There was former governor Hugh Carey, playfully sparring with real-estate baron Lew Rudin over who got the city out of debt first. There was Ed Koch, a congressman back in 1975, recalling how no one in Washington would accept that New York couldn’t pay its bills: “It was like someone coming out of a concentration camp and saying, ‘They’re killing people!’ and no one believing them.” And there were Schuyler Chapin, Richard Ravitch, C. Virginia Fields, Samuel LeFrak, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. – all looking on as labor macher Victor Gotbaum praised the city’s blue-blood and blue-collar worlds for joining forces to ride out New York’s great fiscal crisis. “We found each other,” Gotbaum said, “and it was nothing short of brilliant.”
For many who endured it, the fiscal crisis lives on as New York’s own private Alamo – a watershed moment when the city came together to fight insolvency. And so at last week’s breakfast celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Citizens Committee for New York City – the nonprofit that was born of the fiscal crisis – talk shifted easily to the good old bad old days. “This is kind of like Old-Timers’ Day with the Yankees,” former Chemical Bank chief John McGillicuddy said. Citizens Committee chairman Osborn Elliott, a former deputy to Mayor Abe Beame, saw it more romantically as a reunion of “warriors who dwelt at the precipice a quarter of a century ago.”
In the city’s darkest hour, the committee, the creation of then-senator Jacob Javits, recruited thousands of volunteers to join neighborhood associations. Some actually filled vacant city jobs for no pay. The accomplishment harks back to a time when community activism meant more than closing a porno theater or boycotting a big retailer – it meant helping clean the streets and setting up security patrols. “What times we lived through back then – scary, challenging, exhilarating,” Elliott said.
In the warm glow of nostalgia, even Gerald Ford, the legendary bad guy of the crisis, got off easy. “Gerry never said ‘Drop dead’ to New York City in any form,” Carey insisted. Eventually, Ford gave New York a loan, insisting first that Carey personally guarantee it. Now even that debt has become the stuff of legend. “Once upon a time,” Carey said with a grin, “I was worth $3.6 billion.”