Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities

by Juan González

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A bone-chilling cold descended over Lower Manhattan that New Year’s morning of 2014, engulfing the thousands of people who sat bundled up for hours in the open air to witness the inauguration of a new leadership at city hall. Such swearing-in rituals take place routinely in towns and cities across America, and they typically draw attention only from the local press, but this was no mere changing of the guard in some run-of-the-mill town, as the throng of cameras and reporters assembled since early that morning to record the event made clear. Many in attendance sensed the start of a new era. That feeling intensified when the new mayor-elect suddenly emerged from the bowels of a nearby subway station, his wife and teenage children at his side—the whole family, we later learned, had opted to hop on a train to the ceremony from their home across the river in Brooklyn, the way millions of ordinary New Yorkers have commuted to work each day for more than a century—and, having arrived at the biggest event of their lives in such a deliberately modest fashion, strode confidently into City Hall Plaza to the cheers of the crowd.

But the best indicator of that day’s importance was the presence among the dignitaries on stage of both a former president and a future presidential candidate. Bill and Hillary Clinton sat patiently in the front row for hours, listening to a raft of warmup speeches and inaugural addresses by other newly elected city officials, some eloquent and inspiring, a few peppered by tasteless parting jabs at the outgoing mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who, unaccustomed to such public rebuke, sat seething stoically near the Clintons. As the ceremony moved to its climactic end, Bill Clinton, wearing a charcoal top coat and black-and-white checkered scarf, his mane of wavy white hair rustling in the icy wind, rose to speak in praise of the new mayor and his biracial family, while also thanking Bloomberg for his years of service. The former president then administered the oath of office to a beaming Bill de Blasio, the 109th mayor of New York City, who at 6 feet 5 inches towered that day over every celebrant onstage.

Yes, the legendary Gotham itself—our nation’s biggest and most important metropolis and the financial center of the world, an urban colossus whose population and gross annual product dwarf those of many nations, whose local government administered in 2013 an astonishing budget of nearly $70 billion, employed close to 300,000 people, and educated more than 1 million schoolchildren, a city whose urban planners and politicians have shaped for nearly two centuries how government envisions the role of our cities, this quintessential and chaotic metropolis of modern capitalism—was about to come under new management.

And not just any management.

De Blasio, a little-known fifty-two-year-old politician, had stunned the financial and social elite of Manhattan two months earlier by capturing the mayoralty. Most experts had initially given him no chance of victory. Sure, the one-time city councilman from Park Slope, a genteel Brooklyn neighborhood of white professionals living in meticulously renovated brownstones, had managed in 2009 to win election to the largely ceremonial citywide post of public advocate, but in the Democratic mayoral primary race of 2013 he was facing four better-known and better-financed contenders—Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the sitting city comptroller John Liu, and two well-liked politicians who had made strong runs for mayor previously, former comptroller William Thompson and former Brooklyn congressman Anthony Weiner. Despite those odds, de Blasio suddenly zoomed up that summer in the public opinion polls and narrowly prevailed in the September Democratic primary. He then amassed a landslide vote in November against a weak Republican opponent, Joseph Lhota, thus returning New York City to Democratic rule for the first time in twenty years.

De Blasio achieved that feat by vowing to end New York’s “Tale of Two Cities,” by calling income inequality the “moral issue of our time” and declaring the fight against it the central plank of his campaign, and by promising a raft of ambitious reforms to improve the daily lives of working-class New Yorkers. Among his promises: universal pre-kindergarten classes, expansion of paid sick leave for low-wage workers, an overhaul of the notorious stop-and-frisk policies of the city’s police department aimed at black and Latino neighborhoods, and a massive plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. Raw data would later confirm just how shockingly wide the city’s income gap had become. While in 2002 the top 1 percent of New York City residents had taken in 27 percent of all income, by 2012 that share had nearly doubled to 45 percent—a spiraling divide far greater than in the rest of the nation, where the 1 percent’s share of income rose from 17 to 23 percent over the same period.2 And in Manhattan, the wealthiest of the city’s five boroughs, nearly 5 percent of households had median incomes of $ 864,394 in 2014, even though 21 percent of all households in the city, or 1.7 million people, earned less than the federal poverty level of $23,550 for a family of four. By then, wealth inequality had become such a paramount public concern that a Pew Center poll reported 32 percent of Europeans and 27 percent of Americans considered it “the greatest threat to the world.”

De Blasio’s message struck a chord among ordinary residents still struggling to recover from the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed. Even before announcing his run, while still serving as the city’s public advocate, he had dared to endorse and speak at a rally of the hundreds of young Occupy Wall Street activists who in September 2011 camped out in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park only to be brutally evicted weeks later when Bloomberg ordered the police department to clear their encampment. By then, the simple slogan of those protesters, “We are the 99 percent!” had inspired similar camp-ins at town squares across the country and had transformed almost overnight the national conversation over income inequality. De Blasio and his advisers were quick to note that change in the public’s mood. They soon embraced aspects of the Occupy message into their campaign pronouncements, his candidacy becoming in some ways an extension into mainstream politics of the issues raised by the young activists.

Many older New Yorkers were already deeply frustrated and dissatisfied as well after twenty years of conservative business-friendly administrations, first under crime buster Rudy Giuliani (1993 to 2000), and then under media mogul Bloomberg (2001 to 2013). Both Giuliani and Bloomberg disdained the era of New Deal liberalism that New York’s local government had pioneered from the days of the legendary Fiorello La Guardia. That era of massive social spending for the city’s working masses—best exemplified by free tuition at the City University of New York—ended abruptly during the city’s near economic collapse and bankruptcy in the 1970s, though its dismantling only commenced in earnest during the reign of another larger-than-life occupant of city hall, Ed Koch, the mayor from 1978 to 1989.

 During the Giuliani and Bloomberg eras, crime rates plummeted, the local economy rebounded, the famed Times Square Theater District was transformed from a seedy, menacing locale for peep shows and petty hustlers into a thriving Disney-style tourist mecca. Real estate developers feverishly refashioned huge swaths of rundown inner-city neighborhoods, erecting new luxury housing that aimed to attract younger, wealthier, and whiter residents but that inexorably displaced older, poorer, and darker ones. The Bloomberg years, in particular, accelerated those changes. Bloomberg launched laudable public health initiatives against smoking and soft drinks, created an amazing system of bicycle lanes, and lured thousands of young technology entrepreneurs and workers to relocate to the city. Yet he also turned New York into a place where bankers, developers, and the wealthy were openly accorded special treatment and lavish subsidies by government, even as the vast majority of longtime city residents in the outer boroughs had trouble, especially after the Great Recession, in finding living-wage jobs, affordable dwellings, decent public schools, or even city parks they could use. Toward the end of his second term, Mayor Bloomberg even alienated many of his supporters when he overturned the will of the people, expressed through two previous referenda, to uphold municipal term limits. He successfully maneuvered, instead, with the backing of the financial community and most of the city’s major media companies, to get the city council in 2008 to eliminate those limits so he could seek a third term as mayor.

The municipal election of 2013, however, did not simply elevate de Blasio to office. Voters chose an even more radical African American woman, Letitia James, to replace him as public advocate; they rallied behind the liberal Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer as their new comptroller, and they propelled nearly twenty candidates into the city council who had been backed by a small yet influential left-oriented third party, the Working Families Party. At its first session, the reconstituted council then tapped as its speaker—the second most powerful post in local government—Melissa Mark-Viverito, a young Puerto Rico–born former labor union staff member who had co-founded the council’s Progressive Caucus.

The result was the most left-leaning government in the history of America’s greatest city. Not even during La Guardia’s heyday had so many candidates with progressive leanings ascended to key posts in city hall. And all were swept into office not by the tired old Democratic political machine of prior eras, but by resurgent popular movements of affordable housing and climate change activists, by parents advocating to improve their public schools, by organizations of immigrant and low-wage workers, by unions of hospital and city workers, and by black and Latino groups battling police abuse.

This new opposition movement had suddenly reclaimed Gotham in the name of its people.

Why and how did this happen? Would it prove to be just a curious digression in the convoluted history of New York City politics, a transitory attempt, as some claimed, to resurrect past liberal policies, only cloaked this time in slick new “progressive” packaging? Or was it something more?

Copyright © 2017 by Juan González. This excerpt originally appeared in Reclaiming Gotham, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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