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."