We are nearing the end of 2013 in New York, and our new progressive/liberal mayor, Bill De Blasio, will take office on Jan. 1. Throughout the campaign De Blasio eloquently spoke of the "tale of two cities." His vision resonated so successfully that he gained the strong support of blacks, Latinos and Asians, while building up big margins in places where affluent white liberals live, such as brownstone Brooklyn and the west side of Manhattan. He won four of the five boroughs, excepting that white, lower-middle-class Republican stronghold, Staten Island.
The hard part begins now for De Blasio. He has to create more equality between those two disparate New Yorks, one inhabited by the rich, the other by the middle class and poor, without the city becoming any less efficiently run, secure, and seductive. At the same time, the glittering New York of hedge fund investors and foreign millionaires continues to spread.
I must admit that someone like myself, who is antipathetic to this world of the wealthy, still can take pleasure in some of the sparkle their presence has given the city. And for European visitors, even left-leaning ones, New York’s surface is now undeniably headier. Consequently, their delight in the city triumphs over any desire on the part of these visitors to criticize the capitalist overdevelopment and greed, which for both better and worse has helped contribute to New York’s changed ambiance.
Also, when you are on a brief visit you rarely spend your days on the South Bronx’ seedy streets, or your nights in Brownsville’s gang-dominated public housing in Brooklyn, seeking out the bleak, dangerous underside of the city. Nor are you likely to wander about ordinary, detached and semi-detached private house ethnic and immigrant neighborhoods in Queens. It’s the iconic New York of Central Park, the Met and MOMA, and streets like Madison Avenue, Broadway, and Central Park West that define the visits of my friends and other, less socially conscious, visitors.
I decry the sterility and inflated size of so many of the glass towers being built for corporate offices and residential condos, often with tax breaks, but large pockets of urban beauty still abound. One blindingly sunny day I pass through my neighborhood’s successfully renovated Washington Square Park, and observe that the benches are filled with older neighborhood residents at ease conversing, reading, strumming on guitars, and merely basking in the sun. Elsewhere a jazz quartet plays, a tarot card reader declares he is open for the little business he receives, and a young man is asking people to write short stories, with which he plans to do something that I can’t fathom.
Four or five years ago the park often felt desolate, filled with candy wrappers, discarded newspapers, drug needles, and broken bottles that seemed never to be picked up. The park was also dominated by whispering drug dealers and their customers engaged in their daily business. It is a much happier, less threatening, and more communal place today.
On another blustery, cold evening with autumn leaves skittering across the sidewalk and streetlights slightly dim, so the people passing are seen almost as silhouettes, I roam about Carnegie Hill, an upscale, more familial slice of Madison Avenue and the Upper East Side from 86th St. to 96th St. It’s a low-key, elegant neighborhood, no Armani or Ralph Lauren, and few monstrous luxury towers. I love the mix of older apartment houses, handsome townhouses and brownstones, charming, overpriced bistros, book stores, elite private schools like Spence, the Jewish Museum and a small boutique museum like the National Academy of Design that offers consistently interesting exhibits of figuratively oriented painting. Yes, it’s a privileged homogeneous world (little affordable housing or people of color can be found on these streets), but one whose presence makes existence in the city more gratifying, even if I could never manage to live there.
The well-being here can be extended to a relatively optimistic view of New York as a whole, given that the number of jobs rose to a record high of more than 3.98 million in October, including a thriving technology sector, which generates $30 billion in annual wages. The city is bouncing back stronger than most other parts of the country. And according to the end of October 2013’s crime statistics, the city is predicted to have the lowest number of homicides in over 60 years. Also, real estate prices keep on grotesquely soaring in a number of sections of the city.
Still, the economically depressed other city can be seen in the Bronx’s high unemployment rate of 11.8 percent, and what the Times has called a "foreclosure belt" of falling property values that extends across black home-owning areas in Brooklyn and eastern Queens. And New York City public schools located in the poorest census tracts are, on the average, in the worst physical condition. The city’s crime rate may have truly gone down, but the largest proportion of violent crimes still occurs in the poorest neighborhoods, and its inhabitants must live daily with fear and a sense of peril.
What I want from De Blasio’s mayoralty is to reduce some of the social and economic gap and suffering in New York life. I expect no utopias, and I don’t want the rich to leave. But I hope to see a city that preserves viable neighborhoods, avoiding the destruction of their souls by a host of Duane Reades and opulent monoliths.
Most importantly, I desire that De Blasio make the city more equitable for those who find themselves beaten down in a city where the moneyed have triumphed.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org