Public Service and Community Can Address New York City’s Post-COVID Crisis
When you live in a city as crowded as New York, you seek community in your neighborhood, your block and in the city as a whole. We identify with place — it provides the security of familiarity. This past weekend I watched the city’s Sanitation Department plow the snowy streets. I also saw apartment building staff clear the sidewalks of snow. I saw ambulances slowly make their way to the hospital emergency room entrance a few blocks away from my home. And I saw NYPD cars on patrol. This is the beating heart of a city that never sleeps, and its rhythm is as natural to me as breathing. It is the rhythm of people leaving the comfort of their homes to serve others.
Police, firefighters, emergency workers, sanitation workers and health care providers have made it their profession to serve others. Public service is a calling, and our community depends on public servants to survive and thrive. In 1985, when I first became an administrator at Columbia, I remember talking to my dean, the late Al Stepan, about the importance of educating leaders committed to public service. He agreed, saying that the mission of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs was to make the world a better place through service to the community, the city, the nation, and the world. I was energized by that mission then, and it remains a source of personal motivation today. Decades later, I see that vision in the faces of my students, and in the many alums I see contributing their lives to many different versions of public service.
New York City is going through a difficult time right now. Not as difficult as the 1980s and 1990s, but difficult enough. We have a new mayor who is committed to public safety who seems to be both tough and empathetic. Crime and violence don’t fall from the sky, they have root causes that can be attacked and prevented. Eric Adams’ credibility comes from who he is, where he came from and what he has accomplished in his life. He understands that the fundamental, irreducible function of government is public safety. A child can’t take advantage of universal pre-K if she can’t safely get to school. And to ensure public safety, we must rely on and support our police department. That does not mean accepting bad policing or forgiving bad police, but ensuring that our police know that the public supports their service and roots for their success. Last week we saw two young NYPD officers killed while performing their duties: Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora. These two police officers, like most of their NYPD colleagues, were people of color. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote a moving column after viewing the heartbreaking funeral of Officer and now Detective Rivera last week. I am taking the liberty of quoting at length from Dowd’s piece when she wrote that:
“We don’t hear much about good cops these days. Their stories get lost amid the scalding episodes with trigger-happy, racist and sadistic cops. The good ones get tarred with the same brush, even though the last person who wants to get in a squad car with a bad cop is a good cop. It takes a catastrophe, like 9/11, or an attempted coup like Jan. 6, or a heartbreaking funeral with a sea of blue, like Friday’s ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the murdered 22-year-old New York City police officer Jason Rivera, to remind us that we should be proud of good cops even as we root out bad ones….When they wheeled Rivera out of the hospital in the freezing cold a week ago Friday, to be placed in an ambulance to go to the morgue, his body was draped in an N.Y.P.D. flag and police officers were standing vigilantly, silently. The only sound was a police helicopter whirring overhead. Officers there said they were stunned when the eerie silence was broken by the wailing of Rivera’s mother. “My boy, my little boy, come home to us, my little boy,” she keened over the body. Tough cops dropped their heads, their faces wet with tears.”
In the ideological and polarized nation we now live in, it is crucial that we reduce our focus on what divides us and pay more attention to our collective and shared values. The value of service to a community is certainly one of those shared values. Through nearly two years of struggle with COVID and all its many impacts, we have repeatedly seen people helping people. In the early days of the pandemic, New Yorkers cheered health care workers at the end of every workday. Food pantries and other forms of help materialized nationally to help suddenly impoverished families and the federal government delivered trillions of dollars of aid — some of which was enacted with bi-partisan majorities.
The misinformation fiends of social media seem to know that lying about people helping people in need would never work. Human pain and misery, along with the rewards of helping people in need, are realities that ideology can’t taint. At least so far.
Here in New York City, we face the impact of the disruption of the city’s historic and geographically distinctive business model: People throughout the city, region and the world traveling to work and play in Manhattan. Zoom guarantees that work-life will never be what it was pre-pandemic. Midtown and downtown will become more residential. But that simply means that the shape of commerce and tourism will evolve. It won’t die.
Meanwhile, Mayor Adams and all New Yorkers face the challenge of Penn Station and Grand Central Station as illegal homeless shelters. The increase in vagrancy and street begging throughout the city. There is a pre-COVID crisis that persists in our school system as we struggle to emerge from COVID: About 100,000 of the city’s one million public school students are homeless. We have a housing crisis and a poverty crisis. New York City’s economic revival from COVID lags behind the nation’s. The city is being overrun by rats. It must deal with its many vacant storefronts and rising crime rates.
What can we do? We need to come together as a community. This crowded place of people from all over the world is our home. We need to imagine creative and coherent solutions to the many problems we face. It starts with mobilizing ourselves and supporting our public servants. Every resource we have needs to be put to work in service of our community and city. When something goes wrong, let’s stop the search for blame and work to understand cause and effect.
New York City’s diversity, intense energy and communities are the sources of its strength. From Sunnyside in Staten Island to Sunset Park in Brooklyn; from Washington Heights in Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights in Brooklyn; from Morris Heights in the Bronx to Astoria Heights in Queens. Plenty of heights, and more than a few valleys. Over three million New Yorkers were born in other countries. Millions more are the children of immigrants, and most of the rest of us are the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of immigrants. We take pride in where we came from and in the sacrifice of those who migrated here to build a better life for their families. To get here and thrive here takes extraordinary energy and many, many helping hands. That sense of community and caring is easy to find beneath the surface indifference of a New Yorker hurrying down the street. People here look to help people in trouble. We are often on foot and don’t have the luxury of the insolation provided when driving past and ignoring people who need help.
It is the sense of public service and the creative energy unleashed by people attracted to this place that saved New York in the 1980s and 1990s, in the aftermath of 9-11 and after the Great Recession of 2008. As we struggle to emerge from COVID, we have the direct and clear leadership of our new mayor and the noble service and sacrifice of NYPD’s Jason Rivera and Wilbert Mora to strengthen our resolve. But it will take all of us in service to each other to ensure our recovery.