The Streets Were Paved with Gold

BOOK: The Streets Were Paved with Gold
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First Vintage Books Edition, March 1980
Copyright © 1975, 1976, 1977, 1979 by Ken Auletta
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American
Copyright Conventions.
Published in the United States by Random House, Inc.,
New York, and in Canada by Random
House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Originally published by Random House, Inc., in March 1979.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:

Brookings Institution: Excerpt from Richard P. Nathan and Paul R. Dommel, “The Cities,” in Joseph A. Pechman, ed.,
Setting National Priorities: The 1978 Budget
, (Brookings Institution, 1977),
this page
.

Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.: Abridged excerpt from
this page

this page
of “Here Is New York” in
Essays of E. B. White
(1977) by E. B. White. Copyright 1949 by E. B. White. Reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

New England Economic Review
: Excerpt from Lynn Browne and Richard Syron,
New England Economic Review
, July/August 1977,
this page
.

“More for Less” appeared originally in
The New Yorker.

“Profile of Abe Beame” by Ken Auletta is reprinted courtesy of
The New York Times.
© 1975 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.

“How the Lies of New York’s Political Midgets Are Destroying the City,” “After the Storm, the Hurricane,” and “What It’s Like to Be Dead: A Report from City Hall” are reprinted by permission of
The Village Voice.
© The Village Voice, Inc., 1975.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Auletta, Ken.

The streets were paved with gold.

1. New York (City)—Economic conditions. 2. Finance, Public—New York (City) 3. New York (City)—Politics and government—1951- I. Title. HC108.N7A9 1980 336.747′1 79–22305

eISBN: 978-0-307-80071-8

v3.1

For Nettie
and Pat Auletta

Acknowledgments

I
HAPPEN TO HAVE
one of the world’s great jobs. As a journalist, people pay me to meet people, travel, get an education, get my name in the papers, have fun. Journalism is prolonged adolescence.

Writing a book is not as much fun. But you get to work with nice people, some of whom I’d like to thank. My close friend, Richard Reeves, goaded me to write this book and painstakingly reviewed the manuscript. When his legs go, Reeves will make a luminous editor. Ray Horton, Howard Samuels, George Sternlieb, Steve Clifford, Dick Ravitch and my agent, Esther Newberg, also took time to read the book and offer valuable suggestions. Mimi Gurbst charitably assisted with fact-checking, as did Mary Schoonmaker. Tully Plesser suggested the book’s title. Mike O’Neill, editor of the New York
Daily News
, generously extended my leave of absence with greater frequency than Abe Beame amended his budget deficits. Random House is my publisher because I was eager to work with Jason Epstein, an educated man. I was not disappointed. His assistant, Sara Binder, was of great help, as was copy editor Lynn Strong.

Obviously, any blame for this book is mine. If there be any credit, I would like to share it with someone who had a profound effect on my thinking about New York—Howard Samuels. I had the good fortune to work for Howard on and off from 1965 through 1974. In between helping him lose three gubernatorial campaigns, I listened and learned a lot. He is one of the few liberals I have known who knew how to read a budget. As early as the mid-sixties, he was warning of the city’s gathering fiscal crisis, of the budget gimmicks, the collapse of New York’s economy. At a time when many of us measured the size of a candidate’s heart, Samuels was presciently measuring the institutional rot of our governments—their mismanagement, musclebound civil service system, the too-pervasive power of special-interest groups. From the voters, Howard never received the recognition he deserved. From me, he receives both recognition and thanks.

And, finally, I wish to thank Amanda, who spent the better part of a year staring at my back as I pounded away at the typewriter. During that time, she provided equal measures of constructive criticism and love.

Introduction

A
TRIP TO PARIS
inspired this book about New York. Walking with a friend along the sun-drenched Seine, stopping to watch boats gently paddle by, passing the majestic Louvre, the hooded outdoor cafés brimming with relaxed, beautiful women, the tiny shops stuffed with treats and treasures—somehow my thoughts drifted back to New York. Not to the gloomy New York—the fiscal crisis, which I had covered since early 1975, the lost jobs, the slums—but to New York’s treasures: the meadows and gently rolling hills of Central and Prospect parks; the postcard-perfect Manhattan skyline glimpsed from the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights; the calzone and other Italian treats of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, the cornucopia of treats along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It was hot in land-locked Paris; hotter than it normally was in Coney Island, where I grew up, and where the roar of the ocean made the hum of the air conditioner superfluous.

The daydream terminated when my friend abruptly asked, “When are you going to stop covering a local story and start covering some big national stories?” Weren’t New York’s fiscal woes so advanced as to be hopeless? Wasn’t I bored?

No, I wasn’t bored.

No, my continuing anger suggested that I really didn’t believe New York was hopeless.

Besides, New York was
the
big story. Maybe it would take a book to convey that. Maybe a detailed probe of New York’s difficulties could communicate not just what went wrong here, and why, but what was going wrong in other older cities. Maybe it could illuminate some national, even universal questions: the decline of aging cities; the reasons for the rising taxpayer revolt; the inherent conflict between democracy’s social goals and its economic system, between organized special-interest groups and the broader public interest. “You can’t get anything through the state legislature in an election year that the unions don’t want,” Mayor Ed Koch told me in June 1978. “I don’t want to paint with a broad brush and say the legislators are in the pockets—in every case—of the union leaders.” If they were as honest, the mayor of Atlanta might say the same thing about the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor of Houston about the oil companies, the President of the United States about the arbitrary power of Senator Russell Long, Chairman of the
potent Finance Committee. New York’s crisis, I thought, tells us about the breakdown of democracy, about politics, greed, bureaucracy, cowardice, the failure of good intentions. About how democratic government does not know how to cope with decline. No, long after we have forgotten the name of the Secretary of HEW or Jimmy Carter’s shifting poll ratings, these questions about the nature of government and democracy will haunt us.

Even if there were no broader implications, New York City’s economic, fiscal and political crisis would still be a big story. For New York, like a great novel, transcends geographic boundaries or time. It is a world city, the ultimate marketplace. For those with talent, this city is the final test. Many Americans hate New York because they fear it: not just its imposing size but its ruthless competitiveness. The very best lawyers, fashion designers, writers, artists, advertising agencies, publishers, financiers and thinkers ultimately find their way here. Succeed here and you can probably succeed anywhere. From this cauldron of competitive friction, New York charges the nation with more energy than the Tennessee Valley Authority. Constantly, it lifts the limits of our imagination. New York’s fashions become the nation’s—two years later. Its plays tour the nation—only after passing Broadway’s muster. Almost one-third of America’s hard-covered books are purchased in New York City. America’s largest corporations call it home largely because here is where they find the best legal, advertising, banking and financial services. It’s easier to stand out—to be a Big Man on Campus—elsewhere. But if you’re good at what you do, at some point you’ll probably test yourself against New York.

New York is the ultimate bazaar. Think about other cities: Los Angeles has Hollywood; Pittsburgh, steel; Detroit, automobiles; New Orleans, jazz (and food); Houston, a space center; Nashville, country music. Boston has Harvard; Washington is government; Moscow is the Kremlin; Zurich is banking; Miami Beach is, well, Miami Beach. Think about New York. It cannot be characterized the way other cities can. A single street or avenue or neighborhood can symbolize an entire industry or life style. Wall Street is finance; Broadway is theater; Seventh Avenue is fashion; Madison Avenue is advertising; Fifth Avenue is shopping; Greenwich Village is bohemia; Coney Island is amusement. Everyone has heard of Radio City Music Hall, the Statue of Liberty, the UN, Central Park, the Empire State Building. Once Harlem, and now the South Bronx, defined a slum.

As a bazaar, no other city can compete with New York. Ideas, services, merchandise are placed on sale here, then sold or rejected. But more: the city is a bazaar of cultures, life styles, people. Jews, blacks, Hispanics, Irish- and Italo-Americans, West Indians, Haitians, Malaysians, poor Vietnamese or Continental European refugees, romantic
poets, gays, Moonies, feminists, iconoclastic geniuses, nuts, Scientologists, Kreminologists, every shade of political opinion, not to mention addicts, pimps, prostitutes, shopping bag ladies—all flower here. Unlike small towns or homogenized suburbs, New York does not quickly dismiss unusual behavior or ideas as weird. It is almost normal to be abnormal. “On any person who desires such queer prizes,” E. B. White has written, “New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.… New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants, so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.”

New York is also an incubator of the nation’s ideals. We are the Statue of Liberty City, gateway to the new world for millions of immigrants. For these pioneers and their offspring, the streets really were paved with gold. Freedom, opportunity, optimism, compassionate government, the melting of class, ethnic and racial divisions—for the multitudes, New York worked. It worked for the Aulettas. My brother, Richard, was the first Auletta to go to college. In Coney Island, we grew up shoulder to shoulder with Jews, Italians, Irish, blacks, Hispanics. My father, Pat, is Italian; my mother, the former Nettie Tenenbaum, is Jewish. Her sister Rose married Pete Dellaquila; sister Sally married William Pagluiga. My father’s brother Mike wed Sally Altman. It was terrific. We got the cultural advantage and got to take off from school on both Catholic and Jewish holidays.

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