After Joe Biden was pronounced president-elect of the United States in November, crowds of students and community residents gathered in the streets outside Columbia’s gates to celebrate. Now, with Biden officially inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States, local residents of Morningside Heights and West Harlem say they continue to look toward the future of Biden’s presidency with optimism.
Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many hope that the Biden administration will begin much-needed recovery efforts and address some of the long-term issues that have plagued local communities. However, for some residents, the question of whether the incoming administration will be able to effect real, tangible change within the local area remains uncertain.
Like other residents, Curtis Arluck, one of the district leaders of the Broadway Democrats Club, is encouraged by the prospect of Biden’s presidency. He believes that New York City, and Morningside Heights specifically, will be positively impacted by the new administration and its policies.
“I think that Biden appreciates the role that both New York City and educational institutions like Columbia play. … We are in sync with the kind of government that he is trying to provide and the kind of values he has, so that will benefit us,” Arluck said.
Throughout the pandemic, healthcare and COVID-19 relief have become top priorities across the country. During the health crisis, New York City has suffered immensely, becoming an epicenter for the virus and witnessing over 25,000 deaths related to COVID-19.
Former President Donald Trump and his administration have been criticized widely for their mismanagement of the crisis in New York. In September, Gov. Andrew Cuomo accused Trump of “actively trying to kill New York City.”
“Trump was very clear with us—'I’m not sending any money.’ But Biden understands that cities need money and states need money,” Monica Dula, a member of Community Board 9, said. “COVID wasn’t a part of anybody’s budgetary plans. It just kind of showed up and it has cost every city and state billions.”
Like local residents, New York City leaders hope that Biden’s presidency will help the region recover from the pandemic. Biden has already laid out his intentions for the $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan,” which includes a nationwide vaccination program and $1,400 stimulus checks.
In West Harlem, where pre-existing healthcare disparities have been exacerbated by the pandemic and residents have often found themselves in the absence of accessible COVID-19 testing, Biden’s large-scale COVID-19 relief policies could help propel local recovery efforts.
“The Biden administration taking office spells hope for the country with the public health intervention strategy that he’s outlined around both vaccine distribution and testing and tracing initiatives,” John-Martin Green, chair of CB9′s LGBTQ task force, said. “That translates to West Harlem because we need all of those infrastructures and supports.”
Morningside Heights and West Harlem residents hope that the Biden administration will be able to affect change not only in terms of the pandemic recovery process but also by addressing long-term local issues such as affordable housing, income inequality, and healthcare.
Already, Biden has stated his plan for a $100 billion “Affordable Housing Fund” to expand low-income housing and has promised to increase federal spending in areas such as health, education, and social care.
Lois Penny, the president of the West Harlem Progressive Democratic Club, hopes that the Biden administration will be able to make progress in addressing income inequality within local neighborhoods.
“I’m hoping that the Biden administration begins to create quality jobs and provide the states with the funding and initiative needed to retrain and repurpose our workers,” Penny said.
However, residents hold mixed opinions about whether the issues of their local communities will experience significant, tangible change from the new policies of the Biden administration.
Though Arluck believes the Biden administration’s values and ideas align well with those of the local neighborhoods, he expects the presidency’s impact will be felt more broadly in New York City as a whole, as opposed to in Morningside Heights specifically. Green, on the other hand, is hopeful that Biden will address some of the perennial disparities that have plagued local communities, but he believes that the remedy to these issues must involve structural and systemic change from the administration.
“Well-meaning initiatives where we throw money, like affordable housing programs and public health clinics, are all good and needed activities, but they’re putting Band-Aids on cancer in the absence of more deep-rooted, structural disruptions and reconfigurations,” Green said.
For many progressives, Biden is far from the ideal candidate to address structural problems, and many have cautioned against expecting systemic change from his administration. While conversations around systemic racism were revitalized this summer and calls to defund the police gained mainstream traction, Biden has taken a moderate stance through supporting police reform as opposed to abolition. He has also been highly criticized for many aspects of his political track record—his role in authoring the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 has been heavily linked to the mass incarceration of Black Americans.
Despite progressive criticism of Biden’s past policies and moderate political stances, local residents remain confident in the incoming administration and hopeful for the future. Dula, for instance, said she welcomes the Biden administration as a departure from the instability and incompetence that she believes characterized Trump’s leadership.
The hopes that residents have for the incoming Biden administration have extended to the upcoming New York mayoral and City Council elections, which will take place later this year. In District 7, local incumbent Mark Levine is term-limited, which has led to a hotly-contested race for his seat. And city-wide, several candidates have entered the mayoral race, including Andrew Yang, Law ’99.
However, Morningside Heights and West Harlem residents are uncertain about whether these local New York City elections will have a larger impact on their communities than Biden’s election. Dula, for example, feels that most change felt by local communities will come from a federal level, rather than from local New York City politicians.
Part of this uncertainty stems from the fact that local districts in New York City consistently elect liberal council members and mayors to office, whereas the disparity between Biden and Trump in the past presidential election was much wider in terms of policy and values.
“I just don’t think that there is enough difference between [New York City candidates] on either issue or capability so that whoever is elected is going to make that much [more] of a difference than some of the others running who aren’t elected,” Arluck said. “I think that the needle is going to be moved more by Biden and his administration.”
Others, like Green and Penny, have larger hopes for the success of local candidates in eaffecting change. However, residents agree that this success depends on whether these candidates possess a keen understanding of the needs of the community and a vision for fundamental change.
Despite the optimism that many have for the New York City elections, residents are acutely aware that these local elections do not take place until later in the year, while the pandemic is an ongoing health crisis. As a result, residents’ hopes for relief and change currently rest largely with the incoming administration.
“Right now we have a major crisis, and the thing that will be an immediate help and have an immediate impact on this city is Joe Biden becoming president,” Dula said.