Sunday, April 3, 2016

New York City Saves Itself (1975)

Looking Back

Questioning The Mayor: Jeff Nussbaum writes for The New Yorker: “While New York City Mayor Abraham Beame was described by allies and adversaries alike as kind and honorable, he also seemed paralyzed by the intensifying challenges of his office.”
Photo Credit: Clarence Davis; NY Daily News
Source: The New Yorker; Getty Images

An article, by Jeff Nussbaum, in The New Yorker looks at a seminal event in the history of one of the world’s great cities: New York City, and how it came close to declaring bankruptcy in October 1975. In  “The Night New York City Saved Itself From Bankruptcy” (October 15, 2015), Nussbaum writes about the time when Mayor Abraham Beame found himself in an unenviable position:
On October 16, 1975, New York City was deep in crisis. At 4 P.M. the next day, four hundred and fifty-three million dollars of the city’s debts would come due, but there were only thirty-four million dollars on hand. If New York couldn’t pay those debts, the city would officially be bankrupt.
At the Waldorf-Astoria, in Midtown, seventeen hundred guests were gathering for the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation benefit dinner, a white-tie fund-raiser for the Catholic charities named in honor of Al Smith, a former governor and the first Catholic candidate on a major-party Presidential ticket. As day turned to night, the bad news continued to come in. Banks were refusing to market the city’s debt, which left New York unable to borrow. Federal help was repeatedly refused by President Gerald Ford and his advisers. The only hope left was pension funds. And the only one that had committed to buying the city’s bonds—the Teachers’ Retirement System—was now pulling back.
In the end, the teachers’ union, led by Al Shanker, came through and committed its pension funds to help the city. President Ford’s speech and his hard unsympathetic refusal to help New York also contributed to his election loss the following year. This would suggest that one ought to never underestimate New Yorkers or the importance of the city, not only economically but also politically and culturally.

I am not a New Yorker, but I love the city, having visited in many times since the late 1970s. Then, it was an easy six-hour ride by car from Montreal, when crossing the border was not as big a deal as it is today. A passport was not necessary. I remember the city’s grittiness the first time I visited as a young man in 1977, feeling a combination of thrill and energy with ominous threats of violence and aggression. Much of that, however, might have been a result of reading too many newspaper and magazine stories and watching too many crime shows on TV. Even so, there were many boarded up buildings and abandoned burned-up cars on streets and bridges as well as lots of graffiti—not a pretty sight. As the saying goes, “you had to be there.”

I continued to visit in the 1980s and ’90s, mostly on business, and saw its transformation, notably the area around Times Square [so named after the newspaper], a 30-year project that was initiated in the 1980s under the leadership of Mayor Ed Koch [1978–89], who is credited with revitalizing the city. It felt different, yet familiar, albeit with less feelings of grittiness and with less visible abandoned and boarded-up buildings—and also less graffiti. It became, without a doubt, cleaner and safer; but it also became more expensive and, perhaps, as some say more sanitized and “Disneyfied.” Sure, gritty might be honest, but honesty can also be brutal and distressing.

It is my view that New York generally benefited. Whether this translates to better for everyone, I leave to New Yorkers to say. It is true that buildings characterize a city, but then again, so do its people.

I last visited New York a little more than 10 years ago, in 2005, when my wife and I took a short weekend trip to Manhattan. The people we met were as friendly and warm, with a good sense of humor, as has always been the case, or at least this is what my memory informs me as reality. My reality. I guess that the city and its inhabitants somehow resonate with me. A visit might likely be long overdue.

For more, go to [NewYorker]

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