“Too often,” said Fiorello La Guardia, “life in New York is merely a squalid succession of days, whereas in fact it can be a great, living, thrilling adventure.” I thought about my city as “a great, living, thrilling adventure” when I went to check out the throngs in Washington Square Park trying to hear Elizabeth Warren speak on September 16.
These were the faces of hopefuls, of progressives—the flash foot soldiers, many of them students who could afford to be hopeful by virtue of youth (regardless of a climate going to hell). Yes, it was a predominantly white audience, and, yes, there was a smattering of those whom Republicans love to label “the elite” and we locally will willingly stereotype as Upper East/West, Brooklyn, or maybe Tribeca moms. But for the most part, this was a group that could not afford a lot—maybe because there seemed to be more women.
I consider myself part of this progressive, racially diverse core of this city—people whose financial profiles render them open to “a squalid succession of days.” We know who we are; we foot the bill for neighbors who, through no fault of their own, have it much worse. We feel neither righteous about this nor virtuous for not feeling righteous. That’s what is right in a democracy. Besides, we’re so knee-deep in the next problem that we don’t have the mental bandwidth to ponder the institutional screw of our city of 8.5 million.
This is the kind of observation that elicits from outsiders the classic “Then why not leave?” But the one thing that New York can offer to us is us—people like us. “A great, living, thrilling adventure” is the city we carry in our heads, and that’s the city we don’t want to leave.
Warren’s fiery speech—which aptly began with the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that occurred nearby—hit the Democratic high notes of Old New York (FDR and Frances Perkins) with the unrepentant idealism of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. “Our democracy is paralyzed. And why? Because giant corporations have bought off our government. . . . Corruption has put our planet at risk, corruption has broken our economy, and corruption is breaking our democracy!”
No one has to tell New Yorkers about political corruption. There would be no history of New York—city or state—without the unremitting machinations of men doing anything for money and power. Corruption was rife at least a century before Thomas Nast’s cartoon of Tammany Tiger mauling the corpse of Columbia while taunting the viewer: “What are you going to do about it?” But the corruption only accelerated from that 1871 touchstone. In the new documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn?—about the mob-land lawyer, society gadfly, and Donald Trump mentor and legal fixer—Cohn is described as returning to fifties Manhattan after the debacle of the Army-McCarthy hearings and seeing the rampant corruption as his “Candyland.”
As Blue State Ground Zero, we are reviled nationally as the “haves” when “we” the collective should be known as the “halfs”—people who have to spend half of their monthly income on rent. But we know that our job as progressives is to make white working poor voters in, say, Alabama—people who despise us—see the light so that they can become the greatest beneficiaries of whatever democratic largesse our mobilization can bring back. We tell ourselves, “OK, so we’ll pick up the tab for them too. Just get Trump out of there.”
As people trickled away from the arch, their beaming smiles projected hope for our country but could not disguise the underlying doubt that nothing much would change for us as New Yorkers. The great majority of this demos spends decades sucking it up. Our wants are modest—affordable apartments (we’ll never own even with fairly good jobs), working subways and buses, decent (non-segregated) schools, cleaner streets. We don’t want to take away from the poor and the homeless, immigrants and the elderly; we just want what is reasonable for all. You have to wonder, why is this unattainable?
Probably because there is no fairness or democracy in New York City. And that’s because we are historically plagued with low voter turnout in both city and state elections. For half a century, both New York City’s population and its registered voters have grown, but voter turnout levels have been decreasing, especially in mayoral and gubernatorial races. The city’s “historic” turnout for the 2018 midterms was only 39%.
We don’t even have a mayor. The current title holder is a bad mashup of Tony Soprano’s jukebox selection: just a small-town city boy. The previous holder spent 12 years putting more of a minority-majority city into the hands of the one percent. And then there’s “America’s mayor” (the ignominious ending of that dumpster fire is still to come).
Our City Council members don’t represent the “majority” of their neighborhoods; they represent a percentage of savvy constituents who use their votes as leverage for personal interests. Council members play up support for unions and every ethnic day parade but wring their hands about our abysmal system of segregated schools. They extol the virtues of small business (another dingey bodega that sells the same lottery tickets as the one across the street! more delivery-only fast food frontage!) but can do nothing about the daily snuffing of decades-old restaurants and dry cleaners and coffee shop bakeries—that is, places you actually go inside and see your neighbors.
It’s an old saw that New York City needs affordable apartments. The distance between Hudson Yards and NYCHA is as vast as the Milky Way. Every State Budget season, progressive lawmakers and activists make a big show of protecting rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments—great entitlements for those who are privileged by luck and connections to have them. But only 50% (at best) of the city’s rental units are rent-stabilized, and there are no income criteria for these units. You can be a millionaire in a rent-stabilized apartment, or you can be a single mother in a market-rate unit because you haven’t lucked into a stabilized unit and you make too much to quality for income-based housing lotteries. There is nothing democratic about a system like this.
The city is a like an enormous Airbnb rental where the parents are off in other countries raking in the payments but have left all their children in the property, doomed to waiting in line hours to use their own bathroom every morning, having their refrigerator stripped bare. The City Council touts the financial importance of tourists—the people who come here to see the Broadway shows we can’t afford and take selfies in front of Trump Tower and, more recently, Jeffery Epstein’s property on East 71st. Why are these people who flock to the Met and MoMA not subsidizing residents’ entrance to the museums? The Met is supposed to be free, but given their punch-drunk engorgement from the likes of David Koch, they will stalk you to pay with a nickel-and-dime vengeance.
On some days the sheer absurdity of our supposedly progressive city is overwhelming. The MTA operates in its own special needs time capsule, forever the grandma in rags who can’t produce rent for the villainous landlord. When the New York State Senate finally turned Democratic after years of Upstate Republicans sticking it to the city that supports their districts, the Legislature was able to vote in Congestion Pricing to provide the MTA a desperately needed revenue stream. But this only keeps things going; it won’t cover massive system upgrades. That was supposed to happen with the pied-à-terre tax that would have raised $471 million per year, half of which would have come from just 280 homes worth more than $25 million. But Democrats in Albany caved to today’s Roy Cohns—lobbyists for luxury real estate developers—and killed the deal.
We don’t even have a paper that represents us. Despite the good work of transportation reporter Emma Fitzsimmons, the New York Times doesn’t even countenance people without money; the Daily News keeps shedding reporters and column copy; the Post is a Murdoch-funded Russian bot; Gothamist, though now a part of WNYC, must nonetheless keep up with the “whatev” headlines in order to retain its millennial base.
And climate-wise, everything will get worse here before it gets worse elsewhere. New York’s average temperature has climbed by close to 2 degrees Celsius since 1895, making it one of the nation’s fastest-warming cities. After the West Side blackout this summer, we now have an incompetent and unaccountable ConEd to worry about in addition to the MTA.
Elizabeth Warren is all about fairness but undeniably walks a tightrope. Is it better to make amends for the past (as with slavery reparations) or to make a better future for everyone with a system that is fair? What would a truly democratic future look like in America much less New York City? Would we even recognize the city we pretend to love for its shittiness because we have no other option? It’s a low bar—wanting government at all levels to run halfway as efficiently as a Manhattan Trader Joe’s—but I for one would give it a try. §