With most attention focused on Washington D.C. this week, and with the promise of a functioning national government clearly on the horizon, my thoughts turned toward my home and community. New York City has a mayoral election this year, with a June primary and the promise of some sort of discussion of the city’s future. This past July, as pundits were predicting our city’s demise, I wrote that:
“I live in New York City, the one-time epicenter of the coronavirus, which is now slowly and carefully coming out of hiding. We’ve made mistakes along the way and we will make some more before this is over. But we will come back. New York is buildings, parks, rivers, shorelines, streets and sidewalks. But at its core, New York is people. It is people from all over the world creating opportunities for themselves, their families and yes, our entire community.”
Walking north from Columbus Circle to Morningside Heights this past weekend, New York’s people were sitting in the cold at outdoor restaurants, walking and jogging through parks with masks covering most of their faces, and doing everything possible to get out of their apartments. I was among them. I have a comfortable home, but New York is about public more than private spaces — and we all need to see each other. What I didn’t see was very many tourists, no one seemed to be looking up at buildings and looking down at Michelin Guides or Google Maps to see if they were actually where they thought they were.
On my walk, I saw many vacant storefronts, many homeless people pushing carts and sleeping in front of those empty storefronts. I saw people lining up outside of churches, synagogues and food pantries, trying to feed themselves and their families. Outside the Chase Bank on Broadway and 113th street, I saw the latest New York phenomenon, a group of food delivery “contractors” chatting in the cold while waiting for their next text message asking them to pick up and deliver food for Grubhub, UberEats or other web-based delivery services. Unemployment continues to rise in the city, but people want to work. The ambition and hustle of front-line workers are undeniable.
Bill DeBlasio was correct when he observed that New York is a tale of two cities, but through this crisis, he has seemed more interested in appearing to lead than to actually mobilize our city for the struggle we continue to face. Where was the local equivalent of a jobs program to put people to work, caring for children and the elderly, or cleaning our parks and public spaces? Where was the effort to partner with the parts of the private sector that were doing well in the pandemic to help the city’s small businesses? The lack of imagination was perhaps understandable as our government struggled to deal with this once-in-a-century crisis, but the lack of energetic leadership was disappointing, to say the least. New York does not need more ideological posturing. We need pragmatic engagement. We need a mayor capable of working with community groups and business groups and bringing them together to solve problems.
As we come out of the pandemic this summer and fall, the agenda for the next mayor will be desperately obvious: We need to be revived. It’s clear that some help will come from the Biden Administration — certainly more help than we received from Donald Trump and his crew of incompetent public sector amateurs. But our revival will depend on creative and high-octane leadership from the city’s elected and unelected institutional and business leaders. Not top-down directives, but an effort to mobilize communities, community groups, teachers, students, labor unions and literally the entire city to help restore and then improve our way of life. If the national government provides the resources to reduce child poverty, as Biden has proposed, we need to recruit volunteers and paid interns to provide tutors and role models to our children in need. As our restaurants slowly come back to life, their kitchens could be deployed in a massive effort to ensure that no New Yorker ever suffers from hunger. The city has enormous human and material resources, and the next mayor must be the catalyst to ensure that they are all put to work as we revive our still suffering city.
We need to move beyond tired and meaningless political rhetoric to an effort to build a new civic culture. Amazon, Apple and Google have arrived and are continuing to come to town? Great, let’s ask them to lead the effort to bridge our digital divide. Andrew Carnegie built libraries; Let’s convince our modern “robber barons” … I mean, business leaders … to ensure that every New York City school kid has access to the internet and a decent laptop or tablet to learn on — even after schools completely reopen. My own university as well as other private and public universities do a great deal for their communities, but if asked, they could do more. And I don’t just mean spending money. Students and faculty could be organized to volunteer their time to serve the city they live in. Yes, we are all busy, but a visible effort to bring the two New Yorks together has not been attempted. Instead, the facts of income inequality have been translated into political demands for taxation to fund social services. That may well be needed. But first, we need civic leadership to challenge us to put in effort, provide role models and do the work that teaches New Yorkers about each other.
As we approach the inauguration of a new president, I can’t help but be reminded of the first inaugural I remember watching, as an impressionistic seven year old. It was John F. Kennedy in January 1961, precisely 60 years ago, urging all of us to: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” One result of that call to serve was the Peace Corps, an institution that continues to recruit young Americans to public service all over the world. Since it began, more than 235,000 Americans have served in 141 countries. JFK’s powerful message recruited me to public service at EPA and to teaching future public servants at Columbia University.
New York’s revival will need money to help small businesses, tenants who have skipped rent and landlords who can’t meet their mortgages. It will require jobs. Particularly in the hard-hit service sector and the world of arts and entertainment. When the pandemic ends, these organizations will need tax breaks, capital and a helping hand to get going; but once they are on their feet they will once again be a tremendous catalyst to our local economy. Our revival will require mass vaccination, testing, tracing and other public health measures institutionalized through a revitalized Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. We need to regain our confidence. We need to feel comfortable and safe in public spaces. The reconstruction of our mass transit system must resume. The visible improvements of the Moynihan Train Hall and LaGuardia airport must be built upon with additional investments in moving people around. Once we are able to see each other in person, we are going to want to do that. While the trend of “working from home” will not end, the prediction of empty Manhattan offices will prove to be inaccurate. Our service-based economy requires increased communication of every kind, including the kind that requires shared space and shared meals.
But more than anything else, the city’s revival will require an activation of human spirit and energy. I believe the pent-up energy for that revival exists. I am reminded these days of my time in Buffalo during graduate school. Buffalo’s winters are long and cold, but on the first warm day of spring, I remember everyone I knew left their jobs and headed toward Delaware Park to experience sunshine, smiles and the promise of summer. The pandemic’s end will be more gradual and therefore less dramatic than the first warm day after a Buffalo winter. But my hope is that one day this fall we will look up at the High Line and see it teeming with tourists. And my even deeper hope is that when we essentially elect our new mayor during the June Democratic primary, we elect a leader who is ready to ask all of us “not what New York City can do for us, but what we can do for New York City.”
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.