September 6, 2017

When Insurgents Take Over City Hall

By Juan González

In his new book, Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America's Tale of Two Cities, longtime New York journalist Juan González poses the question: Was the 2013 mayoral election “just a curious digression in the convoluted history of New York City politics, a transitory attempt to resurrect past liberal policies? Or was it something more?” Here’s his answer, excerpted with his permission from the book’s introduction.


The victory of the de Blasio coalition, I argue, represented the maturing of a new grassroots urban political revolt in America…. Leaders of the new movement share a starkly different vision of how cities should be governed in the twenty-first century; how our streets, parks, schools, and public safety services should be utilized; how our zoning, land use, and local tax policies fashioned; how we define the nature of the “public interest” at a time when cities have become more unequal economically yet more racially and ethnically diverse than ever….

The vision espoused by these new urban progressive leaders depends less on centralized policies dictated from Washington, where Congress and the White House seemed for years paralyzed by partisan gridlock and now are in the grip of blatantly anti-urban forces; less on what local bankers, real estate developers, and other commercial interests want; less on privatizing public space or on siphoning off tax revenues for sports stadiums, civic centers, and market-rate housing, those grandiose projects often spearheaded by semipublic authorities that cede minimal authority to local elected officials. Instead, the rebels pursue economic growth through a far different model, one that aims to address the most pressing needs of a city’s increasingly diverse working masses. They pursue living-wage, paid sick- and family-leave laws, subsidies for affordable housing, community oversight of policing practices, and minimal requirements for city contractors to employ local residents and purchase from local businesses. They regard development that is environmentally sustainable as essential to the future of their cities. They demand maximum control over local decisions and budgets but also are willing to be held accountable by neighborhood activists….

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The new generation of urban leaders… now view themselves as part of a broader worldwide movement of left-oriented city officials who, for the most part, rose to office in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Their foreign counterparts include people like Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor; Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris and a leading European figure on climate change; Ada Colau, who led a movement of resistance to home foreclosures in Spain to become mayor of Barcelona in 2015; and Carmen Yulín Cruz, the charismatic mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Like their international brethren our nation’s urban rebel leaders were products of grassroots protest movements that sought over the past two decades to tackle issues such as climate change, income and gender inequality, affordable housing, police brutality and racial profiling, workplace and immigrant rights, or the saving of public education. The rank-and-file members of these movements, in turn, supplied the volunteer workers these novice politicians relied upon to win their first elections.

Social movements, of course, come and go periodically, surging at moments when large groups of people refuse to accept their existing conditions and demand change from the established order. But as those movements mature they typically splinter; one section remains outside the system, its leaders preferring the role of constant dissidents and agitators; another “reform” section chooses to elect leaders to office who then pursue pragmatic compromises with the old establishment, rewriting laws and policies in hopes of achieving at least a portion of the movement’s original goals. More often than not, however, those reform leaders end up co-opted by the trappings of power and estranged from their original followers. But something different has happened with the current progressive wave; its elected officials are consciously attempting to remain connected to their base of supporters in the way they govern….

To fully understand this new and growing urban revolt, this book chronicles three distinct yet intertwined sagas. The main story is that of the de Blasio coalition itself: how it came together to achieve its historic come-from-behind election victory, the actual policies it has implemented so far, the impact of those policies on the people of New York City, and the prospects for the coalition to continue in power….

The second and much broader story traces the impact of more than forty years of neoliberal policies on New York and other great American cities. It traces how Democrats and Republicans at both the federal and local levels directly fostered the Tale of Two Cities— rich and poor, white and nonwhite— that exists today from coast to coast. They did so by repeatedly joining with the real estate and banking industries to redesign our cities through policies that were consciously or effectively discriminatory toward racial minorities and the poor and that have made it increasingly difficult for those groups to continue residing in cities.

The third story documents how and why the political events in New York City in 2013 formed part of a broader progressive revolt that has now taken hold in scores of cities nationwide. Even today, more than fifteen years after the new movement was born, most experts in urban policy and most journalists who cover the nation’s city halls are barely aware of its existence. I trace here its origin and evolution from scattered insurgencies in a few municipal elections by grassroots leaders, many of whom did not even know each other at first, into what is now a cohesive network of mayors and city council members who regularly support each other, who exchange information on model laws and reforms, and who develop common strategies to transform American cities to meet the needs of their working-class majorities.

Copyright © 2017 by Juan González. This excerpt originally appeared in Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America's Tale of Two Cities by Juan González, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Juan González was a staff columnist for the New York Daily News from 1987 to 2016 and is now a professor OF journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He also co-hosts the radio and television program "Democracy Now!"

Photo by Mbell