destiny was in their own hands.
Their hands, not his.
When Giuliani ran for a second term in 1997, people were happier with themselves than they were with their mayor. Over four years, he had shown himself to be, as Ed Koch wrote in his 1999 book with the telling title, Giuliani: Nasty Man, "a ruthless control freak who governs by imposing a state of terror on members of his administration and claiming credit for accomplishments he had nothing to do with."
He had forced Bratton out of his job, piqued that the police commissioner had made the cover of Time magazine. He had hectored Schools Chancellor Ramon Cortinez as "precious" and "the little victim." Without investigation, he had sided with the police in a number of incidents of alleged brutality, including the sodomizing of Abner Louima, who may or may not have heard the officer with the broomstick cry, "It’s Giuliani time!"
But it was order the voters were grateful for, and they re-elected him overwhelmingly.
Giuliani’s second term was simply bizarre. Like all dictators, the personality that had facilitated his achievements turned into hybris. He openly battled with his second wife, Donna Hanover, with their two young children in between. He alienated the artistic community by trying to close down an exotic exhibit at the Brooklyn museum. He virtually severed relations with the Black community by refusing to speak for two years to Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president, and by his unrepentant attitude after the 43-shot slaying of unarmed African immigrant Amidou Diallo by undercover cops.
When he left office in January, 2002, despite his unquestioned leadership during the World Trade Center trauma, people were as glad to see him go as they had been to see him come. He’d done his job, but now his time had passed. His suave and savvy successor, Michael Bloomberg, would become the city’s Everyman that Giuliani had never been.
The question before today’s voters should be: Is Giuliani the right man for this time? After eight years of pig-headed presidency and the polarization of national and international politics, is it really "Giuliani time" anymore?