TOUGH TOWN, NEW YORK. BEFORE leaving Sarasota, Fla., for last week's free concert by country singer Garth Brooks, Mary Steele took a few sensible precautions, such as leaving all her jewelry home and telling her mother who should get it in case she died in a suicide bombing in the subway. Then she and her boyfriend, Paul Rinehart, drove right past New York to a motel 50 miles away in Connecticut, having been warned that it would be useless to look for parking any closer to Central Park. From Chippewa Falls, Wis., John Kloss, a truck driver, and his wife, Roxanne, a schoolteacher, drove straight down 57th Street en route to the North Meadow, keeping one hand on the window crank as a first line of defense against carjackers. But they made it safely through the gantlet of giggling high-school girls lined up to get into Planet Hollywood. Later, relaxing on the grass amid 250,000 fellow Americans in cowboy hats and a handful of local TV reporters attempting to mimic a slack-jawed country drawl, the only evidence of crime they saw was bottles of water being hawked right under the noses of policemen for $3 each. A day later, New York Parks Commissioner Henry Stern remarked happily that the concert, a bonanza equally for HBO and the numerous New Yorkers who make a living collecting the deposits on discarded soda cans, ""showed the rest of the country that New York is part of America.''
And about time, too, 34 years after Barry Goldwater suggested sawing off the Eastern Seaboard and letting it float out to sea, five years after Newt Gingrich explained Woody Allen's tangled love life in terms of New Yorkers' having ""no concept of families . . . it's a weird environment out there.'' (Gingrich didn't feel compelled to make the same observation last week about a report in Vanity Fair that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's marriage was in trouble over an alleged affair with his 32-year-old director of communications - a story both denied.) Local columnists made much of the appearance of the Oklahoma-bred Brooks on the sacred turf once trod by Paul Simon and Barbra Streisand. But that was just the epiphenomenon of a deeper change among New Yorkers, who suddenly see within their grasp the simple, everyday rights that people in the rest of the country take for granted, such as having a job to go to in the morning and a reasonable prospect of getting home alive at night.
Statistically, Steele was safer in New York, which ranked 32d among U.S. cities in violent crime in 1995, than if she'd traveled the 36 miles from Sarasota to St. Petersburg (15th). Between 1993 and 1996, the number of murders in New York fell by half. The nation's economic boom has finally begun to make itself felt in New York, as the stock market's immense profits trickle down to the masses, one $100 dinner at a time. Approximately the same number of New Yorkers (7.3 million) now require 136,300 people to serve them in restaurants, up from 117,300 in 1993. Developers are clearing the rubble of tenements out of the South Bronx to plant single-family houses with actual, literal picket fences and lawns. Twenty years after much of Harlem was burned and looted in a citywide blackout, Disney and the Gap have committed their precious imprimaturs of wholesomeness to a proposal for a $56 million mall on 125th Street. If someone who left in 1977 returns when the place is open, he would be astonished to see a sign for HARLEM USA. So that's where it was, he might say.
At the center of these exciting trends stands the enigmatic figure of Giuliani, the former racket-busting federal prosecutor who was already inescapable on the evening news even before his long-rumored marital problems surfaced in Vanity Fair and the newspapers. The spectacle of a mayor caught in a romantic triangle, rather than a routine instance of stealing, struck many New Yorkers as bizarre, if not downright unbelievable, as if Pavarotti had been seen running the marathon. After denouncing the story as ""trash'' and local reporters as ""having no decency'' for asking him about it, Giuliani declined to be interviewed by NEWSWEEK, so it's hard to know how he feels about his achievements in office. But it's possible to guess, having heard him at the groundbreaking last week for yet another multimillion-dollar entertainment complex in the Times Square area, this one to feature a branch of Madame Tussaud's wax museum: ""The city that used to be known for crime and violence is now known for culture and entertainment, for so many things that are good and decent.''
New York the good, New York the decent - just like America! Giuliani must have had in mind someone like Claire Scholz, a toy manufacturer who comes to New York every year for trade shows at the Javits Convention Center. New management put in place by New York Gov. George Pataki recently abolished the time-honored system in which getting a worker to unload a truck required knowledge of the secret New York handshake, the one with a $50 bill inside. Now, says Scholz, ""the people who work there - it's scary, they're so nice.'' You have to be pretty darned nice to scare someone from Scholz's hometown of Rapid City, S.D., but New York was always a tough town.
Two other notorious nests of corruption in New York have also been cleaned up in the last few years, the Fulton Fish Market (a Giuliani initiative) and the commercial waste-hauling business (primarily the work of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau). All three projects addressed problems that were mostly invisible to the public at large but of great significance to the private sector - not the big banks and corporations that have always had the ear of city government, but the kinds of small businesses for which New York was notoriously a hellish place to make a dollar. (William Stern, a former head of New York's Urban Development Corp., observes that the estimated $300 million that was the mob's take from the trash-hauling rackets was an indirect tax on everything bought and sold anywhere in the city.)
IN ITS INCREASINGLY FERVENT Invocations of the private sector, New York is becoming more like the rest of America. While the public City University languishes - its chancellor recently left to become president of a branch of the University of Alabama - New York's two leading private universities have been flourishing. New York University, once a middling regional school, has seen freshman applications increase 90 percent in five years. At Columbia University, the acceptance rate for applicants - a rough measure of desirability - has gone below 20 percent for the first time ever. ""People are finally acknowledging that this is a wonderful city to live in,'' says admissions director Eric Furda.
The city has even made a virtue out of the population shuffle in which roughly 100,000 native New Yorkers leave the city every year and are replaced by roughly equal numbers of immigrants, chiefly these days from East Asia, Southwest Asia or Latin America. Among the polyglot crowds thronging Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, where the name Garth Brooks drew mostly empty stares, a 23-year-old who gave his name only as Juan said he had come to New York for economic opportunity. His role in the city's economy at the moment consisted of selling mangoes from a pushcart, but that exceeded any prospects he might have had at home. It is precisely that entrepreneurial energy that the city taps into, says Peter Salins, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Adam Feris, the Lebanese-born manager of a Middle Eastern gift shop on Roosevelt Avenue, thinks the city is actually going to hell and Giuliani isn't worth a damn because his store's rent has gone from $400 a month in 1977 to $25,000 now - but someone else might see that as a sign of a retail economy that most of the malls in America would be happy to match.
It will be for the city's voters to decide this November whether Giuliani deserves credit for these developments or just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The stock market boomed by itself, after all, and Giuliani inherited a police force augmented by 6,000 new cops hired by his predecessor, David Dinkins. A number of problems that were intractable under previous mayors have remained so, including the public schools (""How can you say that New York is back when 1 million students aren't learning anything?'' columnist Jimmy Breslin asks indignantly) and a child-welfare system that seems incapable of stopping parents from abusing their kids. Breslin is also scathing on the city's presumed role in what is sometimes called the ""new economy'': ""Do you think it's healthy to make this a city of bellhops?'' he barks. ""This isn't goddam Disneyland!''
But the more widely held opinion is that Giuliani could have closed all the schools and still be re-elected on the strength of what he has done about crime. One who ought to know is George Kelling, the criminologist who, along with James Q. Wilson, originated the theory that the way to fight crime was to deploy police against minor examples of antisocial behavior: graffiti, aggressive panhandling, public drunkenness and loud radios. Sending a message of ""zero tolerance,'' he argued, emboldens citizens and cows would-be criminals. This idea was first tried on a large scale in the New York City subway system in the early 1990s, under the then transit-police chief William Bratton, and expanded to the city as a whole when Giuliani appointed Bratton police commissioner in 1994. Giuliani's iconic villains, in his 1993 campaign, were the ""squeegee men,'' panhandlers who lurked in traffic jams to extort a tip from drivers in exchange for moving the dirt around on their windshields. This message didn't have much resonance in Manhattan, where most people don't have cars anyway, but it brought audiences to their feet in the outer boroughs. ""Giuliani came into office convinced that the way to cut crime was to deal with disorder, and he was right,'' says Kelling.
GIULIANI HAS ACCOMPLISHED all this in spite of what some observers consider one of the worst political temperaments of any major American public figure since Richard Nixon. Without the power to fire the incumbent schools chancellor when he took office, Giuliani publicly hounded and humiliated him into quitting within 17 months; angry that Bratton seemed to be getting most of the credit for the decline in crime, he forced him out, too. (For the record, crime has continued to fall under Bratton's self-effacing successor, Howard Safir.) In contrast to his predecessor, who presented himself as the chief executive of a bureaucracy, Giuliani sometimes tries to give the impression that he runs the city singlehandedly. New Yorkers expect their mayors to be on the scene of civic disasters, but what was Giuliani doing last week in the far reaches of Brooklyn, inspecting an apartment-house wall that had collapsed and injured three people, only one of them seriously? New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman suggested that it might be time for the mayor to have a vacation, since he apparently hasn't had one since taking office.
On the other hand, maybe Giuliani's qualities were necessary to change New York's ingrained political culture, to enforce on this great, sprawling and seemingly ungovernable entity Giuliani's vision of the future - a cleaner, more decent city, bustling with mango carts and souvlaki stands in Queens and happy tourists up and down 57th Street, a place that someone like, say, Denver lawyer Jim Spaanstra might recognize. He's been coming to New York twice a year for a long time, and thinks it's never been a better place to visit. ""It's starting,'' he said approvingly, ""to feel like Denver.''