| Michael Bloomberg
New York, April 21 (Reuters): An old Frank Sinatra song says if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere, but now people are asking if New York itself can make it.
One of the world’s most vibrant and most visited cities is fighting a fiscal crisis not seen since it teetered on bankruptcy nearly three decades ago, prompting such newspaper headlines as “It’s already feeling a lot like the ’70s crisis” that fill New Yorkers with foreboding.
New York, often called the “capital of the world”, has been sapped of money and morale by the slumping global economy, coming on top of the September 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks and expensive round-the-clock security alerts.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget plans proposed this week, “one bleak and the other bleaker” as The New York Times called them, would slash education services, police, firehouses, zoos, public swimming pools and aid to the homeless in ways not seen since the dark days of the mid-1970s.
New Yorkers old enough to remember can recall when streets were filled with uncollected trash, police officers were in short supply, crime and graffiti plagued the subways and the Big Apple was a rotten and violent place. Unemployment was high and some banks even refused to accept city pay cheques. Thousands rioted, looted and set fires in the dispirited city when it was hit by a two-day power blackout in July 1977.
Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Daily News columnist E.R. Shipp wrote this week, “Even now, one can begin to see the contours of what lies ahead. Some subway stations are so filthy that, unless you remind yourself of the calendar, you’d swear that this was the early 1980s.”
Businessman-turned-mayor Bloomberg’s appeals for help to political leaders in the state capital, Albany, and Washington, are reminders of failed pleas by 1970s-era Mayor Abe Beame.
Things got so bad that in October 1975 the administration of President Gerald Ford told Beame it could not help — a moment captured in the classic Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead”.
The city clawed its way out of the crises with job cuts, tax increases and borrowing. Wall Street business picked up in the 1980s. With crime beginning to fall in the early 1990s, former prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor and used aggressive policing to cut serious crime to its lowest levels in a generation.
Bloomberg, who succeeded Giuliani in January 2002, often speaks of his determination to sustain the renaissance of the last decade when business boomed in the city of eight million, the most populous in the US.
In proposing about $600 million in spending cuts toward closing a deficit of $3.8 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Bloomberg said it did not mean a return to the 1970s.
“We cannot let that happen and we will not,” said Bloomberg, who described himself as “sad” and “angry” at proposing cuts that would hurt people’s livelihoods. A backup plan that would trim $1 billion if more money did not come from Albany has been called the “Doomsday Budget” around City Hall.
The mayor, a self-made billionaire who founded Bloomberg LP Financial News Company, said he believed the situation was “very different than it was in the 70s when the future of this city was not bright”.
But union leaders and many city council members oppose cuts in the number of police and firehouses, believing Bloomberg’s plans are too risky and fear crime will rise again. The mayor proposes cutting 4,500 workers from the city payroll. But he and police commissioner Raymond Kelly said the New York Police Department can still do a good policing and security job with a reduced force.
“You cannot underestimate the safety factor and we are on the verge of losing that and we can’t allow this to happen,” said Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association police union. He called on state leaders in Albany to come to the city’s aid.
The front page of Newsday illustrated the response of many New Yorkers by displaying a collage of dollar bills spelling the word “HELP!” with the mayor peeking out from behind the letter “L”.
“As the threat of terrorism sharply expands the city’s needs, its work force and services are shrinking,” the newspaper said. “The only question is how ugly the city’s plight will get.”
The heightened security alert dubbed “Operation Atlas” costs New York $5 million a week in police overtime payments and $13 million a week overall, according to the city.
New Yorkers have been on edge since the September 11, 2001, attacks that killed 2,800 people and destroyed the World Trade Center — a symbol of New York’s financial power.
They live uneasily with more security checks at bridges, tunnels and subways, the sight of machine-gun toting police officers and people in private and government sectors worry about losing their jobs.
But they are resilient.
“Gerald Ford said something about ‘Drop Dead New York’ and we all got through it anyway and we came back,” said one New Yorker interviewed on local television.