Commentary: Apocalyptic Eric

Why does the mayor of New York City insist that New York City is doomed?

Mayor Eric Adams speaks on stage during the National Urban League Conference, on July 28, 2023.

Mayor Eric Adams speaks on stage during the National Urban League Conference, on July 28, 2023. Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for National Urban League

This column was originally published in Political Currents, Ross Barkan’s Substack newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

The mayor of New York City believes that New York City, in the coming days or weeks or months or years, will be no more. “Let me tell you something New Yorkers, never in my life have I had a problem that I did not see an ending to – I don’t see an ending to this,” Adams said at a town hall on the Upper West Side this week. “This issue will destroy New York City.” He was talking, of course, about the migrant crisis, which has strained the city’s homeless shelter system and led to the creation of temporary facilities at Randalls Island. “Every community in this city is going to be impacted,” Adams added. “We have a $12 billion deficit that we’re going to have to cut – every service in this city is going to be impacted. All of us.”

There is no $12 billion budget deficit today. There is a projected $11.66 billion deficit, according to the city comptroller’s office, for the 2027 fiscal year. Budget gaps get closed with budget cuts. They also get closed with changing economic conditions and aid from elsewhere. Local Democrats have blamed the Biden administration for its lackluster response to the influx of migrants, and it’s unlikely, with a Republican-run Congress, that a tranche of federal aid will be forthcoming. State aid is more probable. Gov. Kathy Hochul, in much less strident terms, has blamed the federal government, too. Albany alone can’t close this future budget gap, but it can help. The state budget is very large. The municipal budget, which surpasses $100 billion, is also very large. An ambitious mayor can find cost savings, paired with future aid, that does not lead to a fiscal disaster or the shredding of the social safety net. Reforming the city’s inefficient procurement process and reining in inflated infrastructure costs – park bathrooms, even in 2019, were costing almost $4 million a pop – could save a great deal of money without laying off schoolteachers and sanitation workers.

But that is all boring budget talk. Adams, a Democrat with Trumpian bombast, would rather traffic in absolutes. It’s now or never for New York. If the migrants keep coming, the city as we know it will cease to exist. Everywhere you walk, an ailing migrant from Venezuela or Africa, and there will be no public infrastructure left for them or us. New York might be a burnt-out shell city, maybe, or Rome on the eve of the Visigoth siege. Republicans love these visions. From Mike Pence on down, they’ve echoed and praised Adams. They’ve longed for a New York doom loop, spurred on by Fox News and the New York Post. Never in their most fevered dreams would they have thought a Democrat would be leading the charge, breaking through a right-wing media echo chamber to the liberals in the big city mainstream.

Is Adams wrong? Is there really no end in sight? Will the migrants destroy New York? The plain enough answer is that they won’t because New York is, by far, the largest and richest city in America. It has existed for hundreds of years and will, barring a nuclear apocalypse, outlast us all. It’s particularly strange that Adams believes the migrant influx is the very first challenge he has never seen an “ending” to when Covid ravaged New York just three years ago, killing more than 40,000 people. Was he truly less dire about the future of the city in April 2020 than today? The answer to that will never be known because Adams frequently speaks in hyperbole and outright lies. He is as unreliable a narrator as you’ll find in political office. Adams might truly believe immigrants seeking asylum will bring New York to its knees in the way a pandemic, a superstorm, and a world-historical terrorist attack could not. Or he might not.

Either way, his posture is nonsensical.

The Biden administration won’t be more willing to negotiate with Adams or even Hochul after such a diatribe. Hochul, in particular, has called for Biden to grant a TPS designation to Venezuelan migrants so they can receive expedited work permits and start doing what they desperately want to do – earn money to support themselves and send cash home. When Mexico was less stable, this is what Mexican immigrants did. Migration to America has always ebbed and flowed; the Mexican population in the United States actually declined over the last decade. Democrats in New York are right that TPS could solve a lot of this, along with a federal resettlement policy that evenly distributes migrants across America, especially to cities with declining populations that need new workers and eventual taxpayers. Let migrants work here and it’s possible St. Louis, Buffalo and Cleveland could start to grow again. Ongoing labor shortages in the service, hospitality and agricultural sectors can be readily met.

In the meantime, New York is big enough to absorb a burst of migrants. If the public school system might struggle with 20,000 new Spanish-speaking students, this growth will also reverse the Covid-era decline in school enrollment. Neighborhoods near shelters have protested, but it’s a very loud and small minority of New Yorkers who are visibly upset. People who don’t live here can’t comprehend the vastness of the city. For most residents, the arrival of 100,000 migrants over the past year has changed almost nothing. They amount to less than 2% of the population. The trains and streets and storefronts are no more crowded. Life goes on. The city is also, by national standards, a safe place to be. Murders, rapes, robberies, burglaries and shootings have all fallen from last year. The historically low levels of crime witnessed in the 2010s may soon, in another few years, fully return.

There is an easy story to tell of a city shambling back from its Covid nadir. Crime is down, subway ridership is up and office workers are trickling back. The city still has profound challenges – an ongoing prevalence of street homelessness, lack of care for the mentally ill, stubbornly high rents and, of course, the large migrant population – but it is, slowly, becoming a better place than it was two years ago or certainly three. A competent mayor would be invested in this kind of narrative – it happens to be true and it’s beneficial to him. But Adams, as enough New Yorkers have learned by now, is not that kind of mayor. He doesn’t care much about governing or mapping out a policy legacy. He doesn’t care about management. To him, being mayor is not hard because he doesn’t ever attempt the hard stuff.

The greater problem for Adams personally is that he can’t get the politics right. A mayor of a city must be the city’s biggest booster. Putting aside the thornier matters of crafting budgets and signing legislation, this is the job, whether you’re the mayor of New York, San Francisco or Dayton. You want people to come live where you govern, and you want people to feel good about their choice. You must believe in the city, ultimately, and demonstrate to the voters that your belief is sincere.

If Adams were a borough president angling for the mayoralty or a Fox News personality hawking a new book, everything he said at the Upper West Side town hall would have made a degree of sense. As the challenger, the insurgent or the vituperative outside critic, an indulgence in declinism is natural. It’s all terrible now but elect me so I can fix it. Adams was elected in 2021 and took office in 2022. He’s been the mayor for almost two years now. As much as he revels in the performative nature of the role, he seems to forget what it actually entails. He cannot rail against the Man because he is the Man. He is, at heart, still the state senator wailing about pay raises on the legislative floor (“show me the money!”) and not the executive who must win concessions from the governor’s mansion and the White House. He is not going to transform into that executive. New Yorkers will have to decide, in 2025, if they’re comfortable enough with that reality. Incumbents usually win and Adams has plenty going for him, from strong fundraising to a loyal base in the working-class neighborhoods of the city. He might coast to reelection. Or, to his dismay, he could find that there are enough voters who are weary of his visions of apocalypse.