Saturday, November 9, 2013

The 'Occupy' Mayor?

Contrary to the expectations of just 6 months ago, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio won the race to be New York's next mayor in a landslide, by a margin of 49 points.  De Blasio began as a little noted fringe left candidate, the candidate for disgruntled dirty hippies to waste their vote in protest.  From the beginning, the designated front runner was City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an open lesbian.  She was the one who got all the press attention and the editorial page endorsements.  Quinn ran as a very establishment figure, openly courting all of the city's powerful kingmakers.  To the surprise of just about everyone, she lost the Democratic primary, and by a large margin, to de Blasio.  She lost because of her close ties to Mayor Bloomberg, and because of her role in enabling his third term that was otherwise prohibited by the allegedly reformed new city charter.  There is still a lot of lingering anger over Bloomberg effectively purchasing for himself another term, and over Quinn's help.  She cultivated for years an image as Bloomberg's heir and successor, securing everything necessary except an open endorsement from Bloomberg himself.

The Conventional Wisdom says that Bloomberg was a very successful, and perhaps even a great, Mayor of New York.  My friend David Kaplan always says that New York is a city that works for about 250,000 people.  For that fortunate Quarter Million, Bloomberg was a very great mayor who made the city work so well for them.  New York is now a very popular city with the global plutocracy; gazillionaires from Qatar, London, Dubai, Shanghai, Moscow, California, Texas, Germany, Scandinavia, Singapore, and elsewhere eagerly buy up residential property for investment and for a pied a terre.  Luxury condominium towers for this uppermost market demographic are sprouting everywhere in Manhattan with more and bigger towers planned.  The prices these folks can and will pay drive up housing and leasing prices for everyone else in the city.

Maybe 'Occupy' wasn't such a fizzle after all.  It seems to me that the next Hizzoner took a lot of his policy and tactics from that movement.

Bill de Blasio is the first politician to win major public office (and to win big) by raising that buzz-kill subject of inequality.  The punditocracy dismisses his win as just so much New York City exceptionalism.  Inequality may be on parade here in New York, but we hardly have a monopoly on it.  The class chasm is widening all over the country with the class distinctions starting to harden and contacts between classes almost non-existent.  The fury of the Tea Party is in part driven by class resentment ably stoked by right wing media (the class consciousness is quickly subsumed into even more combustible tribal consciousness).  That the gross inequalities of the 21st century United States are even publicly discussed at all is the great success of the Occupy movement.  The richest and most powerful empire in history has an alarming rate of poverty.  And the middle class is running faster and faster just to stay in place.  De Blasio made this inequality the center of his campaign with his Tale of Two Cities theme.

A couple of scandals summarize for me the current state of New York City, and maybe by extension, a lot of the rest of the country.
Historic Saint Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village is now closed.  This hospital played major roles in everything from the 1918 Influenza epidemic to the AIDS crisis to the September 11th attacks.  Developers exploited a financial crisis at the hospital to close it down, and to build more luxury housing on the very valuable land under the hospital.  There is now no major hospital south of 14th street in Manhattan.  Emergency rooms all over the island are still feeling the stress of extra patients that would have gone to St. Vincent's.  A major public service was closed down so a few people could make a lot of money.

The Woolworth Building turns 100 this year.  For almost all of that century, the Woolworth was a public building whose magnificent ground floor lobby was wide open to the street.  Now, the top 30 floors of the Woolworth are being converted to luxury housing, a fate already suffered by other major historic landmarks like the old Metropolitan Life Tower and the old Police Headquarters on Center Street.  Like those buildings, the Woolworth is now closed to the public.

A winner-take-all economy with a market-fundamentalist ideology that doesn't believe in any 'common good' dominates New York, and the rest of the USA.

A lot of New York City politicians vocally protested the State University of New York's decision to close Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, but only 3 joined the protests, and only one, Bill de Blasio, willingly went to jail.  That's a tactic straight out of the 'Occupy' movement, and it worked.  The hospital is reprieved for the time being, and people didn't forget the spectacle of a mayoral candidate in cuffs shoved into a police van for standing up for a populist cause.

Now, he's the Mayor-Elect, scheduled to take over on January 1st 2014.  I doubt that he will use it as a springboard to national office.  It didn't work for Al Smith or Richard Lindsay or Rudy Giuliani, and I doubt it would work for any occupant of the NYC Mayor's office.  I remain a little skeptical on how much he will be able to deliver on his platform.  The office of Mayor in New York is very influential, but not all that powerful.  Not only must he deal with the City Council, but with the State Legislature and the Governor in Albany whose decisions affect New York City quite directly.

If de Blasio's term as mayor is even half as successful as his come-from-the-back campaign, then he might inspire a lot of imitators, and we may finally have a long-overdue public discussion of inequality leading to policy change.


JCF said...

Now, the top 30 floors of the Woolworth are being converted to luxury housing, a fate already suffered by other major historic landmarks like the old Metropolitan Life Tower and the old Police Headquarters on Center Street. Like those buildings, the Woolworth is now closed to the public.

As somebody who adores old buildings (I was a member of the Natl Trust for Historic Preservation in my teens), this is Ob-FREAKING-scene! Speaking of "Time to OCCUPY"!!! [Yeah, I know it's not a hospital---but glorious old building lobbies speak to me]

Good luck, Bill de B: fight the power! [And please, God, help him---us---WIN!]

Paul (A.) said...

The Woolworth Building lobby has been closed to the public for a number of years now. I seem to recall walking past the sign at the Broadway entrance when walking to my office from the truncated bus stops after 9/11.

Counterlight said...

Yes, that's true. But I always cherished the hope that the lobby would eventually reopen to the public. Now that last hope is dashed.