Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Any way you slice it

Now that the election is over and there's no chance of Joe Lhota being elected this year, I can talk about how much I hated Bill de Blasio's "tale of two cities" rhetoric. Don't get me wrong: I know that there is inequality in New York, and I think we should do something about it. Framing it as "two cities" is wrong and counterproductive. I hope it's over, and I hope it doesn't come back in 2017.

As Matt Yglesias pointed out, “A Tale of Two Cities” is about two different cities — London and Paris. But de Blasio is not the first to use it to refer to the difference between the rich and the poor in a single city. The problem with "two cities" - the same problem that I had with "two New Yorks" when used by Freddy Ferrer and Bill Thompson - is that it's too vague. If you say there are two New Yorks, different people will draw the line between the two in different places.

In particular, some unscrupulous people will draw the line in sneaky places. From my point of view, the most important division in the city is between people who see themselves as drivers and people who see themselves as transit riders. But for the man who really revived the "two New Yorks" meme, Frank Macchiarola, the non-elite New York was that of the outer boroughs:

Outer borough New Yorkers have such low expectations of the city government that they have developed alternative ways of obtaining services. Their transportation “system,” for example, usually includes a private car; some outer borough New Yorkers have not been on a subway or a city bus in years. Even poor people in the outer boroughs avoid city buses by riding in liveries and vans that are often cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient. Outer borough New Yorkers often travel into Manhattan on private express bus lines, which are more expensive and often slower, but invariably safer, than the subways.

In 2008, Lew Fidler used Macchiarola's division to paint congestion pricing as a tool of the elite. Azi Paybarah thought Fidler got it from Ferrer, but it comes from the Manhattan Institute, where it forms part of the conservative strategy to drive a wedge between the working class and the left.

The beauty of this vagueness is that almost any way you slice them, the Two New Yorks are led by drivers, or maybe even the chauffeur-driven. Outer-borough vs. Manhattan? Drivers. Black vs. White? Think about how Al Sharpton and Floyd Flake get around. You'd think that rich vs. poor would wind up with the poor riding transit, as would white collar vs. blue collar, but the leaders of the poor and the blue collar workers always seem to be showing off their poverty by driving an old Buick or Hyundai.

Even in the city, we've got it in our heads that being a Leader - running an organization - requires a car. So whether the Leaders are running city agencies, neighborhood organizations, unions or religious institutions, they think they won't be taken seriously if they don't show up in a car. If they can't afford a car, their funders are willing to pay for one. Even for organizations based in Manhattan whose business doesn't require carrying around anything that won't fit in a wheelie briefcase.

Over and over again I've seen this pattern: Leaders who drive - no matter how radical their thinking, no matter how deep their ties to the working class and the oppressed - don't get transit. Over and over again, their idea of lifting up the Working Man is to give him cheap gas and a discount mortgage on a house with a garage. And we saw this same shit just two weeks ago with de Blasio and the pedestrian plazas:

I have profoundly mixed feelings on this issue. I’m a motorist myself, and I was often frustrated. And then I’ve also seen on the other hand that it does seem to have a positive impact on the tourist industry. So for me, the jury’s out on that particular question. I think it’s worth assessing what the impact has been on traffic, what the impact has been on surrounding businesses. I would keep an open mind.

We do need to talk about inequality in New York and the best way to fight it. As Ben Fried wrote today, transportation is a powerful tool to combat inequality. (But I don't think transit can create a classless society all by itself.) But the "Tale of Two Cities" thinking just short-circuits that.

De Blasio's victory speech last night was very conciliatory. I hope it's the last time he uses the "Tale of Two Cities" for a while, but I'm sure he'll be tempted to dust it off again soon. And when that happens, I hope someone he trusts will look at him and say, "Enough with that bullshit, Bill. Give me a way of thinking about inequality that doesn't end with both sides sitting down to talk - at a nice seafood place on Cross Bay Boulevard with plenty of parking."


davistrain said...

The idea that if you're "important" you travel around in a car (or SUV) makes me thing of the old cliche' "The Man on Horseback". He's separated from the "plain folks" by the elevation and speed of his horse. His modern version is separated from the "others" by steel and glass. He doesn't have to share; he can deal with others on his own terms.

BBnet3000 said...

"We do need to talk about inequality in New York and the best way to fight it."

Im not so sure that there has been a lot of talk about the best way to fight it. Most people seem to think De Blasio will fight it simply by not being Bloomberg.

Most people think that we need to focus on the poor, but the best way to fight the statistic of inequality would be to help the middle class stay in New York.

Ian said...

Great points in this posting. NYC is the one city in the US (maybe Chicago also) where the upper middle class predominantly uses transit, and motorists are a much greater share among the lower middle class.

Steve Dunham said...

The underclass that doesn't drive: here in the sprawlburbs of Virginia where I live, many businesses are nearly inaccessible without a car. One local man told me that it's intentional: people without a car are part of a class that the business owners want to exclude. Maybe true.

Jonathan said...

Not-for-profit organizations end up receiving automobiles because someone gives them as gifts. Charitable deduction for the value of the car, plus the not-for-profit doesn't pay sales tax. Then you see the leader driving around in it.

Capn Transit said...

Very interesting point, Jonathan!