The 1981 movie "Escape from New York" envisioned a not-too-distant future in which Manhattan was converted into a gigantic maximum-security prison.
The film's premise was over the top, but the note of pessimism it sounded about the city's future was not. Through the 1980s and into the early '90s crime was rampant in New York. The city was losing private-sector jobs and middle- class families were leaving in droves.
Today, that state of mind is hard to fathom. New Yorkers love to complain, but current gripes tend to focus on astronomical real estate prices - the price of living in a city that is almost too desirable.
What hit New York in the 1990s?
Rudolph Giuliani, argues Cooper Union history professor Fred Siegel in his new book "The Prince of the City" about the lightning rod who served New York as mayor from 1994 to 2001.
It's a theory that some New Yorkers are loath to embrace. Before he became a national hero on Sept. 11, Mr. Giuliani was the man that New York liberals loved to hate. His enthusiasm for law and order and reducing welfare rolls was seen by many as attacks on minorities and the poor. Columnist Jimmy Breslin once wrote that Giuliani has a "mad desire to get at the poor because he is a prosecutor and being poor is a felony."
Those who don't like Giuliani prefer to argue that New York's revival was inevitable - a coincidence of a booming economy and declining crime rates nationally - but Siegel makes a compelling case that New York's changing fortunes were, in fact, the opposite of inevitable.
Far from merely reflecting a nationwide decrease in crime, Siegel argues, New York actually led the country. Chicago, with one-third the population, surpassed New York in the number of murders in 2001, he points out. "Overall, New York's decline in crime accounted for more than 60 percent of the national decline" in the mid-1990s, he writes.
How did Giuliani do it? He was able to turn the city around, Siegel argues, because he scrapped the Great Society-style governing philosophy that had dominated the city's politics since the 1960s and replaced it with one that emphasized hard work, individual responsibility, and accountability.
Liberal mayors like Giuliani's predecessor David Dinkins "spoke endlessly of what the city owed the poor, but they delivered rising rates of crime and welfare," he says.
Siegel, invoking Machiavelli - which he does throughout the book - considers that a kind of "pious cruelty."
Such analysis permeates every page of this philosophically oriented biography. "The Prince of New York" does not bring its subject to life as a human being. Readers don't learn what Giuliani eats for breakfast or what he is like as a friend or husband or father.
Instead, Siegel invests his effort in making the case that it required a maverick - an "immoderate centrist" - like Giuliani to bring the city back from the brink.
Under the old regime, Siegel says, New York's problems were seen as a function of systemic inequalities that could be addressed only by increased spending on social programs. Crime, it was thought, could be combated only if its root causes - poverty and racism - were eliminated.
"In the topsy-turvy world of New York City politics, the 1970s when the Bronx burdened and the city almost went bankrupt, were remembered fondly by many politicians as an era of federal support," Siegel writes. "By contrast the boom of the 1980s, when minority families made major gains in income, was decried by Manhattan Boro President and Public Advocate Mark Green as the decade of greed because Reagan-era federal subsidies failed to keep pace with the city's exploding budget."
Rather than blaming a funding shortfall, Giuliani focused on the city's inability to spend its money wisely. When, soon after taking office in 1994, state legislators asked him if he wanted more money for the city's schools, Giuliani shocked his auditors by answering no.
"The fact is the system is so disorganized, so disoriented toward administrative overhead and fat, that to give me good enough money to really help children, you wouldn't have enough money to do that," Giuliani said, adding that "the way we can be honest with the people of New York, is to cut the living daylights out of the overhead in the system."
Because he was not a liberal, Siegel argues, Giuliani avoided the snares that had paralyzed earlier mayors who lacked the political will to antagonize the teachers' unions and who refrained from aggressive policing for fear of being branded racist.
Giuliani, by contrast, felt free to battle the very groups that liberals courted.
As mayor of New York, he angered many. Yet few would be able to argue, says Siegel, that he didn't also leave his city better than he found it.
• Adelle Waldman writes for The Wall Street Journal Online and lives in New York City.