New York City's Ailment-Curing Prescription

America’s largest city shares lessons in urban renewal.
by | January 2011

Richard Ravitch and Brian Anderson have very little in common, with the possible exception of having a legitimate claim, each in his own way, to having saved New York City.

Ravitch is the old-school liberal New York state lieutenant governor who leaves office this month. Anderson is the editor of the free-market, center-right City Journal, which recently began its third decade of chronicling ideas of new urbanism.

Ravitch played an instrumental role in preventing the city’s insolvency 35 years ago. “The ramifications of bankruptcy for New York were so unimaginable that it became a very serious impetus for reform,” he says. Even at that, Ravitch concedes that the politicians of the day “did just enough to avoid it.”

Fifteen years later, the city was in crisis again -- this time less fiscal than social and cultural. That created an opening for the Manhattan Institute to launch City Journal to diagnose what Anderson calls an “urban pathology” and begin prescribing cures to what ailed America’s largest city.

The premise behind the Journal was simple, Anderson says: “Change policies and cities could thrive.” To those ends, it invested editorially in four primary policy areas -- crime control and protecting civic public spaces from disorder; reducing welfare dependency; improving urban public schools; and lowering tax rates and easing regulation -- by attracting leading conservative thinkers who had developed the big ideas of the day.

All of this was not without controversy. Criminologist George Kelling wrote about his “broken windows” theory, which holds that the appearance of disorder begets actual disorder. The theory was criticized for its effect on aesthetics (the so-called Disneyfication of Times Square), and came under scrutiny from center-left criminologists who linked it to racial bias. “I have always found that an implausible argument,” Anderson says in defense of the Journal’s stance that there’s a “connection between lower-level crime and more serious crime.”

Writers for the Journal mattered, but no more than those who read it -- including a thenmayoral candidate named Rudy Giuliani. In short order, the Journal became known as “the place where Rudy gets his ideas” -- ideas that enjoy continued currency under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Anderson says the quarterly schedule suited their purposes of “thick reporting and wonky stuff.” And the original four pillars held until a fall day in 2001, when an

attack redefined the city and placed counterterrorism in the center of the new urbanism agenda.

The Journal’s influence has been disproportionate to its small-scale print circulation. Its reach has been extended through the Internet to millions of readers -- through its own site and opinion-leading blogs -- and its reporting adapted by major daily papers, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Anderson says the ideas that contributed to New York City’s rebirth resonated in Southern California, home of the Journal’s largest online audience, and where “in the inverse situation to New York, bad policy wrecked something really good.”

Looking forward, Anderson is focused on another handful of issues that will determine urban futures in cities large and small. First, get control of city finances and shed overextended pension commitments to “bring costs in line with reality.” Second, build on the success of a “relative handful of really good urban schools” to make progress on education, which he calls the “area of urban reform that’s very stubborn in terms of how little progress we have made.” Third, make “smart [community] policing” the norm, which “becomes a trigger for further economic success” because “young, talented people will want to live in your cities.” And finally, on the economy, “Encourage entrepreneurial people, and you’re going to have very successful cities.”

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