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40th Anniversary

The Day Everything Changed

Dick Wolf himself could not have invented a more TV-ready scenario. Here was the new white mayor—the avatar of Archie Bunker’s New York to his critics, the man who had campaigned against Dinkins’s capitulations to African-American rioters in Crown Heights and boisterous boycotters of the Korean deli on Church Avenue, the man who fomented a veritable police riot at City Hall Park back in 1992 when he twice shouted the word bullshit into a megaphone as some white cops referred to Mayor Dinkins as “the washroom attendant”—presented in almost his first week in office with the perfect dilemma: a racial mêlée that had the potential to turn into something far larger. The officers made no arrests—they feared a riot. They did work out a deal with the Muslim leaders by which they recovered the radio and gun.

Onto the scene came Al Sharpton and his then-consigliere, C. Vernon Mason, who denounced the police for conducting a “siege” against a place of worship. The story whipped its way through the papers for the next few days, building and building. Sharpton, Mason, and other black leaders kept up the vitriol on their end, demanding an audience. Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton weren’t exactly shrinking violets either, with Giuliani chiding Room 9 reporters for paying too much attention to Sharpton.

Behind the rhetoric, the mayor and police commissioner agreed to have meetings with the mosque’s leaders. Things were, maybe, calming down. But when the NOI leaders showed up with Sharpton and Mason in tow, Giuliani and Bratton abruptly canceled the meetings. “I remember the moment very well,” says Randy Mastro, the deputy mayor for operations at the time. “Rudy said, ‘No, I’m not going to meet with Al Sharpton, and my police commissioner is not going to meet with Al Sharpton.’ ” The NOI leaders came back the next day. They got their meetings. Don Muhammad, a mosque leader, sounded placated. “We do not wish to be seen as persons disrespectful of the law,” he told the Times.

Next up, the squeegee men. Considering that most city residents didn’t drive, sure, maybe they became a somewhat outsize symbol. Giuliani mentioned them constantly during his campaign appearances in 1993 as an emblem of the narcolepsy of acceptance that Moynihan had spoken about. It was difficult to defend a group of men who, no matter how down on their luck, forced their services (which as often as not made car windshields dirtier rather than cleaner) on captive motorists.

But it wasn’t so much that people defended them—although a handful of civil libertarians did, of course. It was more that most people didn’t think the city could really get rid of them. We knew how this worked. They’d just hide for a few days, go somewhere else; if the heat was on at the Triboro ramp, they’d relocate to the 59th Street Bridge. When it hit 59th Street, there was always the Williamsburg. And so on, and so on. It was one of those games of urban whack-a-mole to which there was no end. Just another part of the cover charge of living in New York.

But it turned out there was an end, and, incredibly, a pretty quick one. Once the police finally dug into the matter, they figured out that there were only about 75 or so squeegee men. As Peter Powers, Giuliani’s old friend and first deputy mayor during those early years, joked to me recently, “We found out they were a pretty small union.” They were gone in about a month’s time. Something had gone strangely right. People, however tentatively, started whispering that maybe New York was governable, at least around the edges. “It was very visible,” says Powers, “and it didn’t cost us a lot.”

All right, symbolic measures are one thing. Even first-term governors of Alaska can be adept at those. But governing means, well, governing—digging in to policy, mastering the details, and making sound decisions. Sharpton and squeegees aside, the big bear that Giuliani’s team had to wrestle to the ground in those first weeks was fiscal: a $2.3 billion budget deficit, out of an operating budget that was at the time around $31 billion. More than half of that $31 billion was untouchable—either mandated by lawsuit to be spent on the poor and other services, or city contributions to federal and state programs that couldn’t be cut without risking the matching funding. You see the problem.

“We had found out the size of the deficit during transition,” Powers says. “And we had a month to get a budget in.” So here was a brand-new government, with brand-new commissioners and agency heads, just learning about their departments even as they had to decide how to cut them. The city, of course, has to balance its budget by law. The monitors put in place after the seventies fiscal crisis, and the bond raters, waited like high priests to pass judgment.