The Streets Were Paved With Gold
by Ken Auletta
Random House, 345 pp., $12.95
On the west side of Manhattan, once called Hell’s Kitchen, a storefront church’s neon sign flashes the message “Sin will find you out.” That should have been the title of Ken Auletta’s new book on the New York City fiscal crisis, because that is his theme.
The sins of New York! An old story. Auletta introduces his version with a summary of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” suggesting that New Yorkers reveled as death (in the form of financial doom) entered their midst. To flesh out his lengthy metaphor, Auletta provides details of life in today’s New York:
$300 per couple buys entry to a masquerade party at the mirrored and varnished discothèque Régine’s, where one can buy scrambled eggs and caviar for $19, Chivas Regal for $90, or—for the abstemious—a bottle of Coca-Cola for $6.
Better yet, wander down Fifth Avenue in pursuit of the “appliances of pleasure.” No, this does not mean sadomasochism has reached the Avenue. Auletta is referring to $4,900 Patek Philippe watches (the economy model), $35 boxes of Belgian chocolates, and $750,000 co-op apartments.
One block east on Madison, shop at boutiques paying rents of $50 per square foot and charging $235 for a child’s dress and $65 for jeans.
The sins of the beautiful people are many, but provoking New York City’s fiscal crisis is surely not among them. Why then does Auletta, a fine New York journalist, introduce his book on New York with the excesses of its inhabitants? First, he is grappling with a perennial question. Were the city’s troubles caused by factors beyond its control, such as population migrations, an imbalance in federal aid, a decline in its manufacturing base? Or were its troubles of its own making? He believes the latter.
Second, Auletta is disturbed that what Mayor Koch calls a renaissance—which Auletta says is confined to Manhattan—will lull observers into concluding the city’s troubles are over. “Manhattan,” he says, “is thriving.” But Manhattan fiddles while the other boroughs burn. To those people in the hinterland who always believed the city’s fiscal problems were the just due of its moral depravity, Auletta offers support. The city worsened its problems by the self-indulgence of its citizens, the short-sightedness of its leaders, and the native arrogance of both.
Finally, while Auletta identifies himself in his introduction as a New Yorker, born in Coney Island of an Italian father and a Jewish mother, he writes with the missionary fervor of a Midwestern Protestant. He is distressed by what he sees as the city’s blind revelry in the face of financial doom in 1975, a revelry that has started up once again with the influx of enormous private wealth to the city. He writes with the pain and the passion of one offended by sin. New York City is his Sadie Thompson.
Auletta has worked hard on this book. He has looked at countless studies …