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The Future of the City

Saving the City: An Interview With Brian Anderson

Conor Friedersdorf

1) In the autumn of 1990, City Journal published its first issue. Its letter from the editors spoke of the "intolerable conditions" suffered by New Yorkers, a generation of residents who'd never known anything better, and a desire "to focus some of the immense ingenuity and energy which flows to New York on making the city livable once again."

All these years later, it is difficult to imagine that bygone New York City. Take us back to the bad old days. How was life different? What particular ills inspired the magazine's launch? And how did it go from an idea to a bundle of articles produced each quarter?

The bad old days in New York City 20 years ago were pretty bad--it was a city widely perceived to be on the way out, ungovernable, caught in an inexorable downward spiral. There were four major things that worked in tandem to make New York, and other American cities, sick. Cities had many other problems, of course, including the arrival of a post-industrial economy, but these were at the core of the urban crisis.

First, major crime was out of control and had been for a long time. That year--1990--New York City hit an all-time high for murders: 2,262, over six a night! Rape, robbery, auto theft, and every other crime were endemic, too. The press was filled with stories of feral marauding teens, lurid killings, and brazen drive-by shootings. New Yorkers had gotten grimly used to triple-locking their doors and barring their windows and sticking NO RADIO signs in their cars, pathetically hoping to deter thieves from smashing their car windows. Some neighborhoods were like war zones, where an evening walk was fraught with danger. Police largely steered clear of these areas--remember Public Enemy's "911 Is a Joke"? Subway ridership plummeted because people were rightly fearful of being assaulted.

Second, beyond hard-core crime, disorder was pervasive. Grand Central Terminal, one of the great civic spaces in America, looked like a massive, filthy homeless shelter. Parks had become open-air drug markets. City residents had to put up with constant shakedowns from aggressive beggars and "squeegee men." Ugly graffiti covered everything. The whole atmosphere of the city suggested that order had broken down. And experts said that there was nothing to be done about all of this, short of some kind of revolution in American society.

A third problem was the transformation of cities--and of no city more than New York--into gigantic welfare agencies. A vast number of social services were provided, all intended to help the poor but in practice often trapping them in long-term dysfunction and dependency. Welfare rolls exceeded 1 million in New York City. Tax rates rose dramatically to pay for this empire of services, harming prosperity by driving out businesses and economically successful residents. New York, which had been home to well over 100 Fortune 500 companies after World War II, had just a handful by the beginning of the nineties.

The fourth urban predicament was education. Once drivers of assimilation for generations of immigrants, many urban schools had become dismal, bureaucratic, and often violent failures, with black kids in particular dropping out at future-dimming rates. Yet teachers' unions fiercely resisted reform, other than to call for more "resources." Incompetent teachers were almost impossible to fire.

Combine these four things--crime, disorder, a massive and costly municipal welfare state, and horrendous schools--and you can understand why people were fleeing cities when they could afford to, why Hollywood frequently depicted New York as a frightening and chaotic netherworld, and why futurists were predicting the death of the city in a globalized world of instantaneous communication.

City Journal was launched as an intellectual and journalistic response to this crisis of urban life, which its editors and writers viewed not as a fate but rather as the outcome of specific bad policies and weak political leadership. Change the policy environment, put the right ideas in place, and cities could regain their vitality and again become the crucibles of innovation, culture, and economic growth that they were through much of our nation's history (and, for that matter, through the history of Western civilization).

The Manhattan Institute's then-president, Bill Hammett, got the magazine up and running as the New York City Journal, with Richard Vigilante as its first editor, followed by Fred Siegel, Roger Starr, and Peter Salins, distinguished figures all, each doing a few issues. In 1994, Myron Magnet took over what by then was called City Journal and really made the magazine his own, running the show for 50 issues until 2007, when I stepped into his very large shoes, after being the magazine's senior editor since 1998. Working with him was an extraordinary experience--something akin to a daily high-level seminar in politics and culture. He is a truly gifted editor, and I hope some of his sensibility and judgment have rubbed off. Let me acknowledge here the work of my fellow editors, Steven Malanga, Ben Plotinsky, Nicole Gelinas, and Paul Beston, who work closely with me every day in putting the magazine and website out. We're a collaborative enterprise.

Hammett had been urged to launch a magazine by Irving Kristol, who understood that conservatives couldn't just sit around complaining about the liberal press; they needed their own means of transmitting ideas. Even a limited-circulation quarterly could have major influence, as Kristol's own Public Interest had shown and as City Journal would again prove. This was in a pre-Internet era, of course. These days, City Journal also reaches a very large online audience, far bigger than anyone would have dreamed of for such a publication 20 or even a few years ago.

2) One New York City ill mentioned in that first letter from the editors was the "unreasonable," unaffordable market for housing. On that metric, is the city better or worse off than when City Journal launched? Does the magazine have anything to say about housing policy going forward?

New York City's rent-control regime was infamous: it dramatically reduced the supply of housing, drove up costs for those unlucky enough to live in non-controlled apartments, and kept housing turnover minimal (since you'd be unlikely to give up a rent-controlled apartment even if it had, say, become too big or too small for you, since it would mean moving to a much more expensive place). Thanks to reforms under Governor George Pataki during the nineties, the problem eased somewhat, but the city still subsidizes a lot of housing.

Housing issues are still a major focus for the magazine for a simple reason: they're deeply important to cities and to the nation as a whole. Housing policy has been at the center of the financial meltdown, of course, and we've been covering that connection in depth. Last year, for example, Steven Malanga, in "Obsessive Housing Disorder," showed how federal efforts to promote homeownership have produced one dangerous housing bubble after another over the last 100 years, culminating in the Fannie and Freddie disaster. Our latest issue has an essay by University of Chicago economist and City Journal contributing editor Luigi Zingales on "The Menace of Strategic Default," arguing that homeowners who decide to walk away from underwater mortgages even when they don't need to could derail economic recovery and damage the financial system in profound ways.

Then there's public housing, which continues to be a dependency trap, as the urbanist Howard Husock in particular has explored in our pages. The average tenant remains in New York City's system for 20 years--unsurprisingly, since public housing, unlike other forms of welfare, doesn't come with time limits. New York's housing projects also have destructive economic effects. Not only do they radiate blight; they also form a frozen city-within-a-city: 2,500 acres of real estate, valued at $4.3 billion in 2008, that are locked into one unchanging use. These realities recently spurred us to call for a phaseout of public housing in New York.

So yes, there's much to write about housing going forward.

3) Readers of The Atlantic are familiar with Broken Windows, the influential 1982 article that addressed policing in America. It wasn't long after that City Journal launched and made crime a signature issue in its efforts to improve New York City. Tell us the essence of the arguments made on this subject by writers under your masthead, and how they influenced public policy.

The policing revolution--inspired in large part by James Q. Wilson's and George Kelling's famous "Broken Windows" theory, first advanced in that famous 1982 Atlantic piece--has been a signature theme for City Journal since its inception. Wilson and Kelling argued that there was a connection between two of the problems that I mentioned earlier: disorder and crime. A building with a broken window, they posited, was more likely to be vandalized than a building without one. The reason: the broken window sent a message that no one was in charge or much cared about the social order, encouraging the destructive impulses of people who had those impulses. And if this was true, the destruction that those people unleashed might be, not vandalism, but assault, rape, theft, or murder. So if a city allowed its public spaces to be colonized by disorder--aggressive panhandling, open drug use, prostitution, and other quality-of-life offenses--it would likely suffer a higher amount of serious crime as well.

This insight was brought to New York by Mayor Rudy Giuliani's first police chief, William Bratton, in the nineties and made a key part of a policing revolution that completely transformed--and saved--the city. With Giuliani's strong encouragement, the NYPD began enforcing long-neglected laws that let them go after quality-of-life offenses, from turnstile-jumping in the subways to graffiti vandalism to begging too threateningly. And what it discovered when it wrote citations for such infractions was that a lot of the quality-of-life offenders were also wanted for much more serious crimes, so a lot of muggers, rapists, drug dealers, and killers were caught and removed from the city's streets.

Another component of that policing revolution was managerial: the creation of CompStat, short for "computer statistics." Prior to the Giuliani years, policing in the city had become reactive and even passive. Weekly CompStat meetings changed all that. They put the top NYPD executives and local precinct commanders in the same room. Together, they would look at a map of crime in the city and try to figure out what was going on, neighborhood by neighborhood. The top brass would say: "Your precinct has a sudden rash of muggings--what are you going to do about it?" The commander would then have to come back the following week and report on what he'd done and whether any progress had been made in solving the problem.

The new system allowed the department to recognize patterns and deploy resources rationally: a precinct with a gang problem would be flooded with extra cops, for example. And it established accountability: if commanders didn't perform adequately, metrics now helped document the failure--and the commanders could find themselves replaced.

The policing revolution of the Giuliani years (which has been continued and expanded by current top cop Ray Kelly and current mayor Michael Bloomberg) brought truly breathtaking results. From its 1990 high, murder plummeted 56 percent in six years, to 984. By 2008, homicides were down over 75 percent. All felony crime fell 77 percent. The city was reborn: tourism increased, restaurants opened on every corner, parks were reclaimed as wonderful public spaces. As Heather Mac Donald--who has brilliantly chronicled the policing story in City Journal--has shown, the crime drop had its biggest impact in the poorest neighborhoods, where crime was highest.

Left-wing criminologists and activists often charge that policing had little or nothing to do with the crime turnaround--that it was some other factor, whether economic, demographic, or whatever, at work. None of these explanations, however, beats the obvious one: better policing cut crime! That Bratton went to Los Angeles with the same methods and reduced crime comparably there, that other New York cops in the "NYPD diaspora" moved to other crime-plagued cities and pulled off similar feats--these facts are indisputable. Smart, data-driven policing is the Number One city-saving force in America.

Sometimes you'll hear the argument that maybe policing did cut crime in New York, but by making it a racist, semi-authoritarian city. That's absurd. Go to community meetings in minority neighborhoods, and you'll often hear the demand for a greater police presence. Complaints about police abuses are minimal and usually acted on swiftly by the department.

A last point: the Wilson-Kelling argument about the connection between disorder and more serious crime--another claim that left-wing criminologists dispute--has been reinforced by recent cutting-edge behavioral research. In one fascinating experiment, for example, a researcher in the Netherlands put an envelope with five euros sticking out in a mailbox, where passersby could easily see the money. If the mailbox was clean, 13 percent of people walking by stole the money; when graffiti covered it, 27 percent did. The social order matters.

This is an area in which City Journal has strongly influenced the public debate, I think, through the work of Kelling and Mac Donald and Bratton himself, who has written for us on several occasions, as well as others who've written on crime and punishment in our pages. At a speech a few years ago, Rudy Giuliani waved a copy of our magazine and observed, "If there was kind of like a charge of plagiarism for political programs, I'd probably be in a lot of trouble because I think we plagiarized most of them, if not all of them, from the pages of the City Journal and from the thinking and analysis of the Manhattan Institute." It was partly this body of work that he had in mind.

4) When did City Journal stop thinking of itself as a magazine dedicated to revitalizing New York City, and start thinking of itself as a national publication, its scope as big as the subject of urban affairs itself?

Even in its earliest numbers, City Journal looked beyond New York City and had a broad sense of urbanism: the fourth issue, for instance, featured V. S. Naipaul's "Our Universal Civilization," based on his 1990 Wriston Lecture at the Manhattan Institute. Myron Magnet brought his deep interest in and knowledge of history, culture, literature, and classical architecture to the magazine. He also brought Anthony Daniels, also known as Theodore Dalrymple, who writes our regular "Oh, to be in England" feature, and the marvelous Stefan Kanfer, whose City Journal profiles of heroes of the New York stage were collected in the book The Voodoo That They Did So Well.

After 9/11, national security, terrorism, and Islamic radicalism became ongoing themes, for obvious reasons, and we've published a lot about them. Judith Miller has been covering a lot of these issues for us. A good example is her piece, "On the Front Line in the War on Terrorism," on the NYPD's and LAPD's counter-terrorism efforts. More recently, I've introduced wider coverage of other cities; a lot more material on California, including Steven Malanga's cover story from our latest issue, "The Beholden State"; and--reflecting my own idiosyncrasies--European thinkers like Guy Sorman, André Glucksmann, and Peter Sloterdijk.

The idea of the city is still at the core of everything we've done. But that provides a large canvas. The city, as thinkers from Jane Jacobs to Avner Greif to Edward Glaeser (one of our contributing editors) have argued, is the driver of economic dynamism and growth; it is at the heart of Western freedom and democracy, born in Athens; it is where cultural creativity and religious movements are born.

5) Tell us about a few of your favorite pieces published by the magazine over the years. Why do they matter?

My favorite pieces change regularly, and I wouldn't want to offend any of our writers, so this is far from a definitive list. Some of the most lasting work published during the first ten years of the magazine was collected in a thick volume called The Millennial City, edited by Myron Magnet. So let me just note a baker's dozen of more recent essays, in no particular order, that I'm proud we have published. Reading these pieces will give a good sense of what we're about to anyone unfamiliar with City Journal.

Nicole Gelinas was warning about the potential implosion of Wall Street in City Journal well before it happened, and her writing on the financial crisis and its aftermath, further developed in her book After the Fall, has been a model of clarity and good sense. I think her 2009 essay "'Too Big to Fail' Must Die'" is perhaps the best statement of her views on what got us into the mess and what needs to be done going forward.

Steven Malanga's "The Beholden State," which I mentioned a moment ago, has generated a huge amount of attention--just Google the title--because it provides such a clear explanation of how California, not so long ago America's economic future, finds itself teetering on bankruptcy, politically paralyzed, and watching many of its productive citizens heading for the exits. Blame the municipal unions, who've captured the state and made it serve their own narrow interests.

"Madison's Nightmare," by historian Fred Siegel, shows how something similar has befallen New York. Government by single faction--the unions--has destroyed the pluralistic political culture that once existed in New York and that the Founders believed necessary to preserve our freedoms.

William Voegeli's "The Big-Spending, High-Taxing, Lousy-Services Paradigm," from last year, is another California story that has garnered a lot of attention. He shows how California doesn't get much bang from its many tax bucks, comparing the state with Texas, where tax rates and spending are lower but schools and roads are as good or better.

Heather Mac Donald's "Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?," from 2008, shows that the reason so many African-Americans are behind bars is, not a bigoted system, but high black crime rates, as shown by victim reports. The piece exemplifies Mac Donald's tenacious reporting skills and willingness to speak the truth, even when it's controversial.

Peter Huber's "Anthraxing New York" is a scary essay explaining how the government's control of vaccine development and provision has left cities extremely vulnerable to natural and man-made pathogens. Huber has also written a series of fascinating pieces for us on the pharmacological revolution and its public-policy implications.

In "Green Cities, Brown Suburbs," Ed Glaeser shows how dense concentrations of people reduce the human carbon footprint. The article opens with one of my all-time favorite stories: Henry David Thoreau is communing with nature near Fair Haven Pond in Concord, Massachusetts--and accidentally starts a fire that destroys 300 acres of pristine forest! The article's lesson: if you really care about the environment, skyscrapers are the way to go.

Claire Berlinski's "A Hidden History of Evil" has ignited a huge controversy. It reports on untranslated late-Soviet archives that purportedly show Gorbachev to be a much darker figure than you might imagine, British Labour leader Neil Kinnock committing treason, and many other extraordinary things; yet thus far, Berlinski laments, no one in the mainstream press or publishing world seems all that interested.

"The Education of John Jay" is the longest essay we've ever published--it's a short book, in effect--but no one interested in the American Founding will be able to put it down. Myron Magnet takes us inside the universe and mind of one of the least-understood Founders, whom he shows to be a Christian Stoic and diplomatic genius.

"The Lost Art of War," by novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan, looks at Hollywood's anti-Iraq War films and finds them wanting compared with the more patriotic fare of an earlier generation.

In "Pedagogy of the Oppressor," Sol Stern--who has worked relentlessly on the plight of kids in urban schools--examines the life and thought of one of the education schools' heroes: the Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire. Small wonder our city schools are so awful!

Guy Sorman's "The Empire of Lies," an essay about China based on the author's wide-ranging travel there, reveals it to be much weaker politically and more precarious economically than has commonly been understood. Among other things, China is struggling mightily to deal with the largest urbanization of a population in history.

Kay S. Hymowitz has been writing on modern relationships and city life for a while now, but nothing she ever wrote has generated such a storm of controversy as "Child-Man in the Promised Land," on how young men today remain stuck in a limbo between adolescence and adulthood. Hymowitz is working on a book, entitled Manning Up, based on this and other recent essays. It will appear in early 2011, the first in a new City Journal imprint at Basic Books.

But as I say, we're thrilled to be working with so many talented people--and that's a very partial list of stories. I could have just as easily noted pieces by Michael Knox Beran, John McWhorter, Laura Vanderkam, Harry Stein, Victor Davis Hanson, Mike Totten, and many others.

6) The New Yorker once published a lengthy profile of The Manhattan Institute that described City Journal as follows:

From the outset, the distinguishing feature of City Journal was that many of its pieces criticized big city liberalism while celebrating urbanism itself in a way completely at odds with the small-town boosterism of the conservative tradition.
How does City Journal celebrate urbanism? How has it handled being on the same side of the political spectrum as folks who are critical of urban elites in northeastern cities? How did it manage to win esteem from staunch conservatives and liberal reformers alike?

We celebrate urbanism by supporting cities, which too many conservatives had given up on. As I said earlier, cities are essential to civilization. Indeed, Hayek once observed that "civilization as we know it is inseparable from urban life." That's what made the long crisis of the city so dispiriting: the second half of the twentieth century saw blight, ugliness, crime, and poverty ravage urban areas here in America and in Europe, a manifestation, in my view, of the loss of Western self-confidence. Cities are the source of economic prosperity and culture, thanks to the "agglomeration effects" that economists talk about, a fancy way of saying that they bring talented people together in close proximity so that they can influence one another in productive ways. Their comeback, incomplete though it is, has been a very healthy development.

City Journal has been able to win praise from conservatives and liberals alike because we emphasize arguments and reporting, and also--or so I'd like to think--because we're a well-edited, urbane publication. Also, we don't do much about narrow, horse-race politics; and we've got a host of former lefties and still-in-some-sense lefties writing for us, which may have something to do with it, too.

7) City Journal has long touted itself as an idea factory. Which ideas among the many suggested in your pages haven't worked as hoped, and how has the magazine learned from those failures?

For me, given the success stories of the crime turnaround and welfare reform, the biggest frustration has been the stubborn persistence of lousy urban schools. I think we may have to recognize that there is no educational panacea, including the introduction of school choice, that will fix, via competition, the broader public-school system and miraculously close the achievement gap between black students and white kids. That isn't to say that we should stop experimenting or that we should abandon the push for expanded school choice, which can be defended on many grounds, including parental and student satisfaction and safety. But now that researchers have looked closely at the Milwaukee voucher program, the nation's largest and longest-running, and found academic achievement among the students in it to be basically the same as in the terrible Milwaukee public schools as a whole--well, choice supporters, like myself, need to come to terms with that fact.

I do believe that improving curricula can bring better academic outcomes among all groups, as we've seen with the Massachusetts public schools, now the nation's best, and we've been publishing a lot on curricula and the education schools. There have also been hopeful signs of academic improvement in some outstanding urban schools, including some charter schools; the Kipp schools in particular seem to be getting results with at-risk kids. Whether what works in those schools can be widely replicated--taken to scale, in ed-speak--is a crucial question going forward.

8) How is the current financial crisis going to change New York City?

Luigi Zingales wrote a fascinating essay for our special issue, "New York's Tomorrow," entitled "Wall Street 2015." He noted that New York's supremacy as a financial capital, which was historically based on its sophisticated workforce, predictable regulations, and--at least since the Reagan years--favorable tax climate, had been eroding even before the financial meltdown. Things will be tougher still for New York going forward. The city has grown very dependent on tax revenues from those massive Wall Street bonuses.

But as Nicole Gelinas argues, Wall Street has also grown at a completely unnatural rate over the last quarter-century. This meant New York City could avoid any tough public-spending choices. Spending, already extravagant, reached unsustainable levels because those crazy tax revenues kept pouring into city coffers. To keep this spending up without bankrupting the city or necessitating job-destroying tax increases, we would need a permanent Wall Street bubble--one that would eventually consume not only New York's economy, Gelinas believes, but the national economy, too. 

Ideally, New York does the responsible thing and brings down its spending and works to diversify its economy, so that the city is less dependent on this one volatile industry, whose recent profit model has collapsed, catastrophically. So far, though, there's little sign of this rethinking happening. Instead, New York is currently digging a deeper and deeper budgetary hole, running colossal deficits as far as the eye can see, neglecting long-term infrastructure investments, while it waits for another Wall Street bubble to start expanding and showering insane tax revenues on the city. This is, to put it mildly, unwise.

Unfortunately, as Gelinas has argued, the Bush/Obama bailouts of Wall Street and the stimulus bill have encouraged taking this path.

9) Going forward, what is City Journal's place among America's magazines? What will be true in ten years if it succeeds in its mission?

My hope is that cities continue to come back--and that really damaged places like Cleveland or Detroit or Newark (where Cory Booker is doing some amazing things) can thrive again. The twenty-first century city will, I hope, be a place where commerce flourishes, crime is low, middle-class families can send their kids to good schools, and freedom flourishes. I'd like to think that the ideas developed in City Journal will have had something to do with that positive outcome.


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