Earlier this year, the Citizens Budget Commission released a poll on how New Yorkers feel about their city. Half of those surveyed said they planned to leave in the coming years. Fewer than 30 percent rated their quality of life in the city as good or excellent, down from 51 percent 15 years earlier. In 2008, 86 percent of New Yorkers felt safe riding the subways during the day; that figure has plunged to 49 percent. Unhappiness with life in the city was most stark in its poorest neighborhoods.

Cities across the country have been reeling from the aftereffects of the Covid lockdowns and post–George Floyd protests that saw anti-police rhetoric and policies springing up through urban America and affecting law enforcement. Many cities are concerned about “urban doom loops,” where downtown office space has emptied out because of a combination of remote work and rising crime and disorder. The weakness in commercial real estate, it is feared, will depress tax revenues and drive more people out of the city, an endless “loop” that will set the city on a path of decline. But the rising mood of discontent in New York is especially noteworthy because it was the city whose return to glory led the way for the nationwide urban renaissance in America in the 1990s. It has been a bellwether for more than a century, and now it is a negative bellwether. As New Yorkers began to sour on the metropolis during the mayoralty of Bill de Blasio, which began a decade ago, so too did urban dwellers find their cities taking a gradual and then speedy downturn—trends that predate both the haunting emptying brought about by Covid and the nationwide unrest that same year following the death of George Floyd.

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Indeed, over the past 100 years, New York has been a remarkable predictor of political and cultural trends that would change the trajectory of American society. Many Americans have tended to see the city as an exotic appendage of their country, as home to “foreigners,” radicals, avaricious bankers, and the starkest example of a frightening divide between rich and poor. New Yorkers have returned the favor by seeing themselves as set apart from the rest of the country and the center of the world, as depicted in the famous New Yorker cartoon viewing everything west of the Hudson as bland and lifeless.

But in reality, New York is a classically American city, with an outsize influence on the entire nation, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For a nation of immigrants, it is the quintessentially immigrant city, and it is no surprise that two of America’s greatest monuments to immigration—Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty—sit in New York Harbor. The city is also the financial heart of this most capitalist of nations, home to Alexander Hamilton and J.P. Morgan, as well as the bulls and bears of Wall Street. Culturally, New York has shaped the nation, from Tin Pan Alley to rap. Political trends that have taken root in New York have had a way of shaping the politics of the entire country.

The first Catholic to run for president was, naturally, a New Yorker. Al Smith was a proud product of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and New York’s Tammany Hall political machine. Notorious for its corruption, the machine also provided access to the political system for New York’s poor, especially the Irish. Smith, along with his Tammany colleague Robert Wagner Sr., helped forge a new kind of politics in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, which exposed the literal dangers posed to the lives of the workers from the careless and negligent behavior of their employers. The two Tammany men made common cause with Progressive figures in New York to pass legislation aimed at helping working-class New Yorkers.

Smith would go on to be elected governor of New York in 1918. His administration would be loyal to Tammany Hall but also filled with energetic progressives such as Robert Moses, who were eager to make government more efficient in hopes of improving social conditions. Two disparate interest groups—working-class Democratic supporters of the political machine and liberal, more affluent Progressives—came together under Smith and would prove a solid coalition for Democratic politics for decades to come. Such a coalition could have come together only in an urban environment like New York City.

Smith would end up losing his 1928 presidential race in a landslide to Herbert Hoover. Yet the man who made “The Sidewalks of New York” his campaign theme song showed Democrats, even in defeat, a new future for their party. No longer just a Jeffersonian party of rural farmers, the modern Democratic Party would find its greatest strength in Northern cities among the children of immigrants. Smith became the first Democrat to win a majority of the vote in Massachusetts. (Twelve years earlier, Woodrow Wilson had won Massachusetts with 35 percent of the vote in a three-way race.) It was the same with Rhode Island. In addition, Smith won a majority of the vote in the nation’s 12 largest cities. Northern urban ethnic voters would become a core constituency of the New Deal coalition, even if it would be Franklin D. Roosevelt, Smith’s successor as New York’s governor, who would eventually lead that coalition.

New York would find itself again at the forefront of political trends during the New Deal. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a classic polyglot child of immigrants—half-Italian and half-Jewish—was an anti-Tammany Progressive Republican who threw himself into improving the city after his 1933 election. La Guardia’s ambitions meshed with the river of money coming out of Washington during the New Deal. La Guardia became FDR’s favorite mayor, and the city found itself receiving one out of every seven New Deal dollars. New York was soon the beneficiary of large-scale, federally funded public works: parks, playgrounds, pools, hospitals, public housing, and even a new airport.

The New York of La Guardia, Smith, and FDR saw the coalescence of a remarkable political coalition that pushed the country to adopt grander social-welfare policies and expand the powers of government. That coalition helped define the Democratic Party for 40 years. In the postwar world, that drive to use government power to reshape the country through urban renewal was best exemplified by Robert Moses, New York’s master builder and former Smith aide. Urban renewal transformed cities across the country, and no one better represented both the accomplishments and the hubris of the policies that came under that term’s rubric than Robert Moses. Using federal dollars, he was able to reshape the city’s landscape with highways, public housing, parks, and other public works. But they came at a cost.

When the backlash to Moses came, it was another New Yorker who led the way. Writer and Greenwich Village resident Jane Jacobs organized against Moses’s plans to drive a highway through Washington Square Park. More important, she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. One of the most influential books of the late 20th century, it was a full-frontal assault on the then-reigning notions of top-down urban planning.

By the 1960s, the New Deal coalition was starting to fray. The Moses-Jacobs conflict was really a divide within that coalition—between supporters of using government to pursue large-scale public works versus upper-middle-class liberal professionals who began to recoil from some of the effects of those developments on urban life.

Those cracks in the coalition became even more evident in the New York City politics of the 1960s and ’70s. John Lindsay was elected in 1965 and became mayor in 1966 after running as a silk-stocking liberal Republican. He appealed to affluent Upper East Side New Yorkers, the business community, liberal Democrats turned off by the political machine, some outer-borough homeowners, and increasing numbers of blacks and Puerto Ricans. Nationally, Lindsay still identified with the Republican Party, but was more liberal on issues like civil rights and civil liberties and not hostile to social-welfare programs. Today’s political debates are full of discussion about the “white working class” (and increasingly the Hispanic working class) abandoning the Democratic Party, while college-educated professionals move in the other direction, away from Trumpism and toward the Democratic Party. From our historical remove, we can see the gradual drift of the white ethnic working-class away from liberalism and the Democratic Party beginning under Lindsay.

One of Lindsay’s opponents in the 1965 election, William F. Buckley Jr., ran on the newly created Conservative Party ticket and won a surprising 13 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate. Despite his background as a rich and polysyllabic bookish elitist, Buckley found that much of his support came from working- and middle-class New Yorkers in the outer boroughs. As mayor, Lindsay moved to the left, and by his 1969 re-election had fashioned a top-down coalition of business, upper-middle-class professionals, and minority voters. His brand of liberalism was attractive to upwardly mobile New Yorkers but increasingly repellent to the white working class, whose members believed they were bearing the brunt of Lindsay’s policies on crime, taxes, and welfare. With Lindsay, liberalism began to lose its empathy with the working class and began to fashion itself more about the “luxury values” of the college-educated elite. Class snobbishness now fit comfortably with progressive values.

Lindsay’s politics helped drive the city toward near bankruptcy in 1975. The fiscal crisis of that year was an early warning signal about the dangers of what would later be called the “blue-state model” of governance. Once the national economy turned toward stagflation, New York could not continue to spend and borrow as lavishly as it had. Raising taxes had not solved the fiscal problem and only increased the costs of living in New York. The city would lose 800,000 residents during the 1970s, the biggest population drop in its history.

Led by moderate Democrats like Governor Hugh Carey at the state level and Mayor Ed Koch at the city level, New York began enforcing a strict policy of fiscal austerity that caused deep cuts and fiscal pain but also paved the way for a modicum of financial stability in the 1980s and beyond. A city with such large social needs and social spending had to maintain fiscal sanity and retain and grow business if it hoped to prosper. Once again New York City became a bellwether, as Carey and Koch helped foreshadow the more moderate national Democrat Party of Bill Clinton in the 1990s, the one whose leader declared in his 1996 State of the Union message that the era of New Deal big government was over.

Despite restoring some semblance of fiscal stability in the 1980s, New York City could not control crime. In 1990, there were more than 2,200 murders in the city. Every other parked car in the city boasted a “No Radio” sign in the window, an attempt to persuade would-be car thieves not to bother. The sense that something was out of control led to Republican Rudy Giuliani’s election as mayor in 1993. Giuliani put together a coalition of the business community, moderate Democrats, and outer-borough white ethnics that had begun to coalesce in opposition to Lindsay and in response to the fiscal crisis.

Scholars will long debate the causes of New York’s crime drop, but the changing strategy of policing during the Giuliani years no doubt was one of those factors. The turnaround in New York was astounding, as crime overall fell by a staggering 80 percent over the next 25 years. The renaissance in New York was a big story, but cities around the country also found themselves regenerating. After decades of population decline, many American cities saw revived interest in downtown living, and gentrified neighborhoods sprouted up throughout urban America.

Giuliani was part of a larger cohort of centrist mayors in the 1990s—Democrats and Republicans—who helped usher in a period when Americans began to rediscover cities: Stephen Goldsmith in Indianapolis, Richard Riordan in Los Angeles, Tom Menino in Boston, John Norquist in Milwaukee, Michael White in Cleveland, and Dennis Archer in Detroit. But I would argue that the New York renaissance of the 1990s is what helped pave the way for the larger revival of urban living around the nation.

Michael Bloomberg, Giuliani’s ideologically undefinable successor, served three terms that in many ways continued the policies of the Giuliani years, even if the two men were very different. The city continued to grow in population, and crime continued to decline.

Yet in 2013, New York City portended another shift that would have national implications. Voters chose Bill de Blasio to replace Mike Bloomberg as mayor. De Blasio would be the first left-wing mayor of a major city elected in the 21st century and a harbinger of the direction of urban politics. A red-diaper baby, de Blasio had worked for years for more mainstream Democrats such as Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton. Yet he made a central part of his election campaign the dismantling of the stop-and-frisk policies that had led to NYPD officers removing half a million guns from the street. This occurred years before the events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015 that gave birth to the “Black Lives Matter” movement and later the George Floyd protests. The election of de Blasio foreshadowed the next decade of increasingly progressive leadership in America’s cities.

The shift from the Giuliani-Bloomberg years to de Blasio was jarring. How could city voters replace the architects of the city’s renaissance with a man who so clearly opposed the politics of his predecessors? Here New York proved it was at the forefront of a new kind of progressive politics, one that opposed not only conservative Republicans, but also opposed the kind of moderate liberalism that had made an uneasy peace with the policies that had saved the cities. Even so, nationally, the Obama presidency seemed to reinvigorate the nation’s progressives. Into this space rode de Blasio, determined to set the city on a new path. From the Citizens Budget Commission poll, it is clearly a path that is troubling more and more New Yorkers.

At various points in New York history over the last century, New Yorkers have found ways to address serious social, economic, and political problems and change the political debate at the national level: FDR’s New Deal coalition was built on the political career of Al Smith; La Guardia helped build a modern city from the depths of the Depression; Jane Jacobs’s critique of the arrogance of urban planning has made her a folk hero around the world; Carey and Koch and others successfully navigated the city away from the brink of bankruptcy and were part of an early wave of post-McGovern Democrats who sought to temper liberalism; Giuliani and Bloomberg showed that urban crime and disorder could be controlled and that American cities could once again flourish.

Sadly, New York in recent years has been at the forefront of the progressive policies that have made urban living increasingly difficult. The question now becomes whether New York can help find a way out of the situation, as it has done in the past. The city’s current mayor, Eric Adams, exhibits some performative flair in the manner of La Guardia and Koch but none of their deep knowledge of city government and public policy. Most likely, he will continue to govern a city adrift, one that is unable to secure public spaces, that’s staring at a likely impending fiscal calamity and probably losing population. It is hard to imagine Adams representing any kind of larger political movement, despite the best efforts of some on the center-right to portray his 2021 election as a victory for moderate, tough-on-crime Democrats. Nearly three years into his mayoralty, no one is making that case much any longer.

The real question is what comes after Adams. Will New York continue to be a city in steady decline, slowly losing control over its public places as it increasingly becomes a laboratory for left-wing policies and politics? Or will New York see the creation of a new political coalition that will find creative ways to bring stability to the city? As the past century has shown us, the answer to that question may also offer an answer on the fate of the American polity in the 21st century.

Photo: AP Photo/John Minchillo

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