Giuliani throws in the kitchen sink New York: The mayor has spent four years trying to change this distinctive city into something more like the rest of America.

October 27, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- Environmentalists predicted water pollution Armageddon. Property owners said the cost of installing the new contraptions would break them. The newspapers urged caution. But last month, Rudy Giuliani ignored them all and decided to legalize garbage disposals, allowing New Yorkers a convenience that has been standard in the rest of America for more than 30 years.

"This is what my term as mayor has been all about," says the 107th mayor in Big Apple history. "I want New Yorkers to enjoy the same kind of quality of life as people do in any other city. But you find that there are people who will always make excuses as to why the level of services in New York can't be the same as in other cities."

A heavy favorite for re-election next month, Rudolph William Giuliani, 53, is frequently portrayed as an urban visionary, hailed from Boise to Baltimore for reducing crime in New York and transforming the city into a model for American renewal.

But such portraits miss a more interesting truth about the mayor, as revealed in the garbage disposal controversy: Giuliani's New York is a follower, not a leader. The mayor has spent four years in office trying to change this distinctive city into something that looks more like the rest of America.

"New York in many ways is beginning to catch up with the rest of the country," says Carl Weisbrod, a Manhattan civic group president who has been active in the revitalizations of Times Square and the downtown financial district. "The Giuliani administration has focused on creating a new city with amenities and safety you'd expect in any other city in the country."

The Giuliani ethos has not only given New York safer and sometimes cleaner streets, but also plenty of new businesses familiar to anyone who isn't a New Yorker. There is a Hooters, a Nike Town, a Kmart, untold Starbucks franchises and theme diners -- everything, and the kitchen sink.

The mayor's recent signing of a bill to legalize garbage disposals coincided with his blitzkrieg against the city's 28 million rats, who have grown fat on the food New Yorkers scrape out of their sink each night. This summer, one rat audaciously ran across the mayor's front porch before Giuliani could call a member of the city's police force.

"We've had about 10 of them at Gracie Mansion since I've been there," says Giuliani. "I don't think this sort of thing would be tolerated in any other city."

An aggressive attitude toward vermin might seem natural to someone from Baltimore. But it stands out in New York and explains why Giuliani is liked more by tourists and national news magazines than by the people he governs.

To outsiders, New York seemed rude, dirty and expensive, and the mayor has helped to change that. But New Yorkers looking over the Hudson at a nation of outlet malls treasure the fact that their city is different. The city's extreme grittiness gives it its character.

"Giuliani has been very effective, and I'll vote for him," says Stanley Jimba, 59, an executive secretary from Brooklyn. "But I don't think he has enough respect for the traditions and institutions that make New York City different."

Giuliani, a self-described reformer, disagrees. His war on New York exceptionalism is based on an important insight: New York must be less tradition-bound. While this city attracts all manner of eccentrics, in reality it is the most conservative of metropolises, on the tail end of social trends.

In an era of malls and high-tech conglomerates, New York is still a city of mom-and-pop stores and neighborhood movie theaters. More than 45 percent of New Yorkers, most of them women, do not work outside their homes, the highest percentage of any U.S. city.

Change requires offense

With so many historic institutions and old neighborhoods, every nook and cranny of the city has a well-organized constituency. Giuliani prides himself on being willing to offend them. Change requires offense, he argues.

So the mayor drew the ire of the gay community with restrictive new rules on sex shops, rules that he used to push such businesses out of Times Square. He angered small-business owners with his steady encouragement of new supermarkets and discount chains such as Kmart. He has pushed aggressive policing over the objections of some minority residents, who increasingly complain about brutal officers.

Waking up in Cincinnati

Traditionalists argue that Giuliani's reforms have cost New York City its edge. "I dreamed I died and went to Cincinnati," a Village Voice writer recently lamented. "Imagine my horror when I awoke and discovered I was in Cincinnati. Only now it's moved and lies roughly between the new and improved Times Square, the new and improved 42nd Street, and the new and improved 57th Street."

Giuliani dismisses such criticism as elitist. In a city full of art museums and five-star restaurants, there must be room, he says, for people whose tastes -- like his -- run toward Yankee games and fast food.

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