When Gotham last held a political convention 12 years ago, Times Square was more XXX than vanilla, homicides had hit an all-time record of 2,262 and New Yorkers congratulated themselves that none of the Democratic delegates got mugged (well, one got punched in the nose by a mugger, but he had been foolish enough to ride around Central Park at midnight). Fast forward 12 years: New York City, or Manhattan at least, can be defined by its satisfactions. Its restaurants are crowded with the $30-entree crowd, the Meatpacking District and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg are so packed with young people with thick wallets as to induce claustrophobia on weekends. Times Square is a theme park and the housing market has passed into gilded parody. The annual number of homicides has dwindled to fewer than 600.
As Michael R. Bloomberg, this city's billionaire Republican mayor, likes to suggest in that cosmopolitan, parochial manner of New Yorkers: "There's really no point in living anywhere else but New York."
Mitchell Moss, a professor at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and an adviser to Bloomberg, points to many indicators of good urban health: Library use, flights into John F. Kennedy International, building permits -- everything is up. And the city's economic heart is beginning to throb again. Hotels are filled, and the health and education sectors are churning out jobs.
"The Democratic convention in 1992 was very important for New York because it was not a good year for urban America," Moss said. "Now, despite the pain of the September 11th attack, New York's full of life, passion and energy, and people who are committed to the city."
Walk through much of Manhattan, and sections of Brooklyn and Queens, and the sweep and speed of the city's transformation is striking. Harlem's Eighth Avenue, known as Heroin Alley in the 1970s and '80s, is a forest of cranes. The Brooklyn side of the East River waterfront has gone upscale, and developers talk of Williamsburg and Long Island City in Queens as the coming Gold Coast, a term one could not conceive of coining for this jumble of factories and warehouses a decade ago.
Immigration is a river that never stops flowing -- the borough of Queens has 2.2 million people and at least 46 percent are foreign-born. Overall, New York has 800,000 more foreign-born residents than in 1992. Canarsie, a prototypical white ethnic neighborhood just a decade ago, is populated by Guyanese and Trinidadians. Archie Bunker's old Queens neighborhood is now is wall to wall with Central Americans and chuchifrito meat joints. Borough Park in Brooklyn is halal and kosher in equal measure.
"You're a Republican, and you want to find what New York is really like?" asked Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "Take the 7 train to Queens, and hear 110 languages you won't hear in Nevada."
All of which is true, and yet stroll enough blocks and talk to enough people and the impression is of a city still in precarious balance, psychologically and economically. Terrorism fears linger as a low-grade fever, not enough to persuade most to move but enough to play unpleasantly on the consciousness now and then.
The empty sky downtown is unavoidable and in unexpected ways informs how some residents view themselves. "I think about it all the time," said Robert Weber, who lives in New Jersey and works for a nonprofit organization in Chinatown. "It's scary and depressing, and if you think about it too much you can lose your focus."
Then there's the New York economy, which remains a glass half-full. The financial sector continues to bleed jobs, losing an additional 1,100 in June. Unemployment is the worst among the nation's top 25 cities. (Boston, by comparison, has an unemployment rate of 4.7 percent.) Half of New York workers have no pension, and about 10 percent of New York's workforce earns $7 or less an hour.
The number of homeless has risen close to 40,000, twice as many as 10 years ago.
"It's more and more of a two-tier city economically and socially, and our leaders just focus on the core in Manhattan," said Harvey Robins, a top adviser to two former Democratic mayors. "The pockets are pretty deep and pretty vulnerable."
Fewer and fewer of these poorer New Yorkers are found in Manhattan, at least south of 110th Street. The island borough that symbolizes New York City for so many Americans has become far wealthier in the past decade. In 1992 Alphabet City on the Lower East Side was a working class-to-poor neighborhood, its residents fighting off the scourges of tuberculosis, heroin and poverty. Now two-bedroom tenement apartments sell for $600,000, and any number of bistros offer a fine Provencal meal.
But the poor have not disappeared. They have simply jumped borough lines. Ride the subway 16 stops into Brooklyn, and you come to Cypress Hills, a pleasant working-class neighborhood squeezed between the elevated subway line and a cemetery. Hundreds of families pay 50 percent or more of their income to rent apartments or own homes. Similar statistics hold true for broad swaths of Queens and Brooklyn.
Foreclosure rates have risen steadily here for two years to crisis levels, and 30 or more speculators now bid on every foreclosed home.
"It's increasingly difficult for us to responsibly counsel people into homes," said Michelle Neugebauer, executive director of Cypress Hills Local Development Corp. "Our average client is a single mother with two children, and she's being priced out. Speculators slap a coat of paint on a home and raise the price 30 percent."
The politics of the city also have changed. Racial and ethnic tensions have subsided, although certainly not disappeared. Blacks and Puerto Ricans constitute key and highly politicized voting blocs, but the political future probably belongs to newer Latino and Asian immigrants. Dominicans already are asserting themselves politically, while demographers and political consultants keep an eye on the sleeping giant that is the city's Mexican and Central American population.
Bloomberg is a media mogul, and class politics tend to get short shrift in New York. But in the last mayoral election, candidate Fernando Ferrer spoke insistently of the "two New Yorks," one wealthy and one poor, and Ferrer nearly scored an upset in the Democratic primary.
"Bloomberg is a salesman, so he's always talking in this Panglossian way about things getting better," said Eric Goia, a councilman in Queens. "But he hasn't figured out how to talk to the people who live in the Queensbridge Houses or the old folks who read the Western Queens Gazette. And that's still a big part of the city."
Perhaps the only thing missing from politics in New York is Republicans. The city remains overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2000, about 400,000 New Yorkers voted for George W. Bush -- and 1.6 million voted for Al Gore. Bloomberg is a Republican, but only because he switched party registrations shortly before the 2001 mayoral election.
Bloomberg selected a close aide, Kevin Sheekey, to run the NYC Host Committee for the Republican National Convention. Sheekey is considered a competent fellow. But earlier this year, he confided to the New York Observer: "It is somewhat fair to say that I have never voted for a Republican in my entire life."