Pols Posture as City Crumbles A Letter from New York City

October 31, 1993|By IAN JOHNSON

New York -- It rained the other day, so of course the whole city fell to pieces. Subways stopped running, poisonous water started running off construction platforms onto hapless pedestrians, and a few thousand newly arrived Americans showed off a newly learned skill by driving as close to the sidewalk as possible so the maximum number of slobs got drenched. Splash.

It's the sort of vignette that makes out-of-towners chuckle and editors congratulate themselves for hiring a New York correspondent. Sure, Bawlamer has its drawbacks, they think, but it all looks a lot better compared with decrepit New York City.

And then, before they feel too sorry for their soggy hack, they always say: "But you New Yorkers are tough. You can handle anything, right?"

Gamely we grin and agree, and repeat stories about how tough '' New Yorkers are. But deep down we like the city's condition about as much as picking up a favorite book and watching the paper crumble when the pages are turned. It's especially angering because, as one friend put it, you realize at times how awesome the place could be if it didn't have half the social problems of the nation dumped on its doorstep.

Or, for that matter, if it didn't have a bunch of half-wits running to be mayor. While the city crumbles, the two major candidates have wallowed in self-righteous posturing on race, religion, history and industrial policy.

Irritated? Sure, because when it comes right down to it, no one really gives a hoot about these issues. New Yorkers want their streets paved, subways rebuilt, neighborhoods better policed and costs cut. Arguing about who is offended by the word "fascist" (really, they did) solves nothing.

The proof is a recent poll by Louis Harris and Associates. Harris polled 1,500 people who had recently moved to New York from other parts of the country, 1,500 who had recently left and 2,800 current residents.

Maybe the poll was just taken after a thunderstorm, but it showed that 45 percent of current residents would like to move away from the city within the next three years. Their reasons matched those of the people who had left: safety, dirt, high taxes.

TC

That might seem depressing, but it really shouldn't be. The reason is that those problems are precisely within the grasp of the city government. Few say they leave the city because of international socio-economic reasons. They just want the city to run better, see that this isn't going to happen within any reasonable time and so leave. Fix the problem, and many might stay.

And it's not like they really want to leave the city. Most, the poll showed, regretted leaving; they liked the city's energy, its parks and its cultural offerings.

What really gets to people, though, is the sense of flabby malaise that permeates the city. No one who has seen a New York street being repaved can be optimistic about the city coming to grips with the future. A recent repaving of 6th Avenue near The Sun's New York bureau started two months ago and is due to take another four. All they're doing is repaving the street, one of the most important in New York, but it'll take six months.

Why the incompetence? It's not that the city is under-funded or strangled for cash. New York city has an annual budget of $31 billion, higher than all but three states in the nation. The problem is that much of this money is spent on social services that few would identify as a municipal government's responsibility.

The city, for example, is spending $6.9 billion this year on social services and only $575 million on sanitation. Nearly $900 million is spent in a unique exercise for a U.S. city -- subsidizing hospitals -- plus another $700 million on other health services. In comparison, only $146 million is spent on parks and a piddling $70 million on the arts, the backbone of the city's single biggest ++ industry, tourism.

Of course health and human services are pressing needs, but if New York is going to keep its residents, it will have to make the city attractive and functional. Solving national social problems is beyond any one municipality and should be left to the state and federal governments, a practice that other cities follow.

And keeping people here will become an even more pressing issue in coming years, especially as the nation builds an information highway. The fiber optic network will allow even more firms to leave the city without feeling that they're cut off from the business or financial worlds. In other words, people won't be held hostage any longer, and more will leave.

Of course none of this is part of the election. The Democratic incumbent, David N. Dinkins, has not begun any major reforms over the past four years, Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani, the alleged conservative running against him, loves nothing more than to boast about being endorsed by the police and firefighters unions, two organizations with the most arcane and bizarre work rules of any union known to human history.

This makes it unlikely that change will take place, whichever of these two giants wins the race. (It's touching to note that New Yorkers once named their sports teams "Giants," isn't it?) It's a depressing thought and makes it likely that when it rains a few years from now and even more of the city is paralyzed, don't be surprised if even fewer New Yorkers are there to grin and bear it.

L Ian Johnson is New York correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.

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