NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio cuts a celebratory ribbon with Al Sharpton REUTERS/Mike Segar

A (very) short history of the NYC mayor’s prickly relationships with the very people he should be listening to.

There were two interesting bits in Bryan Burrough’s profile of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair.

The first: Heather Mac Donald—the Manhattan Institute’s “broken windows” enthusiast and cheerleader of the fluke “Ferguson Effect” theory— said something that actually makes sense. Responding to a question about de Blasio’s dual mission to address income inequality and affordable housing, she said:

“I think people feel that it’s not a mayor’s prime responsibility to try to lower income inequality. … Managing New York is enough. If you can keep the streets fixed and maintain discipline in the schools, that is a challenge enough. If you can prove you have the management mettle to do that, then maybe you take on income inequality. To declare [that issue] as your primary mission as mayor strikes people as grandiose. There is a certain messianic quality that he actually thinks he can solve income inequality. I would argue that that is at the very least a premature goal, but most likely a preposterous one. To the extent that income inequality can be addressed by public policy, which is a real question, it certainly can’t be done at a local level.”

I disagree that this is a preposterous goal. Politicians should be thinking bigger and dealing with the issues we find intractable, for the sake of those who have historically come out as losers in the evolution of urban planning. I also wouldn’t conclude that these matters “certainly can’t” be solved locally. But there are real questions about how effective local government can be in addressing these problems.

This holds especially for affordable housing, where de Blasio’s experiments with inclusionary zoning will be a major test case of whether such policies will hold up legally, produce adequate affordable housing outcomes, or drive private developers away from producing more housing at all (or push them into markets where such zoning policies don’t exist).  

Which brings us to the other interesting part of the profile. DeBlasio is taken to task in the article by Reverend Calvin Butts, the longtime civil rights pillar in Harlem whose Abyssinian Development Corporation has built a significant supply of affordable units over the decades. Given this has also been a central mission for de Blasio, you’d think he and Butts would make natural partners. But it doesn’t sound like they have a lot of chemistry. Said Butts:   

“De Blasio, in the words of the Stevie Wonder song, ‘you ain’t done nothing.’ I can’t even get in to see his commissioners. I’ve built thousands of units of affordable housing. I think I met with his office of economic development once. I’ve created the first high school in the black community in 50 years, in Harlem, and I can’t even meet the [schools] chancellor. His administration is disorganized. You hear these complaints from other people, not just me. I think he feels comfortable in whoever is advising him that the black community is in his pocket. It’s not. If he’s really with us, stick with us. I need a John Brown [the white abolitionist who advocated armed insurrection] type. I feel strange saying this, but ‘People in the black community, please, don’t be taken for a ride by this man.’”

And that’s just the half of Butts’ warpath on de Blasio in the article. (I’ll get to the other half in a second.) But to address Butts’ charges, I have heard similar charges from another African-American, faith-based developer in New York. In late May, the Environmental Protection Agency flew in Reverend Floyd Flake, a former member of congress and pastor of the Greater Allen A.M.E Cathedral church of Queens, to honor him for his efforts around producing hundreds of affordable housing units (which have not come without controversy).

When I asked Flake at the event whether he was involved in de Blasio’s affordable housing goals, he expressed the same disgruntlement as Butts, and said he also was unable to get a meeting with de Blasio or even his staff. There could be some insider politics that explain this, or perhaps de Blasio is taking the Obama-paved road of not kowtowing to the older, established African-American political guard. But still, if affordable housing is your top priority as a mayor, it seems you might want to at least have a talk with those who’ve already been doing it, if only to learn about their successes and mistakes.

Butts allllmost called de Blasio a racist in the article for his alleged stiff-arming:

“We’ve seen liberal racists before,” Butts concludes. “I’m not going to call him a racist just yet. I just think that his posture shows great disrespect for the black and brown communities. Great disrespect. I will not call him the r-word. But it’s terrible now. It’s condescending.”

He must’ve known that calling the mayor a racist wasn’t going to fly, not with de Blasio’s wife being black and all. Had Butts gone all the way, it would’ve effectively undermined the rest of his argument against de Blasio. Still, the second half of Butts’ Vanity Fair tirade made legitimate points about de Blasio failing to stop the New York Police Department’s ongoing stop-and-frisk and “broken windows” practices. Butts also rebuked de Blasio for not firing the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner.

“He’s using taxpayer money to support a murderer,” said Butts.

De Blasio probably didn’t help himself by telling Burroughs that former New York mayor Ed Koch was one of his role models. As The Atlantic writer David A. Graham pointed out two years ago, Koch made some pretty disgraceful appeals to racial resentment during his tenure. People who grew up in hip-hop’s infancy period remember Koch as the mayor who began criminalizing graffiti and other minor infractions that helped contribute to the growing incarceration crisis.

To be fair, de Blasio is charting a much different path than Koch, built more on racial inclusion. And probably deserves more credit for standing up to NYPD, even as they have turned their backs on him. Also, Butts probably forgot that he had his own moment when he was all for steamrolling over urban youth culture in a Koch-ish manner.

Still, if de Blasio is serious about making a demonstrable difference in the neighborhoods ruined by disinvestment, the very least he could do is open discussion a little more with those who have invested in these communities when the government failed. Otherwise, he risks validating Mac Donald’s point about taking a messianic route.

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