amNY series: 1970s rerun? Fiscal crisis reviving urban fears
With the economy in free fall, amNewYork examines how the budget crisis might impact the city's quality of life. This is the first of a three-day series
Could this be 1974 all over again?
Thats not quite as crazy as it sounds. A number of troubling indicators has some New Yorkers worried about a 1970s rerun, and most of the problems disturbingly predate the recent Wall Street meltdown.
Crime has flared up in certain neighborhoods, shelters report a record number of newly homeless families and complaints about graffiti have soared. The big wild card, of course, is the impact of the growing fiscal crisis.
In 1974, the city was similarly beginning to realize the extent of its problems, said Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has been sounding the alarm.
It gradually dawned on New Yorkers that they were faced with a severe fiscal crisis, and that solutions were not all apparent, Martin recalled.
Back then, municipal bankruptcy was barely averted, 600,000 jobs evaporated, city services collapsed and many fled.
The Bloomberg administration insists history will not repeat itself. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has embraced the challenge, so much so that he successfully overturned term limits in a bid to stay on."Were still going to keep our streets safe, were still going to keep our streets clean, the mayor said on his radio show last Friday.
While several observers see his leadership as key, others worry his prescription to cover the $4 billion budget shortfall which includes raising taxes and cutting the next police class could do harm.
We have yet to see the impact and the effects of the cutbacks in the police class, said
Councilwoman Letitia James, whose Brooklyn district has seen a spate of violence. It is definitely a concern of mine.
Underscoring that 1970s fear, observers agree the city needs three things: low crime, basic services and reliable infrastructure.
Its clearly too early to know how bad this is going to be, said Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future. The recession of the mid 70s ended up being extremely deep ... People left the city because they didnt have jobs and that led to empty neighborhoods and crime increases and disinvestment.
Unlike 1974, Bowles sees a lot of positive signs about New York safety, improved schools and the positive view of city life. Still, he said, the sheer number of job losses that could happen could spell real problems for neighborhoods across the city.
But heres a vital difference: The problems of the 1970s were far more complicated, partly the result of poor fiscal management.
In the 70s the city was in decline. In fact, even as early as the 1950s everyone was predicting that the city not just New York but all cities were really doomed, said Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University professor and editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City.
Signs of trouble
Crime remains historically low, but there are pockets of trouble, including Staten Island, which as of two weeks ago was the only borough where overall crime is up about 1 percent. Gun violence has roiled the area around South Jamaica, where crime is up almost 9 percent.
Bloomberg has said Commissioner Ray Kelly has effectively policed the city, even with several thousand fewer cops. If we were to have a crime wave that he couldnt cope with, you can rest assured he and I would have a quick conversation and wed find a way to divert resources to that, the mayor said recently.
But Martin says the city needs to focus more on quality of life and get more cops on the beat.
Our sidewalks are mess, streets are a mess, theres dirt all over the place, quality-of-life offenses are clearly going up, theres graffiti all over the place, theres awful acid vandalism that one sees increasingly in the subway, Martin said.
Ryan Nerz, 34, of Fort Greene, wonders whats next. If theres any dread, its that it can only go down from here, he said.
One comfort is that crime neednt necessarily follow economic declines. But the opposite can happen: The 1980s saw an economic boom, yet crime soared, Jackson noted.
Strong mayoral and City Council leadership is seen as key. Bowles praised Bloombergs leadership, and Jackson describes the mayor as simply the best option we have right now.
Still, 1974 is never far from mind, as is the one indisputable link between then and now: Unease.
We dont know whats going to happen. A lot of people in the fiscal crisis of the 1970s left New York, Martin said. I hope that doesnt happen this time. That would be catastrophic.
Marlene Naanes and Amanda Magnus contributed to this report.
CRIME WATCH While crime remains at historic lows in 2008, certain categories are up from last year, and parts of the city have seen troubling flare-ups:
Murder: up 6%
Rape: up 1.4%
Robbery: up 1.7%
Felony assault: down 8.1%
Burglary: down 6.5%
Grand larceny: down 2.4%
Grand larceny auto: down 4.4%
Crime overall: down 3.4%
This borough has seen an increase in key categories:
Murder: up 100 %
Rape: up 34.1 %
Robbery: up 1.5%
Grand larceny: up 3.3%
Crime overall: down .34%
123rd Precinct: (South Shore)
The local community board cites population increases as a reason for the spike.
Robbery: up 73.6%
Burglary: up 18.1%
Grand larceny auto: up 18.1%
Crime overall: up 3.59%
Murder: up 68.4%
Grand larceny: up 3.3%
Crime overall: down 1.52%
Robbery: up 5%
Grand larceny auto: up 1.5%
Overall crime: down 3.75%
111th Precinct: (Bayside, Douglaston, Little Neck, Auburndale, Hollis Hills and Fresh Meadows)
Robbery: up 15.2%
Grand larceny: up 9.2%
Grand larceny auto: up 9.9%
Crime overall: up 1.58%
Murder: up 3.6%
Rape: up 6.8%
Robbery: up 4.7%
Crime overall: down 3.3%
Murder: up 29.5%
Robbery: up 9.8%
Crime overall: down 2.25%
72nd Precinct: (Sunset Park and Windsor Terrace)
Grand larceny auto: up 34%
Crime overall: up .78%
47th Precinct: (Woodlawn, Wakefield, Williamsbridge, Baychester, Edenwald, Olinville and Fishbay)
Robbery: up 32.9%
Grand larceny auto: up 1.3%
Crime overall: up 3.44%
A glance at the series:
Could the city revert to its 1970s nadir? We look at the challenges the city faces to stay safe and livable amid signs of trouble that predate this unprecedented fiscal crisis.
Columnist Ellis Henican ponders several uncomfortable reminders of the last time the worlds greatest city really was in undeniable decline.
A Q&A with legendary journalist Jimmy Breslin, who has seen New York at its worst and its best.
Crime and quality of life: How bad is it out there? We look at the numbers.
While overall crime is down, parts of the city are seeing frightening spikes. Should we be worried and what do these spikes really mean?
How will the economic slowdown impact the city's quality of life? Observers see keeping graffiti in check and streets clean as essential parts of the mission to preserve 15 years of gains.
A Q&A with Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, who has noticed several signs of trouble.
As record numbers of newly homeless families check into city shelters, a likely symptom of a weakening economy, observers are asking how much worse the problem might get.
A Q&A with Barbara Corcoran, the real-estate maven who got her start during New York's bad old days.