Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Open Letter to a Mayor

As of next week, I will have spent one third of my life in New York City. A little bit more, but I’m not going to get into decimals.

Still, I don’t call myself a New Yorker. Home will always be Lansdowne, PA. In the National League the Phillies will always be my team over the Mets. Philadelphia is the metropolis associated with my formative memories, and I wasn’t in New York for the Bad Old Days so much on everybody’s mind nowadays.

But I do love this town, and I do love New Yorkers. Heck, I married one.

Beyond the worn-out stereotypes of street hustlers, "dem-dese-dose" knuckleheads, black-clad culture vultures and whiny neurotics, there’s a warmth, a deep sense of humor, a genuine value placed on art and talent, an openness to foreign cultures, an incredible work ethic and a profound understanding of community forged by two decades of blight and tempered to such steel that the following two decades of oppressive development and quick-buck gentrification haven’t been able to fully displace it.

The past two Mayors of New York like to take credit for the city’s current state as a safe, well-functioning metropolis.

Don’t believe them.

In many ways, Rudy Giuliani was the beneficiary of the crack epidemic and the community groundwork laid by his predecessor, the much-maligned David Dinkins who, while not necessarily cut out to be Mayor, was an intelligent man with some good ideas who understood the city.

Giuliani inherited a generation that had witnessed first-hand the destruction of individuals, families and communities to drug scourge and survived it. He made a brutal show of ‘taming’ a city that wanted nothing more than to move up and move on.

Let me relay a story as told to me by a friend years ago. It was early ’95 and my friend, an editor, was working late at a post-production office with five other people. A guy with a gun got in (a delivery had been made and a door left open) and held everybody up. As the police filled out the report, the cop told him, “Used to be we’d have to fill out five incident reports cause there’s five of you got robbed. Now we fill out one. You wonder why crime’s down in New York?”

The brilliance of streamlined paperwork and “broken windows” policing was that by creating the feeling that New York City was safer, it attracted investment and tourists, which created jobs, which people gladly took.

Unfortunately, Giuliani proceeded to put the screws to the very communities upon whose backs he stood, cutting after-school programs' funding and opening the door to development and jacked-up rents designed to swap out the city’s struggling working people with rich white kids for whom the city became an urban theme park in which they could play dress-up and throw around their cash, a phenomenon that exploded out of control under Bloomberg (I know, I sound like such an old grouch...try spending ten minutes on Ludlow St. or Bedford Ave on a Friday night. You’ll turn into an old grouch too.)

By the time he left office, the only people in the city who liked Giuliani were the kind of outer-borough Italian-Americans who still pine for Mussolini (a similarly effective public servant). Yeah, that includes 9/11. This city got through that because of the greatness of our firemen, our cops, our steelworkers, our OEM and our citizens. (Yes, I understand that those city services were paid for by commercial tax revenue. No, I don’t want to chase business out of NYC.)

Then in swoops Mike Bloomberg on the Gospel of Wealth to save the city’s stalled economy. Now he wants to stick around to help us through the current crisis, which is a direct result of the unsustainable nature of the prosperity that saved us then. (There’s some forward thinking.)

The common euphemism is that ‘he has the trust of the business community.’

Read that as, ‘rich white people feel assured that he’s looking out for them.’

I’d like to share a couple of brief stories that illustrate why, in my opinion, we don’t need Bloomberg (never mind that he wants an absurd one-time repeal of term limits without putting it up for a public referendum. Does that make him an Oligarch or a Plutocrat?)

The Blackout of ’03:

Early evening. Edna and I were riding our bikes over to our friend Jeff’s place in Carroll Gardens to grill the steaks that would have rotted in our freezer.

I think it was at the intersection where Flatbush, Lafayette and Fulton all kind of come together near BAM in downtown Brooklyn (an unwieldy intersection even with functioning traffic lights), a group of black teenagers had stationed themselves at each intersection, taking cues from a man in the middle with a stopwatch and a whistle (and a baseball bat, just in case) who timed out the intervals by which the traffic was kept flowing. There wasn't a cop in sight.

Voluntary human traffic lights. A far cry from the looting and riots of ’77.

You can’t attribute that to a Mayor.

Then there was the transit strike, when Mayor Mike refused to even sit down with union leaders, labeling them criminals for daring to stand up for themselves against a notoriously corrupt and dodgy private agency.

And what were they striking for? One of the items on the agenda was the relaxation of the MTA’s dress code, which officially forbade employees to wear dreadlocks, facial hair or traditional headgear as per their culture or religion. If you’ve ever seen the Rastafarian or Sikh conductors, you’d know that they take a great deal of pride in their appearance and present themselves professionally.

Name another organization that places those kinds of rigid cultural restrictions on one’s appearance. I’ll help you out: the Taliban.

What the Mayor failed to understand or respect is that what keeps the subways and buses running isn’t the record profits of the MTA or the compensation packages of its executives, but the dedication and competence of its men and women in the tunnels and on the streets.

As we head into tough times (I’ve been having tough times for the last seven years so welcome to Andyland, everybody), what this city needs is a Mayor who can galvanize and inspire its communities and the people and families who hold them together. Giuliani antagonized them. Bloomberg has, at best, tolerated them. In the coming years, that's not going to be enough. These community leaders have been squeezed and screwed-over for funding for four decades. Unlike our Mayor, they've demonstrated that they know how to accomplish things without a fat bankroll.

A quick word about the schools: the corporatization of the Board of Ed may raise test scores but it’s not saving schools. I know several dedicated and talented people who have been so disgusted and fed up with the current teachers’ contract and the us-against-them mentality between teachers and administration fostered by it that they’ve turned their backs on teaching. You can’t meet the challenges of engaging and educating city kids without administrative support – as it is, the principals are cast in the antiquated theory of management that holds that their job is to pressure the teachers into increased productivity. Teaching human beings isn't making widgets. That’s not ‘accountability.’ It’s idiocy.

(Edna likes to point out that the gentry of our deeply gentrified neighborhood, while rallying around getting landmark status for the Domino Sugar Factory, all put their kids on buses and send them to charter or private schools, but none of them rallies for the local public schools.)

Yes, Bloomberg’s had a positive effect on many other aspects of the city government, and any successor with a brain would naturally keep them in place and build on the work he’s done. Hell, I think Ray Kelly’s done an overall good job with the NYPD, flagrant disregard for civil liberties during the RNC notwithstanding. I mean, I can understand protecting us from terrorists, but I don't get why they seem so determined to protect us from satirists and bicyclists... (The differences between the shooting of Sean Bell and that of Amadou Diallo and the abuse of Abner Louima are worth examining in a post of their own.)

Bloomberg's apparent infatuation with London disturbs me. There you have a city of highly centralized wealth and deeply stratified classes in which four of its youth were significantly disenfranchised as to blow themselves up in crowded subway cars. Hardly a model. Kids with a future don't turn to extremism.

This city needs to stop selling out its communities and put them to work.

The “business community” needs to understand that a healthy and prosperous working population is what will keep this city a safe place for their children to spend their money, stagger down the streets and piss on the doorsteps of people like myself before passing out in their own vomit. Fun!

Now that easy riches and cushy jobs don’t await the ivy-league i-bankers who’ve been helping to inflate rents, perhaps this city will become safe for the middle class again.

To all of those new New Yorkers worried about the equity they stand to lose in the condos they bought at the height of a bubble market should property values come back to Earth, ask yourself: did you buy here to make a profit, or to make a home? This isn't just a place for the young and fabulous to sew their wild oats, or a pit-stop on the way to their first million, this is a place where people live.

As the glitter is swept away and the tarnish beneath shined, this city’s best -- if not wealthiest -- years could be ahead of us yet.