As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Income inequality, affordable housing, climate change, sustainable development, public health, participatory government—cities are tackling them all, bringing new urgency to some of the most vital questions of the day. Welcome to the age of big city progressivism! Cities Rising is The Nation’s contribution to the conversation.
When Bill de Blasio emerged from the City Hall subway station a few minutes before his inauguration two Januarys ago, he wore a smile and a crisp suit. On his right were his wife, son, and daughter. On his back were two narratives destined to define his first 24 months in office.
One was “A Tale of Two Cities,” de Blasio’s campaign critique of an increasingly unequal New York, characterized by rising rents, swelling homeless shelters, and racially skewed policing. The other was the notion that as a liberal mayor with little executive experience, de Blasio was doomed to mismanage the city into a return of “the bad old days.” He’d won the 2013 race because of the former and despite the latter; the two narratives represented the lenses through which his performance as mayor would be viewed by friends and foes—and not just in the five boroughs. With anxiety over income inequality coloring the political mood well beyond the city’s borders, de Blasio was anointed by The Nation and others as the standard-bearer for a new progressive movement.
The hype meant high stakes. If de Blasio succeeded, he could help create a new national consensus around leftist policies. If he failed, John Lindsay would no longer be the person to whom hapless mayors were compared.
Midway through his first term, de Blasio has alternately fulfilled and frustrated his friends’ hopes and his enemies’ scorn. He has racked up substantive policy victories, like universal pre-kindergarten, Vision Zero traffic-safety improvements, a hugely popular municipal-ID program, and a rent freeze for many rent-regulated apartments, and he has taken aggressive stands on the minimum wage, climate change, and mental-health services. But few of his allies seem satisfied with the pace of reform or his ability to articulate a progressive vision, and the mayor has alienated some with his plan to rezone low-income neighborhoods.
As a manager, de Blasio has often defied the predictions of ineptitude: His budgets continue to run surpluses, Pre-K for All’s rollout was remarkably smooth, and he has steadily and responsibly worked through a massive set of overdue labor negotiations left by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. But these feats have been overshadowed by missteps: egregious lateness during his first year, pettiness with the press, unseemly ties to lobbyists, and premature efforts to take on a national role. These foibles delight his critics and terrify his allies, who see not just his reelection prospects, but the broader opportunities for progressive change, suffering with each snafu.