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40th Anniversary

Boom-Bust-Boom Town


1985: Bernie Goetz, the subway vigilante; 1989: Love and protest amid the AIDS crisis.  

But just as one era of ecstatic, heedless, devil-may-care New York self-indulgence was about to end, another would begin. In August 1982, the great bull market of the eighties and nineties took off. Over the next eighteen years, the Dow would increase fifteenfold. The eighties were not exactly smooth sailing for New York: aids became epidemic, killing tens of thousands; crack appeared, ravaging numberless lives and whole neighborhoods; and murders increased by 62 percent between 1985 and 1990, to more than six a day. Yet even though most of the metrics of decent urban life got hellishly worse before they got better, as the nineties began, more of New York was part of the rising than the dying.

Without the prosperity of the eighties and nineties, and without the chastened rightward tacking of our mayoral politics—reactionary? revanchist? sensible? all of the above?—we wouldn’t now be recounting a story with a happy(ish) ending. John Lindsay was the last proudly, charismatically liberal leader of New York, and while he inherited a fiscal mess and truculent municipal unions, his mayoralty—from 1965 to 1973, just as New Yorkers were being mugged by reality (and muggers)—did a lot to make old-school liberalism synonymous with namby-pamby profligacy and incompetence. And so for the last 30 years, excepting the brief interregnum of David Dinkins, our putatively super-liberal city (which Richard Nixon, by the way, lost in 1972 by a mere 3 percent) has elected hardheaded mayors from the center and center-right: Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Bloomberg.

One big change leads to another. Murder and other crimes went down by 40 percent all over America during the nineties, the result of many factors—fewer people of crime-committing age and higher incarceration rates undoubtedly, economic growth and legal abortion possibly. But only in this city was murder reduced by 78 percent since 1990, and almost half that drop came in just two years, from 1993 to 1995. It’s literally fantastic, the closest thing to a miracle I’ve ever seen. And most of those extra lives saved in New York are inarguably the result of our political spine-stiffening in the eighties and nineties, which led to a much bigger and more aggressive and better-managed NYPD.

The main idea of liberalism has been vindicated.

For New York, policing and prosecution were, like war, the continuation of politics by other means. And the great counterintuitive irony is that the eradication of crime, empowered by post-sixties-liberal political toughness, has achieved two great goals of the left: The tens of thousands of victims and families spared have been overwhelmingly poor and black and Hispanic, and the main idea of liberalism—that government intervention is essential to making life better—has been vindicated.

And each big change leads to still another. Of course, an advance guard of bourgeois bohemians was trickling into déclassé working-class neighborhoods like Park Slope well before Bill Bratton took over the NYPD. Gentrification was coined in the sixties, around the same time as SoHo and a few years before TriBeCa. The Times magazine, in a 1979 story called “The New Elite and an Urban Renaissance,” made the new phenomenon official: “People often snicker when they first hear of it. A renaissance in New York City? The rich moving in and the poor moving out? The mind boggles at the very notion.”

But the gentrification process was gradual and spotty until crime started plummeting. It was the radical increase in security, both real and perceived, that uncorked the flood tide of young and youngish white college graduates from Manhattan into the Lower East Side and Harlem and vast stretches of Brooklyn during the nineties and aughts. In 1990, Harlem was 1.5 percent white; today it’s probably close to 9 percent. The presence of yuppies and bobos, white and otherwise, attracts more of their kind, which tends to bring more security, which in turn leads to more yuppies and bobos. That boggled 1979 mind would be stunned into speechlessness by the parallel-universe vision of New York on the eve of 2009—the graffiti-free subways, the civilized perfection of Central Park and (even more) Bryant Park, the cutesy snow globe that is Times Square, $3 million houses in Fort Greene, curb-to-curb hipsters in the Lower East Side, gourmet food and Swedish furniture in Red Hook. And so on.

The progress of gentrification wasn’t only a result of the precinct-by-precinct diminution of crime. My bit of Brooklyn, Carroll Gardens, was a very safe (and almost entirely white) working- and middle-class quarter when I arrived in 1990 with my wife and baby daughters. Nor were we exactly pioneers; a couple of editors had already renovated our brownstone. But at some moment between the eighties, when I knew exactly two people in Brooklyn, and the end of the century, when at least half the younger people of my acquaintance were living there, the borough not only lost most of its stigma but acquired an unprecedented aura of stylishness. It was an emergent rebranding as alt-NYC, driven first by the invisible hand (cut-rate real estate just across the river) and then by the self- propelling presence of more and more People Like Oneself. I can peg the tipping-point moment fairly precisely in my neighborhood: As I waited to vote in 1992, I was the demographic outlier in the polling-place crowd of retired longshoremen and their relatives; when I returned in 1996, almost every voter in the place, I swear, was some kind of writer or graphic designer or MTV producer a decade or two my junior. And the following year, all at once, Smith Street changed from a dreary Poughkeepsiesque stretch where we went only to catch the F train to—abracadabra!—a groovy restaurant row thick with recently expatriated young Manhattanites. Manhattan is not over, certainly, but for the city’s “creative class” New York is no longer a one-borough town. Brooklyn has become St. Paul, maybe, to Manhattan’s Minneapolis, rather than Compton and Glendale to its Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

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