Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities
By Juan Gonzalez
The New Press
Juan Gonzalez, the crusading columnist formerly of the Daily News, gives the first in-depth account of how a little-known progressive politician stunned the elite of the nation’s greatest cuty by winning the mayoralty of New York City in a wild race in 2013.
Bill de Blasio, who served in the City Council and as Public Advocate, vowed to end the “Take of Two Cities” and he attacked income inequality as “the moral issue of our time.”
Those themes led de Blasio to succeed billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg as Mayor by attracting the support of ordinary New Yorkers still left reeling by the Great Recession in 2008.
Gonzalez sees that election in 2013 as a change election in the sense, that it brought the largest number of populist candidates into government offices at the same time since Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in the 1930s.
In Reclaiming Gotham, Gonzalez chronicles how the de Blasio coalition produced a raft of reforms during its first three years in power that directly transferred more than $20 billion to New York City’s working and middle class residents.
Gonzalez writes, “At his inauguration as mayor on that cold New Year’s Day of 2014, Bill de Blasio spoke bluntly both to Democratic party stalwarts, many of them angling for patronage jobs or city contracts now that one of their own was in power, and to the many skeptics who had already started dismissing his vow to tackle the city’s yawning income inequality as just naive and unattainable campaign rhetoric. ‘There are some who think now, as we turn to governing – well, things will continue pretty much like they always have,’ de Blasio declared to them all. ‘So let me be clear. When I said we would take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities, I meant it. And we will do it.’
“It was the first inkling the public had that de Blasio was serious about transforming how government bureaucracy serves its residents, that he was serious about ending the conservative market-oriented policies that for decades had favored the city’s wealthy elite. It is, of course, far easier to criticize what is wrong with government than to devise effective and imaginative ways to reform its operation. Yet over his first hundred days, and certainly during the first two years of his administration, de Blasio and his allies in the city council produced a stunning array of new laws and regulations, programs, and labor agreements, the biggest of which, their launch in September 2014 of universal, free pre-kindergarten for New York City’s public schools, should be judged one of the truly extraordinary educational accomplishments by any municipal government in modern U.S. history. Moreover, the combination of de Blasio’s early reforms resulted in a sudden and enormous infusion of income and new economic benefits to the city’s working and middle classes…
“But the new Mayor did more than redirect the mission of local government by launching or expanding a raft of reforms that included universal pre-K and after-school programs, long-overdue wage increases for municipal workers, paid sick leave for all, a virtual freezing of tenant rents, and a municipal ID system now utilized by nearly 1 million residents. He sought, as well, to dispel the notion that liberals are simply tax-and-spend politicians who can never make the trains run on time, collect the garbage, or keep crime rates low. While Giuliani had filled the top ranks of his administration with criminal prosecutors, and Bloomberg with corporate executives who had little prior experience in government, de Blasio consciously recruited his top staff from the ranks of two entirely different sectors, combining skilled technocrats who had racked up decades of experience managing major public agencies, some as far back as the Koch and Dinkins eras, with a slew of progressive labor and community activists, and then he directed them all to pursue twin goals of equity in city services and effective government.”
One thing clear from de Blasio’s first term as Mayor was this was no routine change of government from Bloomberg, but a watershed moment in U.S. urban politics.
Gonzalez made his reputation at the Daily News from 1987 to 2016 as an esteemed investigative journalist who identified with the struggles of working people.
Using that lens, he did not lose sight of de Blasio’s twin identities of radical outsider and political insider, which partly explain his failings and missteps over affordable housing and policing policies, as well as the political scandals that dogged his first term as mayor.
De Blasio’s victory represented the maturing of a nationwide revolt of the cities against corporate-oriented, neo-liberal policies that have dominated urban America for decades: the privatization of government services, the seizure of public parks and streets, unbridled commercial development, gentrification that has systematically displaced black and brown residents from downtown neighborhoods, and the racial targeting of minority communities by local police departments.
Gonzalez writes of New York City before de Blasio, especially where it came to development, “The main governing instruments for shaping the Luxury City were land use and housing policies: driving up the cost of private rent-regulated housing for low-income New Yorkers; rezoning of scores of neighborhoods to fuel private commercial development; and providing huge tax breaks, land giveaways, and direct public subsidies for marquee mega-development projects like Hudson Yards, Atlantic Yards, and the Yankees and Mets stadiums.
“One recent housing study found that from 1990 to 2000 (roughly the Giuliani era), median rents citywide increased by only 1.9 percent, while they jumped by 18 percent from 2000 to 2010-14 (the Bloomberg era). And the picture was most dire in fifteen gentrifying low-income neighborhoods of Harlem, Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and north Brooklyn. There, rents climbed by just 3 percent during the decade of the 1990s, but by an astounding 30.4 percent from 2000 to 2010-14! Throughout the Bloomberg era, the city’s rent guidelines board approved increases that averaged 3.2 percent annually for more than 800,000 rent-regulated units.
“The federa government defines as affordable housing any unit that costs 30 percent or less of a family’s gross income. Yet by the time Bill de Blasio entered city hall in 2014, one-half of the city’s renter households were paying more than 33.8 percent of their income in rent, and an astonishing one-third were paying more than half their income to keep a roof over their heads.
“Faced with such a monumental housing crisis, the city chose instead to concentrate on more subsidies for commercial development. Anyone wandering along Midtown Manhattan’s far West Side in the past few years would come across the dusty din of jackhammers, cranes, and construction crews lifting new hotels, condos, and office buildings into the sky. Hudson Yards, the twenty-eight acres in and around the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s West Side rail yards, has been touted for more than a decade as New York’s next great commercial district. It is the biggest development of its kind in the nation. The scandalous subsidies taxpayers have shelled out since 2006 for this luxury mega-project are rarely mentioned, nor are the hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes that will be siphoned for decades from the city’s budget into the coffers of a little-known public authority called the Hudson Yards Infrastructure Corp.”
Gonzalez also traces the origin of the mostly untold story of the nationwide grassroots urban revolt and its early maverick leaders back more than a decade ago, to Seattle, Philadelphia, Richmond, Calif., and other cities where radical insurgents initially won seats on their local city councils and began to espouse a new neighborhood-based vision of how to govern the 21st century city.
This book is a must for anyone who wants a detailed look at Brooklyn’s own Bill de Blasio as he starts his second term and increases his national profile.