Panic City: New York and the ‘Doom Loop’

For at least the past quarter-century, the entire mythology of New York City has been one of tenuous renaissance. ‘Renaissance’ being the French word for rebirth. Of course, every Renaissance needs a Dark Age. One that not only exists in the past but looms over the present like a specter. The Renaissance people study in school refers to a rediscovery of the classical period in Europe which transitions from the Middle Ages to modernity. When it comes to New York the meaning is just as hazy but generally the narrative goes like this: the Dark Age refers to the period of urban crisis that began in the late-1960s ended in the early 1990s. This took the form of the city’s economic crisis of the mid-to-late 1970s and high crime years that peaked around 1990. The Renaissance was ushered in by a combination of Rudy Giuliani’s relentless law-and-order, helped along by a statistical-focused crime-fighting revolution of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, and then billionaire mayor’s financial and technocratic brilliance.

Like all official narratives, this one contains obvious holes. Renaissance brings to mind culture and art and in New York the 1970s saw the birth of punk rock, disco, hip-hop, and Pop Art. What exactly has the ensuing renaissance produced that can hold a candle to that? There was also the legendary 1980s Wall Street boom and the resurgent population of the South Bronx. And as for crime, throughout that dark period crime wasn’t on a constant upward trajectory but rose and fell more than once. It was Mayor David Dinkins, who defeated Giuliani for election in 1988 before losing to Giuliani in a rematch in 1992, who flooded the streets with cops through his administration’s Safe Streets, Safe City program (the program also had a focus on programs for youth). Plus, in his authoritative treatise New York: The City That Became Safe, Frankin E. Zimring found that roughly 50 percent of New York’s crime drop, the largest and longest of any American city, cannot be conclusively accounted for by any particular cause.

Of course, there was an underbelly to all of this: the poverty rate in New York went from being below the national average to being practically twice as high. As gentrification spread everywhere so did homelessness. From 1994 to 2014, the city’s Department of Homeless Services shelter census skyrocketed 115 percent. Still, for those in the loop, especially if one had access to an expense account, times were indeed good.

A fairly large strain of Americana has always had it in for large cities. This has included both conservative and populist strains. After all, Thomas Jefferson himself wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia  ‘The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.’

The Omaha Platform, which launched the Populist Party in 1892, properly railed against war and thrusts but also featured this resolution:

That we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under
The present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal
Classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we
Denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and
Demand the further restriction of undesirable emigration.

Back in his forgettable 2016 presidential campaign, Ted Cruz uttered about ‘New York values’ to tarnish Trump’s conservative credentials. Even before Cruz clarified the remark with ‘I think most people know exactly what New York values are, everybody understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal, pro-abortion, or pro-gay marriage, focus around money and the media,’ Trump responded painting Hillary Clinton and Cruz’s wife as tools of Goldman Sachs.

Libertinism, big banks, immigrants- that covers almost every pillar of conservative populism and large cities have them all.  Hence the destruction of New York has always been a constant feature of the disaster porn mill, from books to movies. Eagerly awaited Doomsday is always lurking around the corner.

The first crack in the renaissance armor was the election of Bill de Blasio in 2013. De Blasio, who always waved the progressive flag (though his first move was to cover his flank by bringing back Bratton as police commissioner), always cut something of a bumbling figure, unpopular with the New York media and often showing up late for events. While he had largely an uneventful tenure for a while there was some success, mainly the establishment of the popular universal pre-K program. By 2017, the city’s crime had dropped to its lowest level since 1951.

It was the pandemic, along with the subsequent protests over George Floyd’s murder that gave the stage to the doomers. The end was to arrive in two forms. Of course, there is always spiraling crime. In addition, there is what has become known as the Urban Doom Loop. That is the pandemic made professionals realize they could work from home which would make offices go extinct, and let people flee to warm weather havens such as the Sun Belt and Miami (try counting the pandemic-era stories that featured Miami as the new Silicon Valley) and usher a period of vast useless real estate, leading to desolate downtowns as office workers stop frequenting local bars and eateries forcing closures and collapsing tax revenue, leading to rising crime on yet emptier streets, forcing higher taxes and more people with means to move, leading to yet lower tax revenue, higher crime, and so on.

This hasn’t quite happened. For starters, a recent report by venture capital firm SignalFire reveals New York grabbed the most relocating tech workers in 2023 (14.3 percent of them). Overall, twenty-five of the country’s 26 largest downtowns have more residents today than they did on the eve of the pandemic.

Despite the wishes of many large companies hybrid work appears to have staying power. Estimates are a bit hazy but on a typical day, New York’s office occupancy rate probably runs between 60 and 70 percent- higher than some other places (the finance industry appears to be more successful than most in returning workers to the office). Weekday subway ridership is about 70 percent of what it was before the pandemic (weekend ridership as just fully rebounded). Most of the original looming loan maturity wall has been refinanced and while a shakeout of some kind is likely, the apocalypse can probably be shelved. Some unused office space can be converted to housing.

Yet reading the headlines and scrolling through social media, one would think New York is a mix of Blade Runner and Mad Max. Subway pushers, feral packs of illegal migrants, squatters overrunning neighborhoods. No less than Joe Rogan dedicated time on his show to the squatter plague (There is actually no such plague). Even online progressives like The Young Turks host Ana Kasparian have tediously banged this drum.

Crime certainly did spike nationally during the pandemic. It has declined since. In New York certain prominent categories of crime, including murder and shootings, began to decline in 2022. Overall crime declined last year. A recent report by AH Datalytics found homicides are now plummeting in cities across the country. Boston homicides are down 82 percent. New York’s by about 24 percent (following a 12 percent decrease in 2023).

But observe New York’s political leadership and it is clear panic has set in. A three week spike in subway crime and New York governor Kathy Hochul literally sends in the National Guard. Governors from southern border-states cynically bus migrants to the New York and Mayor Eric Adams sues the bus companies. Last September Adams proclaimed the migration crisis will ‘destroy New York City.’ New York, of course, was once the home of a functioning Ellis Island. Ellis Island saw more than 12 million immigrants pass through its gates from 1892 to 1954, at a rate of up to 5,000 people a day. In 1855 one out of every four New Yorkers was an Irish Famine refugee. Today’s ‘migrants’ barely make up 2 percent of the population. Since 2022, 180,000 asylum-seekers have passed through New York’s intake system (the largest percentage coming from Venezuela). This has been enough to send the city into budget panic and provoke New York’s mayor Eric Adams to start suing bus companies.

The political panic has drifted upward. As migrants have been shipped to blue states, the Biden administration’s border policy is now almost identical to the Trump administration. Biden recently attempted to hand the Republicans an immigration bill that contained basically everything they ever wanted only to have the Republicans reject it at the behest of Trump. Many of the regular employment and family-based immigration pathways are capped at levels that were set in 1990 when the U.S. economy was half its current size.

It is true that due to New York’s Right to Shelter law, one of the few good policies established in the early 1980s (over 99 percent of New York’s homeless have access to shelter, less than half of San Francisco’s does), the influx of tens of thousands of undocumented migrants has strained the system (an inflated, no-bid contract with the for-profit medical provider DocGo didn’t help). The shelter system currently houses about 65,000 migrants in addition to the city’s homeless.

Many a news story in the past year has accurately featured migrants and their children selling wholesale-purchased candy on subway trains. This only emphasizes the point that more of them need their status to be changed to be given the right to work legally. Many an immigration ‘crisis’ has come and gone with New York left standing and even more diverse. Such would still be the case today.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).