home page / Drifting from Erie, toward Ontario

By Henry J. Stern
September 22, 2002

    Today is the first day of autumn.  September is a month of fresh starts, the return from summer vacations, the beginning of the academic year, the early Jewish New Year, the welcome onset of decent weather after a hot, muggy summer.
    City government has been relatively quiescent as well, except for the turnover at the Board of Education, a phrase that will linger even though the board is defunct.  The new chancellor is lodged at the old Tweed courthouse, a symbol of municipal waste and corruption. I wrote about him on August 12.

     The underlying problem remains, that we are passengers on a ship heading toward Niagara Falls.  Something drastic will happen when we reach the cataract (not the one in the eye), but nothing much will be said about it until after the November 5 election.
    One gets the sense of a so far slowly rising tide of lawlessness in the city.  The homeless are more aggressive, why not, they have a State Supreme Court Justice running the city agency that has jurisdiction, threatening to jail commissioners, mandating unfunded and unattainable solutions because, the more attractive and rewarding the judge makes it to claim homelessness, the more people will so declare themselves.
    The word is out that the Giuliani days are over, and that there is a new tolerance of all kinds of public deviancy and misbehavior.  The reopening of semi-public sex clubs, described vividly in the weekly newspapers, indicates what to some is the end of repression and to others the end of civility and decency. 
    The rise in panhandling is usually accompanied by an increase in aggressive behavior by people who want other people’s money.  I had such an experience on my own block for the first time in forty years; suspect others have had similar experiences, generally not reported to the police.  The brutal murder of an elderly pharmacist in his store at 94th Street and Madison Avenue was reported very briefly, the man had the misfortune to have been stabbed to death on the morning of September 11, when the media were preoccupied downtown.

    This is not the fault of Mayor Bloomberg, who deplores crime as much as you and I.
He does not blame society, excuse the criminal, and look for ‘root causes’, as a number of his predecessors did, to a greater or lesser extent.  But more than attitude is needed.
    The Mayor must show, by his daily words and actions, that public safety is his first priority, that he is involved with the police, that public misbehavior will not be tolerated and that Mayor Giuliani’s war on crime will continue, with renewed intensity.  Good guys often have to be tough in fighting bad guys, if they want to win and keep the peace.
(See Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’)
    The City Council continues to set new lows in irrelevance.  The decent and talented Speaker, Gifford Miller, has done all he can  to prevent some of his charges from making fools of themselves. If his principal rival had won the speakership, New York City would now be disgraced by having its Council Speaker in jail.  Much of the legislation introduced is narrow and sectarian, not relevant to the quality of life of New Yorkers or the efficiency and productivity of city government.  Some are worthwhile, like Councilmember David Yassky’s work with regard to the waterfront.
    A note on funding, when I became a Councilmember on January 1, 1974 the salary was $20,000 and the staff allowance was $7500 per year.  Today Councilmembers are paid $90,000, an increase of 350 per cent.  The staff allowance is now over $241,000, an increase of over 3100 per cent.  Can anyone say that the quality of the Councilmembers or their legislative output has improved.
    As the late Daniel Wolf, co-founder (in 1955) of the Village Voice, wrote many years ago:  “This city can be an extraordinary place to live, but only if people of imagination, courage and an urban outlook are put in positions of power.”
    One can never give up on New York, its government has improved over the years, there a far fewer outright thieves in office, in recent administrations more appointments have been made on the basis of merit.  We have a mayor who is honest, dedicated and competent, who knows as much as anyone does who became involved with city government as a second career.  But didn’t General Eisenhower do that?
    Reformers have always looked for a white knight to be mayor; someone outside politics and its inevitable compromises, a new broom, a fresh and vital approach to local government.  We should be grateful to have been prodded, albeit with the help of seventy-three million dollars, to have reached this plateau.  But the nature of reform involves constant complaint, so we say truthfully that there is still enormous room for improvement in both the formulation of public policy and the delivery of public services.

    That is why I write these articles, and why I am grateful that you read them, and hopefully pass them on to others.  Together we can find ways to improve city government.  I look forward to your involvement with this effort.   You can help by letting me know what you think. With the miracle of e-mail, it is free and relatively simple to talk back.  Don’t worry about grammar or eloquence; it is your ideas that are important.
    But do think quickly, since the current is gradually becoming swifter.  Before we reach Grand Island and Horseshoe Falls, let us have some idea of what our city is going to do about its social and fiscal problems.    We don’t want America’s Mayor to have to watch the fulfillment of the prophesy of Madame de Pompadour, intimate of King Louis XV, who said “Apres nous, le deluge”.

Henry J. Stern is the director of NYCivic.