Mayor de Blasio is the Obama of New York City

He’s only been in office six months and I know we should be leery of making comparisons that risk becoming glib, but the consistencies are already too apparent to be ignored: Bill de Blasio is the Barack Obama of New York City.

Both took office with expectations higher than were reasonable but have fallen short of what someone with sober expectations might have expected. High expectations without mobilizing a movement to realize those expectations is part of the problem, true. That is, and is not, a mitigating factor. That too many hopes were poured into individual office-holders, and too little effort into holding them accountable, is beyond reasonable dispute. But that does not ameliorate the necessity of judging them by what they do rather than what they say.

And who they appoint. Among President Obama’s first significant appointments was Lawrence Summers to be his lead financial adviser. All was lost right there; an unmistakable neoliberal signal. Among Mayor de Blasio’s first significant appointments was William Bratton as police commissioner. Commissioner Bratton held that office under Rudy Giuliani, a time when the New York Police Department often acted like an occupying army, with relations between the police and, in particular, Black and Hispanic communities, abysmal.

He followed his Giuliani-time stint with a lucrative deal with Kroll Inc., a security firm that describes itself as “Wall Street’s eyes.” He also greatly increased the use of “stop and frisk” tactics when he was Los Angeles commissioner despite his new boss’ promise to curtail usage, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of force increased under his leadership.

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

Should we judge Mayor de Blasio by his words or by his actions? He certainly said words welcomed by most New Yorkers in the days leading up to the June 23 vote by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board in which it voted for an increase in rents for rent-stabilized apartments, as it has in each of its 45 years of existence. Consistent with the position he took during last year’s mayoral campaign, he publicly called for a rent freeze. He went so far as to say, hours before the vote, that:

“We need a course correction, a one-time action to clearly rectify the mistakes of the past, and a course correction that will actually provide fairness to tenants who have been charged more than they should’ve.”

But he also said the decision should be based on “the actual facts, the actual numbers.” That was a signal to not expect a rent freeze.

The Rent Guidelines Board is independent, but the mayor appoints all nine members; Mayor de Blasio has had time to appoint or re-appoint six of them. So although the mayor can’t dictate what the board members will do, he can select people who will follow his alleged philosophy. Previous mayors such as Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch, each unreserved servants of New York’s two dominant industries — real estate and Wall Street — had no difficulty packing the board with appointees who routinely gave landlords significant rent increases.

Two board members represent tenants and two represent landlords, so the five “public” members are decisive. And it was one of Mayor de Blasio’s picks, an executive with M & T Bank, who put forth the proposal for a one percent raise despite widespread hope that this year would see the first-ever freeze. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the bank executive, Steven Flax, cut a deal with landlord interests on the board because the latter realized they would not be able to get the much bigger increase they sought.

Landlord profits rise with rents

According to a report prepared by the board — which presumably relies on landlord reporting and thus likely somewhat understates their income — apartments in rent-stabilized buildings generated an average net income of $436 per month in 2012. The average building surveyed has 45.3 units — thus, the average building yields $237,000 in profits for one year! It is true that many buildings are much smaller, but it is also true that many landlords own multiple properties.

Moreover, that average net income has increased 31.5 percent since 1990, with much of that coming since 2005. Landlord profits have increased all but one year since — that is, the rents collected have risen faster than expenses.

Mayor de Blasio has kept former Mayor Bloomberg’s real estate policies intact. During the billionaire ex-mayor’s reign, zoning laws were changed over wide swathes of land to allow luxury high-rises where either smaller residential buildings or commercial operations had been, accelerating gentrification. The zoning could have been reversed; 40-story towers are out of place in neighborhoods where buildings had been on a human scale. But just last month, Mayor de Blasio allowed the notorious developer Two Trees (which has already rapidly gentrified another Brooklyn neighborhood down the East River) to build towers up to 55 stories in Williamsburg, on the site of a shuttered sugar factory.

The developer that previously owned the property wanted to build an out-of-scale luxury housing complex that is certain to put still more upward pressure on local rents — this is a historically working class area — consistent with the new zoning. Having instead flipped the property to Two Trees, the “progressive” mayor decided to capitulate to the new developers’ demand to allow even bigger buildings in exchange for a token increase in the number of affordable units.

But perhaps we should not hold our breath waiting for the lower-priced apartments to be built — another developer, Forest City Ratner, has pushed the date for the promised affordable housing associated with the massive luxury-housing project at Barclays Center far into the future. That despite hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies and buying rights to what had been public land for below market value.

Mayor de Blasio has made no move to reverse any of the Bloomberg-era rezoning — heavily opposed by neighborhood residents who rightly saw them as being implemented to benefit developers at their expense. He is eyeing similar rezonings (in other words, keeping the wave of gentrification moving) for another 15 neighborhoods. The mayor is already on the record as saying he will continue the Bloomberg administration’s policy of higher-density building. That’s music to the ears of the city’s billionaire developers. Not so much to neighborhoods lacking the infrastructure to handle such influxes.

Folding on charter schools

Then there is the matter of charter schools — funded through city taxes but privately run and given public-school space for free at the expense of the public-school students. Charter schools are the leading edge of efforts to privatize school systems and put them under corporate control while busting teachers’ unions so as to bring on younger teachers with less pay and less job security. And they achieve similar or worse results than traditional public schools, despite the hype that surrounds them.

In contrast to his campaign promises to reign in charter schools and make them pay for the space they use, Mayor de Blasio’s first move was to approve 39 of 49 charter-school applications that had been rubber-stamped late in 2013 in the waning days of the Bloomberg  administration. Hedge funders and other corporate interests, backed by “Governor 1%,” Andrew Cuomo, swiftly reacted with a counter-offensive against that tepid opening. Governor Cuomo rammed through a provision in the state Legislature that requires the city to hand over space for free to charter schools.

Mayoral control of schools was fine when a billionaire mayor wanted to corporatize them but not when there is a theoretical possibility of a mayor allowing public input in education policy.

Mayor de Blasio’s reaction? Not so much as a whimper as his charter-school promises were eviscerated as if they had never existed, and then he played a critical role in defeating an electoral challenge to the governor when the latter was challenged for the nomination of the Working Families Party, a small party that seeks to provide progressive cover to Democrats by cross-endorsing them.

The mayor has yet to challenge the governor on any issue, despite the latter’s corporate agenda, backed heavily by the financial industry. The New York City government is hamstrung in advancing tenants’ interests because of the state law known as the Urstadt Law, which forbids local governments from enacting rent laws better than the limited protections allowed under state law. The mayor could push for the repeal of Urstadt, a long-time demand of housing activists, but has remained silent. The one thing he could have delivered, a rent freeze, he did not do.

Although it may seem that a one percent increase — the smallest ever granted — is not much different than zero percent, a first-ever freeze would have set an important precedent and created the conditions for future rent freezes — or rollbacks. In 2011, about 55 percent of New York City’s households lived in apartments with rents that exceeded 30 percent of household income, defined as the maximum affordable rent, up from about 45 percent ten years earlier.

Just as President Obama made a couple of symbolic gestures that were easy to do — successfully pushing for the Lilly Ledbetter equal-pay act and withdrawing the Bush II/Cheney administration’s legal memos “legalizing” torture — Mayor de Blasio has overseen a reduction in “stop and frisk” police tactics and pushed for an expansion of pre-kindergarten school programs. Those are widely popular and represent a minimal “promise kept.” But, so far, overall, an Obama-esque drifting and surrender to corporate ideology. Both have effectively turned Right-wing offensives in bipartisan collaborations.

Trend is larger than any one personality

One person, one office-holder, can only do so much; all the more so is that the case when there is no sustained grassroots mobilization that can hold them to account. Nor should we overemphasize personalities when the structure that maintains corporate domination is as strong as ever. This is hardly a new phenomenon — North American liberals and European social democrats have been capitulating to corporate interests and adopting right-wing positions steadily through the three decades of the neoliberal era. The tenures of Bill Clinton, Jean Chrétien, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, François Hollande, to name only a few at the national level, tell us there is something much larger than individual personalities at work here.

There is a breakdown of coherence beyond dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, and cowardliness. It’s that North American liberalism and European social democracy no longer stand for anything. They, and their leaders, believe as fervently in capitalism and its limitations as strongly as any conservative. But although acknowledging problems and advocating reforms, they are trapped by their belief that capitalism will solve its own problems and nothing more than tinkering is necessary, or imaginable.

Beyond the exhaustion of liberalism and social democracy, and their submission to corporate perspectives, is the lack of mass movements. At the start of his first term, President Obama told his supporters to “make me” do what they wanted him to do by applying pressure. They didn’t, and haven’t. Mayor de Blasio did not go so far as to say that to his supporters, but the same principal applies. There is no serious movement pressuring him to not only fulfill his campaign promises, but, more importantly, to move the political agenda well beyond.

For example, why shouldn’t housing be a human right instead of a commodity for private profit?

In the absence of popular pressure, corporate money speaks all the louder. Ringing your hands in frustration gets you nothing. Organizing a movement, filling the streets, refusing to cooperate with business as usual changes societies. Until that happens, corporate power and money will continue to call the tune, no matter who is in office.

The corporate steamroller of gentrification is a deliberate process

By Pete Dolack

Gentrification is an ongoing process, of which we’ve had two reminders in the past month in New York City. The recent closing of the Bowery Poetry Club is a sad reminder of the dwindling number of community spaces — and one need only look across the street to see a high-end corporate clothing boutique occupying the space where CBGB showcased musical acts for more than three decades.

Even last weekend’s annual commemoration of the Tompkins Square Park police riot of 1988 was, in its own way, an echo of gentrification as the event served mostly as an act of nostalgia for the past of Manhattan’s Lower East Side that remains only in pockets. No New York City neighborhood put up more of a fight for its survival as an alternative haven for non-conformists in cultural, political and social milieus. That any of its tradition as a place of resistance to the overwhelming power of money survives in the now legalized squats, smattering of community spaces, and the out-numbered activists, artists and non-conformists who are able to remain by virtue of rent regulations is because of collective action.

Just to be clear about what is meant by the term gentrification, a working definition of it is: A process whereby an organic culture originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture is steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity. The process of gentrification is assisted by a local government under the sway of local corporate elites, and is centered on dramatic increases in commercial and residential rents such that the people and culture who are being removed find it increasingly difficult to remain.

This process is concurrent in many cities and countries. A special twist in New York City is that artists are used as a “bait” to put formerly industrial areas on the map as destinations, until the artists are no longer needed and are forced out by the sharply rising rents that sweep over the area once gentrification takes hold. This process can happen gradually, as it was in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, or it can happen swiftly, as it was further down Brooklyn’s East River waterfront in the “Dumbo” enclave.

These processes are never organic, but become orchestrated once a neighborhood attracts a reputation as “hip” or “interesting.” In this variant, the artists arrive in places either emptied by de-industrialization, subject to high crime rates under the impact of neglect, or a combination of the two. In the case of Williamsburg, the process greatly accelerated following a massive rezoning that allowed 40-story luxury condominium buildings along the East River where only industrial uses has previously been allowed. (That more than 95 percent of local speakers at an hours-long hearing were in opposition and that local activists spent years developing an alternative plan in line with the neighborhood’s character was of no consequence.)

So now we have the “irony” of aggressively marketed buildings branded as “The Edge” located where an open-air waste-transfer station operated only a few years earlier: Bags of garbage used to molder there until a barge could arrive to remove them.

One strongly suspects the developers responsible for the complex do not inform the newcomers of the recent past.

The neighborhood that became know as Dumbo (the name is an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”) underwent the process much quicker. Artists had settled there, too, as space became available. One real estate company essentially bought the neighborhood and openly used the artists as bait to make the neighborhood a desirable destination, going so far as to give street-level space for them to use as galleries or performance stages for a couple of years until the developers would be ready to reclaim the building to convert into condominiums and/or rental space for high-end corporate retail businesses.

The process extended to the corporatization of the annual Dumbo Arts Festival. I appeared as a poet in the 1999 pre-gentrification edition of the festival, simply because I happened to meet the friendly organizers of the spoken-word event, which was held on a loading dock. Artists would open their studios to the public, and those participating in the festival were primarily artists who lived there. A decade later, the neighborhood had been transformed into an expensive shopping mall, and the festival now boasts a string of corporate sponsors. Few artists remain in a neighborhood now dominated by million-dollar condominiums, the owners of whom undoubtedly fancy themselves as trend setters by virtue of living there.

The idea of corporatization has so taken hold that Dumbo’s open space, the Brooklyn Bridge Park, is expected to generate a profit. That sounds crazy, but it is really true: Some of the land set aside for the park is being sold to developers to build high-end hotels or other commercial enterprises to offset the costs of the park.

But the draw of artists is not necessary. Gentrification moves in waves and is ongoing; in New York City, developers are greedily preparing to devour Harlem — its historical cachet reduced to an advertising campaign — and have begun to eye outlying neighborhoods such as Bushwick. Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store mangers who wish to cater to the newcomers.

The city’s oldest gentrification project is that of the Lower East Side. Here the concept of “spatial de-concentration” was put into practice. “Spatial de-concentration” is a deliberate strategy of reducing the available housing stock to disperse a population. The Lower East Side in the 1970s suffered from a wave of landlord abandonments, arsons and city neglect, such as reduced firefighting services; eventually a shortage of housing triggered rising rents and stimulated real estate speculation.

A neighborhood that was an escape from the pervasiveness of corporate mass culture — its unique ambience created by a mix of Puerto Ricans, Ukrainians, Poles, artists, squatters, community gardeners, anarchists, communists and beatniks — and anchored by community spaces and local mom-and-pop businesses has been transformed into an alcohol-fueled playground for the privileged overrun by “trendy” bars and chain stores. Deep-pocketed chain stores and boutiques owned by holders of trust funds are becoming the only entities that can afford the commercial rents as the very concept of commercial rent control is never raised by any political leader.

The average neighborhood residential monthly rent is now $2,400 — this in a neighborhood where, 40 years ago, people paid less than $100 for an apartment. Commercial space has increased in price still more steeply; local businesses that give back to the community are steadily forced to close their doors. As the former population becomes a smaller minority within in its neighborhood, the ability to fight back in an organized way dwindles, until a critical point is reached where real estate interests become essentially dictatorial and the process accelerates.

At some point, history becomes nostalgia. And 24 years later, the Tompkins Square Park police riot — when police hiding their badges went on a rampage against anybody luckless enough to be near the park sparked an intense period of struggle that lasted for several years — was unmistakably an object of nostalgia in this year’s commemoration. And even that had its corporate echo, as one person seized control of the annual event after chasing out others who previously helped organize it, and announced that he owns the marbles and will take them home if others don’t do as he says. A most capitalist attitude.

A community needs community institutions. Several years ago, I published a book of poetry by a friend who had recently died. The poet was well-liked and very modest; his friends felt it important that his work be kept alive. After I had completed the book, I walked one Friday afternoon to the Bowery Poetry Club, saw the owner, Bob Holman, there and began to ask him if I could schedule the book-release party there. Before I could get the first sentence out of my mouth, he enthusiastically said yes, giving me a two-hour Sunday slot without charge. I don’t think Starbucks would have done that.

I don’t pretend to know the club’s financial specifics, but I don’t think it takes a stretch of imagination to imagine that Mr. Holman had a large mortgage or rent to cover each month. And his club, home to artists and performers in a variety of disciplines, was a haven for community do-it-yourself arts and culture. I mention this not because its closing is a loss to a specific community (which it is) but because it is an example of what is happening on a mass scale through the corporate homogenization that arrives in the wake of gentrification.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby the “commons” are taken away and replaced by privately owned space. When there are no longer places where the community can gather — whether for their own cultural events, to discuss community issues or as gathering places for demonstrations and protests — the ability to maintain alternatives to the pervasive corporate culture and to continue to retain the ability to cohesively resist corporatization or to defend themselves against a city government determined to push them out is greatly diminished.

The Lower East Side will provide an example here. During the 1990s, a former school building was used to build a community space called Charas/El Bohio; benefit concerts, dance parties, space for a variety of local cultural groups and performers, and meeting places for organizers were among its uses. In a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in which real estate developers saw dollar signs in front of their eyes and in which a large body of neighborhood activists resisted gentrification, Charas was seen not as the busy community resource it was, but as a threat that had to be eliminated.

In one of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s last acts, he saw to it that is was eliminated. Partly because of his hatred of community organizers or any opposition, partly because of his embrace of corporate ideology that insists private profit is the only legitimate usage of any property, and partly in support of a corrupt local council member in bed with developers who literally saw himself in a war against the neighborhood but who supported Giuliani, Charas was taken away and sold at far below market rate to a connected developer. Because of ongoing pressure that has blocked a necessary zoning change (the corrupt council member who did not try to hide the hatred he felt for his own constituents is long out of office), the developer has not been able to realize his plans. But 13 years later, Charas sits empty behind sealed walls and has so deteriorated that it is now uninhabitable.

That’s capitalism in action: A community resource created and run by the community is taken away so one person can make a profit, and the resource is allowed to rot unused if that one person doesn’t realize the profit.

The path of gentrification mirrors that of culture. The corporatized art world now mimics finance capital. In the financial world, a tiny number of people succeed in positioning their company for an initial public offering and the fantastic riches that flow upward from it while so many others labor for little; in the art world, a small number of artists catch the eye of a wealthy investor, generating multimillion-dollar sales while legions of other artists starve.

None of these patterns are new. The taking away of the commons is as old as capitalism; in fact capitalism was built on the privatization of commons. As a market arose for commodity agricultural products, feudal lords wanted to clear space for sheep meadows. Peasants were forced off the land they had farmed and barred from the “commons” (cleared land on which they grazed cattle and forests in which they foraged), forcing them to become beggars, risking draconian punishment for doing so, or laborers in the new factories to endure pitifully low wages and inhuman working hours.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered steam, a “moral” crusade promoted by owners of factories and agricultural estates in which the tiny fraction of commons that had survived were taken away; the measure of independence that rights to the use of commons provided wage laborers was denounced for fostering “laziness” and “indolence” — defects that could be cured only by forcing them to be fully dependent on wage work.

Legal codes make such work more civilized these days, but the principal remains. An independent community is a community that can’t be pacified or narcotized by consumerism; common or collective property available for community use presents a counter-example to privatization of all spaces; and the use of resources for community benefit instead of for private profit represents an especially dangerous counter-example. Such concepts must be systematically stamped out, and for resisters, a militarized police force is used to enforce the rule of wealthy elites instead of the army as in past times.

If democracy is the goal, then community self-management must be a part of it — decision-making that requires a radically different way of organizing the community. A system in which the community exists to be plundered for the private profit of local elites is incompatible with democracy.