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The Independent Republic of New York


After September 11, New York badly needed money. Our leaders extracted a promise, ultimately, for $20 billion, and Bush has earned himself plaudits for more or less producing it. But the city got it slowly, imperfectly, and it has really had to beg, and in fact it could have used a lot more (initial estimates from the state comptroller’s office ran toward $105 billion). If some Republicans had had their way, the city would not have received even $20 billion. Shortly after the attack, Don Nickles, the then–assistant majority leader of the Senate, quietly tried to stop this single emergency appropriation, complaining to colleagues that his home state, Oklahoma, never received such generous assistance after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Today, New York still surfaces in intelligence chatter with ritualistic eeriness, but on a per capita basis, it receives a mere pittance for its first-responders—$5.47 for each resident, as opposed to $38.31 for each person in Wyoming. (As a result of this homeland-security-funding formula, Grand Forks, North Dakota, now has more biochemical suits than there are cops to wear them, according to a story in the Daily News this winter; meanwhile, the FDNY has only one “fully deployable” hazardous-materials unit for the whole city.) Just over a month ago, the House of Representatives voted down an amendment, proposed by the upstate Republican John Sweeney, that would have given New York and other urban areas an extra infusion of cash. Shortly after, David Hobson, an Ohio Republican, explained to one of the Capitol’s newspapers, The Hill, “Some people feel that there’s never enough money for New York. No matter what we’d have put in, a lot of people think, New York would ask for more.”

Before that vote, when the bill was still languishing in the House Appropriations Committee, Jose Serrano, our congressman from the Bronx, tried to make an impassioned case for it. But the subcommittee chairman, Harold Rogers, was prepared for Serrano’s charges. He responded with a series of statistics specifically compiled by his staff to show that mile for square mile, New York City comes out quite well. Serrano answered that, well, sure, but his whole district (more than half a million people, same as all the others in Congress) could pretty nearly fit into a square mile—he could walk across it in an hour. And I’d like to add: If Mr. Rogers, who comes from rural Kentucky, wants to calculate our homeland-security funding per square mile, I hope he recommends to colleagues that they calculate our taxes that way, too.

One could very reasonably point out, at this juncture, that New Yorkers hardly understand the rest of the United States any better than the rest of the United States understands New Yorkers. But if New Yorkers wanted to secede, it would not be for the same reasons that, say, people from the San Francisco Bay Area or other liberal enclaves would want to secede. New Yorkers may live in isolation from the rest of the United States, but not the world. We would never think, for example, to refer to multinational corporations as “greedy motherfuckers” (this city loves and lionizes no one if not its greedy motherfuckers); we’re resolutely nonprotectionist, passionately for free trade. Because so many of us are rich and crime-fearing, or immigrants craving unconstrained capitalism, we also have a much finer appreciation of Republican politics than do other liberal enclaves. Thirty-seven percent of us supported our Republican governor in the last election, and in 1993, we chose a Republican mayor who helped transform this city from a jungle into a manicured suburb—and then showed us what real leaders are made of at a time it counted most. New Yorkers also have an appreciation of Realpolitik. After September 11, there were few people in this city who didn’t seem to believe, at least for a time, in the fundamental trade-offs of the Patriot Act—privacy for personal security, civil liberties for public safety—and who weren’t desperately, hungrily eager to bomb the Taliban to high hell.

The question of New York secession first came up in 1861, under circumstances that showed just this kind of ruthless pragmatism, when Mayor Fernando Wood hoped to preserve the right to trade with both the North and the South. Most other New York City secession proposals have focused on becoming a separate state. In 1788, Alexander Hamilton warned that the city’s secession was “inevitable” if the state failed to ratify the Constitution. In 1969, Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin ran on a mayoral platform arguing that the city, needing local control of its services and finances, should become the 51st state. The most inspired part of their proposal contended that the city had dibs on the name “New York.” The rest of the state, they suggested, should be renamed “Buffalo.”

Times haven’t changed much. Queens councilman Peter Vallone Jr., son of the former City Council speaker, has revived the 51st-state movement—a gesture that, while quixotic, isn’t entirely insane. The city’s relationship with the state is as galling as its relationship with the country, if not more so. Of course, subordination to the state is a fundamental part of the urban condition, an inherent structural flaw—“The word ‘city’ does not once appear in the Constitution,” notes Thomas Bender, author of The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea—but New York is especially challenged in this way. Other than messing with property-tax rates, there’s almost nothing the city can do to control or reorganize its own finances. It’s a supplicant, one that must beg permission from Albany to do everything.

Which brings us back to Vallone. According to his office, Albany shortchanges the city by $3.5 billion every year. He contends that our schools get $900 less per pupil than schools upstate, that we receive only 63 percent of transit money while moving 84 percent of riders, that only a fraction of funds from the Environmental Bond Act go to the city, even though nearly half its revenue comes from here. Most egregiously, though, the state makes cities pay 25 percent of their Medicaid costs, a crushing burden, one without parallel anywhere else.

Nor did this state respond with particular generosity in the aftermath of September 11. When California had its huge earthquake in 1989, the legislature in Sacramento immediately raised the state sales tax by a quarter percent, in order to provide $800,000 of emergency funding to San Francisco and the surrounding areas. “And what did Albany give us?” asks Vallone. “Nothing.”

But if the city seceded, Vallone believes it’d be springtime for technocrats. “We could roll back the entire property tax,” he says. “We could cut back the personal income tax and still have a billion-dollar surplus. And there’d be no love lost. Upstate, they think they’re supporting us.”

Vallone’s plan, for now, is simply to put the question of secession to voters in the form of a ballot initiative, asking whether they’d like to form a commission to study the issue. But even if city residents vote overwhelmingly in favor of it, it’s hard to imagine the plan going much further. If the city genuinely wanted to part ways with the state, the State Legislature would have to approve it, and then Congress. If the Legislature knows what’s good for it, the plan would never leave Albany. “All we have upstate,” says Mitchell Moss, the urban-planning-and-policy expert at NYU, “is penitentiaries and college campuses. In twenty years, the remake of Deliverance can be filmed up there.”

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