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Sometime soon, even as office workers still give each other latitude and exchange muffled greetings through their masks, you may find yourself waiting for an elevator. If the building is old, with a cramped lobby, the line begins outside, where it crisscrosses other ones, so that the sidewalk resembles Thanksgiving check-in at JFK. You maneuver to avoid vendors and delivery guys, maybe even the first returning tourists, all overflowing the sidewalk. The morning jam-up becomes severe enough that local businesses petition to ban private vehicles from that block, possibly neighboring ones, too. Employers start staggering workday hours, and pressure mounts to impose the congestion pricing that was intended to thin traffic but then deferred. That, in turn, means overhauling the inchoate mess of bridge and tunnel tolls. With the subway in distress, busways and bike lanes proliferate. To satisfy employees who want to minimize their commutes, businesses open outer-borough satellites, energizing shopping streets that were badly in need of a boost. Soon, we’re living in a different New York, and maybe a better one.
The past seven months have provided astonishing lessons in urban transformation, radiating from elevators and sidewalks to the city’s economic foundations. Direness has blown a hole in New Yorkers’ armor of cynicism and habit. We’ve come to appreciate how fragile even a great city is, how delicate the gearworks that keep the whole machine clattering along. We’ve also seen how sturdy it can be. When the virus swept through, New Yorkers beat it back, turning one of the most dangerous spots in the nation into one of the safest — temporarily, at least. That combination of failure, epiphany, improvisation, and determination gives us a once-in-a-lifetime shot at molding the next phase of the city’s evolution.
A little over a year from now, the mayor, two-thirds of the City Council, four of the five borough presidents, and the comptroller will hit their term limits. The people who replace them will take charge of a tottering metropolis that is simultaneously trying to right and redefine itself — to build back better, to borrow Joe Biden’s catchphrase. What kind of city materializes in the 2020s will depend in part on how those leaders balance the drive toward global-capital status with the need to care for those who are left out of that prosperity. For nearly seven years, we’ve had a mayor who campaigned on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, and the outer-boroughs but presided over an ever-shinier city of manic wealth and grinding inequities. For all his rhetorical anti-capitalism, Bill de Blasio yoked his affordable-housing aspirations to real-estate-industry trickle-down. His most triumphant rezoning, bulking up Midtown East and dwarfing the Empire State Building, serves mostly high finance. And his commitment to safer, greener, more flexible streets has been flickering at best. The history of those disappointments, and the dislocations of COVID, present de Blasio’s successor with a chance to ask some fundamental questions about New York’s moral future: Should the highest and best use of a patch of urban dirt always be reckoned in dollars per square foot, or can equity, empathy, and fairness figure into the formula too?
“In a moment of crisis, people see the world around them differently,” says Shaun Donovan, a former Housing and Urban Development secretary during the Obama administration who is exploring a run for mayor. “They’re open to new ways of seeing their communities and their city, and they’re looking to be united. As devastating as these crises have been, they are an opportunity to reimagine New York.”
The pandemic has magnified every weakness and afterthought, every iota of neglect. With a shrunken budget and a tax base in flux, the city can’t spend its way to prosperity. But it also can’t afford self-destructive austerity, not if it wants to live up to its aspirations of greater equity. Everyone hates that trash is piled on the sidewalk, but wheelchair users are the ones who can’t get past. When crime rises, communities of color feel it first. When the subway doesn’t work, those with the most grueling commutes suffer most. When parks fill with rats, playgrounds rust, libraries close, and roads clog, when supermarkets disappear, when jobs vanish and housing construction stalls, already hard lives become unbearable. Only the wealthy can insulate themselves.
“The pandemic has made us realize how interconnected we all really are,” says Jessica Katz, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council. “It’s not just my health care and housing that keep me and my family safe; it’s your health care and housing that keep my family safe.” Also your schools, your commute, your streets, and even the air you breathe. The post-COVID recovery, twinned with an almost completely new city government, has the power to alter nearly all aspects of the city, including home, work, and the trips in between.
New York doesn’t have enough housing. (Except in one category: We’ve got an oversupply of gajillion-dollar cloud palaces.) The constant thrum of skyline-altering construction created the impression that the 2010s were a decade of manic condo building, but the city has added new places to live at the same steady and modest pace for 30 years, never keeping up with the growing population or the explosion in the number of jobs. There are those who think that’s fine: New York is crowded enough; don’t build and they won’t come. And yet they do, packing a family of four into a closet-size room if that’s what it takes. The coronavirus refreshed a lesson from past contagions: Disease spreads wherever people cram together.
In theory, the COVID recession should help alleviate the shortage. Vacancies are up, rents are down, and we hear there are good deals to be had. But that’s mostly a Manhattan, plus well-off slices of Brooklyn and Queens, phenomenon and likely a brief one. The rejuvenating tides of immigrants that nourish the outer-boroughs have dried up for now but will (assuming Donald Trump is not reelected) flow again. So will the stream of people propelled by fantasy, ambition, and eccentricity. In the meantime, though, a lot of formerly low-income families are now no-income families, and many who were barely hanging on now aren’t. The legions of the homeless have swelled in recent years, and mass evictions may lie ahead. People who fear ICE are going without government help. Left unmanaged, these currents will sweep New York back from a new crisis to an old one: a city simultaneously prosperous and pauperized.
When it comes to getting the housing we need at prices working people can pay, we’ve all been trapped inside a set of circular paradoxes. One of the most common ways to create more affordable apartments — one de Blasio has relied on — is to tuck them, a few at a time, into market-rate towers. They often wind up boosting rents in the entire area, sharpening rather than alleviating need, and affordable is a squishy term that doesn’t always mean cheap anyway. The combination of pressure and incentives has yielded bifurcated results: bulky complexes in poor neighborhoods, trickles of new apartments in well-off ones. Bronx Point, a megaproject hard by the Major Deegan Expressway, will eventually deliver more than 500 rent-regulated units (plus the Universal Hip Hop Museum). But a 22-story building that is just starting to rise at the corner of Broadway and West 96th Street will contain the requisite number of affordable apartments: one.
“We have a trickle-down housing program: Put up luxury units and hope that will make the rest of the market more affordable. In reality, though, private developers are facilitators of inequity,” says Barika Williams, the executive director of the advocacy organization Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development. “My question is: How much are they willing to change the rules of the game?”
The future depends on a mayor who can find a new game to play. Comptroller Scott Stringer, another mayoral candidate, has floated an idea for universal affordable housing, which mandates that a quarter of every new building with more than ten apartments be set aside. The point is to bake affordability into construction — to make it a given, along with plumbing and fire exits. But the plan’s economics are vague and the politics dicey. If New York couldn’t keep up with demand even in boom times, the mix of recession, stricter rules, and scanter subsidies could shut business down, except perhaps in the most rarefied Zip Codes. Stringer doesn’t seem troubled by how private developers may react, since they build mostly for the affluent anyway. Funneling subsidies through them, as de Blasio has done, means feeding what Stringer calls the “gentrification-industrial complex.” Far better to give the robust network of community-based nonprofits (like Phipps Houses, for example) a monopoly on public dollars. “If you’re building truly affordable integrated housing and you’re creating a different economic model, then you don’t have to rely on luxury developers.”
Luxury developers. The phrase drips with contempt — a sentiment that may play well during a campaign but that no sitting mayor can afford to act on. If Stringer and other progressives want more leverage, they will have to negotiate a new relationship with the real-estate industry, rather than hope to lock it out. It’s true that public subsidies help developers get rich — Stephen Ross built the mammoth Related Companies on affordable housing — but the fact is they are the ones with the capital. The federal government, however, has steadily choked off funding for public housing since the Reagan years. In 1998, Congress — looking to lock in Republican free-market thinking — made it illegal to add to the nation’s stock. (The House recently passed a bill, sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to repeal that law; it’s not getting through the McConnell Senate.) As NYCHA continues to decay from a lack of basic maintenance, the immense crater in the city’s finances has led de Blasio to cut the affordable-housing budget by 40 percent. That move could stall the whole recovery, Katz says: “After 9/11, the mortgage crisis, and Hurricane Sandy, affordable housing was an engine of growth.” Heading into the last lap of his mayoralty, de Blasio is now pushing for Soho to absorb hundreds of affordable apartments and a few thousand market-rate ones. He may not get it done before he leaves office, but the belated move challenges his successor to rezone upscale neighborhoods as well as poor ones. (Stringer and Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams have endorsed an upzoning, but other candidates, including former de Blasio aide Maya Wiley, have so far stayed silent.)
Any new social housing has to be sustainable, durable, flexible, and quickly built, in part to earn its residents’ affection, in both poor and pricey Zip Codes. Last year, the Housing Department held a competition, “Big Ideas for Small Lots,” to find ways to use scraps of publicly owned land that come in hard-to-use shapes: skinny, steep, or curving. Among the finalists was the studio of the late architect and critic Michael Sorkin, a passionately articulate believer in a more humane New York. He conceived an elegant stack of narrow but well-lit homes constructed of mass timber — layers of wood formed into slabs that handle fire, weather, and earthquakes as well as concrete and steel, with much less environmental impact — equipped with terraces and topped with a pergola of solar panels. Design often gets lost in the scrum over policy, zoning, and gentrification, but it’s one of the best tools we have. Good architecture is tougher to oppose, more efficient to maintain, and easier to protect when it grows old. That which is loved lasts longer.
Each clause in the law has a history and a purpose, usually to save a life or preserve health. Many are born from tragic experience. But there is also an overlay of obsolete, even harmful rules. Vast tracts of the outer-boroughs permit only single-family detached houses, but in the climate-change era, that kind of low density can’t be sacrosanct. In many areas, developers are forced to add indoor parking, sheltering cars at the expense of sheltering people. Building code forbids using mass timber for tall buildings. Even more obstacles are tucked deep in the ganglion of property taxes that accounts for more than 40 percent of municipal revenue. In general, the law favors homeowners over renters, the affluent over the poor, and gentrifiers over residents of perpetually un-hot neighborhoods. One jury-rigged remedy is the 421-a tax abatement, which some developers insist keeps the rental market from grinding to a halt and opponents consider an obscene lubricant of luxury.
What New York needs from its next mayor and City Council is the kind of radical pragmatism it takes to understand and then clear away the legal underbrush, the disincentives, and the gladiatorial combat that get in the way of building what makes sense. New York can no longer count on bulldozing slums, colonizing landfill, clearing flood-prone lowlands, or repossessing thousands of neglected properties to do so. Some vacant areas could still accommodate Manhattan-style density: Sunnyside Yard in Queens, say. But a less restrictive future, and a willingness to rezone rich neighborhoods like Soho, could also lead to a renaissance of infill, the incremental, block-by-block insertion of buildings that are neither house nor high-rise but medium-size, well built, and beautiful.
For a century, the practice has been to segment the city into separate functions: Work here, live there, with roads and rails shuttling between those zones. (Mixed-use is a development buzzword, but realizing it is challenging and costly enough that it generally results in precious enclaves like Hudson Yards.) These days, though, homes do triple duty as workplaces and schools. Streets function as restaurants, parks as gyms, closets as Zoom studios, while entire purpose-built districts lie vacant. These intense disruptions have made it clear that if we can change the way we use the city, we can also change the city to suit the way we want to live. We can make it simultaneously easier and less necessary to cover miles every day just to get to work, see a doctor, buy fresh food, or find a pickup game. Paris is pioneering the decentralized 15-minute city, where each neighborhood is nearly an independent small town. New York should embrace the kind of helter-skelter neighborhoods where light manufacturing takes place in converted parking garages, storefronts become apartments, office buildings contain artists’ live-in studios, and rooftops earn their keep as vegetable gardens. That means scrapping the zoning that prevents such promiscuous land use.
Traditional zoning categories are embedded in real-estate values, which are now in upheaval. The rise of online shopping, accelerated by the pandemic, has helped create a glut of real-world square footage that runs the risk of turning lively arteries into blank-walled ravines. New apartment buildings already often sit on top of cavernous stores that lie dormant for years as property owners hold out for a high-rent tenant that, now, may never come. But a surfeit of street-level space in the densest parts of the city is a problem only if we think narrowly about how to fill it. The pandemic has drawn storefront businesses out to the street; the recovery can draw the street into storefronts. “Install garage doors instead of glass so you can keep the spaces open and ventilated,” exhorts Claire Weisz, co-founder of the public-spirited architecture firm WXY. She envisions linking blocks-long stretches and leaving them open, creating networks of storefront arcades. “If there were incentives to rent them at minimum amounts, you would get a flourishing of uses”: vendors, farmers’ markets, tutoring centers, conference rooms, offices for nonprofit organizations, study-hall rooms.The first and final answer to so many new ideas and visionary ambitions is almost always no. Resistance to development cuts across class lines, racial divisions, and rationales. The affluent complain that new construction eliminates charm, low-income New Yorkers protest that it forces them out, and those with the most heartfelt objections wind up dominating the conversation. “We have to be careful that whoever claims to speak on behalf of the community is actually doing so,” says Adams, who also plans to run for mayor.
The rituals in this conflict are ancient but not inviolable. The next administration could start by reviewing the adventures of Amazon in Queens. Last year, in a rare act of seamless collaboration, de Blasio and Governor Cuomo struck a secret deal to lure the corporate giant to Long Island City: billions in incentives in exchange for the promise of 25,000 jobs and a tide of workers taking the subway to, instead of from, Queens every morning. Community groups and elected officials, blindsided by the agreement and shocked at its scale and the size of its giveaways, depicted it as an attack on the people by a corporate-government cartel. After staring into the mud pit of New York real-estate politics, Amazon bolted. Maybe the whole debacle was doomed to play out that way, but the experience suggests ways not to repeat it. Start by asking and listening to the people who live next door, rather than springing a fait accompli. Line up political support ahead of time. Make sure the developers understand the turf. Build in a set of public benefits from the beginning, local and citywide, immediate and long-term. Don’t leave it up to local opponents to go up against brigades of lawyers and fight for crumbs of public space.
None of these strategies ensures success. Just weeks ago, the owners of Industry City were forced to abandon a sweeping expansion proposal that would have transformed that giant waterfront hunk of Brooklyn manufacturing into an even more hopping commercial hub. This was no stealth megaproject, like Amazon; discussions with the Sunset Park community had been going on for years. But in the end, the details mattered less than political winds and revulsion at the sweeping plan. Failures like the one at Industry City leave the next mayor and City Council with a daunting challenge: how to surf the anti-capitalist Zeitgeist and avoid turning the world capital of capital into an economic backwater.
Shipping, manufacturing, finance, tourism — each has buoyed the city, then left a wake of wreckage. The next mayor will have to continue to find new ways to spread the risk, and one path to a sturdier, fairer future might run through the past. “Ours was an agrarian city. We had farmland in the Bronx and Queens,” Adams says. “With today’s technology, we can grow food on rooftops and in vertical spaces.” That business could quickly expand beyond the earnest niche it occupies now. New York has about 40,000 acres of rooftop space; the Milwaukee urban farmer Will Allen once claimed that his three-acre plot could feed 10,000 people. Adams envisions a citywide network combining rooftop gardeners with companies like AeroFarms, which converted a steel-supply plant in Newark into an agricultural powerhouse. “Urban farming is a multibillion-dollar industry. If a person knows they’re going to be providing 960,000 meals a day to schoolkids, that’s leverage. That gets them access to capital.”
Before the pandemic, restaurants, bars, and caterers employed nearly 325,000 people, many of them the actors, artists, and immigrants without whom this would be just another big town. During the worst of the crisis, restaurateurs mobilized to feed frontline workers and supply food pantries. Later, it was restaurants that forced the city to close streets and commandeer parking spaces, effectively a pilot program for a reduced-car future. Large-scale farming within the city limits could supply charities, fussy chefs, and locavores, as well as prisons, hospitals, and schools. It would also cut truck traffic, minimize use of water and soil, create jobs, and use fallow space. “The next administration has to stop doing single-problem solutions,” Adams says. “One solution must address many problems.”
We depend on increasingly decrepit circulatory systems. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway needs to be dismantled or replaced. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is a disreputable relic. The trip to and from the airports would shame a more embarrassable metropolis. Equally urgent, we’re ill prepared for climate change. Despite vows by the city to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, the past six months have demonstrated that we can’t fake our way through floods, fires, heat, and other disruptions. All require coordination among various levels of government that can’t agree on which way the toilet-paper roll should go.
In the absence of healthy cash flow, this is the moment to plan for more flush times. New York needs to lean in on the big projects that have been stalled for years: a rail freight tunnel across the harbor that would take tens of thousands of trucks off city roadways, the Gateway Tunnel that would sustain service into Penn Station, and defenses against rising seas. A sane Washington would see these as national priorities, since money spent to protect New York pays disproportionate dividends. The metro area produces nearly 9 percent of the GDP. It pays far more in federal taxes than it gets back, effectively subsidizing rural states. And those numbers don’t account for our web of connections that churn up money clouds all over the world. America does not thrive unless New York does.
Perhaps regime change in Washington will deliver cash and enthusiasm for those projects. (Joe Biden, the Amtrak-fanboy president!) Till then, the city can more nimbly and independently overhaul the way we get around. When car traffic fell and the subway seemed forbidding, de Blasio discovered the appeal of the plebeian bus. The 14th Street busway, which debuted a year ago, was the start of a citywide network that seems suddenly urgent. But it will be up to the next mayor to plot a wholesale reorganization of the way we use streets — more than a quarter of the city’s land — less as a grid of channels to sluice vehicles around and more as a collective outdoors where eating, commuting, playing, selling, working, and innumerable other activities all coexist.
Pandemic adaptations have demonstrated both possibilities and pitfalls. Fragile restaurants are surviving outdoors for now, but often they crunch down the sidewalk to a sliver. Waiters have to step across a bike lane to reach outboard tables, risking a collision at each pass. The open-streets program is a threadbare stopgap. Cars threaten to plow through police barriers (and have done so) or weave among pedestrians at many times the five-miles-per-hour speed limit. The current mayor doesn’t need to wait until the sense of emergency has subsided to demand design for safer intersections, evict official vehicles from bike lanes, and prevent the police from closing sidewalks near precinct stations.
It’s also time to move from improvisation to planning, from ad hoc closures here and there to a citywide network of streets designed for different intensities of use. We don’t need to invent this from scratch. In June, the National Association of City Transportation Officials released “Streets for Pandemic Response & Recovery,” an illustrated handbook of designs for school streets, market streets, transit streets, and so on. In the Meatpacking District, the business-improvement district unrolled lengths of sod to transform a block of Little West 12th Street into a mini-showcase of a greener future. The architect and planner John Massengale argues for a mixed web of “quiet streets,” where vehicles are permitted but bicycles and pedestrians take precedence. Proposals to pedestrianize miles of Broadway pop up with hopeful regularity. None of this can happen in the absence of mayoral vision.
In pre-pandemic New York, even small changes to the streetscape required immense effort. After COVID, quicker tweaks can yield sweeping transformations. Smoothing aboveground commutes and mapping out more ample pedestrian space mean thinning car traffic and cutting back on street parking. To many drivers, that’s infuriating, but to the city at large, it’s a godsend, scrubbing the air, lowering the volume, and clearing the way for ambulances and other vehicles that really need to be there. (We no longer have to imagine those conditions: We lived with them.) In this reengineering of the streets, garbage could spend the night before collection in municipal dumpsters parked by the curb, rather than sitting in bags, a smorgasbord for rats. A fairer city is made out of such prosaic fiddling, especially when business as usual is unjust. “We’re designing inequality into the city,” says Justin Garrett Moore, executive director of the Public Design Commission. He offers one tiny, highly visible example: Business-improvement districts, so many of which are in midtown, have the clout to get high-quality streetscapes and pay for their upkeep. Everyone else gets rivers of asphalt. Moore and others suggest tapping a source that progressives consider slightly satanic — those pesky real-estate developers, always on the lookout for the next boom. The city could harness their optimism by siphoning part of the cost of each new building into a dedicated fund so rising prices in one area subsidize the public realm of another. “We have to shift from ‘Build, baby, build’ to ‘Let’s take care of each other,’ ” Moore says. Except, of course, that you need the first part to pay for the second.
As the campaign for mayor gets going, policing, public health, and racial justice will loom. But in New York, every conversation is about real estate. Whether to marry or divorce, how to stay healthy, where to work, how children learn, who protests where, where the unhoused sleep, what businesses thrive — every one of these questions has an answer that is partially written in rebar. And so, as they try to envision a city built for equity, the candidates may want to swing by a construction site on Third Avenue in Mott Haven, where the nonprofit Communitas America will soon open Heyground, a 45,000-square-foot combination clubhouse, office, and community center for small businesses trying to make a go of it in the Bronx. Esmeralda Herrera, a member of the organization’s tiny staff, says the building can function as an incubator of talent, hope, and common purpose, supporting women like Maurelhena Walles, who founded Equity Design to make the borough healthier through physical activity, and LaShawnna Harris, whose company, sharEDtalent, supplies struggling schools with temp staff, websites, and grant proposals. “These entrepreneurs are passionate to see others succeed,” Herrera says. “We hope Heyground will be the physical embodiment of that spirit.” Her LinkedIn page describes her job as “ecosystem builder.” That’s a title the next mayor of New York might stencil on the door at City Hall.
Interviews on portraits by Jane Starr Drinkard and Amelia Schonbek.
*This article appears in the October 12, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!