I came to New York City when I was four. I spent the next seven years living in a flat in Gravesend. Perhaps the most aptly named neighborhood in the city, Gravesend is as weary and empty as its name suggests. I don’t remember much about those days besides that the winters were cold; sharing a room, my sister and I would sleep in winter coats because the heater was broken.
Back then, I didn’t like New York. I missed my grandparents in Belarus, struggled to learn English, and felt out of place in the dreary concrete jungle that is Southern Brooklyn. Over time, my perspective changed. As I grew older, assimilated to my surroundings, and explored the city, I began to feel a sense of awe. I walked through Times Square, Tribeca, and Fifth Avenue, gawking at what I saw around me: modernity, progress, technology, opulence, opportunity. I realized New York City was beautiful and accepted it as my home.
Today, I am worried about New York City. For much of this year, the famously vivacious Coney Island was silent, shops were closed, and the mood was somber as the city became the epicenter of a global COVID-19 pandemic that continues to this day. But the pandemic was only one of a host of issues that the city faced this year: violent protests, a dramatic spike in crime, a fiscal crisis, and severe sanitation issues have also visibly taken a toll. Perhaps most alarmingly, the city appears to be incapable of addressing any of these issues. Instead, it’s been held captive by a brand of divisive populism that views city politics as a wrestling match between wealthy and poor residents. As a result, New York’s leadership has brushed away many of the critical issues facing the city as the meaningless complaints of overindulged elites—to damning effect.
Recently, a group of 163 business executives penned a letter to Mayor de Blasio, writing that “there is widespread anxiety over public safety, cleanliness and other quality of life issues that are contributing to deteriorating conditions” across the city. Worryingly, none of these concerns have been adequately addressed by the city’s progressive political class. Instead, they’ve been met with a degree of flippancy and obfuscation that beggars belief.
The list is long: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brushed aside a staggering increase in violent crime as the result of “people… need[ing] to feed their child[ren]”; Council member Mark Treyger labeled New Yorkers concerned about sanitation as “executives worried about a gum wrapper on the sidewalk”; and Mayor de Blasio, undermining Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attempts to entice wealthy residents back to New York, said he’d like to “tax the rich at a much higher level.” In another example of political levity—rather than seriously grappling with the concerns of New Yorkers leaving the city—the mayor conveniently dismissed them as “fair-weather friends” and baselessly asserted that they would someday “return.”
This type of rhetoric is detached from reality and actively damaging. It’s particularly pernicious because it ignores issues that disproportionately affect the working-class communities who are most vulnerable to them; many of the city’s wealthiest residents have avoided the impact of New York’s sanitation issues, uptick in crime, and budget shortfall by simply leaving the city. More generally, this rhetoric reflects an “eat the rich” populism that has metastasized in cities—one need not look far to find New Yorkers saying that the rich “take and take and take from our city and do not contribute.” “The rich killed New York City,” goes another common refrain, one displayed by a sticker grotesquely plastered on the Brooklyn Bridge. Unfortunately, New Yorkers—and quite a few Columbia students—have embraced a politics of vilification, a politics that blames the wealthy for the issues they face.
To some extent, this narrative embodies legitimate economic concerns we ought to address, primarily wealth inequality and the ways in which our economy has left too many communities behind. However, the way to address them is not through a Manichean populism that views cities as the board in a zero-sum game between the wealthy and the working class. Such a politics is not only morally wrong, but also misguided: There isn’t always a trade-off between building a city that caters to the desires of billionaires and those of low-income residents.
Indeed, even actions traditionally seen as benefiting the rich can in fact also benefit the poor. For example, studies have shown that the construction of new luxury units can make housing more affordable for low-income residents. Similarly, residents in gentrified neighborhoods might actually benefit from the gentrification: A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that in gentrifying neighborhoods, many original residents “remained in the neighborhood and benefited from the changing characteristics of the community…” In another encouraging sign, “children from low-income households were more likely to go to college if they lived in gentrifying neighborhoods.”
Ultimately, New York City needs its wealthy residents. No amount of demagoguery can get around the fact that the wealthiest percentile of New Yorkers pays 50 percent of the city’s taxes. If the city is to sustain its generous spending on pensions and social programs that help the poor, it will need to retain its tax base. There will be no solving any of the great crises facing American cities without the tax revenue, human capital, and investment that the wealthy bring with them.
Of course, there is a great deal of nuance in issues like gentrification, wealth distribution, and urban development, far more than can be expounded in a single article. That is precisely the point: A populism that vilifies a class of people and rejects nuance cannot adequately address the issues de jour. As we seek to build better and more inclusive cities, we must reject facile answers. We must avoid vilifying specific classes of residents and reject the idea that the urban space is a zero-sum game between social classes. We must accept that cities like New York have serious quality of life issues that cannot be dismissed as the complaints of spoiled elites. Let us do so and create a new New York, one where everyone benefits from the prosperity of one of the world’s great cities.
The author of this piece hopes that this piece encourages you to view the issues facing New York City in a nuanced way that avoids scapegoating any group of people. He hopes you join him in working to build a more inclusive and prosperous city. If you want to take issue with (or, dare I say, praise) something he said, he’d love to hear from you at email@example.com.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.