October 30 marks the anniversary of Gerald Ford’s 1975 refusal to bail out New York City. The president wanted to set an example for the rest of the country, a spokesman explained. If you have “a wayward daughter hooked on heroin, you don’t give her $100 a day to support her habit.”
The Daily News summed it up a little differently with the memorable headline "Ford to New York: Drop Dead." Ford never actually uttered those words and two months later he did grant New York a $2.3 billion federal loan, but the incident cost the president re-election in 1976. For New York, it was the catalyst that mobilized civic, business, and labor leaders to rally domestic and foreign bankers against the imminent default of New York City, and with it, New York State. No state had ever declared bankruptcy before.
New York at its lowest point. The city was notorious around the world for corruption (think Serpico), homelessness, drug dealing, prostitution, muggings, and other off-the-charts crime. The New York City Council for Public Safety actually discouraged people from riding the subway, walking alone, or going out after 6 p.m. Son of Sam murders terrorized New Yorkers in 1976, followed by looting and chaos in the 25-hour blackout in 1977. Nearly a million people fled NYC and for those who remained unemployment soared. In 1979, the City Planning Commission urged Mayor Koch to close 200 schools and to “reject all major new capital construction projects.” (For a 1970s slice of life, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdDUmvPK2OM#t=51)
Miraculously, New York re-emerged as one of the world’s pre-eminent cities, with some of the highest real estate prices on the planet. Now, for the first time in fifty years, more people are moving into the five boroughs than leaving. Compared to the 1975 population of 7.9 million, the city has grown to 8.3 million, with the greater metropolitan area totaling 19.8 million residents. The number of visitors has also increased, reaching an all-time high of 52 million in 2013.
Since 1975 unemployment rates have dropped from 10.7% to a lower, but still high, 8.1%, and crime rates have plummeted. New York reported 414 murders in 2012 (compared to 1,645 in 1975), 20,000 robberies (down from 83,000) and fewer than 10% of the 177,000 burglaries committed in 1975. Noise, graffiti, and other quality of life complaints have also decreased significantly, as has the average emergency response time: 6.5 minutes in 2012 compared to a life-draining 15.3 minutes in ’75.
Meanwhile, subway and bus ridership is up. Some 2.5 billion passengers used the system in 2012 (compared to 1.8 billion in 1975), 54% of New Yorkers taking public transit to work. The closest contender is Washington D.C. where 17% of the workforce rides the Metro. Getting a boost from the Citibike program in 2012-13, it is now estimated that more than 200,000 New Yorkers cycle to work each day. Tellingly, no statistics are available for 1975.
In a way inconceivable to Robert Moses, who insisted that cities were made for cars and traffic, New York has decommissioned or otherwise reused its 6,000 miles of streets in an ambitious program to enrich communities with landscaped plazas and other pedestrian precincts. The goal is to ensure that no New Yorker is ever more than a 10-minute walk from open public space. Park usage has also risen citywide. In 2012 alone, more than 35 million people visited Central Park, the most heavily used park in the county, compared to 11.5 million in 1975.
Air quality has likewise improved as has street cleaning and recycling. New waste and water treatment plants have stopped the flow of raw sewage into the rivers and the city actively pursues cogeneration and alternative energy sources. Despite its size and tremendous consumption rates, New York is among the most sustainable cities in the country, reinforced by 29 separate green building laws passed since 2010.
In similar fashion, urban infrastructure has seen renewed commitment over the past two decades. A 4-year plan, released in 2000, called for a $25 billion investment, the largest in the city’s history. Meanwhile a surge in public-private building projects has reshaped large parts of the city. From Long Island City in Queens to Williamsburgh and DUMBO in Brooklyn, Battery Park City, Tribeca, and the East Village in Manhattan. And SoHo, dismissed by Mr. Moses as “the most depressed area in lower Manhattan and one of the worst, if not THE worst, slums in the entire country” is among the most fashionable parts of the city.
The accompanying slideshow presents a selection of notable buildings and public spaces. Many are taken for granted, just parts of the living city, but each in its own way played an important role in reinvigorating New York since its nadir in 1975. Beyond those illustrated, a generation of game-changing new buildings is now underway by Bjarke Ingels, Herzog & deMeuron, Jean Nouvel, Enrique Norten, Calatrava, Portzamparc, and by a host of other less well known but very accomplished architects. Thank you, Mr. Ford. New York is more alive than ever.