In this blog entry, Scott Larson, author of “Building Like Moses with Jacobs in Mind,” reflects on the state of Michael Bloomberg’s New York this Mayoral election year.
In November residents of New York City will go to the polls to elect a mayor not named Michael Bloomberg for the first time in 12 years.
Already some New Yorkers are taking the opportunity to reflect on what they see as the successful aspects of the Mayor’s three terms in office. They point to a drop in crime, the expansion of the city’s network of parks and public spaces, as well as initiatives aimed at expanding public transportation and bike use, greening city streets and encouraging healthier lifestyles. Others tout the transformation of wholesale city neighborhoods, focusing on the redevelopment of the city’s waterfront and old industrial neighborhoods and the revitalization of its real estate market. Like the Mayor, they celebrate what they see as New York City’s ascension to the forefront of an elite network of global cities.
But in doing so they are overlooking a number of disturbing trends. According to the administration’s own analysis, between 2009 and 2011 the number of residents with incomes less than 150 percent of the official poverty threshold grew 2 percent, to 46 percent of all city inhabitants. That means that in 2011, a family of four could earn as much as $46,416 and still struggle to make ends meet. In addition the number of New Yorkers actually living in poverty increased almost 4 percent– from 19.8 percent in 2007 to 23.6 percent in 2011. Especially hard hit were Hispanics, Asian working families and recent immigrants. That these increases occurred at a time when unemployment rates were at five-year lows only underscores the troubling dynamics at work: a slow and incomplete recovery from the financial crisis/recession of 2008 and a dearth of jobs offering a living wage even as federal benefits programs designed to keep many Americans from slipping into the ranks of the poor face determined political fire from the conservative right.
All of which begs an obvious question: can a city in which almost one half of all residents live at or near poverty level really be considered successful?
By virtually any measure whoever succeeds Bloomberg as mayor will inherit a city of increasingly divergent realities. On one side are the wealthy, largely white and well connected. On the other side stand the growing ranks of the un- and underemployed, often people of color, left to make do at the ever-shrinking margins.
As I argue in “Building Like Moses with Jacobs in Mind,” this fragmentation should come as no surprise. For more than a decade the Mayor and his administration have pursued planning and land-use strategies designed to remake the city along class, and by extension racial, lines. From Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards to the East River waterfront in Queens and Manhattan’s Manhattanville, corporate subsidies, tax breaks, threats of eminent domain and zoning changes have been used to displace poorer residents and clear working class neighborhoods in favor of private redevelopment schemes and city-shaping, capital-attracting design projects. Developers and designers might relish this return of the master plan, especially since under the Bloomberg administration they’ve been given the reigns for reimagining the city in the 21st century. But the result so far is a city increasingly hostile to anyone who doesn’t work in the “creative” economy and who can’t afford a luxury condo.
Whether any of the 11 mayoral candidates – seven Democrats, three Republicans and one Independent – recognizes the relationship between the planning policies that mark the Bloomberg era and the city’s growing class divide is unclear. So far remarkably little attention has been paid to their views on land use and urban planning. And that’s unfortunate because after 12 years of little more than lip service in regards to public participation, all New Yorkers deserve a serious conversation about their role in the process of shaping the city’s future.