Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Home Rule

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Mayor Bill de Blasio and governor Andrew Cuomo can’t seem to agree on anything, yet it’s the city that seems to be getting short shrift. Our new mayor may have rode in on a landslide mandate, but thus far it’s been snub after snub from Albany. Admittedly, it was predicted during his campaign that there would be problems when it came to de Blasio’s “tax the rich to pay for pre-kindergarten” plan. His plans for a higher city minimum wage law, a la San Francisco, however, also requires state approval that is not forthcoming.

This time, Cuomo argues that the city would be less competitive with its neighbors, forgetting apparently that the city already has the highest tax rate of the country yet still can’t accommodate new residents quickly enough, or that a “race to the bottom” competition is really more the modus operandi of Tea Party representatives such as Indiana governor Mike Pence. Pundits surmise that Cuomo’s current shift to the right is part of a personal bid for the presidency, but this sort of action has more historical precedent than that.

New York City and New York State have sparred on money earmarked for Housing and Urban Development, money earmarked for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, money earmarked for the Department of Education, money earmarked for Homeland Security in the wake of September 11th, money earmarked for Hurricane Sandy relief, money earmarked for welfare and Medicaid, and more; each time the city had to beg the state to release federal funds directed towards the city, and each time the state balked and dragged its heels. Coffers in institutions that mainly supported the city, like the MTA and HUD, have been routinely raided by state agencies looking to shore up upstate spending. We can’t even set our own rent regulation; the very heart of urban living: That must go through the state, despite the fact that 85% of rent regulated units in the state are in the city.

In short, if half the population of the state can’t motivate the governor into action, New York City has a Home Rule problem. Indeed, it’s been the driver for every secession movement the city has had in recent memory: From writer Norman Mailer’s 1969 mayoral bid to councilman Peter Vallone’s 2003 referendum. In Vallone’s words when he resurrected his plan in 2008,

“It would be much, much simpler to be able to govern 8.5 million people without having to ask legislators who represent villages on the Canadian border for permission before we do anything,” Mr. Vallone said.

The problem has always been, of course, that there is no secession without the state assembly allowing it, and the state has no incentive or intention of allowing its cash cow to run off. As then-mayor Bloomberg complained then-governor Eliot Spitzer in 2008, the city pays $11 billion more in taxes than it gets back in services, and the state regularly short-changes the city on everything it has control over. Should the state cede control of the city, that’s a financial hole further deepening the misery of what is already a depressed region. Short of being the dumping grounds for colleges and prisons, upstate New York is a rust belt dead-zone hemorrhaging anybody with the wherewithal to leave that’s been compared unfavorably (!) to Appalachia. The state needs the city desperately. The city, on the other hand, has little need for the state.

Of course, the city has once been on the side of the needy, as when it found itself at risk of default in 1975. However, the city had to ask (unsuccessfully) for federal aid because the state refused to bail it out: Despite paying out more in taxes, the city did not receive financial help from the state. The state instead decided to saddle the city with an Emergency Financial Control Board that put the state in charge of the city’s budget and took to slashing services, laying off thousands and abandoning portions of the city. To quote Alan Finder from the New York Times in 1986,

The panel, made up of the governor, the mayor, the city and state comptrollers and three business executives appointed by the governor, was so aggressive in its belt-tightening that at one point Mayor Beame said the state was allowing the city little more than the power to tax residents more heavily.

Suffice it to say, despite having near-equal proportions of the population, New York City and upstate New York have never been equal partners. If anything, the concept of monetary redress to economically-depressed regions should be a federal issue, rather than a giveaway dictated by the state’s ability to take for itself out of city coffers and control city policy. That de Blasio can’t set minimum wage laws in the city when the cost of living in the metropole is twice that of upstate cities like Buffalo or Rochester is disturbing, especially considering the successes of San Francisco and Washington DC, and that Los Angeles is likely to work out a similar arrangement. No matter Cuomo’s counter-arguments, what’s really at stake here is New York City’s ability to govern itself.

A Common Refrain

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There were floods in New York last year and there’s a drought in Los Angeles this year. A polar vortex came in a few weeks ago and it’s going to snow yet again tomorrow. One thing, however, remains consistent: News commentators asking “so what happened to global warming?” much in the same tone one would ask, “so where’s your god now?” It would be tedious to go after each event and explain what happens to polar winds when the ice caps melt or what happens to expected precipitation when seas warm, which is why the common term now isn’t “global warming” but “climate change.” It’s the same thing but, just as Bill Nye learned when he bravely battled on the front lines of pseudoscience, sound bite ear-worms matter more than well-conceived arguments. I do know, however, that New York is reacting to the weather in a different manner than when I grew up.

I was born in the early 80s and nearly went through my entire public school education in the city without a single snow day. The sole exception was in the Blizzard of 1996, which, even then, gave me only one day off. The very next day I remember getting on the 7 train and watching as darkened neighborhoods were lit up with flashes of blue light every time the train’s third rail shoe hit a snowbank. New York hadn’t closed their schools prior to that since the Blizzard of 1978. After all, most major snowstorms dodged the city (as did most hurricanes) and those that hit tended to be mild. If nothing else, our most important transit network was and is largely underground, sheltered and providing shelter from the elements.

Nowadays it’s a yearly occurrence. New York City had snow days every year for the past five years. In 2010, New York had two snow days in the same month for the first time ever. After Hurricane Sandy, New York had to extend the school year because of so many missed days. One of mayor de Blasio’s first decisions upon entering office this year was to close the schools because of snow. What, then, of our fabled subways, which saw us through so many storms in the past? Well, we’re still fixing the damages from when they got flooded out. What was a twenty year fluke is now a regular thing, and it’s not like New Yorkers have gotten less hardy; even the “mild” winter of 2011-2012 dumped more than 40 inches of snow, as we’ve gotten each year for the past five years, far above the city average of 26.9 inches.

This trend has been increasing for decades, and as climatologist David Easterling told the New York Times in 2007,

“If you warm up the air, the air can hold more moisture,” he said. “And the amount it increases is not linear; it goes up exponentially.”

Climate change is a good term, not just because it saves scientists from having to explain why global warming equals more snow, but also efficiently illustrates why this phenomenon is bad. Namely, our entire built-up environment is based on existing weather patterns. Cities are located in places that don’t flood, farms are located in places that have adequate rain and don’t snap-freeze. We can barely afford to maintain the infrastructure we have, let alone shifting everything someplace else, so when Los Angeles is literally praying for rain, there’s a real problem afoot: Rivers flood more and drain faster due to quicker snow melting and monster storms, and that erratic nature is causing dry places to become even drier, exacerbating droughts. New York and London don’t have to worry much about droughts, but New York had to dredge out our subways last year and London is bracing for flooding as we speak. It’s no surprise former mayor Bloomberg was chosen as the UN envoy for climate change: It’s in the cities where this will be felt first.

Global warming, climate change; it doesn’t matter what you call it: Once you know what to look for, it’s plain as day to see it – or at least as plain as it can be to see through all this snow – and it’s going to cost billions at the very least to protect ourselves from the immediate effects and likely trillions for the lasting results. We missed the ounce of prevention; let’s hope we can afford the pound of cure.

Okay By Me In America

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It remains to be seen what will become of mayor mayor Bill de Blasio’s current attempt at documenting New York City’s many undocumented immigrants, but one thing is for sure: There is only one viable solution to our immigration crisis. Following the failure of former governor Eliot Spitzer’s bid to get undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses as a means of giving them some form of security from being had in this economy, de Blasio seems bent at proving that his liberal bite is as bad as his bark, and I for one hope he enjoys a full resounding success, as Democrats overall don’t seem to be as particularly enthused at solving the problem as they ought to be.

The problem is, the GOP and its self-deportation insanity aside, liberal Democrats like de Blasio are currently outnumbered if not by anti-immigrant Blue Dogs like senator Christine Gillibrand, then by “wait and see” centrists like former secretary Hillary Clinton. His proposal, like most of his policies, is painted as liberal, but even an optimistic interpretation would mark it as only the very first step in providing undocumented immigrants a path to legal residence, political personhood and citizenship. Overall, however, this schizophrenic policy in the party overall is a failure of leadership. Critics may abound when it comes to explaining why documenting undocumented immigrants won’t work, but their lack of alternatives illustrates the inevitability of the issue’s rightful conclusion. Let me highlight it by proposing what they feasibly can’t.

a) Mass Deportation. The GOP would very much like there to be no illegal immigrants in this country, but there’s one major obstacle in that: There are close to 12 million illegal immigrants here already. Obama has already removed almost 2 million illegal immigrants from this country, the most of any US president in the history of the country, and the borders have never be tighter during peacetime, but the total number that remain is actually growing. Even were the federal government to take more draconian measures to crack down on immigrants – something only suggested in Tea Party pipe dreams a la Michelle Bachmann’s 2011 campaign promise – that would amount to the greatest forced movement of people this side of the Soviet Union.

b) Second Class Citizen Status. Barring the elimination of immigrants from the country, the GOP was still hard-pressed to provide solutions to the immigration crisis. In this stead, the Republican National Convention came up with the bright idea to set up a permanent guest worker status, where-in immigrants who are here already can be documented, but have no path to citizenship. Not only is this against the ideals that the country was founded on – that all men are created equal, with the same inalienable rights – but in countries where such a reality is in place, such as the United Arab Emirates, the depreciated legal status goes hand in hand with human rights violations as well as inevitable protests, riots and uprisings. Such a system would turn a bad political situation here worse, erode the American image abroad and signal the beginning of the end of our great experiment.

c) The Status Quo. Most of what Congress has done, in what is the least productive legislative body in modern history, has been to kick the can down the road. Of course, what this means is that every ill to come from a flow of undocumented people to this country – namely, an exploited underclass that, due to its vulnerability, drives down wages and refuses, by dint of self-preservation, to cooperate with authorities, which can provide a screen for criminal behavior – goes more or less untreated. This crisis is indeed a crisis because the current format is untenable: The country needs the labor and expertise of these workers and thinkers, but it does not need an informal economy to compete against the established one, for that helps nobody – citizen or immigrant alike.

This leaves a single solution: Amnesty. After all, not acknowledging these people does not change the fact that they are already here and simply heaps needless hardship upon them as well as everybody else in the same economy as them, whereas either abridging their rights or removing them would be tantamount to a second Trail of Tears. The Democratic push for the Dream Act has been repeatedly demurred as “not amnesty,” but at heart it still legitimizes young people here illegally and gives them a quick path to citizenship. It’s a backdoor amnesty – as the very word makes conservatives splutter – that would effectively convert an illegal population to a legal one in a generation. It, like de Blasio’s proposal, is a step in the right direction, though not a full step.

The shortsightedness of these Democratic half-measures is foolish because time and demographics are on the liberal Democrats’ side: About a quarter of the nation is comprised of first or second generation immigrants, which also accounts for the vast majority of the nation’s growth, so as time goes by the population will necessarily become more diverse and thus more amenable to the idea of open borders. Meanwhile, the conservative constituency of modern Know-Nothings is shrinking. While de Blasio looks very liberal for proposing this documentation policy, just as Bloomberg, a third-generation immigrant, looked liberal for forbidding city employees from asking residents about their legal status, within a generation, it won’t matter how brave the Democrats are: The populace will want reforms far exceeding the proposals that are currently being discussed. It is only a question as to how quickly the Democrats will be able to react to such demand and position themselves as champions of much-needed change. The Republicans are already in the midst of being left in the dust: Will the Democrats also be?

Must Be Nice

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The New York Daily News has run a salacious piece on Thomas Galante’s salary as part-time head of the Queens Library. At a time when librarians haven’t seen a raise in five years and 250 positions were eliminated, Galante was making almost $400,000 working as head of the institution, a position he only kept for 20 hours a week. This allowed him to make almost $200,000 on a consulting gig on Long Island as well. As the Daily News reported:

Galante countered that his “competitive” pay assured that “in two, four years I don’t bounce to someplace else, because I’ve got kids to put through college like anybody else.”

Those custodians and librarians who lost their jobs under Galante also had kids to put through college, Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal noted.

Respondents to this piece noted that you get what you pay for, and executive positions are well-paid because of the stress and difficult decisions inherent in the job. Indeed, the public sector has indeed suffered in the last few decades of a brain drain, due to their inability to offer competitive wages for commensurate experience. However, I’ve noticed a different result in my experiences in the public sector.

The budget of one of the public schools I worked at was $1.5 million annually; I know this because, beyond the payroll and purchasing secretaries, I was privy to the number as technology received whatever was left after all else was taken care of. Salaries are paid off that same budget, and all salaries are searchable through an internal database to keep employees honest. The principal made $150,000, and each assistant principal, three in total, made $100,000. This put the administrative costs of my school at close to a third of the budget overall. This was a hard pill to swallow when it came to such indignities as having to photocopy textbooks for lack of money to order new ones, and to bring our own paper in for lack of supplies even to photocopy the textbooks.

The principal chose to allocate her budget in such a way in order to shelter herself from the responsibility of the difficult decisions she had to make in terms of running the school, as well as to delegate the task of playing to the school system’s grading rubric for schools. Just as students were taught towards a test, so too did the principals administer towards an audit. The end result was a lot of money spent for very little results in terms of demonstrated student ability. While the idea was that able administrators could work miracles, and that by doing such they deserved high pay, high pay does not inherently make people able administrators. Just as these four administrators were not worth the nineteen teachers laid off in the two years I worked there, so too is Thomas Galante not worth the 250 librarians and support staff eliminated under his tutelage.

Of course, a public school principal is small fry compared to Thomas Galante, and Thomas Galante is likewise small fry compared to the egregious salaries and benefits pulled by private sector executives. His graft is nothing compared to the likes of Goldman Sachs or Citigroup executives, and indeed is dwarfed by several orders of magnitude, but it’s not entirely about the money. Another way of looking at it is such: Public school principals are unionized, but in a different union than teachers or support staff. They are a part of the Council of School Administrators, whereas the teachers are part of the United Federation of Teachers and the support staff of District Council 37.

No matter how big the budget crunch, no CSA’s been laid off; only UFT and DC37. When 1,500 staff were laid off in 2009 and 2011, no administrators were part of the culling. In 1975, during New York’s infamous budget crunch, 14,000 teacher positions were eliminated but not one administrator was cut. That’s not a wage difference: That’s a class difference.

It’s that class difference that I see when I read Galante’s statements about his expectations of his job. It reminded me of working in another public school where the principal complained about a delivery truck blocking in her Mercedes in its private parking space in the loading docks, before finagling a means not to pay overtime to teachers who regularly worked late to meet the demands of oversized classes. Secure in the knowledge that, unlike her underlings, the challenges of the system would not in any way adversely affect her income, the principal certainly had all the trappings of someone on the top of their field; only lacking was she in the ability.

Main Street, Fort Lee

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When I worked in Englewood Cliffs by way of Manhattan, I would pass by a huge swath of empty property every time I was on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. I thought to myself, “that would be a fantastic place to build a bunch of apartment buildings,” as it’s right at the foot of the bridge, served by a dozen NJTransit bus lines that constantly venture across to Manhattan, not to mention dozens more “dollar bus” jitneys that head out to Paterson and beyond, is surrounded by office parks that extend straight up Lemoine Avenue, and is smack dab in the heart of the retail district of Fort Lee.

(Virgin territory in the heart of the metroplex)

This is all, of course, painfully obvious to anybody who’s been anywhere in the area, which means that the only reason nothing has been completed there yet has to be political. I worked in Jersey for almost two years, which was long enough to see both of the tallest buildings in that picture get half-built and flounder and sit for a while. Neither are yet completed. Still, I am certainly interested in where new housing can be put in, so I checked further.

As it turns out, there is a plan and it is grand, indeed: The eastern side of Park Avenue (in the center of the picture) is supposed to be The Center (who names these places?), which will eventually sport two big (formerly blue glass) towers.

The western half of the empty space is supposed to be Hudson Lights (ha ha, okay, I get it: It’s a play on words with Hudson Heights), a mixed-use urban mall that’s supposed to extend the retail options along Main Street and Lemoine Avenue. This has yet to see the face of day in any form, and indeed has been on the blocks for years.

So what’s the problem? Well, this is Jersey, so the problem must originate with governor Chris Christie. Sure enough, that’s what MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki thought when he posited that the whole George Washington Bridge scandal wasn’t just a “fuck you” from Christie to Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing him, but an extended means by which to deep-six the entire project by making it economically unpalatable due to traffic concerns. It’s certainly tempting to pin Christie with that, considering all his fingers in the Port Authority pot, and indeed the state probe into his malfeasance will focus on that line of inquiry. While it would be exceedingly petty of him, and Christie has been known for being petty, the Christie I know is less self-destructively petty and more opportunistically snakelike.

There was a smaller GWB-based scuffle with Chris Christie before BridgeGate, yet it pitted him against the Port Authority. During my daily commutes, if the weather was too bad to bicycle over the bridge, I would take the bus one way and then save money by hitchhiking my way home. The idea was that, because of the Port Authority’s carpool system, anybody with an EZPass and three occupants (including the driver) could get a carpool rate that was less than half of the usual toll. So, motorists would take advantage of this by picking up anybody who happened to be waiting for the buses right before the toll plaza. The motorist would get a discount, and the passengers would get a free ride over. The practice is called “slugging,” and for those involved it was a win/win.

One entity didn’t like this: The Port Authority, who estimated that they were losing $6 million in revenue because of the discounted tolls. They set out their own police to stop private cars from pulling into the bus stops and put out public service announcements not to pick up strangers. Christie put a stop to that, adroitly surmising that the Port Authority’s budget was not New Jersey’s budget, and that at least half of those commuters were New Jersey voters. For that particular incident, Christie was more or less in alignment with Sokolich.

The funny thing about this scenario is that it was before the campaign season and before his fated handshake with Obama during Hurricane Sandy. Obviously people change, and I’m not counting out the premise that Christie might just be good at shooting himself in the foot, but it imparted on me that his self-serving motives were, in a way, refreshingly pragmatic. The question then remains: Who stands to gain if these things don’t get built? If not Christie, then who is putting the clamp down and delaying these projects?

Train to the Plane

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With the current proposals to extend the PATH train to Newark Airport, pundits are questioning not only why a subway should duplicate what commuter rail already does – Newark Liberty International is arguably the most easily-accessed major airport in the New York metropolitan area, being that its AirTrain is only a few minutes away from midtown Manhattan via New Jersey Transit – but also why two miles of surface rail would carry a price tag of $1.5 billion dollars and a construction timeline of ten years. This is the Port Authority, however, which is likely the only institution in the area that actually has a nest egg (largely because they control all the Hudson crossings and can charge $85 per tractor-trailer), so the project certainly couldn’t hurt.

That said, there’s a major airport without any train service at all, despite being equally close to an existing subway line: LaGuardia Airport. This isn’t, of course, for lack of trying. Ever since the airport was a twinkle in a planner’s eye (and carried the name Curtiss Airport) the idea was for it to connect to a subway line. Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas chronicles the last attempt by the city – in the Giuliani administration, and shelved during Bloomberg’s first term – to figure out how to bridge that gap. The problem? Two blocks of NIMBYs beyond the last stop of the N train on 31st Street.

The city’s tried multiple routes:

  • Extending the N train two blocks down 31st Street until it can reach city-owned property, then going down 19th Avenue until it hits the airport.
  • Extending the N train one block up 31st Street and continuing down Ditmars Boulevard and through a residential neighborhood until it can reach the airport.
  • Burying the N train through a two block ramp up 31st Street.
  • Creating a spur that uses the Sunnyside train yards and cuts across a cemetary to reach the airport.
  • Creating a spur that rides over the Grand Central Parkway just like the JFK AirTrain does with the Van Wyck Expressway.
  • Looping the 7 train back across Willets Point to reach the airport from the other side.

(JFK’s AirTrain flying over Robert Moses’ purposeful omission of a rail Right-of-Way)

Each of these was denied by NIMBYs because the N train is an elevated line and each plan required some modicum of construction on streets that didn’t already have elevated lines. Local businessmen and residents argued that elevated lines are unsightly and loud, and didn’t want another inch of them if possible. Queens councilmen saw the blood in the water and rallied to kill the proposals, which had funds earmarked for them, because that makes for good politics if bad planning. As it was in the 70s, so it was in the 90s, and here it remains today: A mere two and a half miles, short as the crow flies yet interminably distant as the express bus drives.

We should keep trying.

A blogger named dZine suggested doubling back from the N train’s last stop on Ditmars Boulevard and hooking right onto the Grand Central Parkway directly (because you can’t make a highway look or sound any worse), thereby presenting a fairly direct route to the airport without going through a single new block of residential neighborhoods. He remarked that the San Francisco BART system does that to reach their airport.

It’s almost clean – while it would bypass the NIMBYs north of the terminal, it does cut directly on top of the Neptune Diner (although maybe that’s not such a bad thing) – but it’s a bit awkward. I’d argue a small tweak in that, should the Astoria Boulevard station be moved up half a block, a spur can be created right before it, over Columbus Triangle, that then straddles the parkway. There’s nobody up in the next half-block except Hoyt Playground and a Staples box store, and everybody there’s already under an El anyway. The N train would then still terminate at Ditmars Boulevard, but then the W train could be resurrected as an airport/midtown shuttle, without sacrificing a single residential street to the rumble of the subway.

It’s not going to happen until the city prioritizes it, of course, but a steady drumbeat of gadflies, considering this New Jersey proposal, could certainly serve to keep it in the public eye.

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