By J. Taylor Basker
At Symphony Space, punctuated by cadences of applause, our Mayor revealed his new orchestration of the citizens of NYC. In his sixth State of the City speech, Bill de Blasio promised New Yorkers a better life. NYC should be a model for the rest of the country that is descending into servitude to the 1%. He claimed the city under his administration had reversed this by giving back to workers “the prosperity they have earned.” Declaring himself to be a contemporary Robin Hood, he attacked greedy landlords, big business and income inequality. He urged policies designed to increase finances and improve of the quality of life for struggling New Yorkers. Thanking his wife for her initiative helping New Yorkers who struggle with mental illness and depression in the THRIVE NYC program, he praised all there who helped make the city great. He acknowledged this year’s heroes including civilians, police, and firefighters, and re-told their stories, reminding us of their great compassion and courage in our city, and why we are grateful to be New Yorkers.
Life has improved in New York where crime is at an all-time low, reduced more than under either Bloomberg or Giuliani. This has made it the safest big city in America, with the fewest homicides since 1951. It defied the conventional wisdom that many arrests equal safety, since the NYPD made 140,000 fewer arrests. Neighborhood policing is working. The prison population has dropped below 8,000 for the first time in 40 years. De Blasio emphasized that “the era of mass-incarceration did not begin in New York City, but it will end in New York City”, promising to close Rikers Island to a crescendo of applause. Safety has also extended to the roads; under his Vision Zero program there were the fewest accidents since 1910.
In addition to being the safest city, de Blasio wants to make NY the fairest. In 2018 he built the most affordable apartments ever in NYC. He thanked the City Council for passing the Access to Counsel Law, helping tenants obtain lawyers paid for by the city, who stop illegal evictions. Avoiding the details of the horrific problems in NYCHA, he promised “new everythings” for 1785 public housing residents from roofs to kitchens and bathrooms. He moved 2,000 homeless off the streets into “permanent situations to get the help they need”, while closing 180 shelters that did not meet standards.
His recitativo of achievements included full-day Pre-K for all four year olds to help each child reach their full potential. A record number are also being provided with free 3-K. His announcement that they set the all-time record for graduation rates in NYC received a thunderous standing ovation. Three-quarters of students graduated on time; previously it was under 50%. Over half, 59%, went on to higher education.
To fulfill his promise to provide more jobs, he doubled awards to women and minority businesses with over 10 billion dollars in city contracts. He declared fortissimo that NYC is now a world tech hub due to his groundwork, bragging that Amazon and Google want to be here. However, there was a noticeable silence about the controversial deal with Amazon in LIC. Now there are over 4.5 million jobs in NYC for the first time, paid sick days extended, unemployment down and wages risen, with $15 minimum wage under his progressive policies.
De Blasio reported he made NYC more sustainable by banning Styrofoam cups after winning court battles with business, and warned that plastic bags and straws are next. The city is divesting from fossil fuel companies and investing billions into renewable energy. It sued pharmaceutical companies for their role in the loss of life in the opioid crisis, and plans to open controversial overdose prevention centers to save lives.
Lamenting the loss of democratic values in Wash. DC, he sees the need for the city to strengthen our democracy and protect rights through new participatory budgeting and candidates who run for office without big money. The city sent lawyers to the border to fight “the inhumane detention of children”, and when Trump tried to take away law enforcement money because NYC refused to report the immigration status of residents, it won in court.
De Blasio emphasized that these successful ideas were considered too radical, expensive, “or shudder, too progressive.” He proclaimed that we must go further to improve the quality of our lives despite the agenda of the rich and powerful that has dominated our politics from Reaganomics to the Trump tax giveaway. He quipped, “There is plenty of money in the world, in the city, it’s just in the wrong hands.” Working people have become more productive but have received a smaller share of the wealth they create. Thus this year he wants health care for all, including undocumented immigrants. NYC will be the first in the nation to require two weeks paid personal time, and when landlords cheat their tenants they will lose their buildings under a new agency. Marijuana will be legalized, but “grassroots” not large corporations will run the businesses (pun intended?).
With bravura, De Blasio announced a universal retirement system for those who have worked for decades and earned the right to retire in peace. New Yorkers deserve to live in the “fairest big city in America and that is what we are going to deliver.” People across the country are working longer hours, and those working the hardest often earn the least and have no benefits or protections. Thus he is expanding the Dept. of Consumer Affairs to add Worker Protection. Since nearly half of workers in the city do not have worker-sponsored retirement plans, the city will provide plans for them.
Con brio, he affirmed that happiness is part of our right in the Declaration of Independence and living in this city should be more than just surviving. He asserted that “come hell or high water” Albany will fix our subways. To make it easier to get around he added two ferries in August to the Lower East Side and Soundview and is extending service to Staten Island and Coney Island, cutting some commuters’ time to work in half. Changes to bus routes should speed them up. On April 1, the fate of NYC transit will be decided in the new state budget, and it is vital for all to pressure Albany. He believes a millionaire’s tax is the fairest way to fund the improvements we need, while other ideas such as marijuana revenue, congestion pricing, or a new transportation bond act are under consideration. This year Albany should make needed reforms with Democrats in the majority including rent regulation renewal, repeal of vacancy decontrol, voting reforms to make it easier to vote, and trial and bail reform.
His number one concern is education, and he announced the expansion of the partnership with Warby Parker for free eye exams and glasses for every Kindergartener and first grader. With appassionato he ended his performance, extolling his utopian vision for every working person, asking us to imagine a city where everyday life becomes more fair and where “people can live their lives more fully” where “work is rewarded and all this prosperity is shared.” These goals are not unreachable but achievable. With bravura he intoned the refrain we should “never underestimate the change we can make together.”
Dissonant commentary criticized his failure to collaborate with business on his plans to provide paid leave and raises, offering no tax breaks in return. Some Council members felt his establishment of a landlord watchdog agency was redundant, although the NYC Dept. of Housing and Development in over two-thirds of cases against landlords settled for less than 15% of penalties under the law. Scott Stringer was concerned about details not discussed re: solving record homelessness and the appalling problems of NYCHA. Where will the money come from? Ignored was the crisis in commercial real estate whose escalating greed causes stores to shut down in rapid staccato in some neighborhoods. Will the wealthy be willing to part with their money to make life better for ordinary New Yorkers and the poor? A few years ago there was a federal inquiry into wealthy donors to his campaign who received favors. How far will they let him go?
The Mayor plans to take his progressive vision to the nation, as part of a possible presidential campaign strategy. However, he may need to turn his baton into a magic wand to achieve it.