The title of this book is misleading. Karen Gerard’s subject is one city. New York, and the “scenes” she discusses are random sketches of New York’s political, economic, and cultural life. Gerard, former deputy mayor of New York under Edward Koch, writes like a politician: her style is largely anecdotal, and the book meanders tourist-like on the fringes of economic and social theory. While she presents no coherent plan for the city’s regeneration (as the title suggests. New York is merely a “survivor” and will continue merely to “survive”), she does, as a political insider, identify some of the formidable obstacles to improving life in New York.
Many of these obstacles, she observes, are either created or sustained by governmental intervention. Writing about bureaucratic torpor, she observes that “a little job insecurity can be a great motivator” for mid-level government officials. A single apartment complex proposal spawns a five-pound environ mental-impact statement. Higher taxes push businesses out of New York into states where lower taxes and new communications technology improve both profit margins and the living conditions of employees. Manhattan’s Westway project is a case in point: construction of the sorely needed highway has been enjoined for a decade because of solicitous regard for the mating habits of Hudson River striped bass.
The housing crisis is also the product of ill-considered governmental interference. Rent-control laws first enacted as emergency provisions during the Second World War are still in force. The bargain these regulations created was transformed into a renter’s right after the war. The resulting “irrational behavior and distortions in the operations of the marketplace” led to a decline in maintenance and the eventual abandonment of thousands of buildings that could no longer be operated profitably. As housing stock decreased, the value of the remaining stock rose dramatically. Many New Yorkers moved to the suburbs where they found full houses for less money than they would have paid for a small condominium or cooperative apartment in New York City. The tax base shrank, services declined, and life in New York became less pleasant for those who remained. Gerard’s solution is to eliminate rent controls and to promote tenant ownership of the thousands of apartments owned by the city. Her suggestion, while sound as a longterm economic matter, does not explain how the less-affluent New Yorker will put together a substantial down payment to buy an apartment, nor how he will pay the exorbitant rents that will persist until the deregulated housing market expands. Moreover, the “sweat mortgage” concept, in which abandoned buildings are sold cheaply to those willing to repair them at their own expense, has little to offer the myriad fatherless families other government programs have helped to create.
As a study of urban life and policy, Gerard’s book lacks the depth and direction of, for example, the work of Jane Jacobs. How seriously, after all, can we take an author who turns from musing on whether traditional weddings are back and why Phil Donahue doesn’t dye his hair, to shameless indulgence in self-promotion (“I was a Cassandra in the early 1970s”)? With this kind of short-circuited thinking, it’s no wonder that Gerard must resort to vague calls for “change” whenever she has no clear recommendation for a particular problem. Nonetheless, many of her central observations—that entrepreneurs, not mayors, make jobs; that shortsighted government cultivates long-term crises; and that a populous city need not be an unpleasant place to live—are refreshingly sane and make worthwhile reading.
[American Survivors: Cities and Other Scenes, by Karen Gerard; San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich]