New York Review

Herschel Post

  • The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment by Charles Morris
    Norton, 256 pp, £8.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 393 01339 1

There was a time when New York was a model to which other cities aspired. In more recent years, it has shared in the malaise that has struck most of the big cities of the central and eastern United States, and outsiders have come to look at it with a mixture of fascination and discomfort. The near-bankruptcy of the largest self-governing city in the industrialised world was certainly a circus worth watching, and, as many other American cities soon discovered, it could not be watched disinterestedly. The aversion of investors for bonds and notes issued by New York City soon spread to debt instruments issued by other city and state governments. It became all too obvious that this was not a circus, but a disease and that it was contagious.

Today, six years after New York’s financial crisis was precipitated by the refusal of the major New York City banks to underwrite one of the City’s routine bond issues, New York’s prospects seem healthier, and the lessons to be learned from its fiscal tightrope act seem more appropriate for less developed countries struggling with international bankers than for big cities elsewhere in the industrialised world. New York’s fiscal problems were seen to have arisen, however, at least in part because of the efforts of the City Government to deal with the social and economic problems that beset this city in the decade beginning in the mid-Sixties, and these problems and the solutions applied to them have a special relevance to the economic and racial problems of the major cities of the United Kingdom. The vast amount of publicity given to New York’s financial difficulties, and to the quite separate issue of crime on the streets, has largely obscured New York’s achievements in one area that is of crucial interest in this country today.

Between 1963 and 1968, there were serious riots in cities across the United States. In the earlier part of the period, New York seemed to be just as susceptible to them as any other city, perhaps more so. Its deteriorating neighbourhoods, overwhelmingly populated by minority groups suffering from very high levels of unemployment, seemed to be inevitable riot centres. Yet during the two worst years of American riots, 1967 and 1968, there were no riots in New York City. Nor has there been a riot in New York City since. That is certainly an achievement, but in itself hardly a prescription.

There is little enough agreement on why riots erupt: virtually nothing is offered on why, in communities where problems of crowding, poverty and racial tension are endemic, riots do not start. New York may not have found the preventive cure for rioting, but it was clear in those tumultuous long hot summers of the late Sixties that the City Government and the New York Police were doing something right. It is easy to forget that John Lindsay, still burdened with one of the most harshly negative public reputations among American political figures, was hailed in 1968 as the politician of the future, the man who had kept the city cool and who offered hope that the liberal experiment for the renaissance of the inner city could succeed. The ambitions certainly exceeded the achievements, but the achievements were tangible, and they are worth looking at.

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