Bill de Blasio Feels Your Pain

The secret to the Democratic mayoral frontrunner's success is all about the current emotional state of New Yorkers.

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AP

By the time the polls closed in New York City on primary night, the results seemed inevitable. Bill de Blasio, widely perceived as the most progressive candidate in the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor, was the winner by a big margin – perhaps one big enough to avoid a runoff – although thousands of absentee ballots remain to be counted.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who became the unwilling symbol of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s status quo, finished a dismal third, with just over 15 percent. Perennial also-ran Bill Thompson, playing the role of "not too hot and not too cold," came away with 26 percent and promised to fight on.

New Yorkers had spoken. But what, exactly, were they saying?

It’s tempting to read de Blasio’s come-from-behind romp to victory as a wholesale rejection of the Bloomberg years, with their emphasis on money as a measure of value and success. De Blasio hammered away at his "tale of two cities" theme, promised (a likely unrealistic) 100,000 units of affordable housing, railed against the conversion of hospitals to condos, and spoke loudest against stop and frisk – a policy with personal implications for his very visible mixed-race family.

But as many have noted, de Blasio isn’t exactly the anti-Bloomberg, a passionate Robin Hood to the current mayor’s cold-blooded Sheriff of Nottingham. Far from being an across-the-board foe of the real estate lobby, de Blasio was a supporter of the hugely controversial Atlantic Yards project, which used eminent domain to carve a developer-sized hole next to the Brooklyn district he then represented. At Atlantic Yards, de Blasio helped make way for a shiny new sports arena that was open for business long before the affordable housing units he called for were delivered (they still haven’t been built).

A lot of voters seemed willing to give de Blasio a pass on that and on some other past actions, even if they thought the Atlantic Yards deal stank. Sure, he voted against congestion pricing and was initially "dubious" about a controversial bike lane on Prospect Park West, but he won the support of livable streets advocates anyway because he said he had come around on the importance of bike and pedestrian infrastructure and the severity of traffic crimes. True, he may not have gotten that much accomplished as public advocate. But who does? Listen to what he is saying now, people kept saying.

De Blasio won, as far as I can tell, because better than anyone else, he articulated the sense of loss that many New Yorkers are feeling these days. He acknowledged the residents of the city who are always looking over their shoulders, waiting for the next rent hike, the next demolition, the next conversion of a local store to a national chain. He spoke to the folks who are barely hanging on as the city gets bigger and stronger and richer around them.

He also appealed to the people who are doing relatively well but are finding that when it comes to living in a desirable neighborhood in New York, it isn’t enough to earn six figures anymore. You have to start thinking about seven figures.

De Blasio was saying what a lot of people were thinking: this city is changing into something we don’t even recognize any more.

Most New Yorkers, whether they will admit it out loud or not, like a lot of what has happened since Bloomberg became mayor. No one wants to go back to the days of high crime. Everybody wants a strong economy. We may like complaining about the tourists blocking the sidewalk, but we are, in truth, proud to show off our town (the money they spend sure doesn’t hurt, either). And it’s pretty great to be able to go to a bar and not come out smelling like an ashtray.

But something essential is being lost in the race to prosperity, and anybody who is honest will admit it. Something vital is being paved over as abandoned waterfront lots get built up into condos with ridiculous rents, as family-owned businesses give way to the same chains you can find anywhere in the world. While Midtown Manhattan transforms into one big pied-à-terre for millionaires, the city’s heart risks being hollowed out.

It doesn’t take some wild-eyed radical to see all this, although Republican nominee Joe Lhota, in his acceptance speech, indicated he aims to paint de Blasio just that way: “I’m hearing an awful lot coming from the other side about a ‘tale of two cities,’ and how they want to tear down the progress that’s happened over the last 20 years,” said Lhota. “This tale is nothing more than class warfare, an attempt to divide our city…. It’s this kind of thinking that brought our city to the brink of bankruptcy and with rampant decay.”

New York faces the same conundrum as cities from Paris to London to San Francisco: does economic success inevitably mean the death of a city’s diversity? Does too much emphasis on material prosperity stifle the ferment that makes a city great? Are the world’s great metropolises going to be gentrified to death?

I’m a native New Yorker who grew up in some of the city’s darkest days, and I don’t have much patience when it comes to romantic nostalgia for the “grittier” New York of muggings and filth. But I am worried that my beloved city is losing its character. The inequality between the richest and the poorest, the widening gap in between, the lack of truly affordable places to live, the police discrimination against young black and Latino men, the homogenization of what once was a richly varied culture – these are the most pressing problems New York is facing now. Among the Democratic candidates, Bill de Blasio named them loudest. The voters were listening.

Top image: New York Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, right, stands near New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the 9/11 Memorial ceremonies. (AP Photo/Adrees Latif, Pool)

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.