Donald Trump is ticked off. Here he is, giving a personal guided tour of the new apartment he is having built for himself at the very top of the 52-storey Manhattan tower that bears his name. Or, at least, one of the Manhattan towers that bears his name, for being Donald Trump, one is clearly not enough. He is showing off the marble floors, the six bedrooms, the 25-foot ceilings—but something isn’t right. “Hey, you’re gonna wreck my walls,” Trump snaps at a workman balanced at the top of a ladder. “Watch out for my walls.” A moment later he recovers and gestures out at the city through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls of his new living room. There are stunning panoramas on three sides—east over Central Park, straight down Broadway to the south, west across the Hudson River. “New York City,” says Trump in a tone that suggests even The Donald is a little awed. “It’s the king of cities. It’s the place.”
For true New Yorkers, of course, it has always been the place. To them, The City (no fuller description needed) is like sex—even when it’s bad, it’s good. But these days, the rest of the world is discovering a new New York: the safest big city in the United States; the country’s top tourist destination; the most desirable place to live in America (according to a new poll); epicentre of the longest and strongest stock market boom in memory; and, most strangely, given its famously edgy nature, a decidedly sunny and optimistic place. Urban experts from Tucson to Toronto journey to New York not as they once did, to study particularly horrible examples of inner-city blight, but to examine what has become a model of how cities can resurrect themselves. Trump’s own trajectory as the brashest real estate developer in a town that defines the notion of brash parallels that of his city: from boom in the 1980s to bust in the early ’90s to even bigger boom now. “People said we wouldn’t see the ’80s again; they said it was a fluke,” he says. “But this is better than ever. It’s amazing.”
Trump is bringing out a new book, and like everything else he touches it has his name up front. Trump: The Art of the Comeback will detail his personal and economic recovery. Comeback is also the operative word for New York, and like everything else the city does, it is on a grand scale. Cities across North America are seeing a drop in crime and a regeneration of troubled neighborhoods—but New York’s rebound is more dramatic than any other. Partly it is a sheer matter of size: if New York were a country, its economic output would by one estimate be roughly $345 billion a year, or more than that of the entire province of Ontario ($323 billion). Partly it is New York’s symbolic role as the place where urban woes were most visible and seemingly most intractable. When New York appeared ungovernable, pessimism spread about the chances of turning other cities around. Now that New York is on the mend, so the thinking goes, surely others can follow.
The change is certainly remarkable. Only a few years ago, New York’s signature events were of the kind that scare tourists away and make middle-class residents add new locks to their doors. In 1989, it was the brutal gang rape of a woman jogging in Central Park. In 1991, it was racial violence between Hasidic Jews and blacks in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Police seemed to surrender the streets and subways to panhandlers, drug dealers and thieves. As recession struck, New York lost 300,000 jobs in four years and the city ran record deficits. “Every upper-middle-class conversation was about how to get out,” recalls historian Fred Siegel, author of a new book on U.S. cities called The Future Once Happened Here. “There was an evacuation mentality.”
All that has changed—and just in time for Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to cruise comfortably towards re-election next week. Polls put him as much as 29 points ahead of his hapless Democratic rival, Ruth Messinger. They also show that the 7.3 million New Yorkers, by and large, give Giuliani most of the credit for turning the city around over the past four years. Not that they have any particular affection for him. The New York Observer, the media-savvy weekly, noted tartly that “he is sometimes rude, defensive and paranoid, and he is feared by friend and foe alike.” And that came in an editorial strongly endorsing Giuliani for re-election on Nov. 4. He is content, it seems, to be respected rather than loved.
At the very least, Giuliani is successful. All the key indicators that were heading in the wrong direction during the tenure of his Democratic predecessor, David Dinkins, have turned around under Giuliani. He made his reputation in the 1980s as a district attorney crusading against New York’s persistent cancer of organized crime, and it is his administration’s record in cutting crime that is at the heart of his popularity. The number of murders is down 62 per cent since 1993, to a 29-year low (there have been 612 so far this year, down 22 per cent from the same time last year alone). Robberies are down 47 per cent. New York, Giuliani boasted recently, now ranks only No. 161 on the FBI’s list of the most dangerous cities in America—below that of all others with a million or more people. Tourists, both American and foreign, are rediscovering the city and driving hotel occupancy rates to record levels. An estimated 31.9 million people will visit New York this year (among them just over one million Canadians, by far the largest group of foreigners). Profits from one of New York’s longest-running shows—the boom on Wall Street—are pouring billions of extra tax dollars into city coffers. Its chronic deficit has turned into a $1.7-billion budget surplus.
Of course, there are doubters and a raft of serious problems. Unemployment is at 9.3 per cent, twice the U.S. national average. If Wall Street tanks, the city’s economy could be devastated. The school system is a mess and crime is still a constant concern. Incidents that are shocking by any standards still happen with alarming frequency: in early October, six Manhattan high-school students were arrested for allegedly sodomizing a 13-year-old girl in a school bathroom as part of a gang initiation rite. But perception changes everything: those troubles no longer seem like part of a relentless trend. At City Hall, Giuliani’s aides exude a confidence bordering on arrogance, a fair reflection of the mayor himself. “New York is now the place most people would like to live if they could,” boasts Randy Mastro, Giuliani’s deputy mayor for operations and one of his closest advisers. “The pride is back; the sense of hope is back.”
It begins with the simplest thing: the ability to walk along a clean, safe street. Historian Siegel sits in a café outside his office in the East Village and describes how the street had been taken over by drug dealers and petty criminals selling stolen goods: “It was a thieves’ market; you had to pick your way through mounds of garbage. You do that every day, and you get angry.” After Giuliani took office early in 1994, his police commissioner, William Bratton, ordered a crackdown on street crime. Siegel’s stretch of sidewalk—and hundreds of others—became usable again. Exhibit A in any tour of the new, cleaned-up New York is Times Square, notorious not so long ago as the city’s cesspool, its biggest concentration of emporia catering to every conceivable sexual preference and some rather inconceivable ones (like the brothel specializing in transsexuals). There are still peep shows and porn outlets along nearby Eighth Avenue, but Times Square itself has been tamed. Where a rundown hotdog stand once stood is the Disney Store, a relentlessly cheery slice of Middle America. Next door, on West 42nd Street, Disney has turned the New Amsterdam Theater from a vacant hulk into a smartly renovated showcase for its stage version of The Lion King. All around are wholesome, upbeat outlets—an ersatz ’40s-style diner called Stardust; the All-Star Cafe dominated by larger-than-life smiling portraits of Wayne Gretzky and Andre Agassi; plus the Gap and Starbucks and other stalwarts of Any Mall, U.S.A.
Along 42nd Street itself, legendary home to the original New York theatres, the lights are coming back on. Theatres that had been turned into porn cinemas or simply left empty are being renovated under the guidance of a nonprofit agency called The New 42nd Street. "The street became a symbol for the city and claiming the city back,” says Cora Cahan, its president. “If you could turn 42nd Street around, you could turn the city around.”
The most ambitious project was undertaken by Toronto’s Garth Drabinsky, whose company, Livent Inc., leased two turn-of-the-century theatres, the Apollo and the Lyric. Both had illustrious pasts, but not much more. Drabinsky had their historic architectural details—most of them in dirty, chipped old plaster—painstakingly restored. Livent is combining the two theatres into a new venue called the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, a 1,799-seat theatre that is scheduled to open on Dec. 26 for preview performances of the musical Ragtime, which Livent first mounted in a theatre of the same name in the Toronto suburb of North York. The Ford Center will be the second-biggest theatre in Times Square, a $41-million project that gives Drabinsky his own stage in the heart of New York’s historic entertainment district. "This block has always been an important thoroughfare,” he says. “This will give it a giant new asset.”
To an outsider, breathing new life into decrepit old landmark buildings seems like an unalloyed good thing. But there are hard-core New Yorkers who take a special pride in the city’s on-the-edge existence and sneer at what they call its “Disneyfication.” In some places, they mean it quite literally. On Fifth Avenue, hard by Christian Dior and other upmarket outlets, yet another Disney Store and something called Coca-Cola Fifth Avenue vie for the tourist dollar. Along 57th Street, still one of the world’s most elegant shopping lanes, Tiffany’s and Piaget now share sidewalk space with Planet Hollywood, a Warner Bros. store dominated by a looming portrait of Scooby Doo, and NikeTown, a five-storey palace devoted to sports shoes and T-shirts. Elsewhere in Manhattan, the likes of Home Depot, Toys “R” Us and—horrors!—Kmart have opened, scandalizing the sophisticates. “As a native New Yorker,” says writer Steven Fraccaro, 45, “I take it almost as a personal insult.”
One of the Kmarts can be found, ironically, on the edge of the East Village, which along with the adjoining Lower East Side is one of the city’s liveliest, trendiest areas. New York has always attracted creative people in every field, and one of the newest waves has washed up in the East Village and along Broadway in what has become known as Silicon Alley, in ironic counterpoint to California’s Silicon Valley. New media companies—by one estimate there are just over 2,100 of them employing 32,000 people—form the biggest concentration anywhere of expertise in Internet design and cutting-edge media technology. It is a fluid, fast-growing scene that combines computer skills with the area’s traditional strengths in advertising and design.
It is also very young. Henry Bar-Levav, who came to New York from Toronto in 1983 as a sculpture student with an interest in computers, has run Oven Digital Inc. in the heart of Silicon Alley since May, 1996. He is 36, his partner is 30, and none of his 21 employees is over 30. “It’s a twentysomething thing,” he says, looking out over an open space on the fifth floor of an old industrial building where Oven Digital’s staff is busy working on Web sites and Internet ads for blue-chip clients like the Museum of Modern Art, HarperCollins Publishers and AT&T. Another thing: “No one here is from New York. I’m from Canada. We have Alabama, China, Switzerland, Germany, Massachusetts. They all come to New York and they feed off the energy here.” The Alley is growing fast: a new study last week concluded that the new media sector has doubled in size in the past 18 months alone to generate revenues of $4 billion a year.
That, however, is essentially a Manhattan phenomenon, and only one New Yorker in five lives there. In some ways, the most astonishing revival has come elsewhere—in what Manhattanites condescendingly refer to as the “outer boroughs.” Brooklyn and Queens have been remade by waves of new immigrants—the biggest influx since the first two decades of the century. The city has absorbed an average of 113,000 newcomers each year of this decade, many of them from Central America, China, Korea, Mexico, India and Pakistan. A third of all New Yorkers are now foreign-born. And perhaps the most dramatic turnaround has been in the Bronx, the borough that came to symbolize everything wrong about the old New York. The South Bronx was home to Fort Apache, the embattled police station; it was where president Jimmy Carter went in 1977 to gaze on blocks and blocks of burned-out buildings; it was where Sherman McCoy, the fictional Master of the Universe financier in Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of the greed-is-good 1980s, The Bonfire of the Vanities, took a wrong turn off an expressway and ended up in the urban heart of darkness.
These days, even the South Bronx is experiencing a comeback. If Sherman McCoy stumbled in now, he might well end up chowing down on a taco in one of the new Mexican restaurants along 138th Street. Mexicans, mostly illegal immigrants, have moved into the poorest part of the South Bronx, known as Mott Haven. Rev. John Grange, priest at St. Jerome’s Church in the heart of Mott Haven since 1976, says the change has been good for the neighborhood: the Mexicans tend to have strong families, they work hard—and they are devout Catholics who pack his stately old church every Sunday.
But it is all relative. The comeback in the South Bronx is a modest one. Murder rates have declined, but murals on street corners still stand as testaments to teenagers killed in gang violence. “In memory of Kev,” says one, with the dates 1-2-72 and 10-12-91. “Kev” was 19 when he died on the corner. Five years ago, Grange was burying one person under 40 every week, dead from drugs or violence or AIDS. Now, he says, “it’s about half that.” New businesses are springing up, and a nonprofit church group has built almost 600 new homes on blocks burned out during the worst years.
Grange is 57 and grew up in the area in the 1940s, when it was mainly Irish and German. He learned Spanish as a missionary in Puerto Rico and spends much of his time working with the Mexicans, mostly Indians from the poor southern states of Oaxaca and Pueblo. Without a trace of irony, he describes how he uses a Bible study guide prepared by priests in Mexico for use among the peasants of Chiapas. From the garden behind his church, one can glimpse the towers of Manhattan, but Grange says, “I guess it’s more like Chiapas here.” Still, things are better than they were five years ago: “There’s less hopelessness, less apathy; there’s more doing and striving.” Why is all this happening now? To be sure, Giuliani has been lucky: he came into office as a powerful economic recovery was taking hold and paying the city big dividends in unexpected tax revenues. But he also brought what Fred Siegel describes in The Future Once Happened Here as a “prosecutor’s zeal for taking on the bad guys.” In his case, the bad guys included the Mafia families that dominated private garbage collection, food distribution and much construction in the city. They also included politicians who specialized in power-broking among the city’s racial and ethnic groups: one of Giuliani’s moves was to abolish the dozen City Hall offices devoted to separate constituencies such as African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Asians and homosexuals. There was even an office of “European affairs” to cater to those who did not fit in anywhere else. “New York used to be balkanized by special interest politics,” says his deputy Mastro. “We got rid of all of them.”
But it is Giuliani’s success in fighting crime that overshadows everything else. Before the mayor took office, William Bratton was head of New York’s transit police and had gone a long way towards making its subway system cleaner and safer. He was a follower of the so-called broken windows theory that is now all the rage among experts in policing. Its premise is that if seemingly minor things (like a broken window) are not fixed, vandals and thieves will see it as a sign that no one cares and take over entire buildings and neighborhoods. In practice, it meant that Bratton ordered his officers to crack down on minor infractions of public order like subway fare-jumping, aggressive panhandling and graffiti writing. They found that many of those stopped for those offences were wanted for more serious crimes or were carrying guns.
When Giuliani became mayor, he named Bratton as his police commissioner and the theory was applied citywide. In a move that came to symbolize taking back control of the streets, police moved against the so-called squeegee people who intimidated motorists stopped at red lights. And Bratton reorganized his massive department (it has 38,000 uniformed members—almost as many as Canada’s army and navy combined). It developed a way to measure the number of crimes committed in all 76 precincts on a daily basis, and held local commanders closely accountable for the results. Bratton eventually clashed head-on with Giuliani and quit as commissioner last year. But he fundamentally changed the way the experts think about policing: criminologists who once focused on underlying social causes of crime, like poverty and demographics, now concede that police can make a difference. “Police can be effective independent of what’s going on in society,” says Bratton, now a consultant who has advised police departments as far away as Berlin and Brazil. “They can take back control of the streets for society.”
There have been downsides: complaints of police brutality have gone up sharply, dramatized in August by the apparent torture of a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima at a police station in Brooklyn. One of the officers charged with the crime allegedly told Louima “this is Giuliani time” as he sodomized him with a toilet plunger and then forced it into his mouth, breaking several teeth. The implication was that the mayor’s get-tough orders to the police were a green light for brutal behavior. But even Giuliani’s critics acknowledge that he acted swiftly to deal with the crime.
With his re-election next week all but assured, Giuliani has started talking about what he intends to do in a second term. He will turn his attention to fighting drug use, he says, and focus on improving the city’s troubled school system. And he has warned that the good times on Wall Street will not last forever. That remains the city’s Achilles heel: its wellzbeing is bound closely to one cyclical industry, and it remains highly taxed and highly regulated by government. In the meantime, though, the critics are muted. New York’s revival shows no sign of slowing. It’s a nice place to visit again. In fact, you might even want to live there.
Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.