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I am not from New York. I do not live in New York. I will probably never live in New York, though I love to visit New York. I remember my first trip there when I was still in college. Those were the pre-Rudy days and I was robbed, but I was young and resilient and romantic. Even in that moment, New York was nothing but glorious for me, a modern day Rome, though I was happy when the city got safer, and I had a very cosmopolitan brother make his way to a little apartment near Battery Park.
When I managed to spend a weekend in his city, he would help me navigate the subways and take me out for the best pizzas and go with me to see up-and-coming plays that were still off-off Broadway. We ate cheese and drank wine from a terrace that allowed a view of the Statue of Liberty if you stretched just a little and squinted. He knew the first magazine to which I ever subscribed with my own money was The New Yorker, so it seemed an irony to us when he built a life in that place while I remained an outsider living in much smaller towns much further south.
Even so, it is with interest that I occasionally look closely at this city that has produced so many strange characters in American politics, including our current president. I will still pick up and read some magazines that are openly New York-centric, and I will sometimes find myself amazed at how much I feel like an ideological foreigner when considering the ideas that swirl around Manhattan. I think it is very important to always engage with ideas, but … whoa.
This brings me to Bill de Blasio. He is the current mayor of what I have always viewed as one of the greatest cities on the planet.
Therefore, it was with great interest that I read an interview of de Blasio in a September edition of New York magazine. I thought many of the answers were politically smart responses to what were real questions, which surprised me.
For example, I don’t know much about de Blasio’s workout habits, though I gleaned they’ve been a matter of some controversy. Standing here thousands of miles away, de Blasio’s statement that “if the worst you can say about someone is he goes to the gym, that’s a pretty good situation in today’s world” sounds imminently reasonable.
But then I got to the questions that showed me who de Blasio is, and I will admit I do not understand why New Yorkers aren’t terrified of him; why they don’t see a man who wants to rob them in plain daylight of their very ability to make their own decisions.
I’ll share just one question and answer from the interview that made me happy I don’t live in the modern day Rome with people who would put into power this mayor who has all the right degrees and all the wrong ideas. The core of what he thinks is … breathtaking. And he was elected with more than 70 percent of the vote when he first ran. It seems he’s on track to be re-elected in November.
Reporter: In 2013 you ran on reducing income inequality. Where has it been hardest to make progress? Wages, housing, schools?
Bill de Blasio: What’s been hardest is the way our legal system is structured to favor private property. I think people all over this city, of every background, would like to have the city government be able to determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it, what the rent will be. I think there’s a socialistic impulse, which I hear every day, in every kind of community, that they would like things to be planned in accordance to their needs. And I would, too. Unfortunately, what stands in the way of that is hundreds of years of history that have elevated property rights and wealth to the point that that’s the reality that calls the tune on a lot of development.
I’ll give you an example. I was down one day on Varick Street, somewhere close to Canal, and there was a big sign out front of a new condo saying, “Units start at 2 million.” And that just drives people stark raving mad in this city, because that kind of development is clearly not for everyday people. It’s almost like it’s being flaunted. Look, if I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land, how development would proceed. And there would be very stringent requirements around income levels and rents. That’s a world I’d love to see, and I think what we have, in this city at least, are people who would love to have the New Deal back, on one level. They’d love to have a very, very powerful government, including a federal government, involved in directly addressing their day to day reality.
It’s not reachable right now. And it leaves this friction, and this anger, which is visceral. I try to explain the things we can do. It’s a little bit of a Serenity Prayer–let’s talk about the things we can fix. The rent freeze we did reached over 2 million people. I’ve talked to people who were going to be evicted, and we stopped the eviction by giving them a free lawyer. And I’ve talked to people who got affordable housing under our plan for 200,000 apartments.
Wow, right? Just … wow.