When cities are dying: Move in

Russell Baker

September 27, 1990|By Russell Baker

NEW YORK is dying again, as it was in 1974 when I moved there from Washington. Then, as now, many people were saying good riddance. "Drop Dead" was the Daily News' famous headline summation of President Ford's advice to the city.

Fed-up New Yorkers were getting out, as always. After living there a while I was struck, on trips to the suburbs, by the vast population RussellBakerof former New Yorkers out there who had decamped because of previous deaths of the city.

All over New Jersey, Westchester County and Long Island, old-timers who had lived in the city during the Depression or the war years or the fat '50s talked lovingly about its bygone glories.

Still speaking the city's distinctive accents, they were quick to reminisce about its lost splendors. "But I'd never live there now," they often added, and gave you an unpersuasive account of the quiet pleasures of suburban life.

I had several reasons for going in 1974. One was a hick's suspicion that though small-town roots and mud-between-the-toes rusticity might be wonderful to boast about, no American could claim he had lived life to the hilt until he had experienced New York.

I stayed 11 years, which may be longer than average for an adopted New Yorker. Settlers seem to exhaust the city's joys too quickly, and then start to miss the more pastoral pleasures remembered in quieter places.

The dying New York of 1974 was the victim of a long siege of very bad government. Not just city government either, but state government in Albany and federal government in Washington, both of which were blind to the fact that cities are absolutely vital to a nation's health and, so, utterly uninterested in trying to make them flourish.

Nelson Rockefeller's revenue-sharing plan, later savaged by Reagan know-nothings, was a grudging federal acknowledgment that, yes, maybe Washington ought to be interested in shoring up local governments, but the money it distributed was small when measured against the enormity of the American city's problems.

These problems were epitomized in New York, so when the Nixon recession of the early 1970s arrived, New York again began dying.

If you're not rich, the times when New York is dying may be the best times to move in. This was my experience in 1974.

With Manhattan real estate on the rocks, there was a vast choice of apartments for rent or sale at what later seemed giveaway prices. And real estate is decisive in determining whether life in New York is to be wonderful, tolerable or wretched.

For paupers, a welfare hotel is better than the streets while a private apartment is a place where you can start reassembling your life. In "The Bonfire of the Vanities," Tom Wolfe expresses the millionaire's real estate agony to perfection when he observes that after you are accustomed to living in a $3 million apartment, living in a $1 million apartment is simply impossible.

For Manhattan's well-to-do, discovering that you're not well-to-do enough to stay in a skyrocketing real estate market -- ah, friend, that is crushing evidence that you might as well go away.

This was the awful truth delivered to me by the real estate orgies of the 1980s when it seemed the good times could never end and New York could never die again.

Priced out, I lit out for suburbs, but suburbs far, far away. I did not want to become another of those old New Yorkers out in Jersey, in Westchester, or Long Island telling visitors that New York was just a ruined replica of the city I knew in the good old days.

You who plan to leave New York, hark! I will now tell you of suburbs: They are safer, quieter, cleaner, superior in many ways to New York. Also: In suburbs it is hard to find people who will excite, infuriate, exhilarate, amaze, stupefy, astound and provoke you, or make you re-examine everything you ever believed.

Also: It's hard to find a good play, a good restaurant, a good opera and a good protest demonstration. When everybody has fled to the suburbs and there are no more cities for suburbanites to refresh themselves in, it will be said of America, "A restful place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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