“Hey there, where to?”
“Battery Park City – North End Ave. just off of Chambers.”
“How’s your day going?”
“Oh, I’m tired. How about you?”
“Not bad for a guy who turned another year older today.”
“Well, Happy Birthday!’
“How old are you?”
Well, you don’t look it *passenger laughs*.
“Thank you. I would have voted today had I lived in the 5 Boroughs. Did you get a chance to go to the polls?”
“Nope, too busy at work.”
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and in my case, it was the times that I was in the midst of. My birthday came and went without much of a hoot but the real issue that day was the Mayoral Primary in the city where my vocation called home. Much was written about over the long, hot summer about who would represent the democratic side as the City’s first Lesbian, pervert, Asian, repeat African-American candidate, and 6’5″ candidates duked it out for the right to represent the donkeys in the November mayoral election.
What was more surprising than the broad crop of candidates who largely repeated the same drivel in debates over the course of the middle of the year was the lack of ideas that they had. There was a broad consensus that the Big Apple had become too impersonal, Manhattan-centric, and excessively catered to tourists and those who had returned form the suburbs during the city’s revival over the last 10+ years. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in politics from reading about it, it’s that the pendulum will swing back the other way if it moves too far in one direction.
And that’s exactly what the signs were pointing at for the vote in November.
For all the hype and hoopla, the Primary race was such a hot-button issue because it was nearly a given that whoever emerged as the victor in September would also be the victor two months later. Sound bites aside, New Yorkers were concerned about solutions to long-term problems. Where would new jobs be concentrated, and in what fields? Could people who moved to Gotham afford an apartment or a down payment on a condo? Was stop-and-frisk racially motivated or a real crime deterrent? Would Unions finally be given retroactive pay raises and if so, who would pay for them? Would the Subway fare go up every two years and if not, who would fund the MTA? These were pretty serious questions that demanded answers that were more just rhetoric.
Enter Bill de Blasio. The former Public Advocate was under the radar for most of the race, as Christine Quinn held the early lead due to name recognition, only to cede the lead to Anthony Weiner. Of course, his last name held true to form as another sexting scandal and the questionable reaction by his wife ultimately did his bid in, leaving both Bills do fight it out for the right to have their name on the Democratic Party Line.
Eventually, de Blasio won over the hearts and minds of New Yorkers en masse. The ads featuring his African-American wife and racially mixed son struck a chord with New Yorkers looking for a shining example of multiculturalism in the most racially mixed city on the planet. When the votes were tabulated, Bill Thompson fell just short of the 40% needed to force a runoff, ensuring that de Blasio would be the heavy favorite two months later.
As many New Yorkers were well aware of, the centerpiece of de Blasio’s campaign was not only on affordable housing, jobs, a rollback of Police powers, or even on Municipal Unions , but on an idea that has reared its head in American politics once ever generation:
In this case, it was summed up by the simplest of quotes that anyone could relate and latch on to.
“A tale of two cities.”
The premise was simple. Under Michael Bloomberg, the City as a whole had prospered. Business was up, so was tourism, and cranes were once again dotting the sky. The aftermath of 9/11 and the financial collapse of ’08 were a memory and new York was becoming a greener, more diverse, and more racially integrated City than it was when Rudolph Giuliani left office in early ’02.
But not everyone had reaped the rewards equally.
As a Taxi driver, I spent a vast majority of my time in Manhattan since that’s were the business and ultimately, the money is. No New Yorker would ever doubt that New York County was the economic heart of the Big Apple, with the outer boroughs supplying the vocational lifeblood that kept it going during working hours. What New Yorkers *did* doubt however was whether the 12 years that Bloomy spent in office favored growth and gentrification at the expense of the forgotten areas of the City, which was exacerbated during and after Hurricane Sandy a year ago. Manhattan was quick to get back up into it’s feet but the south shore communities on Long and Staten Islands were much slower to recover, as many properties were still in a state of limbo at the time of this writing.
The weather ultimately served as a metaphor, for what was going on over the last decade and change. There wasn’t a corner of Manhattan that remained unchanged by development, gentrification, and preservation, as was evidenced by all-time highs in housing prices and willingness of national retail chains to move in and be a part of the action. While this was great for the City’s economy, it made those left on the outside looking in wondering when they too, would see more of the action that was rejuvenating the Big Apple.
Many would argue that a rising tide would lift all boats, but that only holds true if you have one and aren’t drowning in the water. Taxes remained stubbornly high, wagers held stagnant, and the silent killer of inflation was evident in the rigor mortis of the water, electric, and transportation utilities. Meager gains in pay were quickly offset in rising prices for basic staples such as gas, food, essential services and of course, taxes.
Was this the City that we wanted New York to become? Would a postindustrial society have a land of the very rich and very poor as it’s centerpiece for the tourists of the world to see? Was all of this inevitable given the way things were currently progressing?
Not according to de Blasio.
Although the election in November is almost a month away, it’s nearly a given that he will defeat Joe Lhota and hold the most powerful position in the Big Apple until 2017. No matter the agenda that eventually becomes enacted, it will mark a radical departure from what New Yorkers have become accustomed to over the last 20 years. Drops in crime, Charter Schools, rezoning, and a shift away from Great Society-era social programs will cease to become hot-button issues in exchange for a platform that will more than likely include the disenfranchised minorities and lower-income earners that will have helped de Blasio win the office of the mayor of New York.
Is this all justified, however?
Many New Yorkers were outraged when Bloomberg stated last month that billionaires needed to move to the Big Apple to help the financial health of the City. They saw it as a continuation of the worst aspect of his time in office, which was the nanny state telling the citizenry what was good for them. Cigarettes? Bad. Trans fats? Don’t eat ’em. Sodas? Forget about them! While I don’t indulge in any of those habits, I never believed that it was the governments role to tell people what they could and couldn’t do with their own money and free time. It changes nothing and only breeds contempt and consternation. Was there any wonder that people were fed up with misguided paternalism?
That attitude became fully exposed for all in my industry to see this week when the Taxi of Tomorrow hit yet another setback. Years of planning, design, and integration with the Outer Boro (a.k.a. “Apple Green”) Taxis went up in smoke when a court ruled that medallion owners should not be forced to buy one model of Taxi as the older ones were cycled out. It’s a huge blow for the City as it appeared unlikely that not only would the October 28t launch date of these new rides would be pushed back, but might never happen at all given that both mayoral candidates have stated their opposition to the plan. No one that I’ve spoken to in my garage, behind the wheel, or on the street knows what’s next, except that a plethora of models will be bought and integrated into the city fleet as the Crown Vic’s continue to rapidly dwindle as they hit the end of their lifespan as New York Taxis.
Regardless of what vehicle would be my office as I made my way around Gotham on a nightly basis, it was obvious that change blowing in, long before the current President wholeheartedly endorsed de Blasio to be the 109th Major of New York. As David Byrne eloquently and passionately wrote in The Guardian earlier this week, New York needs room for those who will serve the cultural, artistic, and creative innovators of tomorrow. While they may not make money directly, they could be the next Steve Jobs or Philip Johnson of tomorrow, leading a movement that sets the current conventional wisdom on it’s head. Even Byrne (who several of my passengers have seen riding around on his bike on the Lower West Side) admits that he is now part of the 1% and far way from his humble musical beginnings, he realizes that he had a chance to move to New York and chart his own course in the process, ultimately helping to redefine music by means of the punk and indie movements.
Under the trajectory taken during the Bloomberg administration, a story like that would be almost impossible to envision now. Lots of people may tell the penniless and hungry members of tomorrow’s creative class to “move to Brooklyn” but that is no longer becoming an option. The real challenge for de Blasio will be making this a reality while maintaining the gains that the City has made over the last 20 years. As much as I hate hauling the rich finance douchebags from work to their new apartments to their black card-required nightspots, they pump a disproportionate amount of money into the city’s economy. Trickle-down economics may be easy to criticize but it’s hard to ignore in a place with a $70 billion budget that serves well over 8 million people a year. New apartments for the uber-wealthy may be empty for a sizable chunk of the year but those that are fully occupied could be vacated for greener pastures should the tax rate shoot up in the coming years. The Shutdown in Washington will come and go but something like that could affect an entire generation.
Which was the case post-WWII.
While the Great Society will never fully return, a move back in that direction would halt the momentum that has led to the growth in New York that remade so much of the physical and social fabric of the City that I love. While I have never called it home, I’ve watched the changes over the years in the same way that I see the world go by during my shifts:
Yes, a car is in the environment in which it travels but being inside of it is just the same as watching a narrative unfold from the view of the third person, just as being a spectator at a play or sporting event. I don’t think that I will ever call New York home but I know that no matter where I go in life once I hand up the keys and put my hack license away, I will always love and care for the place that has served as my oz off to the distant east. Anyone that wishes to be at the control behind the curtain would be well versed to remember that new York is, and always will be, the place that has gained the most from the sum of its inhabitants. Nowhere else on Earth could take 8 million people, run them for less than $100 billion a year, and come up with the contributions that New York bestows to all corners of the world, all with only 600 murders a year and an overall crime rate that most U.S. cities would envy. Certainly, is a formula like that worth dividing in order to sustain a campaign long on rhetoric but short on a new way to raise the tide for the betterment of all?
“Hey there, where to?”
“End of 42 St, I go there all the time.”
“Did you vote today?”
“There was an election?”
Is there any wonder that we ultimately get the Government that we deserve?