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New York City: the Enduring Status Quo

It’s fair to say this year has been an overall duller one for New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. However even with recent headlines drawn to the cesspool that is Albany politics, with two corruption conviction against high profile political stalwarts, it also can’t be said that the major had a good year. A few days ago de Blasio himself was quoted as declaring ‘I want to do better’. 2014, de Blasio’s first year in office, saw the establishment of universal pre-k, a genuine achievement even if it came not through a slight raise in taxes on the city’s wealthy as de Blasio pushed but through Governor Cuomo’s more timid financing without any tax increase. DeBlasio also mandated employers in the city offer paid sick leave, officially abolished stop and frisk (at least in its old form, stops are down substantially) and briefly spared with the NYPD, mainly with the clownish head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association Pat Lynch, in the wake of the Eric Gardner killing and non-indictment, revealing that he told his black son to take care when dealing with the police. At the funerals of two slain officers last December the attending police made a point of publically turning their backs while de Blasio spoke. In subsequent weeks de Blasio, though rhetorically bending somewhat, can be credited with not backing down. For all the ongoing glum sensationalist predictions of the local media about impending chaos and rampaging criminals due to an alleged ‘Ferguson Effect’, and even with murders up slightly (though not approaching increases in cities like Milwaukee or Baltimore) overall violent crime continued to drop.

Other than a spat with Cuomo, who at one point took the quite petty step of personally leaking criticism of de Blasio to the Daily News, under the banner of ‘an anonymous ‘top Cuomo administration official’, while denying all de Blasio’s requests and insulting him with only a one-year extension of mayoral school control rather than the permanent control Bloomberg received (revealing the unjustly subordinate relationship of New York City in relation to the state), and a brief standoff with Uber where de Blasio blinked, this year proved not as nearly dramatic. Indeed if anything it demonstrates the depressing reality of what passes for progressive policy nowadays, even more so given that de Blasio, with all his campaigning about inequality, is regarded as one of its chief political spokespersons.

For all his sparing with the police in the aftermath of Gardner, broken windows policing is still in effect and defended by de Blasio and police commissioner Bratton. After an initial refusal de Blasio also agreed to fund 1000 cops and this year saw the creation of a special anti-terrorist “Strategic Response Group” that before backtracking Bratton declared with be used to deal with events like the city’s ‘recent protests’.

Recent weeks has seen de Blasio out in force to overcome local opposition for his housing program, basically an extension of Bloomberg’s mixed income housing policy- subsidizing large developers in exchange for a set amount of units preserved for lower income units. De Blasio envisions rezoning many neighborhoods (to accommodate taller building for example) with the goal of creating or preserving 200,000 middle and low income apartments. As it is 30 percent of city renters are using more than half their income on rent. The stated goal is to limit gentrification though what effects this type of program would have are questionable to say the least. After all how would large buildings dedicated to mostly luxury apartments, even if some others are preserved for lower incomes, slow down gentrification in the surrounding neighborhood? While an improvement on the nonexistent housing policy of Giuliani, one of the roots of the current housing problem (though it is certainly worth noting that affordable units accounted for just 1.7 percent of housing growth under Bloomberg between 2005 and 2013), what we’re not seeing is a policy proven to do so, such as revitalized public housing, perhaps resident controlled with elected tenant leaders, tasteful architecture, with community centers and childcare. The city’s public housing is still decrepit, and the agency overseeing it is still planning on selling property it owns to private interests.

Earlier this year de Blasio put forward a manufacturing plan that banned housing from being built on the city’s 21 Industrial Business Zones and calls for setting up a $150 million fund to give cheap loans or grants to developers to create space for individual businesses. Whatever the merits of the plan, the fact that it drew the ire of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post does enough to prove there are some, it hardly puts a dent in a decades long policy of deindustrialization that saw New York reduced from the industrial center of the world to a city where by City Hall’s probably overstated numbers only 15 percent of the private workforce is employed in manufacturing. In the aftermath of World War II New York had more manufacturing jobs than Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angles, and Boston combined. Between 1970 and 1993 while the country saw its total number of manufacturing jobs fall from 19.4 million to 18.1 million, a loss of 6.7 percent, New York’s fell from 766,000 to 286,000, a loss of 63 percent. And New York manufacturing wasn’t the Fordist monoculture variety found in cities such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, or Akron, the loss of which can at least be pinned on globalization and technology. In New York manufacturing was diverse and flexible, a Silicon Valley of sorts that generated a disproportionate amount of U.S. patents; at its peak there were more than 70,000 firms in various stages of production. Its garment industry was well attuned to changing styles and trends. In absolute terms New York had a goods-producing economy of unprecedented size and complexity. For New York to lose its industrial base took the urban planning of the likes of Robert Moses and the Rockefellers. Its most visible form the iconic boondoggles like Rockefeller Center and the World Trade Center- the latter’s publically funded construction led directly to the closing and relocation of New York’s port, the entity that made New York the largest city in the country. The result of this deindustrialization has simply been the rise in the city’s poverty rate: In 1960 the city’s poverty rate was about two-thirds the national rate. By the time of the financial crisis of the mid-1970s it was about equal. Fast forward to the present and the city’s rate is 50 percent higher. For all the pontificating from pundits about avoiding a return to the dreaded ‘bad old days’, a sentiment de Blasio himself has echoed several times, it’s telling that this trend is nowhere near any discourse.

It is homelessness that has generated the most heat for de Blasio in the local tabloids (which largely spared Bloomberg of it during his three terms). De Blasio has responded by revamping staff and pledged to expand the number of analysts at the city’s Department of Homeless Services. Recently he unveiled a plan he calls ‘Home-Stat’, the name based on the crime fighting ‘Comp-Stat’ established by Bratton in the early 1990s, to track and monitor responses to homeless living on the streets. While the number of people living on the streets is in the thousands its small next to the more than 58,000 living in shelters An audit by the Office of the City Comptroller released on December 21st included a random sample of 101 shelter apartments that found consistent evidence of rodents and roaches, blocked fire escapes, faulty showers, and busted smoke detectors.

Meanwhile the boom in architecturally grotesque apartment towers along Billionaires Row, tall enough to block out the sun in Central Park but skinny enough to fit in a few lots, continues relentlessly. If 432 Park is thus far the most infamous, at 1396 feet the second tallest building in the city after the rebuilt World Trade Center One, it is One57 (111 West 57th Street) that for now owns the record sale for its $100.4 million penthouse. Central Park Tower at Broadway and 57th St is under construction, at 1550 feet it would be the tallest building in the city if not for the World Trade Center’s 408 foot Spire: All speculative utopias in the clouds for a corrupt, rootless global elite. A New York Times report from earlier this year found that 37 percent of condominium owners at the hideous Time Warner Center are foreigners with at least 16 such current or former owners having been the subject of government inquires, either personally or as the heads of companies.

Opposition to the distortion of the skyline seeking City Hall’s intervention to revisit the building codes that couldn’t foresee the technological advances that now enable such construction have thus far have hit a wall. City Planning Commission chairman, Carl Weisbrod, was recently quoted in the Times regarding the selling of air rights for the towers ‘This leads to a more interesting streetscape and pedestrian experience as well as an incredibly dynamic iconic skyline that is the envy of the world.”

Halfway through de Blasio’s term, his maligned Tale of Two Cities endures.

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Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City.

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