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City of Disorder

How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics

Alex Vitale

Publication Year: 2008

2009 Association of American University Presses Award for Jacket Design

In the 1990s, improving the quality of life became a primary focus and a popular catchphrase of the governments of New York and many other American cities. Faced with high levels of homelessness and other disorders associated with a growing disenfranchised population, then mayor Rudolph Giuliani led New York's zero tolerance campaign against what was perceived to be an increase in disorder that directly threatened social and economic stability. In a traditionally liberal city, the focus had shifted dramatically from improving the lives of the needy to protecting the welfare of the middle and upper classes—a decidedly neoconservative move.

In City of Disorder, Alex S. Vitale analyzes this drive to restore moral order which resulted in an overhaul of the way New York views such social problems as prostitution, graffiti, homelessness, and panhandling. Through several fascinating case studies of New York neighborhoods and an in-depth look at the dynamics of the NYPD and of the city's administration itself, Vitale explains why Republicans have won the last four New York mayoral elections and what the long-term impact Giuliani's zero tolerance method has been on a city historically known for its liberalism.

Published by: NYU Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

From 1990 to 1993 I directed civil rights policy for the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, and during that time I witnessed the beginning of what would become a national backlash against homeless people. San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos had made extensive efforts to address what appeared at first to be a short-term problem made worse by the economic slowdown of the early...

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pp. xi-xii

I moved to New York in 1993 to attend the CUNY Graduate Center just in time to see this same process play out in the transition from the liberal administration of David Dinkins to the neoconservative administration of Rudolph Giuliani. Once again, homeless people were portrayed as the cause of urban blight, and aggressive policing was held out as the solution. This book is an attempt to explain...

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pp. 1-14

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the quality of everyday life in New York City underwent dramatic changes, suffering the twin scourges of rising crime and disorder. In 1991, the city’s crime rate peaked at its highest level ever, with more than two thousand homicides, and homeless encampments, panhandlers, and drug dealers became a normal part of the urban landscape. Then in a major shift, by...

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1. Conceptualizing the Paradigm Shift

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pp. 15-28

How can we understand this shift in the social regulation of marginal populations in New York in the 1990s? Two discourses have emerged in the last twenty years to explain this process. In one, criminologists ask whether this transformation is part of a process of growing criminalization and punitiveness toward those who violate the...

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2. Defining the Quality-of-Life Paradigm

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pp. 29-53

In 1993 Rudolph Giuliani ran for mayor of New York City on a platform of improving the city’s quality of life. Citing a study by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, he claimed that the solution to the city’s disorder problem was to get tough on the minor incivilities dominating everyday life in the city.1 His targets included squeegee men, homeless encampments, and...

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3. Defining Urban Liberalism

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pp. 54-69

I use the term urban liberalism to refer to the political philosophy of many postwar cities that combined entrepreneurial economic development strategies, personal rehabilitation and social work approaches to social problems, and a tolerance of social differences in the form of broad support for civil liberties. Urban liberalism is not so much a label that any particular politician consciously...

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4. The Rise of Disorder

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pp. 70-92

The backlash against the socially marginal in New York began with the increased social disorder of the 1970s. Squeegee men, panhandlers, and people sleeping in public spaces came to be the most visible symptoms of an urban environment that many people felt was out of control. The roots of these problems, like the roots of the homeless problem itself, were economic, political, and...

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5. Globalization and the Urban Crisis

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pp. 93-114

Urban liberalism not only failed to deal adequately with the problems of homelessness and disorder; it also directly contributed to these problems. While federal funding cuts to cities, the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill people without offering them community-based care, and additional funding cuts at the state level were important factors in the deterioration...

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6. The Transformation of Policing

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pp. 115-143

This chapter explores how the inability of the New York Police Department (NYPD) to adequately address the disorder problems of the 1980s and 1990s gave rise to efforts by business and community groups to pressure them to adopt quality-of-life-oriented policing methods. During this period, the NYPD pursued a law enforcement model of...

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7. The Community Backlash

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pp. 144-182

In chapter 6, I demonstrated how the failure of the NYPD to adequately address the disorder problem led to a public backlash against it that undermined its basic legitimacy. This process began before the election of Rudolph Giuliani as mayor and led to many of the changes in the basic policing strategies in New York City. A similar...

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pp. 183-194

Neoliberal globalization has had profound effects on local spaces around the world. Rural and urban areas have been transformed by the easy flows of both capital and commodities, concentrating wealth in the hands of those who have the most control over the direction of these flows. But for those with the least control, it has meant a decline in their standards of living. Global...


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pp. 195-213


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pp. 215-222


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pp. 223-229

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About the Author

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p. 231

Alex S. Vitale is an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

E-ISBN-13: 9780814788417
E-ISBN-10: 0814788416
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814788172
Print-ISBN-10: 0814788173

Page Count: 231
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 229445349
MUSE Marc Record: Download for City of Disorder

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Subject Headings

  • New York (N.Y.) -- Politics and government.
  • Quality of life -- Political aspects -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Quality of life -- Sociological aspects -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Quality of life -- New York (State) -- New York.
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