THE NEXT MAYOR'S NEXT CITY

In a year, Bill de Bla­sio’s suc­ces­sor will get the chance to make New York life eas­ier, nicer, and fairer—or just keep us go­ing the way we were be­fore.

New York Magazine - - IN­TEL­LI­GENCER - By Justin Davidson

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 out­er­bor­ough 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. Home

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 con

Kahlique Nip­per Ac­tor, Ja­maica

“It def­i­nitely does feel like the city that I love isn’t there any­more. It’s very sad. When I think of New York, I think of go­ing out to restau­rants, night­clubs—noth­ing is there.”

Camila Frater Stu­dent, West Vil­lage

“This is my only home. But some­times I have th­ese weird mo­ments where I’m like, Oh my God, I’m freak­ing out. And I have that feel­ing of want­ing to go home. But when I think about home, I’m like, Where, though?”

structed 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 un­hot 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-by­block in­ser­tion of build­ings that are nei­ther house nor high-rise but medium-size, well built, and beau­ti­ful.

Work

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 pur­pose­built 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 blankwalle­d 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.”

In Be­tween

We de­pend on in­creas­ingly de­crepit cir­cu­la­tory sys­tems. The Brook­lynQueens 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.

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