Saturday, January 22, 2011

Two New Yorks

Some of you may remember Freddy Ferrer's assertion in his 2001 mayoral campaign that there were "two New Yorks" - the one he came from, and the one that Mark Green came from. You may remember how he lost that campaign, and then resurrected the slogan in his 2005 run against Mike Bloomberg. Then Bill Thompson tried to use it against Bloomberg in 2009, and lost. You may, like Barry Popik, connect it to Jacob Riis's book How the Other Half Lives. You may have heard Lew Fidler connect congestion pricing to the concept.

The oldest use of the term I can find is by the historian Mary Louise Booth in 1859. P.G. Wodehouse used it in 1912. It pops up a few times in the 1970s: a 1972 review by Eugene Gaier of a book on the teachers' strike, a 1977 Time Magazine article about Bella Abzug's mayoral campaign, and a 1979 article by Joyce Purnick about a debate between Ed Koch and Chuck Rangel.

"The Two New Yorks" was the title of a sneering 1993 article by Frank J. Macchiarola in City Journal, one prong of the conservative two-prong strategy to thwart progressive policy in New York City. Later that year it was used by Elizabeth Kolbert in an article about the campaign of Rudy Giuliani, who happened to be a big fan of City Journal, against David Dinkins.

Last month I had a feeling that there were two New Yorks. It was when I read that at a City Council hearing on bicycle policy, a guy named Norman Steisel who was Deputy Mayor eighteen years ago was allowed to jump ahead of two hundred cyclists who had been patiently waiting to talk, and then to speak for over twenty minutes while all other speakers were limited to five. Who was the entitled civil servant demanding government subsidies for his lifestyle, and who were the do-it-yourselfers? Not who you'd expect if you listened to Macchiarola and Thompson.

Macchiarola admits that his distinction is not an economic one. That's good, because if you go back to Jacob Riis's idea of "how the other half lives," just about everyone thundering about Two New Yorks and Our Billionaire Mayor live in the top half. The median income in 2008 was $55,980, and I'm pretty sure that Rangel, Macchiarola, Giuliani, Ferrer, Steisel, Thompson and Fidler, and probably Kolbert as well, make more than that.

The fight over the 34th Street Transitway really shows how limiting the "Two New Yorks" worldview is. In that case you have wealthy Manhattanites against poorer outer borough residents, but the "billionaire Mayor" and the "elitist bikers" are on the side of Queens and "the community" is on the side of the wealthy Manhattanites.

There is a principle at work: the haves tend to oppress and screw over the have-nots. It's true wherever you go: Manhattan, outer boroughs, suburbs, country. Sometimes the haves are in Manhattan and the have-nots in the outer boroughs, sometimes not. Sometimes the Mayor and the DOT are on the side of the haves, and sometimes not.

I have to say that I have yet to see a case where people with cars were being genuinely oppressed or screwed over by people without cars. But maybe that's because I don't consider restrictions on reckless or negligent car use to be a form of oppression, and I don't think that ending subsidies for pollution, carnage and wasting energy constitute screwing anyone over.

There is a sense in which there are two New Yorks. One New York is made up of people who believe there are two New Yorks, and the other is not.


Alon Levy said...

From a class perspective, sure there are two New Yorks - probably three. One consists of the finance class, the entire political class, some asshole homeowners ment prop up their property values, and other assorted rich people. The other consists of the bottom 80-90% of the city - probably divisible into the middle class and the black/Hispanic underclass. In this scheme, Bloomberg has consistently promoted the interests of his own class, doing good things for the rest (like some bike lane projects, congestion pricing, and the rise in school spending) only insofar as it boosts his legacy. The anti-bicycle people come from all classes - usually upper or middle and not lower, but that form of fear of change can appear in everyone.

George K said...

With the 34th Street Transitway, I don't think this is really a battle between the "haves" and "have-nots", at least the difference isn't as large as people make it out to be. A good portion of the express buses come from upper-middle class neighborhoods in the outer boroughs.

Alon Levy said...

George, the transitway does nothing for Queens residents if it doesn't include a bus-only path from the tunnel portal to 34th.

nathan_h said...

Thanks for the background Cap'n. I had assumed Ferrer in 2005 was recycling Edwards's "two Americas".

The rhetoric seems to be a safe way to reference classism without using that dirty word, and certainly without promising to do anything about it. The most I would expect from any politician using it is more insufficient propping up of the poorest, without doing anything about the revenue side of the equation and so leaving all classes to fend for themselves in our declining public realm.

If supposedly liberal politicians and voters can only count to "two", they will never be able to coherently demand, much less receive, the re-elevation of top marginal tax rates that would actually would reduce our widening income divides.

CityLights said...

I haven't heard about the "two New Yorks" theme, but I invented my own: I posited it to be the parts built before 1961 (the year of the new zoning resolution that mandated minimum parking requirements) and after. But then I did a GIS analysis and realized that NYC was by and large built up, or at least had the street layout, by 1961. Most construction in the second half of the 20th century was infill, and although it did change the character of some communities, it is not as much as one would expect.

This is not meant to sound as an apology for minimum parking requirements; I'm only saying that many neighborhoods built under the old zoning code were plenty car-oriented.

Cap'n Transit said...

Well now hold on. Just because the streets were laid out doesn't mean that the parking lots, garages, driveways and density patterns were set.