The Ungovernable City
Bum Rap on America's Cities: The Real Causes of Urban Decay
Considering the books under review, I thought it fortunate that Edward Koch doesn’t read much. Friends say New York’s new mayor works “in an oral tradition.” He enjoys movies and conversation. His favorite book, he once told me, was Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking. Neither Douglas Yates’s nor Richard Morris’s book speaks plainly. Each embarks in a different direction, finds different villains, suggests different routes of escape, yet both wind up making the same point: cities can do little for themselves. Hardly a message for a new mayor to learn.
As his title implies, and Yates claims, “the American city is fundamentally ungovernable in its present form.” The reasons are varied: fragmented and overlapping levels of government, rigid and remote bureaucracy, sheer size, constant crisis, the breakup of political machines, scarce resources, a television mentality in which symbols often replace substance, the impossibility of placating disparate special and neighborhood interests, to name a few. Yates mostly blames the confused structures of cities and the processes of running them—not policies—for making cities ungovernable.
Richard Morris, in Bum Rap on America’s Cities, blames policies. Whereas Yates describes cities as victims of tangled social and cultural forces, Morris sees them as victims of identifiable villains. The “real villains of the urban crisis,” he writes, are not “liberals” but (mostly) the banks and the federal government. Greedy banks precipitated New York’s fiscal crisis by turning off the money supply. The federal government is a robber baron, stealing $14.7 billion more in taxes from New York State than it returns. The snowbelt suffers, the sunbelt benefits. “Such a gap between the regions,” he writes, “is the true cause of the urban fiscal and economic crisis.” Sure, he concedes, New York was sometimes guilty of mismanagement, but “liberals are, indeed, taking a bum rap” because New York’s crisis is “not the result of any error in direction or approach.” Those believing otherwise belong to his villainous club of right-wing conservatives, spiritually led by the twin devils, Agnew and Nixon.
The problem of assuming a city is ungovernable is much like the problem of assuming kids can’t learn to read: the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling; the explanation becomes an excuse. Yates’s description of the many obstacles to urban reform—and his modest proposals—become, unwittingly, a prescription for merely tinkering with the system. Sorry, but nothing works. Morris sees little reason to do more than tinker with New York’s government since it did not cause the fiscal crisis. The villains outside did.
Both conclusions merge, for both tend to offer moral support to public officials who make careers of avoiding blame. Because the city was ungovernable, John Lindsay, whom Yates once worked for, sought and narrowly won re-election behind the slogan, “The Second Toughest Job in America.” Robert Wagner, his predecessor, won in 1961 by blaming the failures of his first two terms on “the bosses.” Abe Beame, Lindsay’s successor, first blamed…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.