Book Review: City of Disorder

So it was not Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, after all, who instituted a draconian “quality of life” campaign emphasizing the reduction of public disorder over meeting essential human needs of New York City’s denizens and narrowing the meaning of “community” in the process. And it was not police commissioner William Bratton who created a policing philosophy that prioritized NYPD micromanaging public social order as an approach to reducing crime. So argues sociology professor Alex S. Vitale in his book, City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. Vitale’s book reminds us about what was in the eighties and nineties an increasing irritation to crime and disorder on local streets in four New York City neighborhoods, disorder that was exacerbated by the crack epidemic that emerged in the eighties. According to Vitale’s account, each of the four neighborhoods mobilized differing responses. But, in the end, they established a political will to embrace a mayoral candidate who promised to incorporate a quality of life campaign into his administration. That, combined with a philosophical argument proffered by the Manhattan Institute about a supposed causal relationship between minor disorder and serious crime, allowed William Bratton to establish an approach to policing that effectively turned thousands of New York City denizens who were engaged in innocuous, even if disorderly, conduct into criminals.

In Vitale’s telling, the quality of life laws and their accompanying approach to policing were inevitable because communities were already taking to self-policing independently of NYPD. Most notably was the Grand Central Partnership (GCP), a non-profit group that formed when New York State authorized the establishment of business improvement districts, that taxed local businesses to provide security and services to clean up and bring order to the neighborhood surrounding Grand Central Station. Though not alone in doing this, GCP provided the security model that was subsequently used by transit police and NYPD to bring order citywide. Quality of life policing, then, had become necessary to bring order back to the streets and reestablish NYPD’s role as the police. The activities of GCP and other groups who tried to imitate them or use their services were declared in court to be unconstitutional violations of private citizens right, though. It is not at all clear to me that the right answer would be for the actual policing powers of the State be used to violate citizens’ right just to stop private security apparatus from doing it.

Vitale argues three areas in which the City contributed to the presence of homelessness and disorder. One was an imbalanced housing and economic development plan that emphasized high-end housing development and finance sectors of the economy over affordable housing development and lower-skilled employment sectors. Second was an emphasis on centralized, professional planning around housing, economic and social services delivery that ignored the needs of local neighborhoods. And third was the reduction in funding for social services and housing support from Federal, State and local governments. It seems apparent that Vitale’s ultimate answer to disorder in the streets would involve radically reordering of housing and economic development to increase opportunity for mobilization for lower-income New Yorkers and opening up participatory democracy for people in their own neighborhoods.

The book makes for an interesting history lesson for those interested in knowing the particular events leading up to quality of life policing in New York City. I think he makes a mistake, though, situating the impetus for quality of life policing simply in the increased presence of disorder on New York City’s streets. Many of those who engaged in anti-disorder activisim, after all, were among the same people who had previously engaged in other types of social activism, including squatting and demanding for themselves affordable housing. Something more than the mere presence of public disorder had to play a role in transforming an urban liberal into a neoconservative. I wonder how differently the book would have read had Vitale reflected on the role of radical individualism – a dynamic that had already developed in society and which had already played a role in promoting social activism – played in motivating communities to mobilize so antagonistically towards New York City’s poor. Vitale acknowledges that, during the Koch and Dinkins administrations, activists were demanding more shelters and services for homeless people as a solution to disorder. It was when it became clear the problems of poverty and homelessness were not going to go away any time soon that they turned to the idea of policing and punitive responses to the disorder.

The take-away is that not all activism and community organizing enjoy the same moral quality. When self-interested responses to social injustice transform into self-centered demands for comfort and tranquility at the expense of others whose basic human needs are not being met, those participating are no longer involved in social justice work. One wonders whether justice is what motivated them in the first place.