Sheldon Silver, in the end, will be remembered for his stubbornness. He spent not quite four decades in the New York State Assembly, about half of that time as speaker, and spent most of them saying no to things unless they went exactly the way he wanted them to. He didn’t want congestion pricing in Manhattan, so it didn’t happen on his watch. He didn’t want the commuter tax reinstated after he got rid of it, and it wasn’t. He jammed up Moynihan Train Hall for decades. He blocked the stadium over the West Side rail yards that Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed, and it’s not there. (Admittedly, that one was a dodgy idea, but Hudson Yards is what we got instead. Hard to say whether we won or lost.) Above all, Silver stalled the building of roughly 1,000 apartments on a huge site known as the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area in his district on the Lower East Side, and it remained a field of weeds for about 40 years. Only after the generally pro-development policies of Bloomberg’s administration — and those of Silver’s developer friends — aligned with his own did a project begin to coalesce; the large final section of Essex Crossing will reportedly open in 2024, 57 years after the site was cleared.
Silver, who died Monday at 77, will not get to see it. But he would likely not have anyway because in 2020 he reported to the Otisville Correctional Facility in Orange County. It was a staggering fall from being one of Albany’s so-called three men in a room to being Inmate No. 71915-054. (The second man in the room was the governor: Cuomo, Pataki, Spitzer, Paterson, Cuomo II. The third was the State Senate majority leader, and for most of Silver’s era that meant Joe Bruno, who died in 2020 after barely avoiding prison himself, and Dean Skelos, who did do hard time.)
To be fair, Silver’s was not a career entirely without achievements. He was a moderately liberal Democrat, and his backroom dealing enabled the passage of a scattering of laws that helped vulnerable people — for example, despite religious pressure, he was a comparatively early supporter of same-sex-marriage — and helped preserve rent control, keeping a lot of elders in their homes and their city. Some of that doubtless came from principle and affection for the neighborhood and its people. Most of it, though, came from expediency. That is always somewhat true in politics and was certainly the norm in his particularly hard-boiled era of New York, but Silver was a particular master of holding everyone hostage for what he wanted.
When he went to bat for a big project, it tended to be one with a lot of developer money behind it: Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards, say, or the zoning variances behind the 57th Street super-talls. Over and over, he tailored his choices — even more than is typical — to keep himself in power. He was an Orthodox Jewish Lower East Sider, and as the Lower East Side grew considerably less Jewish over the course of his lifetime, getting reelected grew more difficult. That in turn meant that if he was to hold on to his seat through the 1980s and beyond, the Seward Park site could not be allowed to become desperately needed affordable housing because the incoming ethnic population of the neighborhood (decreasingly Eastern European and increasingly Puerto Rican and Chinese with a scattering from other places) would further dilute the Jewish vote. So the land sat empty. (He made amends with those other communities through smaller gestures like playgrounds, which helped keep him in favor.) It took another shift — the arrival of younger, wealthier, and whiter people in the neighborhood in this century — to get him to turn toward building on the site after all. The Essex Crossing project will be roughly half affordable and half market-rate with upscale retail at the ground levels. It will be, in the end, a pretty nice place, and we as a city could have done (and have done, elsewhere) a whole lot worse. But underneath its surface lies the selling out of hundreds of families who were promised new apartments when their old homes were razed (and never got them), leaving the heart of a neighborhood blighted for nearly half a century in large part to safeguard one man’s job.
Silver’s downfall, though, was owed most definitely to things he did do. He was arrested in 2015, having taken about $700,000 in kickbacks from real-estate firms doing business with the state. (“Referral fees” was the term of art for these payments.) He had also somehow moonlighted for decades at the personal-injury lawyers Weitz & Luxenberg, and he took “referral fees” there, too, about $3 million worth, as well as a substantial salary for doing little to no work. Most of the payments involved cases in which he directed asbestos-related mesothelioma patients to the firm. (Almost incidentally, Silver had a couple of mistresses over the years, one a lobbyist, the other a woman for whom he allegedly arranged a government job.) It took two guilty verdicts — the first was overturned and the asbestos-related conviction was thrown out on a technicality — but he eventually got six and a half years in prison. A plea for compassionate release during the COVID-19 epidemic got him a few days outside before he was sent to the prison wards at Devens, Massachusetts, for the rest of his life.
He wrapped it all in a plausible man-of-the-people image, living in one of the neighborhood’s large and undistinguished-looking cooperative housing complexes, driving his own car — he was known for holding up meetings and press conferences because he couldn’t find a parking spot — and generally giving off the mien of a Lower East Side everyman who never forgot his roots. Instead, by skimming millions of dollars and failing to serve the neediest people of his district, Silver (as the great novelist and essayist Kevin Baker has pointed out) betrayed his neighborhood’s rich and extraordinary legacy of social-justice reform. The best thing you can say about Sheldon Silver may be that he overstepped far enough that he could be removed from power for good.