The Prince of the City:
Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life
by Fred Siegel
(Encounter Books, 320 pages, $26.95)
A FEW YEARS AGO my son played football at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. On orientation night they showed parents a TV news clip of how the team had to travel each day to an East River park for practice.
As the players disembarked from the bus, the camera panned around, catching sight of heroin addicts shooting up and drug dealers casually closing deals on park benches. “We often have a tough time getting out of here,” remarked one player. “Gangs have attacked the bus with rocks.”
Wait, what was happening? Was this the New York we knew? Then I realized what was going on. This news clip had been made about ten years ago, before Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York. In those days, open drug dealing and mini-riots in public parks were a normal part of life.
Prince of the City is Fred Siegel’s finely detailed, nearly reverent account of how one man — and one man alone — turned around the greatest city in the world and proved that American cities could once again be habitable.
It is hard to remember how low New York’s fortunes had sunk in 1992 and how rapidly they were going from bad to worse. Murders had topped 2,000 per year, drug dealing was a public activity, squeegee men assaulted drivers coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel, Mayor David Dinkins had allowed an anti-Semitic riot to “vent” in Crown Heights for two days before his police commissioner finally seized the initiative and put a stop to it — and that wasn’t the half of it.
Under Dinkins and former Governor Mario Cuomo, New York had tried to tax its way out of the 1991 recession, losing 330,000 jobs in the process — one out of every four job losses in the country. Private enterprise was headed for the exits. Unemployment was at 11 percent. One of every five New Yorkers worked directly for the New York City government and another one in five worked for the non-profits and social services industries that survive on government handouts. And that didn’t count the one in six residents (1.2 million people) on welfare. When Time ran a 1990 cover story, “The Rotting of the Big Apple,” no one put up a fuss.
What did Giuliani have going for him when voters desperately turned to him by a thin 52-48 percent majority in 1993? Absolutely nothing. He had no party (there were only three Republicans on the City Council), he had no unions, and he had no organized constituency. All he had was his own remarkable executive skills honed in his years as a federal prosecutor, his stubborn independence, his inexhaustible capacity for work (he regularly prowled the city until 4 a.m.), his years spent in immersing himself in the details of local government — and a fountainhead of ideas coming from conservative scholars at the Manhattan Institute, which played a largely unheralded role in the Giuliani-led Renaissance.
By now everyone knows the story of how Giuliani adopted James Q. Wilson and George Kelling’s “Broken Windows” theory, undoing 30 years of liberal damage to the justice system and rolling the clock all the way back to 1965 when murders numbered only 600 a year. (With three times the population, New York now has fewer murders than Chicago.) The squeegee men were gone in a week. (There turned out to be only about 60 of them.) Turnstile-hopping was halted. (In some subway stations, almost half the riders weren’t paying.)
Then, just as predicted, the re-establishment of public order drove crime off the streets and gave public spaces back to law-abiding citizens. Sidewalk traffic increased, businesses flourished. The biggest renaissance was on Harlem’s 125th Street, where a commercial strip that didn’t have a single grocery store or movie theater in 1994 now boasts Disney, Sony, Magic Johnson Theaters, Pathmark, The Gap, Cineplex Odeon, Barnes & Noble — and the offices of Bill Clinton.
That was just the part that made national headlines. Beneath the radar, Giuliani was taking on each and every one of the city’s vast, overwhelming battalions of interest groups and public-spending beneficiaries, telling them that the old days were over. The police were demonstrating every day outside City Hall in response to Giuliani’s budget cuts.
When Giuliani decided to break the Genovese family’s stranglehold on the Fulton Fish Market, his commissioner of business services, Rudy Washington, and deputy chief of police, Wilbur Chapman — protected by 60 young cops — ended up literally backed against a wall by angry union members wielding fish hooks. Washington and Chapman had to draw their guns to fend off disaster.
When Al Sharpton’s anti-Semitic protest against a Harlem clothing storeowner led to a deranged protester setting a fire that killed eight people, Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel blamed the whole thing on Giuliani because he had criticized Sharpton.
In one memorable vignette drawn by Siegel, Giuliani returns from a weary day of battling interest groups all over the city, only to find the inimitable Bella Abzug standing on the steps of City Hall waiting to tender her resignation from the Women’s Commission of something-or-other. “Why don’t you send it in?” said Giuliani, brushing her aside. Then he added a few steps later, “I have the feeling when I get it I’ll accept it.”
“In one era and out the other,” quipped a bystander.
IN THE MIDST OF NEW YORK’S perpetual political theater, Giuliani held daily afternoon press conferences, trying to convey his message to the public over the heads of a hostile press. Quoting journalist Andrew Kirtzman, Siegel portrays the scene: “Thousands of protesters, union members, politicians were fighting one man, who stood alone each day at the podium inside City Hall’s Blue Room, a solitary figure facing a sea of skeptical reporters. He was an army of one.”
And this all happened before September 11th.
For the first three days after that historic attack, Siegel notes, Giuliani was essentially “the de facto spokesman for a grateful nation.”
Rick Hertzberg of The New Yorker described Giuliani as “exactly the leader the city needed. His demeanor — calm, frank, patient, tender, egoless, competent — was, as carried to the city and the world through the intimacy of television, profoundly reassuring.”
Behind the scenes, Giuliani was even more impressive:
By noon, the mayor, assuming the role of a wartime leader, had gathered not only the police and fire commissioners, but also representatives of all of the city’s emergency agencies, at the Police Academy on 20th Street, which served as makeshift command center. There, Giuliani replicated the crisp tenor of his [daily] 8 a.m. meetings. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, usually a critic, “was amazed at the efficiency of the meeting…. It was magnificent really.”
“Who knew that Rudy was Churchill?” asked New York magazine. Well, Giuliani, for one. He had read the biographies and long admired Britain’s savior.
Giuliani now runs Giuliani Partners, a highly successful consulting firm, amassing money and experience for an obvious run at the presidency in 2008. The U.S. Army recently credited his policing techniques as helping in the capture of Saddam Hussein. He remains wildly popular throughout the country, an electrifying speaker, and — in the words of Oprah Winfrey — “America’s Mayor.” Whether his liberal views on abortion and gay marriage can clear the hurdle of conservative primary voters remains to be seen.
Still, it does not seem inappropriate to say that, whatever the future may hold for Giuliani and the country, he will probably never face a more daunting task than he did in 1994 when he took over a morally and financially bankrupt New York City. In every toe-to-toe battle with mob-controlled unions, in every spit-fight with rapacious public employees, in every harrowing confrontation with racial arsonists, Fred Siegel has recounted the story’s grim and gory details.