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.
December 2013 was electric. Many of us who toiled in the trenches of racial justice and anti-poverty policy were tremulous with possibility. Bill de Blasio was soon to be inaugurated mayor of New York City—the first Democrat to take that oath of office since David N. Dinkins in 1990. His mandate to end the tale of two cities—one rich, one poor—was big, bold, and unflinchingly progressive. And for people of color, particularly black New Yorkers, Dante’s dad (as some of us had begun calling de Blasio after his Afro-wearing son appeared in a star-turning primary ad) represented a leader who understood the Gordian knot of race and income inequality.
For policy wonks like me, it was a time to tell our newly minted mayor what the solutions were. I did what we all did: fingertips to keyboard. I pounded out an opinion piece for The Nation suggesting that the largest, most diverse, and disturbingly segregated city in America would not turn course sufficiently without community-scale broadband strategies. I had no idea when my article ran on January 8, 2014, that the mayor would summon me to his office soon after, offer me a position as his counsel and then assign me the challenge of creating and moving his broadband strategy. Two years later, I am proud to say New York has made bold moves to increase broadband access.
Few would debate that the information superhighway is both an on-ramp and HOV lane for the global economy. Whether a resident needs to get online to access homework or supplemental educational tools, to search for a job or start a business, broadband is a necessity. Most may not realize how many can’t afford it. Jillian Maldonado, a South Bronx single mom who was earning $300 a week as an Avon representative is an all-too-familiar victim of the digital divide. After a long day, she would come home, make her young son dinner, and then take him past the check-cashing store, a small grocery, and the occasional drug dealer to get to the library to get him online to do his homework.
A family that doesn’t know how it will make its monthly rent payment may not have $75 a month for in-home broadband, let alone a computer. More than a third of low-income New Yorkers still do not have broadband at home. It’s why this year, for the first time in the history of the city, we added a broadband category to the capital budget and pledged $70 million over the next 10 years towards free or low-cost wireless service for low-income communities. These investments are part of the mayor’s aggressive approach to expanding broadband access.