Visions and Realities — A Review of “New York, New York, New York”

Dyja, Thomas. New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021.

Reviewed by Bob Carey

To get at what Thomas Dyja is after in his new book, begin with the epilogue. Having drawn us into a lengthy but spirited chronicle which begins in the seventies with the abrasive Mayor Ed Koch and which ends amidst a pandemic with the abrasive Bill De Blasio, Dyja briefly takes center stage to conclude, “…we need a New York built on a bedrock of justice, not just noblesse oblige.” Indeed. But as he shows in this complicated story—easier said than done! 

Here is an extended historical meditation on John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous characterization of American civic life: “private affluence and public squalor.” Dyja tugs at the fabric of the city, testing its strengths, weaknesses, and qualities. Are eight million New Yorkers sufficiently civilized to share a public space? This, he suggests, is not merely a matter of flaunting imperial taste and style. To better understand what has been done and what needs to be done, Dyja explores how five mayors imagined the city and struggled to realize their vision while confronting the painful realities of city life. 

The biggest driver of change here is the economy. Once the nation’s largest manufacturing center, Gotham after World War II is transformed by FIRE—finance, insurance and real estate. The union town run by Tammany becomes a city of freelancers and political action committees. Where steam and steel once held sway, technology alters almost every aspect of city life, including politics. The flood of digitally generated information allows even the most hidebound administration to improve management while providing the tools (if not the will) to plan for preservation and reform.

It may be an inconvenient truth, but Gotham in certain ways has gotten better. The book begins with that dumpster fire of a crisis—New York is broke, the banks won’t lend a dime, and neither will the White House or, as The Daily News (October 30, 1974) so tactfully put it, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The irrepressible Ed Koch must learn to live with an Emergency Control Finance Board, which will review his every budget and pinch every penny. No more back-of-the-envelope administration. The City must know what it has, how to hold it, and then move forward with incremental improvements. Case in point: Bryant Park and Central Park, long neglected and nasty, once again become ornaments of urbanity, but only after Koch appointees and their successors reweave the torn urban fabric through patient reconstruction of parks, streets, and infrastructure. By the eighties even the famously “kvetching” New Yorker may begin to acknowledge—at least the city is not getting worse.

Manhattan, 1977. Derzsi Elekes Andor, Wikimedia Commons.

The mayoral narrative here is as unpredictable as an exit ramp off the BQE. Every administration is a case in point of what happens when you are making other plans. Ed Koch squirms uncertainly in the face of AIDS; David Dinkins, the pacifier, is caught in Crown Heights racial strife; Rudolph Giuliani, “America’s Mayor,” volunteering to “stay on” after 9/11, exits as yet another hollow, indispensable man; the richest guy in town, Mike Bloomberg, wintering in Bermuda, is stymied by botched snow removal and, later, stop-and-frisk; and as COVID envelopes the city, Bill de Blasio shadow boxes his nemesis, Andrew Cuomo. 

Through thick and thin the wealthy remain ensconced in luxe neighborhoods, serving on the boards that matter and attending the soirees, cotillions, and gatherings that constitute Society. Dyja cannot dismiss the Park Avenue crowd, for among them are the keepers of culture whose philanthropy adds luster to the city. Park Avenue helped clean up Times Square and restored Central Park to Olmstead’s vision of the people’s park. AOC may demur, but billionaire civic engagement appears essential to the city’s future. 

Dyja asks for whom development is undertaken. “New York Marriott Marquis Under Construction,” Ted Quackenbush, Wikimedia Commons.

The poor also remain, mostly in separate worlds, Black and Brown. But here, too, there has been change. Harlem is less Black in 2021 than in the fifties and sixties. And who is Black is more complex, as Caribbean immigrant communities grow along with Asian and Indian neighborhoods. But even in a city that seems never to tire of celebrating its diversity—its schools and housing remain among the nation’s most segregated—Black is still Black. But we are not dealing here with a mere chronicle of victimization. Dyja helpfully reminds us how much is owed to the working poor, who in the worst of times stuck it out. The Park Avenue crowd may have restored Central Park, but it must be said that in the worst of places—the South Bronx and East New York—stubborn residents quietly began to organize, shape, and restore their neighborhoods, keeping them viable until, you guessed it—developers, bankrolled by FIRE, targeted them for re-development.

Where there are poor people, and particularly poor people of color, there are police. Dyja gives us a half-century of civilian review boards, stop-and-frisk, and a clot of issues that remain a seemingly permanent aspect of political discourse. He helpfully explains efforts to modernize policing and the rise of a veritable cottage industry to explain the causes of crime and to advance theories of control, from “broken windows,” to community policing, and back again. 

Whatever the theory, whoever the mayor, there has always been in New York some sort of well-publicized effort to round up the usual suspects including street thugs, guys working the waterfront, mobsters, Mafia, and gamblers. But the so-called “war on drugs” in the seventies and eighties was something different. As nothing else, it became a war to control the African American poor. America thought it could arrest its way to the other side of a web of issues that required resources, investment, and empowering poor people and their communities. It remains to be seen if the city will ever turn the corner. New York can do big. New York can do bold. Dyja asks: Can it do justice?

Bob Carey did his undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (’61); read for degrees in theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (’66, ’68), and did his doctoral work in American history at Columbia University in New York City (’84). He served as an Assistant Pastor at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in the 1960s and has been a faculty member of Empire State College since 1973, retiring in 2018. He served as an Associate and Graduate Dean in the course of his career with the College. His areas of interest in historical studies are America’s racial and religious history, the history of food and disease, and critical reading.

Featured image (at top): Times Square, 1977. Derzsi Elekes Andor, Wikimedia Commons.

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