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New Yorkers push back against Bill de Blasio’s progressive vision for the city. October 12, 2016
Politics and law
New York

Progressive mayor Bill de Blasio has learned the hard way that people—even New York City liberals—have their own opinions about how they want to live. Neighborhood after neighborhood has rebelled against de Blasio’s heavy-handed social engineering. 

In August, the people of Upper Manhattan forced City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, a progressive and strident de Blasio ally, to reject the first major rezoning under the city’s new mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH) policy. MIH was a citywide revision of land-use rules allowing developers to build taller residential buildings with greater density if they also include subsidized apartments for lower- and middle-income New Yorkers. The policy is key to the success of de Blasio’s goal to expand “affordable” housing: unless market-rate developers are given incentives in the form of looser zoning rules, his target of 200,000 subsidized units would never be met. 

The development in question, called Sherman Plaza, at the corner of Broadway and Sherman Avenue around 196th Street, would turn an old Packard dealership into a 15-story apartment tower. Up to 50 percent of the units would be subsidized. Six-story buildings built during the early twentieth century currently dominate the working-class neighborhood. The proposed “upzoning” infuriated the local community, which saw it as an effort to gentrify the mixed Latino and white neighborhood with luxury housing. Pressure built until Rodriguez, who voted for MIH as a citywide policy a few months before, nixed the Sherman Plaza proposal as not in the “best interests” of the neighborhood. 

The de Blasio administration was chagrined. To the mayor, the city’s future lies in more thickly populated neighborhoods in outlying areas that are serviced by functioning transit infrastructure. He envisions that the new developments will melt New York City’s “two cities” class structure by putting low-income people in the same buildings—and on the same floors—as so-called luxury tenants. Without the proposed upzoning, the developers will still be allowed to build at Sherman and Broadway; the building will simply be smaller and all the apartments will be market-rate. From the perspective of a city planner, the neighborhood’s actions are irrational. From the community’s point of view, the additional capacity was a corporate giveaway, not a local benefit.  

A similar scenario played out in Sunnyside, Queens, where the local councilman, Jimmy van Bramer, rejected a proposed development to build more than 200 affordable units. Van Bramer—who is the council’s majority leader and a charter member of its progressive caucus—also voted in favor of MIH earlier this year. Like his colleague Rodriguez, he supports the widespread development of affordable housing throughout the city—in theory. But his constituents, reliant on a perennially crowded subway line and feeling that their neighborhood is already changing too quickly, opposed the Phipps project and brought pressure on van Bramer to reject it. 

Just this week the mayor caved to massive community pressure over his plan to turn a hotel in Maspeth—a middle-class, mostly white Queens neighborhood—into a homeless shelter. The local community had zealously opposed the conversion, with pickets, protests, and lawsuits aimed at stopping a plan that is widely seen as a way for the mayor to punish a neighborhood that doesn’t support him politically.   

At a press conference last week, de Blasio was adamant that the homeless shelter would be built, and he called neighborhood opposition to it a failure to acknowledge “a responsibility for a problem that’s everyone’s problem.” The mayor went on to challenge protestors to “picket as many times as they want because I will happily stare them down” over the issue. Four days later de Blasio folded, and agreed not to move forward with the hotel-to-shelter conversion plan, though the city would continue to rent rooms in the hotel for homeless adults on an individual basis.   

On the Upper West Side, the beating heart of traditional New York City liberalism, a near-riot broke out last month over plans to redistrict elementary school zones to promote racial and socio-economic diversity. Racial “segregation” in the public schools has become the latest “root cause” of inequality in New York, and the city is pushing community districts to agree to boundary changes in order to dilute the concentration of white students in certain schools. Of the entire public school student population of 1.1 million, however, fewer than 15 percent are white, and these students are clustered geographically in particular areas. If racial diversity is meant to solve the problem of racial inequality, it isn’t clear that there are enough white students to make much of a difference. 

Upper West Side councilmember Helen Rosenthal, also a member of the progressive caucus, spoke to the anger of her constituents in particularly revealing language, saying “Everyone has been giving diversity lip service. . . . They need to make the case that diversity is something that is worth getting.” Rosenthal followed up a week later with an apologetic letter to the New York Times, quoting the received progressive wisdom that “diversity itself provides an invaluable education.” But her original words, spoken spontaneously to an agitated crowd, speak to the obvious question: how and why is diversity in itself essential to scholastic achievement? 

Thinking big is in progressives’ DNA. In the words of de Blasio himself, progressive proposals must be “transformative,” “historic,” “transcendent.” The problem is that social revolutions are often opposed by a large segment of the existing population who rightly perceive that their interests are under attack. As long as the mayor and his progressive allies continue to force their grand vision on an unwilling populace, they can expect to face local revolts from a notoriously and proudly insubordinate city.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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