Last year, Michael Bloomberg’s final state of the city address fell on his birthday and took place in the gleaming Barclays Center, the NBA arena at the centerpiece of the controversial Atlantic Yards development project. There were banners hanging from the rafters celebrating the mayor’s accomplishments. The Nets dancers performed. A man waving a massive New York City flag led the mayor in.
Today, Bill de Blasio’s first State of the City was in the arena at a community college in Queens. There was a sign-language interpreter on stage who would extend her arms upward and shake her hands when people clapped. But she didn’t use that sign too often, because de Blasio’s speech featured a lot of long, very serious passages devoid of applause lines.
Symbolism is cheap. Bloomberg, last year, was giving a valedictory talk; de Blasio is just a rookie. But the packaging wasn’t the only difference between the speeches.
There were direct policy disagreements. Bloomberg used his final SOTC to defend stop-and-frisk, while de Blasio threw a few more clumps of dirt on the policy’s casket. De Blasio championed broader paid sick leave, an expanded living wage, a higher minimum wage for the five boroughs and municipal ID cards for everyone regardless of immigration status. De Blasio also set an ambitious goal: that in eight years, most people in the city with skilled technology jobs will be public-school products. It was a de Blasio twist on Bloomberg’s commitment to building the tech sector in town, which was a wise move but one whose benefits—in the absence of policy to correct their course—might bypass the city’s lower- and moderate-income people.
But it was more than that. De Blasio’s oratory about income inequality sounds familiar by now. But he continues to sharpen the critique of what’s wrong in the city. Here’s one passage:
…[M]ake no mistake about the motives of those in our most hard-pressed communities. They don’t typically look to the rich with anger…. they aren’t consumed with jealousy or spite. They are simply in search of the city that they signed up for—one that rewards not just wealth, but work. A city that honors the notion that a single mom taking the subway to her job as a housekeeper deserves to see her efforts rewarded, just as readily as the family who owns the home she cleans. That the young man who stocks the shelves deserves the same respect and chance at a decent life as the executive who owns the store.
New York will only work when it works as one city. And here’s why: Despair does not dissipate. Those who are discouraged—even hopeless—about their future…cannot contribute their labor or energy or values to their neighborhoods, or to the neighborhoods that sit just a short subway ride away. It’s as simple as this: the American dream does not work without hope. The dream that New York has always been…does not function if people believe their chance at a better future is out of reach.
By no means did De Blasio’s more sober staging of the SOTC make it more modest than Bloomberg’s.
In lieu of the Nets dancers or a man with a flag, de Blasio’s first SOTC featured Catherine La Guardia, granddaughter of the late mayor. “Many mayors have wanted to be compared to him,” she said of her grandfather. “Bill de Blasio plans to actually earn it.” Someday we’ll argue over whether he has, but it is striking to read in Mason Williams’ excellent book City of Ambition, which chronicles the relationship between La Guardian and FDR, about how the Little Flower sized up the economic crisis of his day:
The fundamental cause of the economic crisis, La Guardia (and many other progressives) believed, was not the advance of technology or greater production in itself; rather it was the fact that the benefits of labor saving machinery had gone almost entirely to the wealthy. Recovery would come only when the economy was adjusted such that the benefits of mechanized production went to all—not only those who owned machinery …”We cannot stop progress; but the trouble is that legislation has not kept abreast of progress in the sciences, in chemistry in electricity, in mechanics, in transportation and in other modern methods of production,”[La Guardia said].”
The mayor continued, Williams writes: “Our situation is not temporary.”