Giulianiís Legacy: Lower Crime, Higher Rents, Dancing Ban

By Steven Wishnia

"NO DANCING," reads the sign behind the bar. Itís not some kitschy 19th-century relic. Itís the law in New York City, as revived by our just-departed mayor, Rudy Giuliani.

Specifically, itís a Prohibition-era cabaret law that bans dancing in bars without a license for it. By the Ď60s, it was only used against gay bars, and that era ended after the June 27, 1969 raid on the Stonewall Inn. But Giuliani--lionized as the mayor who "saved" New York--resurrected it. In the summer of 1998, 70 cops invaded an East Village rock club to shut down a Saturday night dance party. Neighborhood bars have been fined $1,500 because people were dancing to the jukebox.

So some of us who actually live here have a bit of a problem with Giulianiís canonization since September 11. All he did was act like a compassionate human being for a few weeks--granted, quite a feat for a man who announced his plans for divorce on TV before he told his wife--and people were calling him a hero.

"Racist" and "fascist" are not too strong words to describe him. Giuliani refused to meet with black or Latino elected officials--not the borough presidents of the Bronx or Manhattan, not leading members of the City Council--until after the 41-shot police killing of Amadou Diallo in 1999.

The dancing ban was just one of his petty-fascist initiatives. A 1995 law makes it a misdemeanor for 20 or more people to be in a park without a permit--so far, itís only been used against witches, rappers, and Lower East Side squatters. Police often almost outnumber protesters at demonstrations. When black supremacist Khalid Muhammad held a march in Harlem in 1998, Giuliani cut off subway service to the neighborhood.

Still, the cityís establishment hailed him as the savior who tamed the "ungovernable" city, and Giuliani drew around 70% of the white vote in all three of his mayoral races. The biggest reason is that crime was dropped dramatically during his term. How much credit he deserves for that is debatable. The crime decrease is a national trend, and probably more due to the lower unemployment of the Ď90s, the decline in the crack trade, and simple police tactics like using computers to chart high-crime blocks, rather than to Giulianiís much-vaunted "quality of life" initiatives. But what those tactics--attacks on marijuana-smoking, the homeless, squeegee men, etc.--did accomplish was to ease white peopleís perceptions of crime. Some of Giulianiís most ardent defenders are the kind of white people who take cabs everywhere because theyíre scared to ride the subway.

Meanwhile, black New Yorkers supported Giuliani about as much as Jews supported Pat Buchanan. The map of mayoral voting patterns almost perfectly matches the cityís racial map. Giuliani got over 80% of the vote in hardcore white areas like Bensonhurst in Brooklyn and Glendale in Queens, less than 15% in most black districts, and generally around one-third in Latino neighborhoods. (Despite the hype about nonwhite voters deserting Democrat Mark Green to elect Mike Bloomberg, this pattern largely held last November.)

White Giuliani supporters were perfectly content to accept a little police brutality as long as crime was down. He was easily re-elected less than three months after the much-publicized sexual assault and torture of Abner Louima. That support cracked slightly after the Diallo killing, and significantly after Patrick Dorismond was shot by another cop in March 2000 and Giuliani released the victimís sealed juvenile record.

By then, even white New Yorkers seemed weary of Giulianiís bullyhood. He proclaimed himself the patron of "civility," but couldnít disagree with someone without denouncing them as "jerky" or "intellectually dishonest." In late 1999, he made it illegal for homeless people to sleep on the streets, and moved to put their children into foster care. "If Giuliani had been mayor of Bethlehem," the Rev. Al Sharpton thundered at a Union Square rally that December, "they would have put the baby Jesus into foster care."

But like most bullies, he didnít stand up to those bigger than he. He slung insults at the cityís public schools, but at one point actually asked the state for less school aid. When the Republicans in state government blocked renewal of the stateís rent-control laws in 1997, threatening millions of city residents with eviction, Giuliani tiptoed into Albany late on a Friday afternoon to whisper that he supported rent regulations.

Given his record on housing issues--he packed the city Rent Guidelines Board with anti-rent-control ideologues, and took millions in campaign money from landlords--repeal probably would have suited him fine. But especially in an election year, supporting it would have been political suicide. He endorsed the eventual compromise, which basically gutted controls on vacant apartments, and settled for using the rent board as a rubber stamp to impose the biggest increases possible without causing him political damage.

The result: The cityís housing crisis, brewing ever since the greed-is-good speculation of the Reagan economy followed the massive building abandonment of the Ď70s, is now boiling. In the last four years itís become next to impossible to find an apartment for less than $1,000 a month, outside a few neighborhoods.

Giuliani leaves a city that is safer from street crime, but blander and more ruthless. Muggings are down, but the music scene that once bred bebop, rap and the Ramones is deader than itís been in decades. Core Manhattan has become a yuppie playland of $14 blue martinis, while in the rest of the city office cleaners and deli clerks live three to a room, and once-middle-class jobs like teaching and firefighting donít pay enough to cover a two-bedroom apartment.


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