Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: State of the city as 2020 dawns

Letter from New York

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NEW YORK — The balance sheet for 2019 New York City probably has as many successes as failures. One success is the Census Bureau's estimate that the city's poverty rate in 2019 at 17.3 percent is down from about 20.9 percent in 2013. The number is the lowest since the end of the 1970s. Another is that in the final quarter of 2018, the city reported a milestone: the lowest unemployment rate in its history at just 4 percent, and jobs in the private sector have grown over the year by 55,100, or 1.4 percent, to 4,071,300 in October 2019. Still because workers' average weekly hours have declined, it partially explains why New York's long job expansion has been accompanied by relatively tepid wage growth.

When it comes to crime, the total crime rate has dropped 2.6 percent in the last year. However, murder and rape rates are up slightly, but the city still feels relatively safe. Especially if you are old enough to remember when walking at night always felt precarious, with the sirens blaring, muggers lurking, and dealers accosting you. I may have for an odd moment felt at home in the violent chaos, seeing it as oddly exhilarating. However, I also understood that though the volatility may have moved some people aesthetically, it threatened the economic and social survival of the city.

The city's failures, real and imagined, are what we spend our time railing against. For example, though there has been some improvement in the subways, they still break down or come late. In addition there are problems with accessibility for the disabled, broken escalators, and signal breakdowns that cause widespread delays.The buses, in turn, are too slow, and sometimes don't show up at all, as bus ridership keeps on falling. In fact, MTA buses are the slowest in the nation among large cities. And when taking a cab in Manhattan, one often feels trapped in an eternal, blaring gridlock of Ubers, delivery trucks, bicycles, and buses.

The MTA is proposing a historic $51.5 billion spending plan, the largest in the city's history, to overhaul the transit systems in the city. The plan includes elevator upgrades, a new extension to the Second Avenue subway, new signaling technology, revamping of stations, and improving bus depots. Where the billions will come from to manage this transformation is another question. Some of it will be derived from new sources of revenue like congestion pricing and the progressive mansion tax. The rest will come from federal funds, money from the state and the city, and MTA Bonds. It's now up to Gov. Cuomo to manage the MTA and stay on budget and on time — a herculean task that is rarely achieved in New York.


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Walking along any Manhattan high-rent street, one sees store vacancies everywhere. It's a blatant example of upscale blight. In the Village near me there are blocks where on each side of the street there are stores where For Rent signs have been taped to the windows for months. A number of recent studies have found retail corridors in prosperous Manhattan neighborhoods struggling with vacancy rates ranging from 14 percent on the Upper West Side's Columbus to 20 percent on Broadway in SoHo.

The reasons for the vacancies are obvious, and include skyrocketing real estate prices that make store rents only affordable to big chains, and the insidious competition from E commerce.

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The City Council has recently passed legislation that will track commercial storefronts that provide a comprehensive data base on store vacancies. This legislation was spurred by a study that discovered that storefront vacancies averaged 9 per cent across the city. There are no easy answers to the vacancy problem, but the fact that it's being seriously analyzed and addressed holds out some hope that the city will preserve a semblance of its small store ethos and not become an urban mall.

When it comes to homelessness the situation remains dire. New York City's homeless population hit a record-breaking peak in January 2019 with nearly 64,000 men, women, and children sleeping in shelters each night. There is also no accurate measurement of the unsheltered homeless, who sleep on subways, in doorways, railway stations, and other public spaces. Every morning when I head out for coffee and a newspaper, I see next to a vacant store, a young man sleeping on cardboard, inside a bright blue sleeping bag with his head on a dirty bedroll. It's generally believed that the unsheltered are mostly living with mental illness and other severe health problems. I am not sure that's the whole truth, but I know the problem of the homeless who sleep rough is not easily remedied.

Mayor De Blasio has tried to deal with the crisis, citing the city's creation of 10,261 apartments for the homeless in recent years and says the city is in the midst of "implementing the most aggressive affordable housing plan in New York City history." However, he has been scathingly attacked by the Coalition for the Homeless for only offering hollow and inadequate plans to deal with the homeless problem.

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The homeless exist in large numbers in cities other than New York, like Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and different solutions are being tried, but few answers are forthcoming. Though the holistic approach that can include raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expanding access to health care, and spending $200 million a year to combat addiction, will be of help.

The city may lack affordable housing, and homeless families crowd the shelters, but luxury development expands throughout the city. In fact, construction spending hit a record high last year.

New York is a tale of two cities.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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