What Bill de Blasio Can Learn From New York City’s Last Radical Mayor | The Nation


What Bill de Blasio Can Learn From New York City’s Last Radical Mayor

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Fiorello LaGuardia

New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York, September 17, 1941  (AP Photo)

For all his making nice to Wall Street, de Blasio seems to get that, and to understand that empathy alone will not lift anyone out of poverty. What lessons can he—and we—learn from New York’s previous experience with a radical administration? First, that he has to raise his sights. When La Guardia took office, the city’s unemployment rate was roughly 25 percent; today the figure is less than 9 percent. And both the city and the country are far wealthier now than in the 1930s. Indeed, the amount of sheer wealth on display in New York today—in shop windows, on restaurant menus, and on the backs of the men and women who throng the city’s clean, safe streets—makes it obvious that for many New Yorkers, these are indeed the best of times. 

So if the money is out there, how can the city capture it? The new mayor’s signature proposal to tax incomes above $500,000 to pay for universal pre-kindergarten will require Albany’s permission. So will many other progressive measures, such as ending the current property tax system’s tilt in favor of the minority of New Yorkers who own their homes, and a further bias that allows wealthy co-op and condo owners to pay less tax than rental landlords, who in turn pass that extra cost on to tenants. Or raising the minimum wage. Instead of using this as an excuse for inaction, the new mayor should seize the opportunity—and the undoubted influence he has over the 2014 gubernatorial campaign—to press hard for a speedy renegotiation of the home-rule provisions that prevent the city from managing its own affairs. High on his list should be reinstating the commuter tax, which brought in $300 million annually until a law abolishing it was passed in 1999 by the state legislature and signed by then-Governor George Pataki, who defeated the current governor’s father. Andrew Cuomo showed political skill as well as courage in the fight for gay marriage, but if the equity argument doesn’t move him, perhaps revenge will. 

And while the new mayor is making his travel plans, he can’t forget Washington. Although Roosevelt endorsed his opponent during the campaign, few of La Guardia’s achievements would have been possible without the president’s backing—or the New Deal funding he directed to New York. “I am in the position of an artist or a sculptor,” La Guardia told a reporter, “who…hasn’t a chisel or a brush.” Now, as then, the federal government has the biggest set of brushes around. Roosevelt wanted New York to serve as a model of what government can accomplish—in housing, public health, transportation and recreation. De Blasio could offer Obama the chance to redeem his progressive rhetoric—and to be remembered for enabling an urban renaissance, rather than merely being an onlooker at the bankruptcy. 

Finally, de Blasio must realize that the market—especially the real estate market—will fail him just as it failed La Guardia, and Koch, and Bloomberg. “It is not enough to simply build more market rate housing in hopes of…supplying more than the demand,” write the authors of the housing chapter of Toward a 21st Century City for All. From 2000 to 2010, New York’s housing supply grew at more than twice the rate of the city’s population. “If we could build our way out of our affordability crisis…[costs and rents] should have gone down.” Yet as the authors point out, they did not. 

From the days of Henry George in the nineteenth century, New York’s progressive politicians have tried to recapture the vast—and totally unearned—income created by the rise in land values. But none have succeeded: even today, when projects like the Hudson Yards and the No. 7 subway extension prompt huge increases in values, only a tiny portion ends up in the city’s coffers. 

In the decades after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, New York’s rulers hid behind the myth that businesses—and their owners—had to be bribed to remain in the city. Even in the 1930s, some argued that “the necessity for concentration which created the great city in the first place is now being destroyed by the telephone, the telegraph, the radio”—all enterprises that, like the Internet, have actually spurred new growth. 

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The only way for de Blasio to keep his campaign promises is to expand the public sphere—deliberately and competently, but relentlessly. Not just in housing and transportation (where de Blasio backed the long-overdue Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel), but in entirely new areas like Internet access, bail bonding (a reform proposed by Thomas and Blanshard), green construction and maintenance. He might also consider bringing back the “birch rod”—a New Deal idea for spurring competition in faulty markets by encouraging publicly owned enterprises. FDR took a birch rod to utility companies that refused to lower their rates; Ed Koch used a similar measure to break the concrete cartel. 

Such baby steps will not usher in the millennium. Still, the Reagan-era assumption of “private sector good, public sector bad” probably needs to be revised when an out-and-proud socialist like Kshama Sawant can win election to the Seattle City Council—and when an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session with Bernie Sanders tops Reddit. 

The new administration will need audacity—and competence. But it will also need to keep listening to the voters, who were offered more of the same in the Democratic primary and chose instead the candidate promising “a dramatic change of direction,” an end to the “gilded city where the privileged few prosper, and millions…struggle each and every day to keep their heads above water.” Unlike Barack Obama, Bill de Blasio has set out clear benchmarks: on affordable housing, workers’ rights, police abuse, the environment and education. It’s up to us to make sure he reaches them.


Read Next: Bob Master on how the rise of Occupy and decline of the neoliberal narrative helped shape the “de Blasio moment”—in last week’s special issue on “A New Era for New York.”

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