Talk about rebuilding New York, and sooner or later someone will pipe up that out of crisis comes opportunity. It depends on where you stand. Right now what poor and working-class New Yorkers have got is crisis, and unless a force of historic proportion develops to shift the course of things, what will follow is more of the same.
Taking the crisis part first, it’s well-known that New York has lost 95,000 jobs since September 11, less well-known that it lost 75,000 in the twelve months prior, and that even in boom times 1.5 million people, most of them with jobs, were turning to soup kitchens. Now those kitchens have had to turn people away for lack of food, and grassroots community agencies, to which for at least ten years government has outsourced a whole range of human services, are themselves against the wall. This past autumn Mayor Giuliani ordered every city department other than fire, police and the board of education to cut its budget by 15 percent, meaning nonprofit groups with city contracts took a similar cut. Governor Pataki froze state money at a cost to nonprofits of more than $200 million. Meanwhile, foundations warned they’d make fewer grants, smaller grants, their capital having been clobbered on the stock market. And in fashioning end-of-year appeals, every group strove to connect to 9/11, because that’s the trigger for charitable giving. September 11 relief funds are bulging with $1.1 billion. There’s so much cash available for grief counseling that the big charities are fairly begging to give it away, but for tackling the material sources of grief-as-everyday-life among people who can claim no direct link to the twin towers–that’s trickier.
At the Good Old Lower East Side, a tenants’ rights and neighborhood preservation organization, we are looking at a worst-case loss of $200,000 out of our $500,000 annual budget. Meanwhile, the work goes on–only now we worry because one of our organizers has had asthma attacks from the air downtown while at housing court, because a lot of people we work with are depressed and scared, because the supposed era of good feeling ushered in by the tragedy hasn’t stopped landlord harassment or evictions, because gentrification steams forward in the Lower East Side, because low-income people never just have housing problems; they have employment problems and health problems and family problems and immigration problems, and all of those are getting worse. From our counterparts in other groups, in areas from children’s rights to prisoners’ rights, we hear the same story of too little money and too much need. Drug and alcohol abuse is up, domestic violence is up, homelessness is way up (30,000 adults and children in city shelters, an all-time high). In December some 30,000 New York City recipients of public assistance hit federal time limits for welfare; in 2002 19,000 more will lose their benefits, left to compete with 95,000 displaced workers for jobs and services that are barely there.
One has to be a keen shopper for silver linings to see opportunity in all this, but for the past months, in a variety of venues, groups like ours have been meeting with legal services agencies, immigrant groups, unions, community activists, progressive politicians, economic policy analysts and others to discuss a people’s agenda for rebuilding. For years politicians have been pronouncing on the value of work; now the state’s commitment to work, but also to a living, must be tested. And if there are to be tax incentives to private companies, there must be a return in jobs, environmental safety, an expanded economic infrastructure–transportation, housing, communications, health, education. People are asking, Can we think of rebuilding that enhances all of New York’s boroughs? Can we look at those holes where the towers stood and boldly imagine a different city, a better city? And can we mobilize an army to fight for that vision?
Even in the best of times that would be difficult. Now there’s recession, and unless some major revenue sources are tapped, State Senator Eric Schneiderman says, “we’re looking at something that makes the New York fiscal crisis of the 1970s look like a picnic in Coney Island.” Only a fraction of the $20 billion that Bush promised to the city in September has materialized. The state and city are both running many billions of dollars in deficits; when the governor and mayor come out with their budgets in January and February, they are likely to strike at every social program, the better to impress Washington with their resolve to shoot the wounded. Again, the nonprofit service contractors, which are small and diffuse but account for about 15 percent of the city’s budget, will be an attractive target. So will the city’s civilian work force, already shrunk by 20 percent since 1993.
Schneiderman, for one, is calling for a freeze on about $4 billion in state tax cuts scheduled to go into effect in 2002; for reinstatement of the city’s commuter tax; for repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, which, he says, would save the state hundreds of millions a year. There are other ideas, including exacting sacrifices from the top 10 percent of New York’s population, who doubled their wealth in the boom, and from city property holders, whose average tax rate has been frozen for ten years. The point is for New York’s social justice forces to be organized, ready to struggle for every dollar and demand every good. Some of the bigger unions are saying they might want to give Mayor Mike Bloomberg a “honeymoon.” Some in the media are still flogging the idea that there’s a “new” New York, more generous, more one-for-all. It’s the same New York, just worse. Only the rich have opportunity by right. The rest of us have to fight for it.