Trickle-Down Urbanism

Trickle-Down Urbanism

For all his differences with his predecessor, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has inherited the same fundamental dilemmas that faced Michael Bloomberg—and much of the billionaire’s approach to resolving them.

Michael Bloomberg speaking at a press conference, 2009 (Azi Paybarah)

The Creative Destruction of New York City: Engineering the City for the Elite
by Alessandro Busà
Oxford University Press, 2017, 360 pp.

Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities
by Juan González
The New Press, 2017, 336 pp.

Bloomberg: A Billionaire’s Ambition
by Chris McNickle
Skyhorse Publishing, 2017, 480 pp.

The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York
by Joseph P. Viteritti
Oxford University Press, 2017, 296 pp.

A few years ago, as Republican obstinacy was grinding Barack Obama’s legislative agenda to a halt, a novel argument took shape among political thinkers on the center and left. By destiny or by default, this argument went, cities had become the great hope of those who would like to see U.S. governments tackle important social problems. Long regarded as bit players in the American system, cities were practicing “do-it-yourself urbanism”: investing in infrastructure, education, and new technologies; taking steps to address climate change—addressing the big problems of the twenty-first century, and doing it all across partisan lines.

Today, cities are no longer just filling the vacuum created by federal inaction; they are on the front lines to prevent destructive federal policies from wreaking havoc on American cities—especially on the vulnerable people living in them. But if cities have more influence than both scholars and politicians believed until recently, how should they exercise the powers they possess?

Students of urban politics used to distinguish between two types of reform mayors: technocrats, the anti-partisan good-government reformers who insisted that there was no Democratic or Republican way to sweep the street; and populists, the tribunes of the exploited, the overlooked, and the downtrodden. The “cities rising” argument has mirrored this distinction. Cities and their political leaders, some writers argue, are by nature pragmatic, problem-oriented, and open to cooperation. Others have seen cities as the seedbed for a democratic politics more generous, humane, and cosmopolitan than what a state and national politics captured by money and white identity politics can provide. If the national government has failed to do much about income inequality, perhaps it is easier to start with a municipal $15 minimum wage and build up from there.

New York City’s last two mayors, Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, embody these two reform styles—Bloomberg, the data-driven manager; de Blasio, the sworn enemy of urban inequality. Each has taken up the challenge of governing in the absence of leadership from Washington. Together, their records show the promise of the “cities rising” paradigm. But they also suggest the limits of cities going it alone—and of a progressivism that evades fundamental issues of race and class.


Two months out from election day, 2001, it looked like Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral aspirations were toast. “[U]nless things change dramatically over the next [few] months,” the columnist Michael Tomasky wrote, Bloomberg was “cruising toward not only losing, but becoming that thing every public person quietly fears becoming: a punch line.” On primary day, September 11, things did change dramatically. “[P]riorities have changed,” one voter remarked. “[G]etting the city back on its feet comes first.” The Wall Street bond trader turned billionaire entrepreneur turned political neophyte would go on to become mayor of New York. He left office twelve years later as the city’s most consequential mayor since Fiorello La Guardia, and perhaps ever.

In Bloomberg: A Billionaire’s Ambition (2017), Chris McNickle, a leading historian of twentieth-century New York politics, has offered the first full-length historical account of Bloomberg’s mayoralty. The key to understanding Bloomberg’s tenure, McNickle argues, is to begin with his conviction that he could use his managerial acumen to tackle seemingly intractable problems of urban governance and, in doing so, make the city better for everyone. “In God we trust; all others bring data” was the motto in the Wall Street–style bullpen office Bloomberg installed in City Hall. He tried to deploy these tools to reinvent one part of city life after another—from schools to soda fountains. In doing so, he became the embodiment of the claim that cities could take control of their own fate. In New York City, he boasted, “we’re not waiting for the federal government to act.” Bloomberg was “not just the mayor of New York,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker claimed. He had “become the national model.”

Bloomberg filled his administration with managers who shared his assertive, problem-solving approach. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Bloomberg appointed as his police commissioner Raymond Kelly, the commanding, media-savvy, and imperious figure who would become to Bloomberg what Robert Moses had been to La Guardia. Recognizing that the federal government could not protect New York from terrorist attacks, Kelly created a counterterrorism operation with global reach and extraordinary intelligence and surveillance capabilities (and, at times, little regard for New Yorkers’ civil liberties). At a time when the FBI had thirty-three agents who were proficient in Arabic, McNickle notes, the NYPD employed “more than sixty fluent speakers across a range of dialects.”

But Kelly also presided over the widespread abuse of stop-and-frisk, the policing tactic in which street officers question and pat down people engaged in ostensibly suspicious behavior (including those who, in the NYPD’s administrative lingo, make “furtive movements” or exhibit “suspicious bulges”). Under Kelly, the annual number of stops soared from just under 100,000 to a peak of 685,000 in 2011—overwhelmingly targeting young men of color. The proliferation of stop-and-frisk was officially an effort to govern where the federal and state governments had abdicated responsibility; Bloomberg, an early and consistent national leader on gun control, could reasonably argue that if other governments would not prevent guns from entering New York, the NYPD should at least try to keep them off the streets.

In practice, McNickle notes, the number of stops became a metric for measuring the productivity of beat cops. When a federal judge ruled that the practice represented a “policy of indirect racial profiling,” Bloomberg pointed to the data, claiming that stop-and-frisk had led to falling rates of gun violence and thereby had saved the lives of thousands of young black and Hispanic men. But homicides have continued to drop in the six years since the NYPD scaled back on stop-and-frisk. “I think about this a lot,” one Bloomberg aide told McNickle. “I wish with what I know now, I could have given the mayor a memo that said stop-and-frisk numbers are a disaster and you need to do something about it.”

Bloomberg’s was not your father’s neoliberalism. Although a businessman—indeed, because he was a businessman—he rejected small-government nostrums. Where his predecessors had granted billions of dollars of tax abatements in the name of retaining footloose corporations and fostering a good “business climate,” Bloomberg vowed to deploy them more strategically. “If the only reason a business will stay is tax concessions, then they have no business,” he said. The companies New York really wanted, Bloomberg maintained, “come here because the people they want to employ want to live here.” His strategy was to create “magnetic infrastructure”—to “transform New York physically . . . to make it even more attractive to the world’s most talented people. We’ll invest in neighborhood livability, cultural organizations, education, research and medicine.” And invest he did. City policies helped public amenities like the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park to take shape, upscale housing developments to soar, and the local economy to grow, even in the face of two severe recessions.

Williamsburg condo construction

In August 2013, as New Yorkers were preparing to choose his successor, Bloomberg sat down with a journalist to offer some parting words. Characteristically feisty and more than a bit aggrieved, he took aim at the charge, heard often in the course of that year’s mayoral campaign, that he had governed “primarily for the rich.” “We’re the safest big city in the country,” he remarked. “Life expectancy is higher here than in the rest of the country—who’s paying for that?” In an age of dwindling federal investment, all contemporary mayors face the fact that adequate social spending depends on a healthy local property-tax base. But Bloomberg seemed almost to revel in it. If New York could “find a bunch of billionaires from around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes from to take care of everybody else.”

This, McNickle observes, was the heart of Bloomberg’s philosophy: a kind of trickle-down urbanism which promised to lift all boats but prioritized the affluent. “In Bloomberg’s New York, the target market was the elite. . . . Cold calculations place the poor at the bottom of an entrepreneurial city’s priorities,” he writes, citing Bloomberg’s disinvestment in public housing, the “barbaric” conditions on Rikers Island, and the city’s inability to address a growing crisis of homelessness. Still, McNickle concludes that Bloomberg’s approach was, on the whole, successful; ultimately, Bloomberg “use[d] government assets boldly and wisely for the greatest good, for the greatest number of people.”


Not all New Yorkers were so convinced. Bloomberg’s efforts to attract the world’s elite, Alessandro Busà writes in his new book, The Creative Destruction of New York City (2017), succeeded only too well; whatever good it might have done, Busà argues, it was also responsible for perhaps the most far-reaching development of Bloomberg’s twelve years in power: the soaring cost of housing. As late as the turn of the century, Busà notes, only about 20 percent of New York apartments were unaffordable to households earning the city’s median income; by 2010, it was 40 percent. Rising rents squeezed the middle classes, but they could be devastating to working-class and poor New Yorkers. Homelessness soared on Bloomberg’s watch, and by the end of Bloomberg’s third term, one in five New York households was paying more than half its income in rent. We don’t as yet know exactly why housing costs exploded in the last quarter century—how much the city’s solicitousness of the affluent mattered compared to constraints on new construction across the metropolitan region, changing market forces, and state and national policies. But whatever the balance of factors, there is no question that many New Yorkers held Bloomberg and his luxury-city philosophy responsible for the city’s affordable housing crisis.

Soaring rents and stagnant incomes, together with the abuse of stop-and-frisk, created an opening for Bloomberg’s aspiring successors to run on a platform of fairness and inclusion. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio entered that year’s campaign as perhaps the least well-known of five major Democratic contenders. But his “tale of two cities” message (recycled from Mario Cuomo via David Dinkins) resonated powerfully in Bloomberg’s New York. Like Bloomberg, de Blasio vowed to take the city’s fate into his own hands. “You can’t wait on the cavalry to come from Washington,” he said; “it’s not coming anytime soon.” But de Blasio added a progressive twist to a Bloomberg adage, pledging to make New York “a laboratory for progressive policies and innovative solutions.”

As de Blasio begins his second term, two of the foremost students of New York policy and politics have weighed in with their verdicts on whether he succeeded. For Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College and the author of The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York (2017), de Blasio is a pragmatic progressive, wise to the ways of power and heir to the likes of La Guardia, Robert Wagner, and John Lindsay. For Juan González, for years one of the city’s leading editorial voices as a columnist for the New York Daily News and now the author of Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities (2017), de Blasio marks a break from a sordid past of racism and capitalist exploitation and is the harbinger of a resurgent community politics that is sweeping big cities across the world. Both books, like McNickle’s and Busà’s, not only offer sharp insights into our current moment, but are essential to understanding New York politics in the early twenty-first century.

De Blasio, whose parents were progressive enough to be accused of communist sympathies by the editor Whittaker Chambers (with whom his mother worked at Time), sees his mayoralty as part of a proud tradition. He once told an interviewer that, at family gatherings, “everyone would be around the table and it felt like there were two empty chairs for Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia.” The ideological legacy of the New Deal’s more social-democratic aspects is plainly visible in de Blasio’s sense of the government as a potential ally to working people trying to build lives in the bustling city. It is present in less visible ways, too—above all, in de Blasio’s understanding that class politics and identity politics are complementary, rather than opposing forces.

De Blasio himself sprang from the 1980s left. After several years working in support of Nicaragua’s Sandinista party (which he lauded for proposing “a new definition of democracy”), he took a job in the administration of New York Mayor David Dinkins. Dinkins had built on the momentum generated by Jesse Jackson’s 1988 “Rainbow Coalition” campaign to become the city’s first black mayor. In City Hall, de Blasio worked under the legendary political strategist Bill Lynch and alongside a young Jackson-campaign alum named Patrick Gaspard, who would go on to serve as political director of the Local 1199 healthcare-workers union and later as an important aide to Barack Obama. He also met the mayor’s young speechwriter, Chirlane McCray, who would become de Blasio’s partner in life and politics. After Dinkins narrowly lost his bid for reelection in 1993, de Blasio emerged as a shrewd and successful Democratic Party operative and campaign manager, helping craft the alliance of labor unions, community organizations, and the local Democratic Party that would power the renaissance of urban progressivism in New York—and de Blasio’s own rise.

Given the sweeping promises of his campaign, it is perhaps inevitable that a sense of disappointment would surround de Blasio’s mayoralty. Yet by any reasonable measure, he amassed an impressive record in his first term. With some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic, González estimates that de Blasio’s policies have channeled some $21 billion toward the city’s poor and working-class residents. Tenants in rent-regulated apartments have enjoyed rent freezes; city workers, whose contracts Bloomberg had allowed to expire, have gotten raises. The NYPD has dramatically curtailed the number of stop-and-frisks. New Yorkers without a path to national citizenship can now get a municipal ID. Above all, parents and children now have access to universal pre-K. This is an achievement of which de Blasio’s hero La Guardia would be proud: the city has decided that this crucial step in childhood development should not be contingent on parents’ ability to pay.

These accomplishments have come without trading off the fundamentals of urban governance—crime is at a record low, jobs are up, the city’s finances are sound (at least for now), and basic services work (though services like the subway and public housing are desperately in need of more long-range investment). Some of de Blasio’s achievements have already “filtered up,” as champions of progressive localism would hope. As Viteritti notes, de Blasio’s local leadership paved the way for two of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature achievements: state-wide pre-K and a hike in the minimum wage.

But de Blasio has not been able to end New York’s “tale of two cities.” Mayors, of course, possess relatively few tools with which to address problems like income inequality and poverty; the power to enact progressive taxation, a higher minimum wage, and pro-union laws rests mostly in the hands of national and state governments, not the city. But what about the tools the mayor does possess? De Blasio’s housing plan, which facilitates private, market-rate development in exchange for a quota of affordable units, has become embroiled in political controversy with community activists, who view it as a blueprint for gentrification. With New York growing ever more expensive, public housing represents a nearly incalculable resource for the city and its people. But although de Blasio has put far more money into public housing than Bloomberg and Giuliani did, his administration has struggled to meet the system’s capital needs and has even undertaken the first tentative steps toward bringing in private investment to sustain it. After running on policing reform, de Blasio hired Rudy Giuliani’s police commissioner Bill Bratton and, to the consternation of criminal justice activists, kept Giuliani’s and Bratton’s “Broken Windows” policing strategy in place, bolstered by the addition of thousands of new officers. The city’s schools are among the most racially segregated in the nation, yet it took the de Blasio administration three and a half years to issue a “diversity plan” which, critics noted, barely mentioned segregation. What are we to make of a progressivism that fails to grapple with housing affordability, which doubles down on Broken Windows, which tolerates segregated schools? Are these simply failures of leadership, or is something deeper going on?


Among the virtues of González’s and Viteritti’s books is that each grounds de Blasio’s mayoralty in New York’s political history. The two authors stress different aspects of that history. For González, the history of New York politics is primarily a story of racism and exploitation—from redlining to urban renewal and beyond. Viteritti is well aware of this history; he condemns La Guardia and Wagner in particular for not doing enough about racial discrimination. But he places more emphasis on New York’s tradition of social reform and uplift of working people. In the 1970s, though, these two accounts converge with Busà’s narrative to offer a greatest hits of neoliberal depredation: the dismantling of public services during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s; corporate giveaways as far as the eye can see; muscled-up policing; and development schemes for the well-to-do and austerity for everyone else.

The 1970s really did mark a watershed moment for New York, a moment when the old concept of a democratic public sphere lost prestige and a new solicitousness of business took hold even among liberals. But a straightforward narrative of austerity and privatization leaves some important loose ends. It seems odd that liberalism should be so totally routed in New York—the cradle of the New Deal and the Great Society, and the city that elected de Blasio twice by overwhelming margins. And what to make of the fact that so many signature “neoliberal” reforms came under the most forthrightly progressive mayors of the period—that the vogue for private consultants, a trademark of the Bloomberg years, began with John Lindsay? That it was David Dinkins who played the key role in building up the NYPD for Giuliani and Bratton’s quality-of-life policing strategy? That the New York City Housing Authority has gotten the ball rolling on privatization under the neo–New Dealer de Blasio?

Alongside the familiar story, another, neglected history unfolded. If many of the people who have governed New York in the last half-century shared the assumptions of Bloomberg’s “luxury city” vision, others were committed liberals. Still others—especially commissioners and mezzo-level bureaucrats most responsible for remaking the city’s institutions—wanted primarily to make their agencies work (or at least to be seen to have made them work) by whatever means were available. In the wake of the fiscal crisis, they set about rebuilding New York’s public institutions. They could no longer find a partner in Washington, as they had during the New Deal and the Great Society. State lawmakers constrained their ability to raise revenue locally. But thanks to the federal deregulation of the financial sector, the rich were getting much richer. And an increasing number of young professionals were making their homes in the city’s renovated brownstones and newly converted coops and condos. Resources were available, but they could be tapped most easily by catering to the affluent—some of whom believed deeply in the value of public institutions, many more of whom recognized that their own wealth and quality of life were bound up in the well-being of the city as a whole.

De Blasio on the bus

These were the progressives who helped build the neoliberal state. Where traditional state institutions were capable and politically powerful, like the NYPD, they could be rebuilt and deployed in innovative ways. Under Dinkins and Ray Kelly’s “community policing” paradigm (which de Blasio and Bill Bratton have recently rebranded “neighborhood policing”), law enforcement officers became surrogate social workers, public-health workers, and liaisons between community residents and other city agencies. In other policy areas, progressives could build on the efforts of community groups that had responded to the failure of public services in the 1960s and 1970s by establishing community-driven alternatives to traditional services. In the wake of the fiscal crisis, community groups large and small had labored to revive the city’s parks; by the early 1980s, the city was entering into formal public-private partnerships with groups like the Central Park Conservancy. A similar logic of building capacity through public-private partnerships shaped the ambitious affordable housing plans launched by mayors Koch, Bloomberg, and de Blasio, the proliferation of business improvement districts, and the turn toward private investment in public housing. Across these areas, the city tried to purchase capacity by trading off a measure of administrative control—and hence, democratic accountability.

Hemmed in by Washington and Albany, contemporary progressives find it easiest to work within this template rather than to reach back to the more unabashedly statist examples of the New Deal or Great Society or to search for new models of governance. Doing so allows them to produce results, but it also incurs important political costs. If non-profits do the work of government, those institutions that are most attractive to donors (or that do the most to enhance the value of surrounding real estate) will be best resourced. A few years ago, the columnist Michael Powell noted that the High Line, a Bloomberg-era public-private parks project frequented primarily by tourists and wealthy New Yorkers, boasted five full-time gardeners while Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, with more than forty-thousand times the acreage, had but a single full-time maintenance employee. De Blasio’s Community Parks Initiative, which has directed millions of dollars to sixty-seven historically underserved parks, has made a dent in such disparities while leaving the larger governing structure intact. Such are the dilemmas of progressive reform in the neoliberal state: the pursuit of equity involves trouble-shooting a system built on inequality rather than envisioning a politics that upends it.


Now add the final, crucial piece of the story. For nearly a century, hyper-segregation by race and class has been the most basic social fact of city life. Practically everything city governments do interacts in some crucial way with the consequences of segregation: the presence of deeply institutionalized deprivation facing some people and the accrual of unearned—but fully naturalized—privilege to others. González’s former colleague at the Daily News, Errol Louis, put it best: “Segregation is a poison. It poisons everything that it touches.” And indeed, segregation has poisoned every well-intentioned effort to build a more democratic New York.

Take the rise of public school choice. If the charter-school movement has been largely neoliberal in intent from its inception, the broader movement for small, innovative alternative public schools boasts a progressive genealogy. In the 1970s, some liberal thinkers began to propose public school choice as an antidote to the manifest segregation of the traditional school system; around the same time, progressive teachers and community leaders in East Harlem adopted a school choice program in an effort to make schools that worked for neighborhood children. By the 1980s, some smaller cities (including such progressive strongholds as Cambridge, Massachusetts) had implemented public school choice programs with the explicit intention of desegregation. Soon, small, thematic schools began to proliferate in New York. The city Board of Education at first ignored them, refusing even to list their telephone numbers in its official directory. As some of the schools posted impressive educational outcomes and attracted both favorable press attention and major grant money, the city reversed course. Small schools and school choice became a core component of the Bloomberg administration’s agenda.

Many selective public schools have specific measures in place to ensure a representative student body. But they tend to have complex application processes which unintentionally favor children with advantaged parents. In the absence of a strong commitment to desegregation on the part of the city, these schools, though more representative of the city’s population than the traditional public schools of the Upper East Side and Brooklyn Heights, have largely replicated the segregated pattern of the traditional public-school system. At every one of the traditional public schools in District 1, on the Lower East Side, a majority of students qualify for free lunch. This is the case at none of the four new “small schools” in the district. These alternative elementary and middle schools, in turn, feed into a high-school system where the mechanisms of choice further reinforce segregation. Thus a well-intentioned effort to build the city’s public school system has given inequality a new, more politically defensible institutional form.

This is the tragedy of contemporary city progressivism. Precisely because they were not exclusively the product of a power grab by capital, many of the “neoliberal” institutions of the contemporary city have at least some democratic legitimacy. And because they were built to serve, and in turn to draw upon the resources of the city’s middle classes, many of them implicate not only the interest of the wealthy but also the interests (and even the ideology) of upper-middle and middle-class progressives who emphatically do not regard themselves as the target audience for Bloomberg’s luxury city. Unlike the ultra-wealthy, these New Yorkers are numerous enough to be a force in the city’s democratic politics. In 2009, the Upper West Side, Chelsea, Greenwich Village, and Brownstone Brooklyn chose to give Michael Bloomberg a third term; in 2013, they voted for de Blasio. Perhaps their political consciences were touched by de Blasio’s tale of two cities. Or perhaps, from their vantage point, Bloomberg and de Blasio did not look so different.

Mason B. Williams is assistant professor of leadership studies and political science at Williams College and the author of City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York (Norton, 2013).