New York on the Eve of 2005
One day in late October I was feeling terribly uncomfortable—compulsively scratching a red rash that had painfully spread all over my body from a drug I took during a heart exam. Desiring some diversion I decided to go with my wife to a museum on the Upper East Side near Fifth Avenue and Central Park. It was a chill morning—the sun wanly peering through a chalky-gray sky—and a strong wind blowing autumnal-colored leaves off the park’s trees. I sat down on a bench where I could observe the usual New York street dramas taking place, and a variety of social types pass by me.
Pondering the scene lifted me outside my own physical discomfort, and I forgot all about my blotched body. For even the streets in this wealthy, white urban enclave—one that reeks of class privilege and separation—were far from monochromatic— the Upper East Side’s supposedly decorous street life being more variable than one would imagine.
Still, you couldn’t help but be aware that the black and Hispanic maintenance people in work clothes and home-care aides dressed in white who work in the area had much less social status, clout, and income than the well dressed, older white couples who entered the museum and the self-confident, backpack-carrying private-school teenagers noisily coming home from class nearby. The former were people who only served the area’s inhabitants. They never could afford to shop in the faux British upper class Ralph Lauren flagship shop, and other gleaming, expensive boutiques like Armani. Nor live in the stately town houses (with their balustrades and pediments); or for that matter, the apartment houses—the handsome old ones—or the newer, pedestrian, box-like, luxury apartment buildings that dominate the neighborhood.
But noting the inequity of the city’s social arrangements and power had little effect on the aesthetic pleasure I felt from the experience. (What is pleasurable or beautiful doesn’t often coincide with what is socially just.) I took delight in the dynamic movement and variety of people who streamed past. In the midst of my distress, the flow and look of the city, as is its wont, served to calm me and I felt, for the moment, at one with the world.
These reactions to the city were subjective—my own— though the glamour and affluence of the Upper East Side would be striking to any casual visitor and likely thought representative of New York. And indeed as we near the end of 2004, the city, if not thriving, seems to have fully recovered now from the economic after-effects of 9/11.
For example, unemployment in October in the city was 6.1% in contrast to 8.3% unemployment in October 2003—job gains being made in education, health, professional, hospitality, and business services. And trade through the Port Of New York, which was shrinking a decade ago, has seen a rate of growth— a 65 percent increase in overall container traffic since 1998 — that has been nearly twice the national average.
Crime remains on the wane, with the murder rate continuing its steady decline. Of the 1,010 people slain in New York from Jan.1, 2003 to Sept. 26, 2004 (nearly two years) four out of five had criminal records, and 79% knew their killers. What this means is that the chance of being a random crime victim has been radically reduced. Of course, New York has not suddenly become a non-violent Eden. We just had our car stolen one evening in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood. School crime also continues to increase (the school system remaining recalcitrant to all of the Bloomberg administration’s energetic attempts at reform). Still, the city’s streets are clearly more secure.
But the general sense that the city is on the upturn has given Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s voter approval rating a rise, with 49% of respondents in a recent Quinnipiac University poll saying that he's doing a good job. New Yorkers seem to credit billionaire Bloomberg with the managerial gifts to make good things happen. A more charismatic and lovable candidate may have a chance of beating Bloomberg in the next election, but he will also have to convince the public that he won’t be overwhelmed by the city’s complexity.
Bloomberg doesn’t ever get too ruffled. So in confronting an unpopular transit fare hike, a projected $3.8 billion budget deficit for the coming fiscal year, and the negotiation of expired police, firefighters and teacher union contracts—he conveys the feeling that it all can be handled.
There is also the issue of the far West Side renewal and the financing of the Jet Stadium—two proposals that are intertwined. The rezoning of the area has been approved by the City Council, but the stadium remains an increasingly divisive part of the plan; with criticisms of possible cost overruns, and evidence that stadiums don’t lead to urban revitalization.
New York is never devoid of problems. In fact, the number of people going hungry in the city has risen over the past year. But for the moment, we seem to be muddling through. Though who can predict what conflagration or social and economic emergency may erupt a week or a month from now? L. Quart