City of Disorder: How Quality of Life Campaigns Transformed New York Politics

city-of-disorderIn 1990, the author Alex Vitale was in San Francisco, part of Mayor Art Agnos’ program to deal with the homeless. Let’s be frank, the program failed, and the reasons were mostly economic. There wasn’t a lot of affordable housing, skid row had been gentrified, and the Tenderloin district was full. Even if it wasn’t full, a whole lot of homeless people weren’t desperate enough to live there. Agnos resorted to letting the police scare them off, and that didn’t win him any admirers.

In 1993, Vitale came to CUNY for his graduate studies, just as Mayor Giuliani was starting his “kick-em-out” campaign. Homeless men were being forced off the streets and into shelters, which were often less safe than the streets. The citizens, even the most liberal ones, weren’t interested in what the homeless were thinking. As the author stresses, they felt that they’d done their bit, and now they just wanted to live in peace. They were fed up with crime, fed up with aggressive panhandling, fed up with being bullied every time they walked down the street. They were fed up with Larry Hogue smashing windows on 96th street, fed up with Tompkins Square Park, and fed up with 42nd street. So what if Larry Hogue was a traumatized Vietnam veteran? So what if the men in Tompkins Square Park had nowhere to go? The taxpayers were fed up, and they’d lost patience.

I appreciate this book, because the author does not blame the so-called “NIMBY” ideology for the problem. He doesn’t fault people who say “not in my backyard,” because there were the same people who fought for integration and civil rights. He does, however, fault Giuliani’s clean-up effort, because the uptick in arrests for petty offenses led to increased incarceration. He also points out that in the 70’s, a lot of Jews protested, along with the Italians, when it came to forced school busing. It wasn’t so much the idea of minorities going to school with their kids, but that that the government was forcing them to sacrifice. There was also a kind of loose alliance between the Orthodox Jewish community of New York and the conservative Catholic voters, especially when it came to the gravediggers strike.

The liberals in the city fought to bring zoning changes, brought business to Soho, and you can credit them with whatever improvements happened economically. But the homeless, they were left to the mercy of social services, which were underfunded and unready. To be fair, the NYPD busted the squeegee men, and made the city safe enough for more kids to live here. Psychotropic drugs also meant large scale discharges from mental hospitals, but there’s no way to know if they’re taking their meds. For the average New Yorker, the attitude is “I’ve got my own problems.”

From what I remember, the homeless in the 1980’s were often mentally ill, talking to themselves and screaming at things that weren’t there. Today, I see a lot of young homeless people, usually Caucasian, always from outside of the city. The parents may throw them out, others choose to live on the streets. But some of them are drug addicts from other towns, forced to leave by the local police. Rather than have to arrest and process a drug-addicted shoplifter, they simply encourage him to run away from home. With the economy in a shambles, there’s greater incentive to throw kids out of the house, and if you’re a small-town police chief, run them out of town. New York City is where they end up, and our Mayor has no provisions to deal with it.

This book raises many points in how a city deals with the homeless, but some things are missing. Vitale doesn’t write very much on the programs that worked, and while there wasn’t a lot of success, I’d be hard-pressed to believe that there was no success at all. There also aren’t a lot of interviews in this book, and I’d like to hear the views of the people who were involved with these efforts in the 1990’s. Would they do things differently now? What fallacies, in their opinions, did their ideas contain?

With hindsight, what would the author have done differently? I wonder.

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