Unchanging New York

In his successful run to become its first black mayor in 1989, David Dinkins was fond of describing New York City as a ‘gorgeous mosaic’. The electoral map that began to emerge on 22 June – in a primary that is almost sure to determine the next mayor of the city, where Democrats outnumber Republicans six to one – suggests a less benign picture of fragmentation. A glance at the first choice of in-person voters reveals stark divisions not just by race and class, but by neighborhood, almost by block and building.

After a campaign with little reliable polling, the social basis of the leading candidates is suddenly flush with color. What does it show? To start with, candidates who barely made a mark, despite spending some of the largest sums in the race. Ray McGuire, head of global investment at Citigroup until October, and the only top candidate to forgo public matching funds, carried ‘Midtown East’ – 24 square blocks of the priciest offices and condos in the world that includes Citicorp center on Lexington and 53rd. Shaun Donovan – Obama’s housing secretary, whose shining moment was guessing the median house price in Brooklyn is $100,000 – appears to have done best on his own block in Boerum Hill (median house price $1.3 million), where he placed fourth. Neither reached 3% of the overall vote.

The map also registered the way voter preferences seemed to shift rapidly from where they had been as late as May – like those split-flap displays in old train stations, when the arrivals and departures suddenly tick over all at once. The most obvious instance is Andrew Yang. For months, the former presidential hopeful was assumed to be ahead, attracting the lions’ share of media coverage, much of it fawning. Yang initially benefited from, and encouraged, this soft focus, and the little online dustups it generated over his bodega and bagel preferences or ability to get to the Bronx on a subway. But his ‘good vibes’ offensive may have backfired. Not just because these attracted the only serious scrutiny of any candidate, revealing a threadbare record of the entrepreneurial spirit he claimed to embody, but policies that looked far from ‘breezy’ underneath it.

Guided by tech investor Bradley Tusk, the most post-modern of mayoral candidates ran the most old-school of municipal campaigns. Playing to Chinese small business owners wary of the growing number of street vendors, he pledged to limit licenses to the latter. Pandering to the ultra-Orthodox, he indicated he would not act on a city report that found that their yeshivas (26 of 28) failed to provide a basic secular education as required by law. And to outer-borough white homeowners and older voters, he stressed his opposition to ‘defund the police’. Coming in a distant fourth on election night, he did best in the ethnic enclaves he targeted – Hasidic South Williamsburg, Chinatown in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and in Flushing, College Park and pockets of commuter Queens and Staten Island.

The most dramatic deflation was not the Yang ‘helium balloon’, however, but that of the entire left. The strongest candidate to claim the progressive mantle appeared to be Scott Stringer, city comptroller, who staked out positions – to make CUNY free; on the Green New Deal; to replace ‘mandatory inclusionary zoning’ with ‘universal affordable housing’ – that earned him the early support of DSA-backed state senator Julia Salazar, congressman Jamal Bowman, and the Working Families Party. But within hours of an uncorroborated accusation from Jean Kim on April 28 – that 20 years earlier he had groped her in a taxi when she volunteered on his public advocate campaign – all had fled, without waiting to delve into a story that soon unravelled. With Stringer sidelined, Dianne Morales was anointed the candidate of the left. Built around slashing the police budget in half, her campaign promptly fell apart when staff walked out in late May, citing a hostile environment and retaliation for their unionization drive. In the weeks before, it emerged that she supported charter schools, had once bribed a city water inspector, and that she earned up to $350,000 a year at a nonprofit whose real estate development arm has one of the worst histories of tenant harassment and evictions in the city.

Two weeks before the start of in-person voting, fortune smiled on Maya Wiley: the attorney and MSNBC pundit became the progressive standard bearer by default. Receiving a surprise endorsement from AOC, it no longer mattered much that her rudderless campaign had promised little concrete, or that her most notable public act had been as a lawyer for De Blasio, concocting a transparently absurd designation to shield his emails with advisors lobbying the city. About 21% of voters put her first anyway – at once a sounding of the baseline strength of the left as well as its ideological shallowness. Wiley won parts of increasingly affluent Harlem, but she dominated in whiter, younger, gentrifying sections of Brooklyn, Queens and Lower Manhattan, from Alphabet City and Fort Greene to Greenpoint, and from Long Island City to Ridgewood, in bands of yellow that roughly tracked the L and G trains.

But the unmistakable leaders geographically ­– sweeping the widest swaths of the city on election night – were Kathryn Garcia and Eric Adams. Once the final ranked results were released on 12 July, just a point separated them, but here, the glaring polarization was not straightforwardly ideological. Garcia took the wealthiest and whitest zip codes in Manhattan and tiny beachheads along the East River in Queens and Brooklyn; Adams led in every other borough, and among the Black and Latino working class.

Garcia, a sanitation commissioner under De Blasio, ran on grim managerial competence, with an upfront commitment to austerity, along with the standard ‘moderate’ package of charter schools, police and unfettered real estate development. She was not just non-partisan, but anti-politics, against experiments with the status quo after the pandemic, beyond bus and bike lanes and solar panels. She was not simply endorsed by the Times, but in a real sense created by it: the editorial board selection on 10 May tripled her support overnight among the demographic most likely to read it – 38% earning over $75,000, over 70% white with at least one degree.

Adams, in contrast to all candidates save Stringer, is a product of the much-weakened Democratic machine – an ex-police captain, who by his own admission has planned for this moment for thirty years, keeping a nightly diary of all he hoped to do as mayor, while dispensing patronage as state senator and borough president. His campaign was built almost exclusively around ‘public safety’, the most important issue for voters after a spike in gun and subway violence during the nadir of the pandemic. While he is certain to win in November, Adams will have made it to that point without the coalition Dinkins assembled in 1989, which combined high turnout among blacks and Latinos in the wake of Jesse Jackson’s presidential run and white liberals.

‘Social media does not pick the candidate. People on social security pick the candidate’, Adams declared after his victory. A clever slogan – as much in rebuke of the left as a defiant gesture of pride in his working class roots. In fact, he is even less disconcerting than Dinkins to the ‘permanent government’ of the city, which happily opened its pockets to them both. Favorite of the housing projects of Red Hook, he was also the top pick of the ultra-rich bottom corner of the Upper East Side – the Sherry Netherland, Trump Tower, The Parc V, 810 Fifth Avenue. Hedge fund managers pick the candidate too: Steve Cohen, billionaire owner of the Mets, chipped in $1.5 million; Dan Loeb, champion of ‘educational choice’ who once accused De Blasio’s black deputy of putting ‘union puppets’ over ‘the interests of little vulnerable black children’, gave $1 million.


How to explain the election of a black former policeman with a tough-on-crime message as mayor of New York City, less than a year after it saw one of the largest uprisings for black civil rights in the US, with broad cross-racial support? What are the lessons for the left, which will elect several socialists to the city council in this same election? For Ross Barkan, whose substack provided the single most insightful reporting on the race (putting what remains of the metro desks of the big papers to shame), it was the obsession of the ‘professional left’ with Yang that allowed Adams through, despite the latter’s far more consistent record of hostility to it. But this debate seems beside the point when set against other factors.

One is the desiccation of the local press corps, which meant that we learned next to nothing about the greatest novelty of the primary (apart from ranked choice voting). A day before polls opened, the Times disclosed that just 14 billionaires had spent $16 million in the first city election to see unlimited outlays by super PACs. The head of Adams’s came direct from the charter school movement, which spent lavishly in a race where its assault on chronically underfunded public schools was barely discussed. Elections for class president have been more substantive.

The more fundamental question is why a city that saw the largest concentration of donations to Sanders, who accepted AOC’s endorsement before a jubilant crowd of 26,000 in Queensbridge, and where he polled between a fifth and a third in the presidential primary (until the same Board of Elections that accidentally counted 135,000 ‘test ballots’ in the mayor’s race cancelled it, as a favor to Cuomo) could not field one candidate in his image, or who had so much as voted for him in 2020. The dominance of the Democrat-aligned establishment –  media personalities, union leaders, nonprofits, lacking any organic link to broader movements – goes unchallenged at mayoral level, even as its incumbents have proven vulnerable in local, state and federal elections. The largest DSA chapter in the country cannily made no endorsement for mayor here. Yet the real test is not of discretion, but whether the left can produce a citywide, mayoral candidate who could then form a slate around a distinct program.

Another way of asking this question is to focus on defunding the police. The mainstream media has eagerly sounded its death knell as a political program, and Adams encouraged it to read the race as a triumph of a multiracial blue-collar Bidenism over out of touch, lily-white leftists. There are at least two problems with this. Adams won not just because he defended a large police department, but as a credible candidate to reform it, going back to his founding of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care in 1995. His voters were not primarily white ethnics who want a return to ‘stop-and-frisk’, but East New Yorkers, Harlemites, Bronx residents, many of whom would have put Wiley – his chief critic, calling for fewer new recruits, more civilian oversight, removing cops from schools, mental health and traffic enforcement – as their second choice. In most areas where Adams triumphed, Wiley was runner-up in first-choice votes.

Adams’s election is certainly a setback for those who want to see the end of policing as we know it, in part because his whole career is based on the hypnotic idea that a more diverse force – one with a woman at its head, as he promised? – can be fairer, kinder, less violent. But it is not necessarily a regression to the Giuliani years, nor even Bloomberg. De Blasio won in 2014 not just on account of his ‘tale of two cities’ rhetoric, but because he called for ending stop-and-frisk, before it was ruled unconstitutional. If Adams or his commissioner try to bring it back under a new name, he will face powerful opposition in the streets – not least from the people who elected him. 

The second problem is that the issue of crime and policing are too often treated as separate from economic insecurity, even on the left – when the former has developed in response to the latter, as the city turned to a growth model based on attracting inward investment, tourist dollars, and financial and real estate speculation after 1975. This model has generated massive inequality in the city and state – now the most unequal in the US – characterized by badly paid service work and cycles of boom and bust, as a once diversified economic base with a dynamic light industrial sector gave way to virtual dependence on FIRE.

Covid exposed the immense fragilities of this model, but did not create them: from February to April 2020, a decade of employment gains – over 900,000 jobs – vanished in three months. More than half came in leisure and hospitality, as restaurants and theaters shuttered, and hotels emptied. By June, 41% of workers in the Bronx – the poorest county in the country – were on unemployment relief. Before the pandemic was even a dot on the horizon in 2018, 63,000 people on average slept in shelters each night – almost 80% more than a decade before, the most since the Great Depression. Three quarters were families, and in a third of them at least one parent was employed: all that the ‘growth’ of that decade had meant for them was that they could not afford rent, which reached an average of $3,500 around the same time, in a city where the average household income is $62,000.   

‘Quality of life’ policing developed as a response to the social problems this unbalanced model created: it is the direct outcome of a system geared towards attracting money and people – via tax credits, subsidies, exemptions, land giveaways, branding – from outside the city, whose actual residents threaten the scrubbed-clean ‘luxury product’ image used to sell it. Giuliani formalized this into a campaign against ‘disorder’ that cleared the streets of homeless – vastly enlarging the police force, given a ‘zero tolerance’ mandate, that used the theory of ‘broken windows’ to harass blacks and Latinos. But the origins of that punitive turn go back to the aftermath of the 1975 fiscal crisis when the current economic model was put into place: ‘I Love New York’, its first global marketing effort, coincided with Koch’s stepped-up ‘war on graffiti’ – involving razor wire, guard dogs and infrared sonar, in a ‘multimillion dollar assault on a few hundred kids with spray paint’. Dinkins, who pledged to heal the racial animus Koch had stoked, in fact laid the groundwork for much of what his successors in Giuliani and Bloomberg would do – targeting squeegee men for arrest; sweeping homeless from Tompkins Square Park; authorizing William Bratton, his chief of transit police, to crack down on panhandlers and turnstile jumpers in the subway; and hiring thousands of new officers as part of his ‘Safe City, Safe Streets’ initiative.    

Adams was rehearsing a well-worn theme when he arrived in Times Square – twice in one day in May – after three bystanders were hurt in a shooting. ‘We’re not going to recover as a city if we turn back time and see an increase in violence’, he intoned from the epicenter of the antiseptic tourist hell the city has become. Invoking the specter of chaos and crime from the 1970s and 80s – in which the Bronx burned, the safety net collapsed, and population declined by a million – has been effective at enforcing the warped settlement that is its chief legacy. Working-class voters of color have fared uniquely badly by this arrangement, but they also have good reasons to fear its collapse. The bad old days of ‘planned shrinkage’ may seem an even worse fate than the gentrification that has driven many from their homes. 


So long as the left offers them no real economic alternative, why shouldn’t they vote for someone like Adams, who matter-of-factly draws the connection between policing and an economy that seems to demand it? None of the mayoral candidates truly questioned that economic model. Nor did most of the socialists running for council. They mainly called for redistributing the gains from its frothy markets – in real estate and equities – while continuing to rely on them as drivers of growth. Most simply demanded more affordable units from private developers. But their status as the primary providers of housing should hardly be set in stone, when some of the best buildings we have were erected by public entities or union cooperatives – from the art-deco Amalgamated on the Lower East Side to Tudor-revival United Workers in the Bronx. Given the option, how many would choose the hideously cheap ‘luxury condos’ that sprout like weeds in vacant lots in Bushwick? The idea of ‘trickle down’ prosperity has permeated municipal politics here far more completely than in the places Reagan won. Golden drops do not fall from the ‘super-tall’ residential towers of 57th Street, which suck billionaire wealth into airtight containers rather than see it squandered on the specks a thousand feet below.

For socialists running in city and state elections, the challenge is bigger than crafting legislation to bring these down to size: it is to build a different legislature. What good is winning more seats on the council without a radical critique of that body as catspaw for real estate interests? The practice of deferring to individual members on projects affecting their districts has led to terrible abuse. On rare occasions when a member is forced by a community to oppose a development – such as the four 75-100-story luxury towers in ‘Two Bridges’ that would cast the projects and senior living centers around it into literal darkness – the council itself can be bypassed by mayoral fiat via the City Planning Commission. Local initiative in planning decisions, inscribed in Section 197-a of the Charter, is a dead letter. The relationship of city to state cannot be ignored either, given how few of its own institutions and resources the city directs; it cannot even raise the one tax it does control on property outside of a formula codified in state law. Within this structure, the mayor may overpower the council, but he is a Lilliput compared to the governor.

This constitutional setup was not handed down by the Catskills equivalent of Lycurgus. The current city Charter grew out of two commissions in the 1980s – the first led by one of the key players in the new crisis regime, real estate scion and lawyer Richard Ravitch; the second by F. A. O. Schwarz Jr., heir to the toy fortune. A grassroots campaign for a brand new charter could be a powerful mobilizing tool for the left, dramatizing the need for a much more democratic – and less biddable – city government. It might also provide a numerically significant but politically demoralized and divided union membership – at 24%, this is twice the national average – with a citywide basis on which to organize, rather than cutting constant side deals when its particular contract falls due. The mayoral endorsements of the major unions tell their own story – with DC-37 and the TWU 100 backing Adams, the UFT going to Stringer, and SEIU 1199 to Wiley. 

David Harvey placed the coup in Chile in 1973 side by side with New York City’s bankruptcy two years later, as turning points on the road to neoliberalism. Chileans have just called a convention to turn the page on the restrictive political regime imposed on them in its aftermath. How long before New Yorkers follow their lead? If they did, they could slam shut a whole chapter in the era of political economy.

Read on: Mike Davis, ‘The Flames of New York’, NLR 12.