New York’s Mayor Bill De Blasio has been in office too short a time to start judging his accomplishments and failures. But those conservative media outlets that hold a reflex antipathy for everything he stands for and does, like the scandal-mongering New York Post and the self-described "fair and balanced" Fox News, have already gone on the attack.
Of course, De Blasio has left himself open to their assault. He allowed his motorcade to speed and pass two stop signs days after he publicly unveiled a grand traffic safety initiative. There was also De Blasio’s clumsy interference with the arrest of a Brooklyn minister, who was an early and passionate supporter. And those multiple snowstorms he has had to deal with, resulted in brouhahas about not closing the schools.
Arguably the best urban columnist in New York, the Times’ Michael Powell, has written critically that "our new mayor can talk so insistently about progressive values, that I’m convinced he will unveil his progressive gone-to-lunch stroll. (Long-loping, left-leaning strides?)" Powell shares De Blasio’s goals, but is also aware that the "magic realism" of the campaign will have to deal with hard realities.
De Blasio has met some of his campaign promises. He gave more money to city services short of funds, like those that serve AIDS patients, runaway youths and mental health. He also stopped the burdensome practice of making the financially strapped Housing Authority pay for police services, and removed children from two ruinous homeless shelters. Most recently, he got the City Council to pass a bill requiring businesses with five or more employees to offer at least five paid sick days a year -- covering nearly half a million more workers than a compromise measure pushed through under the last administration.
I am sympathetic towards much of De Blasio’s agenda, but I expect him to make mistakes. When interviewed, De Blasio tends to convey an excess of self-confidence that almost begs for journalists to bring him down a peg. Some expression of self-doubt on his part (a quality most politicians find difficult to convey) would make him more attractive and be more politically strategic.
Development is a prime issue that De Blasio must deal with, and questions will likely be raised about how much different his policies will be than those of Bloomberg, a mayor who never saw a development proposal he couldn’t embrace. At a meeting of the real estate board, De Blasio told developers that he has no "hang-up" about allowing them to supersize their developments if it means creating more affordable housing. Obviously, he is willing to sacrifice controls on height and density to reach his goal of 200,000 affordable housing units. The result may be more reasonably priced housing, but also some overdevelopment and egregious residential towers making the city less livable.
When the beleaguered Domino Sugar Factory development on the Williamsburg waterfront (a crumbling industrial site) was finally ready to get off the ground, De Blasio insisted that the developers include more affordable apartments, and did not give in until they did. Disturbingly, urban aesthetics are not De Blasio’s main concern, but his passionate commitment to equality may finally get more reasonable apartments built in a city where the working and middle class are increasingly being priced out.
Meanwhile, the city continues to gentrify. For example, after seven years of construction and its accompanying aggravations like cacophony and debris, the Second Avenue subway line, a mile-and-a-half-long stretch running from East 96th to East 63rd streets, will finally open in less than three years. The new subway line has already moved one development company to assemble properties along Third Avenue in the East 90s with the intention of demolishing buildings to build a 150,000 square-foot tower. Other developers are following suit, as for better or worse there is no area in Manhattan that is not ripe for luxury development.
Reactions to gentrification can run from uncritical endorsement and promotion to railing against the obscenely rich ruining the neighborhood. Recently, Spike Lee, who directed one of the best American films in the last 25 years, "Do the Right Thing," indulged in an expletive-filled rant against moneyed white yuppies taking over his once-blighted black Brooklyn neighborhood, Fort Greene. I can anecdotally testify to its gentrification, for when I recently walked around the striking brownstone streets of Fort Green, I dropped into a café where half the people turned out to be well-heeled French speakers. But Lee himself has contributed to the gentrification of Fort Greene, selling his five-story townhouse for a million, and moving to an Upper East Side mansion.
Gentrification is a complex phenomenon that can’t be simply affirmed or repudiated. Lee prefers inveighing to analyzing, so he speciously rages against affluent white residents for showing little respect for the history and culture of Fort Greene. It’s undeniable that gentrification makes life easier for those who have the money or luck to stay on. But the danger always lies in the fact that much of the city could become a stifling island for the moneyed, while much of the city’s varied population can no longer afford to be part of its fabric.
Gentrification will never be stopped by Lee’s ranting. But only by making sure there is reasonably priced housing, can the city conserve some semblance of urban diversity.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org