In Michael Bloomberg’s New York City, it has become fashionable to look back with fondness on the metropolis of the late 1970s and early ’80s, before chain stores and "broken windows" policing, when graffiti-spattered trains went all-city and loose joints could be had around every corner. Fat laces and Kangol hats; "token entry" and the last of the Automats; postpunk and hip-hop uptown and down. The city was more real then, the story goes, more free; the place still had soul. Several years ago no less an authority on Gotham lore than Luc Sante—the author of Low Life, a beguiling account of the city’s nineteenth-century "lures and snares"—lent literary credence to this current of nostalgia in an essay called "My Lost City." Sante summoned vivid memories of 1978, when he and some friends "drifted down from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side," enthralled by a locale that "felt depopulated even in daylight." They lived cheap, worked little and, suspended in that "stage of youth when…your moment is the only one on the clock," indulged in "a certain lassitude" that seemed suited to the surrounding desolation. Sante writes of the publication, that same year, of Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York, with its heady celebration of the city’s utopian promise, its skyscraper soul "permanently set in the future." For Sante, though, living in "a ruin in the making," the book "seemed like an archaeological reverie, an evocation of the hubris and ambition of a dead city." His New York was no fantasy city of aerial walkways and dirigible mooring masts; he reveled and trembled in a dreamscape of vacant blocks and decadent glamour, whose ruins told a story of modernity derailed.
Further downtown the ruins spoke of dread. Ed Koch, taking office as mayor that winter, found a city in frightening disarray. Bridges and streets were crumbling. People feared the sidewalks and parks after dark. Thousands of apartment buildings stood abandoned, and night after night an epidemic of fires reduced more of their number to rubble and ash. Making matters worse, as historian Jonathan Soffer tells us in Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, the new mayor had scant resources at his disposal. In hock to the financiers and banks that had reluctantly rescued the city from bankruptcy several years earlier, New York couldn’t borrow money, and years of imposed fiscal austerity had taken their toll on government services. Employees were disillusioned and corrupt. Marred by leaks and water damage, municipal offices were, according to Koch’s transition director, of "third world quality." With city records a mess and computer databases outdated and unreliable, good information was scarce. Disorder reigned. Faith in the urban experiment—the idea that people from all walks of life, from everywhere, could live together in cities—was at its nadir.
Ironically, the shambles Koch inherited was partly the consequence of a misguided effort to bring order to city governance through technology and systems analysis. As Joe Flood explains in The Fires, Koch’s predecessor John Lindsay had hired a team of consultants from the RAND Corporation, the California think tank that would guide Robert McNamara’s war effort in Vietnam, to help modernize municipal service delivery. Applying their formulas and processing power to the New York City Fire Department, the RAND "whiz kids" recommended a thorough overhaul of station location strategy. Their advice would have tragic consequences. The city instituted service cuts and reallocations, but far from achieving the hoped-for efficiencies, the cuts created dangerously unprotected spots in the South Bronx, East New York and the Lower East Side, all poor, minority neighborhoods ravaged by housing abandonment. Mayor Lindsay’s experiment in systems analysis, Flood says, "burned down New York City."
Reading Flood alongside Soffer might lead one to think that the Democrat Koch’s well-known drift to the right was an unequivocal reaction to the failures of technocratic, can-do liberalism. If Lindsay and his successor Abe Beame had spent, analyzed and planned the city into fiscal and social crisis, then Koch turned to free-market "neoliberalism"—the Marxist term of art employed by Soffer—and cultivated alliances with social conservatives in the outer boroughs to rebuild a city in pieces and rejuvenate its ambition. Thankfully, Flood and Soffer don’t depend on but round out that well-worn, market-friendly narrative. Soffer places Koch’s notorious rightward swing in welcome historical and biographical context, while Flood anchors the story of RAND’s misadventures in a nuanced account of a city imperiled by forces more pervasive than the familiar right-wing boogeyman of big government.