In New York, the sighs of relief have two sources: One, that power has been restored. Two, that while power was out, nothing terrible happened. Although there were a few incidents of looting in Brooklyn and some sporadic vandalism, the city spent the blackout in relative peace. What could have been a nightmare was, for most citizens, just a protracted inconvenience.
Accordingly, journalists are seeking to explain why this blackout was so different from the last one in New York, which occurred in July, 1977. The two episodes are as different as, well, night and day. In 1977, the city suffered a crime wave of epic proportions during the blackout, in which 550 cops were injured trying to restore order. Police arrested over 3,400 people, and those were just the ones they could catch. Neighborhoods like Bushwick in Brooklyn were practically overrun by looting and arson. The cable stations have been playing footage from those hideous days — in one futile scene, a cop tries to corral just one looter while all around him a band of marauders smash windows and make off with merchandise. You wonder why the cop tries at all. Surely it wasn’t because he was well paid.
Plenty of New York cops were asking themselves that question in 1977 — why bother? The NYPD, like police forces in most big cities in the 1970s, was demoralized beyond the point of effectiveness. Accordingly, New York’s citizens were demoralized as well, growing accustomed to a level of depravity that never would have been tolerated in earlier times. Daniel Patrick Moynihan memorably called it “defining deviancy down.” In 1991, when I arrived in New York City, those low expectations were still in play. You could walk by any number of parked cars on the street and see the telltale cardboard sign in the window: “No radio.” In other words, please break into someone else’s car. In this way, New Yorkers hoped to avoid inconveniencing themselves by assisting criminals in making more efficient scores. Nothing could be done to stop any of it, but with some foresight you might avoid broken windows…
Did I say broken windows? That was the name given to the theory propounded by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in the early 1980s. They held that crime flourished in environments where seemingly trivial symbols of order have broken down — like broken windows in buildings, traffic lights out of order, trash not picked up, drug dealers allowed to ply their trade in open view. The message sent to criminals by such environments is the same as the “No Radio” signs in the parked cars: We can’t stop you, and we accept our helplessness.
All of this seems rather obvious now, 20 years after Wilson and Kelling first published their work, and over a decade since police forces started acting on the theory. Not long ago, though, it was a revolutionary idea. Imagine — taking aggressive action to restore order in the cities! But even after the 1977 blackouts, it still took New York 16 more years to finally elect someone who was serious about restoring order — and with it, community — to the city.
What is striking about the blackout post-mortems is how scarcely the name Rudy Giuliani is invoked. In Slate, David Greenberg attributes the blackout calm to the “change in the condition of New York and America’s northeastern cities,” and allows that probably the most significant reason for the good behavior is that “New Yorkers (and other city dwellers) have a greater sense of investment in their metropolis.” Now, how do you suppose that happened? Giuliani’s name does not appear in the article, though Greenberg does cite the new policing strategies among a host of other causes, which “remain contested.”
The New York Times, predictably enough, attributes the city’s conduct to a host of factors ranging from demographic to deterministic. Here is the Times‘ Martin Gottlieb’s explanation for why the city was so tranquil this time around:
The reasons for this are writ large — a crime rate that in a development no one in 1977 would have been foolish enough to predict has plummeted to its lowest point in decades, with a third the murders of 1977; an economy that even after more than two years of trouble provides 600,000 more jobs than that of ’77; and a population that thanks largely to a continuing transfusion of immigrants by the thousands tops eight million, or about a million more than at the time of the last blackout.
Some people, however, were “foolish enough” to predict that crime could be controlled. One of them was Giuliani. But the Times would rather not recall that in 1993, Giuliani’s was a voice in the wilderness in a city that doubted anything could be done to seriously change the social fabric. He barely won election that year. Gottlieb manages to quote a professor at NYU who, in the course of citing multiple factors for the city’s orderly response to the blackout, manages to cite the Giuliani crime policy as one. But Gottlieb immediately returns to points both unpersuasive and bizarre. He writes that mass immigration to neighborhoods left empty in 1977 means more people have a stake in civic order, but this is simply an assertion without any demonstrable proof. Why should these immigrants not just as easily be moved to looting when a crisis hits? Gottlieb does not venture a guess. But even this non sequitur pales beside Gottlieb’s contention that poverty played a role in maintaining order:
From the streets of poorer neighborhoods, even those like Harlem, which are now home to touchstones of prosperity like Old Navy and Starbucks, other reasons are offered for the peace. Among them are an overwhelming, debilitating poverty that has outlasted a near decade of prosperity, and Mr. Giuliani’s extraordinarily successful campaign to cut welfare rolls, which have fallen by more than 50 percent from their 1977 totals of close to a million. “People are becoming accustomed to not having,” said Ms. Kuumba, an administrative assistant with the city’s Office of Children and Family Services. “They don’t have it; the city’s not giving it to them anymore; they’re not going to have it and they never will. So come what may. There’s just complacency.”
In this analysis, Gottlieb has truly broken new ground. After decades of being told that poor people will riot if welfare benefits are cut, it now turns out that they will be too demoralized to riot unless we increase welfare benefits. Not much of an incentive to do so, I wouldn’t imagine, but a novel piece of Times-ian fantasy nonetheless.
Several commentators, Gottlieb and Greenberg included, cite the bonds of September 11th as a factor in holding the city together. There is some truth to this, but they forget that 9/11 would have been very different if it had happened in 1993, let alone in 1977. In many ways, Giuliani’s heroic performance after 9/11 has done a disservice to his record as mayor. Nationally, he is known primarily for his leading role in the crisis, and this is understandable. His calm, his swift action, and his indefatigable presence will be models for years to come for American leaders. But 9/11 was only the culminating act of his tenure. He was doing what he had been doing all along. And after eight years of putting New York’s house in order, he had built up a civic infrastructure that made acts of hooliganism — at least on a wide scale — unthinkable and totally unacceptable. New Yorkers’ expectations had changed.
During the blackout, you could see those expectations all around you. The primary expectation was that power would be restored soon. But the corollary expectation was that, even while power was out, order would remain. New Yorkers shopped with flashlights in darkened Korean groceries, waiting patiently at the checkout line to pay for their items. Ordinary citizens converted themselves to traffic cops. There was plenty of aggravation and inconvenience, but disorder was virtually nonexistent.
Just as the 1977 riots indicated a city suffering a deep sickness, New York’ s conduct during the 2003 blackout speaks well of its general civic health. But that health did not come about from vague and impersonal forces, the way the Times and others would like us to believe. Crime waves don’t just stop. People don’t wake up one morning and take the “No Radio” signs off their cars in the absence of compelling new information. A city of eight million people does not change its expectations of what is possible and acceptable through some mass act of the will, or from something so gradual as an influx of immigrants (whatever that has to do with maintaining order, anyway).
New York was transformed to a great extent through the leadership of one man. As much as politicians like to give credit to the people for hanging in there during the blackout, we all live in a completely different environment than we did a decade ago, and we live in it largely because of Rudy Giuliani. It may have been dark in New York for a day, but the city had already seen the light.