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.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio Stood at a podium inside a church on Staten Island and told reporters of the “pain and frustration and confusion” in his city. It was December 3, less than a year into his first term, and the streets were alive with protests against the New York Police Department after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man. The mayor evoked his teenage son Dante, the star of his campaign, whose smiling face and natural hair had reminded New Yorkers that thousands of kids just like him were routinely stopped and frisked by the police for doing nothing but having brown skin. The burgeoning energy of a movement against stop-and-frisk had helped propel the mayor into office, and he echoed that movement in his speech. “Change is happening because the people willed it to happen,” he said. “It is my responsibility…to achieve that on behalf of the people.”
One month later, de Blasio once again stood at a podium—this time at NYPD headquarters, flanked by his controversial police commissioner, William Bratton—and answered questions about another group of protesters shaking up the city: the police. The NYPD had declared war on the mayor after two officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were gunned down on December 20 by a man from Baltimore spouting hatred of the cops. Angered by de Blasio’s statement that he sometimes feared his own biracial son might come to harm at the hands of cops, police-union leaders publicly blamed the mayor for the officers’ deaths, and the department staged what many believed to be a protracted work slowdown. The mayor initially seemed cowed by this insurgency, which political observers quickly christened the biggest test of his mayoralty. But as he stood at the podium at police headquarters, he criticized the NYPD’s response and defended his record. “We’re going to find a way forward together,” he vowed.
But how does a mayor who has staked the success of his administration on ending New York’s “tale of two cities” find a way forward that pleases both sides?
When de Blasio ran in 2013, he surged to the front of the Democratic pack—and a landslide victory in the general election—by promising to address the injustices that have made New York an exemplar of urban inequality. In the year since, he has continued that theme, in language as well as policy, and created real change in New Yorkers’ lives. Some of these changes have been sweeping and very public, like the creation of a universal prekindergarten program that has sent more than 50,000 4-year-olds to school. Others have been quieter, like the tens of millions that de Blasio managed to wrest from Governor Andrew Cuomo for rent subsidies to homeless families. Along the way, he has lowered traffic deaths and kept the city functioning during a winter of epic snow. When Cuomo and his partner in bombast, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, threatened to quarantine travelers from West Africa last October after a New York doctor returned with Ebola, de Blasio displayed a welcome calm.