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The City Needs Bill de Blasio

The upcoming mayoral election in New York is an election I feel genuinely excited about. The election itself is actually quite uninteresting—Quinnipiac has Democrat Bill de Blasio leading Republican Joe Lhota by 50 points in the polls. However, I believe that Bill de Blasio, very likely our next mayor, is going to work to bring much needed change to New York City.

One of the primary motifs surrounding de Blasio’s campaign is the idea of there being “two New Yorks.” The income gap in the city is staggering. According to US Census data, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, famous for its art museums, luxurious, obscenely priced high-rises, and home to current Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has a yearly median household income well into the $200,000 range. Life there can seem like a page ripped out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Children play in the parks while parents sip lattés on the side.

But just a few blocks North, is the neighborhood of East Harlem, one of America’s most notoriously depressed neighborhoods. This predominantly black neighborhood boasts a yearly median income in the $20,000 range, a tenth of their neighbors to the South. A significant number of residents live in ugly, brown housing projects, and the neighborhood is riddled with crime, drug trafficking, and prostitution. Those parents from the Upper East Side would not dare leave their children alone in Harlem—and rightly so.

For the past 20 years, under the administrations of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, this conversation has been widely ignored, and now Bill de Blasio is bringing it to the forefront. Recently, the city seems to have flourished. Crime has dropped exponentially—in all neighborhoods. The streets are cleaner; parks have sprung up all over the place. The subways, once infamous for muggings and intolerable heat, are now rideable (most of the time). This view, however, is a gross oversimplification. 

Crime has dropped, but that may be due to policy like stop-and-frisk, which is questionable at best and racist at worst, in addition to the NYPD’s open profiling of Muslims and other minorities. Even if one were to argue that the NYPD’s policies are justified from both a legal and ethical point of view, the fact that a young black man living in New York City knows that at any given moment on his way home from school he could, and likely will, be randomly “frisked” and publicly humiliated creates an “us-versus-them” culture. The feeling becomes that the police are the bad guys, which drives people to join gangs.

Even worse is that minorities are more likely to be arrested for minor infractions (such as marijuana possession) than their white counterparts. According to the NY Civil Liberties Union nine out of ten people stopped by the NYPD are black or Latino, despite the fact that there is no evidence that shows that blacks, whites, or Latinos use marijuana at different rates. These questionable policies only work to further push aside the already underprivileged minority class in New York City. 

The truth is, that at Yeshiva University, all we have to do is look out of our windows to see the “two cities” phenomenon first hand. Washington Heights is simply not the beautiful neighborhood it could be. The streets are littered with trash and dog feces. Loud music blasts from cars and apartments. Walking down St. Nicholas Avenue, I am accosted by unlicensed vendors trying to sell me rancid meats, pets, underwear, and illegal knock-off designer jewelry and purses. There are no major museums in the area, and no movie theaters. There is only one Starbucks, for crying out loud! The smell of marijuana laces many side streets. Maybe worst of all, though,  the public schools are in total disarray. I tutor at a local school where I teach 15 year old students basic arithmetic as their teacher sits at his desk and lets the students look up guns on during class (true story). Even armed guards have trouble policing these schools. Imagine any of this happening on the Upper West Side or SoHo. I certainly cannot. Washington Heights is a pristine example of a neighborhood that was ignored and left in the dust during the “glory days” of Giuliani and Bloomberg.

The New Yorker published a fascinating infographic recently. It is a line chart depicting median household income across various stops on the subway lines. I am a runner, and, on the rare occasion that I get a nice day and have free time, I like to go down to the Upper West Side to run in Central Park. I get on the 1 train at 181st and St. Nicholas, where the average income is around $27,000. I get off at 86th St. where the average income is more than $133,000. The difference is noticeable before I even step off the subway. Mayor Bloomberg boasts that wifi is now being added to subway stations. But that is not entirely true—while the 86th street station has wifi, the 181st street station is still left in the dark. It is never easy taking that train back uptown.

The resolution to this situation is clear to me—the disadvantaged areas in the city need to be given an extra boost. The City needs to take initiative in cleaning the streets and parks, stopping petty crime (such as littering, unlicensed street vendors, and noise pollution), and offering incentives for business and restaurants to open shop in these peripheral areas. Eyesore housing projects need to be replaced with buildings that are inviting to live in. The next artist who complains about the cost of opening a gallery in SoHo should be rewarded for moving to the Bronx. Public transportation in the areas outside of Midtown and Downtown Manhattan need to be expanded and renovated. The millions of New Yorkers who cannot afford the high life should still feel like they are integral to the genetic makeup of New York City.

Bill de Blasio pledges to try and build up the “outer boroughs.” He wants to treat minorities fairly by ending discriminatory policing policies and making quality education, affordable housing, and quality healthcare available to all. Most importantly, de Blasio believes that all children should have access to quality education, regardless of the neighborhood they live in. It seems undeniable that improving education reduces crime and brings more money and resources back to the streets. Some of us may have to sacrifice for these improvements to come, in the form of increased taxes, but it is a sacrifice that is sure to pay off before long.

De Blasio has been described as an idealist, not giving enough practical details about how he will implement his policies. These reservations may have some truth to them,  I do not doubt that some of these initiatives require substantial resources. It seems unlikely that tax increases on the very rich will pass in Albany in an election year. However, I am still genuinely excited that we as a city are starting to have this conversation.

I love New York City, and I want to see it prosper. I want to see my current neighborhood, Washington Heights, grow into a community that is fun, beautiful, diverse, and overflowing with opportunities. I am trusting Mr. de Blasio with that task. Joe Lhota’s campaign strategy can be boiled down to “let’s just keep doing what we’re doing now.” Unfortunately, things are not working. Large parts of the city are broken. It is going to take a real visionary to get the ball rolling towards change. Improving the whole city will not drive the rich away, but rather improve the morale of the entire city. This is why I support Bill de Blasio for mayor of New York City.