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Giuliani's Legacy: A Change In The Way New Yorkers Think About Crime, Welfare, Quality Of Life, Squeegee Men

By John Tierney

The first step in assessing a mayor's legacy is to disregard the press clippings. We journalists get distracted by personalities, by feuds, by our bias to see something happening that will fill our news hole. Fiorello La Guardia and John Lindsay were both lionized by the press because they were so energetic and made such good copy. But their legacies are far less inspiring. I think they were the two worst mayors of the 20th century.

La Guardia rescued New York from bankruptcy and Tammany Hall, but he also left New York with higher taxes, larger bureaucracies, more entrenched civil servants, rent control, public housing projects and many, many debts. He built some great public works, but he also helped create the organizations that now eat up so much public money that we can barely afford to maintain our public facilities, let along build anything new.

John Lindsay was wonderfully photogenic when he walked the streets to keep the peace, but his lasting legacy in poor neighborhoods was the doubling of the welfare rolls. During one of the greatest economic booms in history, he encouraged 600,000 adults to stop working. Their children and grandchildren are still paying the price. And so, of course, are taxpayers -- at least the ones who didn't flee town to escape the singularly destructive array of new taxes that Lindsay came up with to finance his social visions.

Giuliani's legacy is less grandiose -- and that's a relief. Mayors ought to be guided by the same principle as doctors: First do no harm. Giuliani hasn't left us with huge new programs to pay for. There are some unnecessary stadiums, but even those white elephants are cheap by traditional New York standards.

His greatest legacy is psychological. He has changed the way New Yorkers think about crime, welfare, quality of life, squeegee men. We can argue how much credit he really deserves for the drop in crime -- a lot, I think. But even if you don't believe he deserves most of the credit for what happened, he has undeniably changed the way people perceive crime and crime fighting. It used to be considered beyond a mayor's control, beyond the police's control. Remember when the Daily News ran that headline pleading with Mayor Dinkins to "DO SOMETHING"? It summed up the city's frustration, but not many of us thought that the mayor could actually do much. Giuliani's campaign promises to reduce crime were dismissed as hopelessly unrealistic -- mere code words designed to appeal to people's racism.

Now it's different. Thanks to the perception that Giuliani brought down crime, people expect the next mayor to do the same. And thanks to the Comstat crime-reporting reforms of Giuliani's administration, people will know quickly if crime starts going back up. So there is enormous pressure on future mayors and the police department to keep crime down. That is a crucial legacy.

The same goes for the Squeegee Watershed, as I like to call the revolution in thinking about quality of life . Before Giuliani, the squeegee guys who forcibly washed car windows when drivers stopped for red lights were considered inevitable. He was mocked for even suggesting that they should be banished. Columnists called it a trivial issue, a mean-spirited attack on the poor. But Giuliani ignored them and kept pressing the issue, and the squeegee extortionists disappeared. The next mayor is sure to keep up the pressure -- Mark Green has threatened to cut off the arm of the first squeegee man he sees. New Yorkers will not tolerate the grime and disorder that became the norm in the 1970s and 1980s. They've seen it doesn't have to be that way.

But beyond that psychological legacy, how has Giuliani changed the city and the way the government operates? Here the answers are not so inspiring. Our economy has boomed, but it's still dangerously dependent on Wall Street. A lot more people want to live and do business here because the streets are safer and cleaner, but the taxes are still exorbitant and the cost of housing is still prohibitively high.

Like LaGuardia, one of Rudy Giuliani's greatest strengths is also his greatest flaw. Both of them saw themselves as beyond ideology; they said they were not zealots guided by political principles. This sounds nice in the abstract. But it also means that, if you are not guided by an ideology, you run the risk of being guided by personal whim. Both Giuliani and LaGuardia had the overriding conviction that they knew better how to run things than anybody else.

Giuliani campaigned on promises to reduce taxes and the size of government. He talked the reinventing-government talk. He had gone to the Manhattan Institute; he had taken advice from mayors like Steve Goldsmith of Indianapolis. Goldsmith liked to tell his own squeegee story. When Goldsmith came into the city to advise Giuliani, he was stopped by one of the squeegee men. It occurred to him that city government is like a squeegee man: It provides a service you didn't ask for; it does the job badly; and then it charges you. Goldsmith improved public services in Indianapolis by introducing competition: letting private companies bid against public agencies for jobs.

Giuliani did a little of this his first term with bids for a couple of park districts. Homeless services were privatized very effectively. But then the effort pretty much stopped. He gave up reinventing government in exchange for peace with the unions.

The number of city employees is now greater than at any time in the past quarter century. Giuliani has streamlined some of the regulatory apparatus, reorganized agencies and improved management, but he hasn't made the fundamental reforms that are guaranteed to last. His legacy is a municipal government that is still the most bloated in America.

At the same time, there's been a major change in the city's welfare state. Ten years ago, welfare reform and workfare were terribly controversial ideas. Workfare was compared to slavery. Advocates howled when Giuliani insisted on fingerprinting welfare recipients to prevent fraud. Giuliani ignored them. He scoffed at the city's intellectual establishment. How, he asked, could intellectuals object to fingerprinting someone who gets a check for doing nothing when people who work for their checks are being fingerprinted? Today you don't hear many complaints about fingerprinting. The social-services industry is still strong and fighting, but Giuliani has changed the intellectual atmosphere about welfare. More important, he has halved the welfare rolls, reversing the expansion of the Lindsay era.

The results have been dramatic, as the New York Times documented in a series about a block of Harlem. Over the course of five years it was transformed from a dangerous place where few people worked to a safe street where former welfare recipients now go to work in the morning. It was revived thanks to welfare reform, the drop in crime and another unheralded program of Giuliani's: the return of property to private owners. The Giuliani administration has been rushing to sell off all the buildings that the city owned, which has made an enormous difference in the poor neighborhoods blighted by these boarded-up buildings.

The revival of poor neighborhoods is one of Giulianis' lasting legacies It was always relatively safe to live on the Upper West Side or the Upper East Side. The poor neighborhoods are where the most lives have been saved and the most blocks have been transformed by Giuliani. It is ironic, of course, that those are the neighborhoods where is least admired. His unpopularity is partly his own fault -- his lack of effort to reach out to those communities, his insensitivity to the resentment caused by some of his policies, notably policing. But he is also disliked because he is a Rep ublican taking on a Democratic establishment, and because he is a reformer attacking the social programs that provided so much patronage in those neighborhoods. Previous mayors poured plenty of empathy and money into Harlem, which delighted (and enriched) the local leaders but did little for the neighborhoods. Lindsay and Dinkins left a legacy of good will. Giuliani leaves a legacy of good neighborhoods.

John Tierney is a columnist for the New York Times


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