Bill de Blasio’s campaign theme, inequality in the “two New Yorks,” has hit a nerve. But before he moves into Gracie Mansion, our likely next mayor should go into his Park Slope townhouse and take a long look in the mirror. What he’ll see is a symptom of the disease that he says he wants to cure.
By Bloombergian standards of wealth, of course, de Blasio is a nobody. But then, by that measure, New Yorkers are almost all losers. Pitting the 1 percent against the 99 percent, the Manhattan plutocrats against outer-borough “working families,” de Blasio has caricatured New York’s inequality problem. It may be good politics, but it leads to bad policy.
Nowhere is de Blasio’s dodge more apparent than in his home borough of Brooklyn. Over the past few decades, Brooklyn’s brownstone and East River industrial neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bedford Stuyvesant, Williamsburg, and Bushwick have become favored destinations for an increasing number of white “creatives,” professionals, and nonprofit and government managers. Their arrival has boosted the fortunes of upscale business owners, not to mention real-estate values, but it has displaced white ethnic and low-income minority residents. The ethnics went on to retirement; the minority refugees fled east to Brownsville, East New York, and Canarsie, which remain among the poorest, most dysfunctional neighborhoods in New York City, as well as the most remote from Manhattan and its opportunities. The result is two Brooklyns: not billionaires versus everyone else, but gentrified areas where houses fetch millions on the one hand, and the ghetto, filled with dangerous projects and decayed tenements, on the other. GQ calls Brooklyn “the coolest city on the planet.” Maybe, but this cool city, Marilyn Gelber of the Brooklyn Community Foundation told the New York Daily News, has more poor people than the population of Detroit and more individuals on food stamps than the population of Washington, D.C.
De Blasio knows about the two Brooklyns from personal experience. For most of its post-agricultural history, the South Slope, where the candidate lives, was the working-class counterpart to the more genteel North Slope inhabited by Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrants who labored along the nearby Gowanus canal. Perhaps the South Slope’s best-known native is Pete Hamill, the seventh son of Irish parents. Hamill’s father worked at the Ansonia Clock Factory, the neighborhood’s largest employer along with Methodist Hospital, where Hamill’s mother worked as a nurse’s aide. When I moved to the North Slope in 1982, the South’s commercial strip was still dominated by 99-cent shops, bodegas, and a few remaining Italian pork stores.
But working-class and minority residents began disappearing from the South Slope as it became colonized by the educated class—people like Bill de Blasio. In the mid-1980s, the Ansonia Clock Factory was converted into condominiums for young families already finding the North Slope beyond their means. Slowly, the area became part of gentrified, hipster Brooklyn. By the time de Blasio purchased his home in 2000 for $450,000—according to the New York Times, it’s now worth over $1 million, and he owns a second home in the area that belonged to his deceased mother—the neighborhood was well on its way to yuppie dominance. Today, de Blasio and his neighbors can dine at the trendy Talde, owned by Top Chef winner Dale Talde. They can shop at Union Market, a pricey boutique establishment with the requisite kale and imported olive oil selections, and they can sip their lattes at Café Grumpy, one in a chain of hipster Brooklyn coffee shops. The morning after the Democratic mayoral primary, reporters followed de Blasio to the Belgian-run Colson bakery, which opened in 2006, well into the Gentrified Era. There, they tell us, he bought pastries for his son, though they didn’t mention whether his haul included the establishment’s famous “financier”—a chocolate-and-almond confection named in honor of, ahem, Parisian stockbrokers.
Like many of his most avid supporters, then, de Blasio has been both participant in and beneficiary of the changes that have given us the two Brooklyns. Of course, de Blasio has been running from this fact with all the energy his 6-foot-5 frame can muster. Instead of describing the gap between his own educated, artisan-nourished middle-class background and those of East Brooklyn’s high school dropouts, he neatly divides the city between Manhattan and the “outer boroughs” as if it’s still the “dem” and “dose” 1970s. His theme plays well with hipsters and yuppies, whose complicity in gentrification is a source of great discomfort. Their suburban upbringings and college educations gave them the capital they needed to renovate townhouse kitchens once used by Irish working stiffs. How much easier it is to rail against the 1 percent than to acknowledge their own privilege.
None of this would matter much—what politician doesn’t spin demography into populist advantage?—if de Blasio’s policy proposals didn’t suggest that he believes his own narrative. He talks little about job creation. He wants more subsidized housing, though “affordable” units are rarely within the reach of the ghetto poor. He would undermine charter schools that have given many minority children decent educations. He wants to raise taxes on the wealthy (though not Brooklyn’s gentry) to pay for preschool, which would presumably ease inequality. But even on the doubtful chance that a city with such embarrassing public schools could create a successful network of pre-Ks, we wouldn’t see any positive effect for decades.
Two Brooklyns: with Bill de Blasio’s agenda, that wouldn’t change a bit.