A Tale Of Many Cities: Potholes in the Road To Municipal Reform

by Steve Early

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There is no better role model for aspiring radical scribes than Juan Gonzalez. The country’s leading Latino journalist is co-host of Democracy Now!, a former columnist for the New York Daily News, and twice winner of the Polk Award for his investigative reporting. Not many veterans of campus and community struggles in the Sixties and workplace organizing in the 1970s later moved into mainstream journalism with such distinction, Gonzalez has managed to combine daily newspapering with continued dedication to the cause of labor and minority communities.

As a New York Daily News staffer for two decades, Gonzalez broke major stories on city hall corruption, police brutality, and the toxic exposure of cops, firefighters, and construction workers involved in 9/11 attack rescue or cleanup work. When he wasn’t cranking out twice-a-week columns, he helped lead a big Newspaper Guild strike and wrote four books including Harvest of Empire, a history of Latinos in America,

Gonzalez’s movement background and intimate knowledge of New York City politics makes him an ideal chronicler of the unexpected rise (and near fall) of Bill de Blasio as a city hall reformer. In Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and The Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities (New Press, 2017), the author situates New York City’s current mayor within a “new generation of municipal leaders” whose election reflects a broader “grassroots urban political revolt” throughout the United States. In that political cohort, however, de Blasio’s personal history as a Central America solidarity activist and, in the 1980s, “an often disheveled admirer of socialist ideas” makes him fairly unique.

Gonzalez reports that, under de Blasio, poor and working class New Yorkers have received a $21 billion “infusion of income and economic benefits” in the form of “universal free pre-kindergarten and after school programs, long overdue wage increases for municipal workers, paid sick leave for all, and a virtual freezing of tenant rents.” He believes the mayor’s sweeping pre-K initiative—deemed impossible by Governor Andrew Cuomo and other critics—“should be judged one of the truly extraordinary educational accomplishments of any municipal government in modern US history.”

Although critics of the mayor, on the left, may disagree, Gonzalez argues that de Blasio has presided over the “most left-leaning government in the history of America’s greatest city.”  Yet, New York remains in thrall to private real estate capital to such a degree that affordable housing for the non-wealthy is still shrinking, rent stabilization offers insufficient protection against displacement, and the mayor’s “build-or-preserve” housing plan, incented by tax breaks for developers and neighborhood rezoning, won’t provide enough below market rate units to meet future need. Continue reading

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