Twenty years ago, cities seemed to be on the way out in America — and New York City was a prime example. The first and most pressing issue was crime. Remember New York in 1990: More than six people a day lost their lives to violence. Along with those 2,262 murders — an all-time high — came rape, assault, burglary, auto theft and other crime. Some inner-city neighborhoods were like war zones, with nightly drive-by shootings and police nowhere to be seen. New Yorkers grew accustomed to barring their windows and looking nervously over their shoulders. The same was true of residents in most other American cities.
Disorder was equally pervasive. In New York, aggressive panhandlers shook down pedestrians on corner after corner, parks were homeless encampments and graffiti scrawled its ugliness over everything. And nothing could be done about any of this urban pathology, the experts said, short of some kind of radical transformation of American life — the crime and disorder were understandable responses to an uncaring, selfish society.
Yet “uncaring” was a wildly implausible charge. Since the 1960s, most cities had become vast welfare agencies, providing cradle-to-grave services to the poor. Instead of helping the poor advance, however, the municipal welfare state caged them in dependency. By the 1990s, welfare rolls had reached more than 1 million in New York City.
To help pay for these services, taxes skyrocketed, harming urban economies already challenged by the post-industrial era. Businesses fled, as did many residents. Cities increasingly became handout-seeking wards of the federal government.
Declining schools were another big problem. New York City’s schools had once been excellent, helping generations of immigrants assimilate into their new country. By the 1990s, though, many schools in New York and other cities were bureaucratic failures, dominated by trendy but unproven pedagogy, ineffective teachers impossible to fire and student brutality. Minority kids suffered the most, dropping out in droves, while teachers’ unions resisted reforms.
Small wonder so many people gave up on cities. But 20 years ago, City Journal — the magazine I now edit — rejected the idea that the urban crisis was inevitable. Change the policies, and cities could thrive.
And in New York, it happened. During the 1990s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani implemented many ideas championed by City Journal. On the crime front, the magazine was an early advocate of George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s “Broken Windows” theory, which holds that if a city allows beggars, hookers and pushers to conquer public space, graver crime will follow, since the authorities are sending a message that no one is in charge.
Crack down on quality-of-life infractions and potential wrongdoers hear the opposite message, that someone is watching. After Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, adopted this approach and combined it with key managerial and accountability reforms, crime began to plummet, with murders down 56 percent in six years and all felony crime dropping even more.
Giuliani introduced welfare reform too — cutting welfare rolls from 1.1 million when he took office to 462,000 when he left. And he began to make the city more business-friendly, among other changes that City Journal had long promoted. The result was one of the greatest public policy successes of our times — the rebirth of Gotham.
The city has maintained these policy changes under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his top cop, Ray Kelly, who has driven crime to historic lows. And as City Journal has documented over the years, other cities that eventually adopted similar policies saw gains as well.
We would like to think that the next 20 years will be a time when the urban-reform movement extends its gains further still and the 21st-century city comes into its own as a place where freedom flourishes, crime is low, commerce and culture blossom, and all families can send their kids to good schools — and that the ideas developed in City Journal will help bring about that future.
Brian Anderson is the editor of City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s quarterly magazine. This article is adapted from the forthcoming 20th anniversary issue of the publication.