“Fall down seven times. Get up eight times.”
New York City is dying – or, at least, so I've read in the newspapers. The New York Post claims that families are fleeing the Upper West Side because of hotels turned into homeless shelters, The New York Times reports that national retail chains are shuttering their Manhattan locations and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is fearful that Billionaire’s Row has permanently moved from West 57th Street to East Hampton – and along with it a large chunk of New York City’s tax base.
Like every longtime New Yorker, I've seen such claims of its imminent demise before. They weren't proven out then and they won't be this time. The question is not whether New York will ever come back, but when and how. The COVID-19 crisis can be shortened if the city and the state stay the course and adopt the right package of measures to effectively combat the virus through the fall and winter, get schools up and running and bring back residents and businesses sooner rather than later.
Like the mythical Phoenix that rises from the ashes, New York City will make a powerful comeback in the coming years and will once again prove to the naysayers that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of our death are greatly exaggerated.
In just my lifetime, since the early 1960s, I have witnessed multiple crises that have challenged our great city: in 1968 the assassination of both New York Sen. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in the same year that student protestors at Columbia University shocked the country by taking over school buildings; the fiscal crisis and rampant crime of the 1970s, epitomized by famous movies such as “Death Wish;" the crack epidemic and racist violence in Howard Beach in the 1980s; the first World Trade Center bombing and the Crown Heights riot in the 1990s; 9/11 and the Great Recession in the aughts; Hurricane Sandy, widening inequality and the tragic ascendancy of New York’s least favorite billionaire to the White House in the teens. Through it all, New York City has persevered. Abandonment, arson and blight have been supplanted by waves of new immigrants and the innovation and rebuilding that was needed to get New York back on track.
And in the first year of this new decade, New York is now very slowly emerging from our greatest challenges ever: a twin health and economic crisis with an overlay of frequent clashes between protesters and police over criminal justice reforms and the widening inequality that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed in an even harsher light.
These past six months have felt like a collective nightmare that we cannot just shrug off and move on — this multiple cascading of crises has brought our city to its proverbial knees: almost half a million New Yorkers have fled the city, the unemployment rate hovers at a mind-boggling 20 percent, small businesses and retailers are shuttering for good, the crime rate is shooting up for the first time in two decades and hundreds of thousands of our neighbors are facing eviction and food shortages that were unimaginable just a year ago.
This is an extremely deep hole to climb out of, so where do we start? Who will rise up, as the New York Times lamented last week, to be the ultimate civic cheerleader like former Mayor Ed Koch and the shrewd uniter of labor and business like former Gov. Hugh Carey in another crisis-ridden era?
We must think strategically in the short-term and medium-term to douse these multiple bonfires. (As famous economist John Maynard Keynes famously said about focusing long-term: “In the long run, we’re all dead.”)
First and foremost, we must continue to tamp down the COVID-19 crisis in our city through the scientific mitigation measures that are working: mandatory mask wearing, extreme social distancing, limiting of crowds in indoor spaces, widespread testing and tracing and vigilant hand-washing and hygiene. If these containment measures prolong our economic challenges for the next few months, it is the steep price we have to pay to right the ship of state for the next decade. As the governor reminds us each day, we can’t let our guard down – lest we become Florida or Texas or other hotspots in this country that re-opened way too quickly.
Also in the short term, we must prove that public education can be executed well, despite the challenges we face this fall and winter. Right now, City Hall has divergent views from the teachers and principals unions. This will not lead to the smooth, synchronous rollout of the new school year that will be essential. I’m a big believer that outdoor learning, at least for middle school and high school students, will be a necessary ingredient to ensure that we have a relatively safe fall semester while we patiently await a vaccine in early 2021. Colleges must also be creative and erect outdoor tents and use their campuses to facilitate outdoor learning.
We also must avert the looming housing crisis – the city should work with residential landlords to devise a program that allows for forbearance in rent payments for those adversely impacted by large-scale unemployment. At the same time, the city and the state need to help landlords get through this period with a combination of tax breaks and bridge loans so that they can work out longer term repayment schedules with their economically challenged tenants.
The city must also figure out how to reverse the retail apocalypse in New York, particularly in Manhattan. Large chains and big restaurants are fleeing, much like the flight of well-heeled New Yorkers to less-crowded suburbs or tax-advantageous states such as Florida. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the city to finally institute commercial rent regulations in return for federal and city subsidies to incentivize new small businesses to open in the emptying retail districts. Can we actually bring back, through targeted subsidies, “mom and pop” shops that the banks and drugstores and other large chains have chased out of our neighborhoods? Can we convert the overabundance of Class B and C commercial real estate to affordable housing and solve two problems at once?
Gov. Andrew Cuomo joked that he’s inviting rich New Yorkers over for home-cooked meals to persuade them not to abandon the city and he more seriously argued that any tax increase would harm those efforts. But the budget gap must be solved, so there is no doubt that increased taxes on the wealthy are necessary. Perhaps, though, they can be enacted by the Legislature for three years and then sunset, to get us through the coming challenging period. If they are not permanent, then these wealthy New Yorkers will have less reason to flee. We can appeal to the civic pride of wealthy New Yorkers to hang in and do their fair share to get our weakened City back on its feet. And a “pied a terre” tax on those that don’t live in New York full time but benefit from its abundant services is a no-brainer in this revenue-starved environment.
But like the 1970s, there needs to be shared sacrifice. City government must do more with less; perhaps eliminating overtime in the NYPD and FDNY and other city agencies could avert mass layoffs. A freeze on both hiring and wage increases for government employees for at least one year may be necessary to stem the looming cuts to city employee headcount, which the mayor estimates to be 22,000 in October, almost 7% of the municipal workforce.
Labor unions will have to get in a room with business and real estate leaders like Kathy Wylde of the Partnership for NYC and Jim Whelan from REBNY, and devise ways to work together to get New York to the other side of this fiscal cliff. In the absence of leadership from City Hall, labor and business and real estate need to fill the vacuum like Victor Gotbaum, Felix Rohatyn and Lew Rudin did in the 1970s. There’s a playbook from that era that our current crop of mayoral candidates should be studying now.
To combat the soaring crime rate, there are a number of fixes that need to be implemented in the coming months. The NYPD should use Compstat to flood the zone with undercover police in illegal gun hotspots and implement an aggressive gun buyback program to get guns off the streets. Much of the increase in crime is in poorer areas of the city; if shootings and violent crime were skyrocketing on the Upper East Side, I suspect even our “progressive” mayor and his NYPD Commissioner would be forced to attack this problem more urgently than they have done in the past two months.
Policing needs to be redefined and the scope of responsibilities shrunk to crime prevention and reacting to and solving violent crimes; for matters like penalizing traffic infractions or dealing with domestic abuse and mentally ill homeless people, we’d be better served by civilian employees who are specialists who will not walk around with a gun. This will start to defuse the tensions that bubbled over this summer throughout the country – and led to protests and some looting in the city – because many New Yorkers are understandably frustrated with continued inaction on meaningful police reform. The NYPD needs more focused job descriptions, so that police are set up to succeed rather than to fail; we need to decriminalize many non-violent crimes like drug possession, prostitution and petty larceny that have contributed to our shameful mass incarceration crisis.
There are so many flames burning in our city right now that it’s easy to throw up your hands and say that the fire will consume us. In the city’s low point in the 1970s, the iconic slogan for New York was “the Bronx is burning.” Well, the Bronx made an impressive comeback the last two decades and our city will do the same in the next two to three years.
To accomplish this, we need enlightened politicians who are driven less by ideology and performative leadership, but rather by pragmatism and the ability to creatively turn around failing policies and institutions.
If New York is indeed one large corporation, then we need a turnaround artist who can roll up their sleeves to do the hard work of preaching shared sacrifice and can unite all interest groups in the city in a coordinated way to rebuild New York better, more equal and more just than it has ever been.