Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

40th Anniversary

The Day Everything Changed

Squeegee man Jeff Williamson on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Police determined that there were only about 75 in the whole city.  

Six weeks before 9/11, despite all his administration’s accomplishments, his approval rating was just 50 percent, almost exactly the same as his share of the vote eight years previous.

But that number inaccurately suggests stasis, as if nothing had changed from the 50 percent of 1993 to the 50 percent of 2001. And of course that was not the case. If you were here then, you know what I mean. Giuliani represented a completely new model of urban governance. He was not someone who came up through the local Democratic clubs, amassing and owing favors and adjusting himself to the status quo. He was an outsider, a prosecutor, and a hard-ass.

He was lucky too: The local Democratic Party, long ago the pride of Democrats nationally, was sclerotic beyond belief (it mattered that he came to power owing all the local fiefs and mandarins nothing—it allowed him to bang some heads on matters, like the insane cost overruns at Kings County Hospital, which a Democratic mayor, seeking to keep the local peace, would have pussyfooted around). The crack epidemic was, wouldn’t you know it, subsiding. So he had some breaks. But the combination of circumstance and will enabled him to shake up the city like it hadn’t been shaken in years.

It wasn’t all good. Oh, no. His main legacy may always be saving the city, but his secondary legacy will also, always, be that he divided it. Confrontations with black political leaders, sometimes totally unnecessary, antagonized huge chunks of the populace. He wanted, and deserved, the credit for the crime reduction. But that also meant he got, and deserved, the blame for creating the climate that led to what happened to Amadou Diallo (shot 41 times for no crime) and Abner Louima (sodomized with a plunger, for maybe getting into a scuffle with cops when he tried to break up a fight). Diallo, a poor guy from Guinea who was planning to go to computer-science school. Louima, who must have thought he’d successfully gotten out of hell when he left Haiti, and worked in Flatlands as a security guard. We will remember Giuliani on 9/11, absolutely. His name, though, will always be linked to those two names and the divisive legacy they and others represent.

But the Rudy Giuliani of that first year … yes, a definite hard-ass. No doubt of that. But he was a hard-ass about the right things then, when a hard-ass was what the city needed. And then occasionally, when you least expected it, he wasn’t a hard-ass, but a creative chief executive, not firing thousands of city workers in the face of a deep fiscal crisis. I remember going to the mayor’s holiday party that December—my first and last invitation to Rudy’s Gracie Mansion. Donna, then, was the beaming wife, standing before the Christmas tree, bragging about her husband’s accomplishments. There was a lot for her to talk about.

Here was the new white mayor, presented in almost his first week with the perfect dilemma: a racial mêlée.

Things did begin a little strangely. As the new mayor gave his inaugural address on January 2, 1994, his son, Andrew, then a pudgy little 7-year-old, many years and much muscle development away from being the Titleist-crushing young man he is now, stood at the podium with his father. (Rudy, Donna, Andrew, and Caroline were a family then.) He tugged at his father’s pant legs. He squirmed around. He mugged for the cameras. Giuliani’s catchphrase for that speech was “It should be so, and it will be so.” By about the third time, Andrew started repeating it. Rudy laughed. It wasn’t quite as embarrassing as taking a call on his cell from his wife mid-speech. But it was weird. Check it out. It’s on YouTube.

I followed Giuliani around incessantly on the campaign trail in ’93, from Marine Park to Fordham Road. Everywhere he went, he said things were going to be different. Within days, they were.

The immediate task was to handle snowstorms that hit just as he took office. Every New Yorker with a historical memory knows that mishandling snowstorms, failing to sweep the streets of Queens, did in John Lindsay, became the symbol of his lassitude when it came to looking out for the average outer-borough homeowner. Aided by the fine Sanitation commissioner, Emily Lloyd, the new administration dodged that bullet. Then, immediately—something far more totemic.

Giuliani was just nine days into his mayoralty when a call came in to 911 reporting a holdup at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue. The dispatcher’s call didn’t mention it, and one wouldn’t have noticed from the outside, but the third floor of the building housed Mosque No. 7 of the Nation of Islam. When the cops arrived, about a dozen members of the Fruit of Islam met the officers, blocked their entrance to the mosque, pushed officers back down the stairs, and took a gun and a police radio.