At first I thought it was the weather. Manhattan looks particularly filthy in the rain – plastic bags catch in the trees; grey scum collects around puddles and sticks to passers-by. But this time, it wasn’t just the rain. Rubbish had accumulated in the side streets. Construction sites that were there when I visited last autumn stood untouched, their orange sheeting now torn and smutty. But it was the graffiti that struck me. In the days when Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken-windows” theory ruled New York, shop owners, building supers, even the transit authorities, had painted over graffiti every time it appeared – until finally the gangs decided it was just too much hassle to tag their territory. Now, the graffiti was back, covering mailboxes and phone booths.
This was my first visit home to New York in months. But for the past year, since I moved to London, I had become something of a professional New Yorker. Whenever there was a big crime or quality-of-life story in the press, I would pop up to beat London over the head with Giuliani’s well-ordered New York.
Now I have realised that my ideal New York has gone.
Michael Bloomberg’s Big Apple is nothing to brag about. I left the city shortly after the new mayor took office, and Manhattan was still buzzing with the defiant pride and energy that kept the city alive after 11 September 2001. Giuliani forced New Yorkers not to cave in. We could be angry, sure, but not scared, not whiny – heaven forbid that we see ourselves as victims. There was a manic quality to the first month after the attacks: get back to restaurants; get on the subways; fly; clean up Ground Zero in record time – anything to show that you couldn’t stop New York or New Yorkers. I have never been prouder of the city.
Bloomberg has destroyed, in 18 months, what Giuliani created in eight years. My city is now shrunken, its mood self-pitying and pessimistic. Bloomberg did what al-Qaeda couldn’t achieve: he dampened New York’s spirit. To be fair, Bloomberg stepped into a tough job. Giuliani had seen the city through the immediate devastation of 9/11; Bloomberg would have to manage the long-term economic consequences.
In January 2002, when he took office, no one could know how badly 9/11 would affect the economy, nor how long the inevitable downturn would last. With the unprecedented destruction of ten million square feet of prime office space, 9/11 displaced many of the city’s (and the world’s) major corporations. It bankrupted the small businesses that serviced the World Trade Center and emptied the surrounding neighbourhoods – Chinatown, Little Italy, Soho, Tribeca – all tourist destinations that brought revenue into the city. Moreover, Wall Street, New York City’s main industry, was already weakened by recession. Not exactly an ideal economic situation for a new mayor.
Though no one had a magic solution, at least economists could agree on what not to do – and so, it appeared, could Bloomberg. He ran for mayor asserting, in the New York Times, that “you cannot raise taxes. If you raise taxes you will drive enough people and business out of the city [so that] your total tax revenue over a period of time would probably decline rather than go up.”
Then, for no apparent reason, Bloomberg did an about-face. I returned to his second budget and to a city at war with its mayor. The Wall Street Journal had just published an article, signed by New York’s most prominent business mavens and by the former governor Hugh Carey, damning Bloomberg’s economic policy.
Bloomberg’s total tax increases equal almost $3bn, including an extra $700m in new taxes. He has raised property taxes by 18.5 per cent – meaning not only that every homeowner and renter will pay more on their house, but that big businesses, those which rent more than 500,000 square feet of office space, will each face $1m higher costs. Our businesses already pay $9.91 in annual property tax per square foot, compared to Los Angeles’s $3. Now there is no financial incentive for the 9/11 corporate refugees to return, and every reason for even more to flee. Income taxes will also rise in next year’s budget. Bloomberg has raised annual water rates by 5.5 per cent – the average homeowner will now pay $27 more per month. He’s increased the rent on government subsidised housing by 8.5 per cent, the biggest rise since 1989. He has even raised sales tax to 8.625 per cent on every dollar – this in a city with one of the highest sales taxes in the country, and the only city with both a sales tax and an income tax. Despite all these tax hikes, Bloomberg has hinted that New Yorkers might have to make do with fewer public services. Hence the rubbish-filled side streets and slowed construction.
Bloomberg has also closed those of New York’s outer-borough fire stations that he deemed non-essential. For many New Yorkers, this was the last straw: there were protests at each station – with Steve Buscemi, the fireman hero of 9/11 – and the New York Post launched a campaign, detailing where each firefighter whose station had been closed was on 9/11, and how many of his buddies had died for the city.
The numbers only confirm what I saw on the streets and sensed in New Yorkers’ moods. Roses at my local Korean greengrocer are now $19.95, up from $9.95 last year; such price hikes are the only way small business owners can meet the soaring property taxes. Three shops on my walk to the park are boarded up. The hardware store is having a “going out of business sale” – and these signs are vying to be to 2003 what American flags were to 2001: the dominant street decoration. The Cafe des Artistes, where I usually have to book a table weeks in advance, was half empty. And the mood was grim. Crossing the street in Midtown, I saw an unfamiliar scene: a young man in a backwards baseball cap, hooded sweatshirt and low-hanging jeans balled up his McDonald’s burger wrapper, glowered at the suited businessman walking towards him, and hurled the rubbish in his face, never once looking away.
At their best, New Yorkers were a confident, even arrogant, lot. It’s the “I’m living in the capital of the world” attitude that gave Manhattan its buzz. Now, there is something infinitely depressing about New Yorkers without their trademark swagger. A woman from my building whined peevishly, on one of the city’s perfect spring days, “This must seem like a dump compared to London, like the bottom of the barrel.”
But what is really driving New Yorkers crazy is Bloomberg’s other scheme to raise money: the ticketing blitz. For the fiscal year 2004, which begins in July 2003, Bloomberg has predicted that the city will bring in $662m in revenue from fines, up by $205m, or 45 per cent, in two years. Under Giuliani, between 1998 and 2001, the city’s ticketing revenues grew by only $20m, or 5 per cent, in four years. To see what this means to New Yorkers, simply look at a list from the New York Daily News‘s campaign: fines for feeding pigeons in the park, $50. For driving over a garden hose: $50. For sitting on a milk crate (because apparently they aren’t to be used by anyone but the milk retailers and wholesalers): $50. For throwing away newspapers in a cardboard box, instead of tying them into a bundle: $25. For sitting on the subway stairs (even though the woman in question was pregnant): $50. For coasting downhill on a bicycle, with your feet off the pedals: $50. For taking up two seats on the subway: $50. And this doesn’t include the smoking ban and subsequent fines.
The list is endless, and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has just launched a $100,000 advertising campaign, called “Don’t blame the cop”. Bloomberg has aped Giuliani’s “quality of life” language as he has turned the police force into a shakedown agency, squeezing New Yorkers for every penny they’re worth. Indeed, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, told the New York Times recently: “We’re concerned that the city is trying to turn the Police Department into a revenue-generating agency.” In the process, the mayor has demoralised the police and made law-abiding citizens feel like criminals: to them, the laws and cops exist not to protect, but to exploit them.
Bloomberg has diverted the cops to ticketing duty; they neglect the business of policing. They can’t catch the kids in my neighbourhood who spray graffiti, who deal drugs, harass women, or smoke dope in public. And all the signs are that the city is slipping back to pre-Giuliani anarchy. The ghetto blasters, gone since the 1980s, are back, and the aggressive panhandling. One man – either schizophrenic or doped to the gills – followed me into a restaurant, yelling and gesturing threateningly. Chelsea, home to the city’s hippest galleries, is experiencing a mini crime wave. Serious crime has increased 36 per cent overall since last spring, with robbery up 52 per cent, grand larceny up 71 per cent and rape up a staggering 250 per cent. In my neighbourhood, the Upper West Side, there hasn’t yet been a dramatic rise in the figures, but anecdotal evidence suggests there soon will be. A block from my house, a man was pulled into a car by a gang of youths, driven to the nearest ATM machine and forced to clean out his savings and chequing account at gunpoint. This was in broad daylight.
My visit fell on Memorial Day weekend, and on that Monday I walked cheerfully through Riverside Park to show my British friend the beautiful monument to New York’s civil war dead. It was covered with graffiti – all up and down the Ionic columns, on the steps of the monument, the stand of the flagpost, the benches, on the inscription to the dead. We’ve gone from a city that lays flowers at its monuments to a city that vandalises them. At the rate Bloomberg’s New York is disintegrating, any 9/11 memorial we actually manage to build will be covered in graffiti within days.