In his book New York, New York, New York Thomas Dyja covers four tumultuous decades of NYC history. To research it, the award-winning author read great numbers of newspapers and cultural magazines from the late 1970s on. He also spoke to many key figures, from community organisers to bureaucrats to Downtown artists who had contributed to the city’s evolution. When Dyja spoke to Speak Up from his home in New York’s Upper West Side, we began by asking him what defines a New Yorker. 

Thomas Dyja (American accent): It is that sense of personal drive meets great openness to other people. There are people who can be here a week and just get it. It is about trying to really excel: you excel and then help others excel. There have been times when great success was also accompanied by a great sense of responsibility, and I think that that’s a New Yorker that people really do admire. 


New York is famous for being a liberal city and there is a lot of nostalgia for the free spirit of the 1970s. In truth, New York didn’t work for a lot of people, says Dyja.

Thomas Dyja: The thirties was a much more liberal time, government money was [had] gone into building free colleges and hospitals and a lot of things that people really associated with New York. The city had this terrible fiscal crisis in the mid to late seventies where it really was on the brink of bankruptcy. Money wasn’t being put into it by the city government... People actually didn’t do their jobs that well. The city had given up on itself, and it wasn’t just a matter of City Hall; New Yorkers really weren’t working together cooperatively.


President Gerald Ford’s administration cut cities off from federal financial support, leading to a famous New York headline that read: “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. Austerity followed.

Thomas Dyja: The country had been treating cities as a federal responsibility. And then big business said, ‘You know, we think cities should be able to make it on their own’. And so New York’s business community took advantage of this moment of kind of fiscal instability and pushed the idea of the city having to cut back: cut back on the budget, lay off tens of thousands of people.


Under Koch, budget cuts were accompanied by public-private partnerships, housing initiatives aimed at rebuilding neglected neighbourhoods, and a program to renew New York’s parks. 

Thomas Dyja: People were talking about how do we re-envision urban living. Gordon Davis, who was the parks commissioner under Koch, used the parks very consciously to rebuild people’s sense of how to live together in a city. So he created these urban park rangers to set some limits that helped people understand that they were coming here to act differently... and to help recreate those spaces.


The victory over crime is attributed to the aggressive policing introduced by mayor Rudy Giuliani, who deliberately targeted petty misdemeanours. But his zeal caused problems, not least because of racial profiling, says Dyja.

Thomas Dyja: Crime was already going down before Giuliani became mayor, crack had peaked already; people had seen a generation just destroyed by it. The housing initiative had already started to take effect and so a lot of places were becoming neighbourhoods again. But the police department became a kind of occupying army, as opposed to a group of people who are protecting and serving a community, and we are still working on the devastation that left.


There is always a lot of talk about who wins and who loses when cities are regenerated. Those who actually benefit, believes Dyja, are those better connected. 

Thomas Dyja: I really came to networks as a much more realistic description of the way money and capital flows. So the people who win are people who are well connected, who have a lot of capital, not just financial but social. I think they are the future of how we solve things on a community level.