Fresh Ideas for a City Dying From a Lack of Them
I’d like to recommend some striking reading — a special issue of the quarterly magazine, Dissent. It is a collection of articles about New York City that earns the right to become the starting point, the basic discussion document, for any dialogue about the future of this city.
Because of the richness of the style, anecdote, research and historical memory that inform this 233-page look at the city, I have to regard it as a needed companion, an alternative, to the recent report by the Mayor’s Commission on the Year 2000. And it is the more valuable of the two.
I fear that in using such words as research and document, I have run the risk of setting off yawns. I see people reaching for their Judith Krantz.
Well, the special Dissent issue won’t replace page-turning bedroom fiction, but I’ll offer some passages that might delay the yawns.
Here is Deborah Meier, principal of a Harlem school and one of the best educators around, from her article titled “Good Schools Are Still Possible.” Talking about the sham of preparing children to do little else but show well on the annual reading test, she writes:
“Since we now used exactly the same reading tests every year from grades 2-8, teaching to the test was fairly easy. Many schools did virtually nothing but test practice from January through April. With no new ideas, larger class sizes and the same old teachers, the city’s scores experienced a remarkable and steady rise.
“Yet no one in the city’s high schools praised us for sending them better readers. In fact, things got worse in the high schools. By the mid-1980s, a majority of black and Hispanic youngsters were dropping out without diplomas. But [former chancellor Frank] Macchiarola managed the news well enough to keep this data out of the public eye until after he departed in the spring of 1983.”
Since more than 40 voices are heard in this collection, there is no uniformity of opinion. But there is uniformity of another kind. The tone, for example, is civilized throughout, never shrill. And all the writers demonstrate a caring feeling, a kind of love, for New York City.
What is also uniform about these articles is that you will not often read their kind in the city’s mainstream newspapers or magazines, which hew either to the political middle or to the right of it. The perspectives in Dissent are those of the democratic left.
Virtually every facet of city life is explored — politics, neighborhoods, the Koch administration and its adoption of Reaganism’s values, real estate development, new power elites, new minorities, new immigrants, Yuppies, day care, schools, housing, labor unions, architecture, culture and the arts.
Ada Louise Huxtable writes with power about the demise of urban planning and vision: “The Planning Commission is no longer the proposer of plans and projects, the initiator of ideas and interventions, the agency responsible for evaluation of the multiple effects of massive construction. It functions reactively to the proposals of others, reviewing them only after the developer’s horse has left the barn at a fast trot…it calls none of the originating shots except to auction off sites for super projects that relate to nothing much farther away than the mega building next door…Every major new structure broke the city’s existing scale and overpowered the streets…shrewd image-salesman and their abetting architects raised the ante and the buildings to a sickening scale…”
The articles are not exercises in negativism, for they go far beyond criticism to offer clear strategies for improvement. About creating services to protect the city’s neglected and abused children, Maxine Phillips writes:
“Where would the money come from? An alternative budget drawn up by the City Project describes a need in 1987-88 for an additional $48 million to provide early intervention, increased staff salaries, increased child care and homemaker services, neighborhood centers to service high-risk families and children, etc….the ‘Alterbudget’ recommends such actions as extending mortgage recording and real-property transfer taxes to cover [currently untaxed] cooperative apartments…Closing this loophole would result in an additional $60 million. The money is there. The will is not.”
The Dissent issue is also very good at dispelling some deeply entrenched myths, such as the one our city and state governments keep peddling about the near impossibility, given present market conditions and shrunken federal aid, of building low-income housing.
Jim Sleeper writes about the 1,000 single-family attached homes that have been produced for low-income working people not by government but by the initiative and organizing power of an alliance of East Brooklyn churches. He say of this success story, called the Nehemiah Plan: “…mostly black and Hispanic poor people instructed white officials…in the rebuilding of civic consensus and a decent America. That kind of racial roles reversal is part of the new tide that must gather strength.”
And then there is the incisive introductory essay by Irving Howe, one of the founders of Dissent 33 years ago. He looks at Reaganism and at how it was “translated” by Mayor Edward Koch “into an abandonment, first embarrassed and then defiant, of social feeling. You no longer had to feel ‘bad’ or ‘guilty’ about the blacks and the poor, you no longer had to agonize about Vietnam…Koch became what the Borscht Belt called a ‘tumler,’ the sort of entertainer whose gift for comedy isn’t always to be distinguished from his ability to make noise. Once he spoke, people could unbutton their petty contempts.”
You can get the special issue by sending $5 to Dissent, 521 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017 or by calling the magazine at (212) 595-3084. I don’t think you’ll yawn.