NiLP Book Review
"Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America's Tale of Two Cities"
by Juan González (The New Press, 2017)
Reviewed by Angelo Falcón
The NiLP Report
When the word started getting out that revered journalist Juan González had written a book about Mayor Bill de Blasio, scheduled to come out before the mayoral election this year, there was this recurring question: Has Juan González written a fluff piece on the Mayor? There was the early blistering attack by Josmar Trujillo in The Huffington Post that called the book "bullshit." I was also initially somewhat critical on a couple of aspects of the book as well (click here and here). However, because of González' stature as a progressive journalist and the assumed need for Latino solidarity,, there was a tendency not to be critical of him or his book. However, the value of a book like his should be to generate discussion and debate, so I went with that instead.
Despite my and others'initial skepticism, "Reclaiming Gotham" is a serious treatment of an emerging progressive urban politics in the United States. González effectively weaves together elements of what he terms "the maturing of a new grassroots urban political revolt in America." He anchors this analysis on the election and policies of NYC Mayor de Blasio and from there goes to some cities with progressive mayors and councilmembers that he considers a part of this revolt.
González argues that:
"By 2012 the nation's wealth inequality was nearly as high as in 1929 before the Great Depression, and it was three times greater than it had been in the 1970s.
Instead, the rebels pursue economic growth through a far different model, one that aims to address the most pressing needs of a city's increasingly diverse working masses. They pursue living-wage, paid sick- and family-leave laws, subsidies for affordable housing, community oversight of policing practices, and minimal requirements for city contractors to employ local residents and purchase from local businesses. They regard development that is environmentally sustainable as essential to the future of their cities."
Behind this new movement, he points out that ". . . Donald Trump's stunning presidential victory, along with the continued Republican dominance of Congress and most state legislatures, has now left the big cities as the nation's last surviving centers of progressive governance."
González begins the book with a review of de Blasio's background. He provides a detailed account of de Blasio's family tree to provide some context for his left tendencies and commitment to the poor and working classes. The important role his mother played, the tragedy that was his father, the role of an influential older cousin and other tidbits are well-research but at a certain point maybe a bit overwritten and at times too meandering to effectively make a point of the role de Blasio's earlier influences and political connections in his political formation.
He then introduces the theory of the city as a growth machine and its' neoliberal basis to contrast it with the new progressive urban movements he is chronicling. However, his reliance on the growth machine model ignores changes urban politics since the theory was introduced more than two decades ago. Most important among these changes is the role of globalization and regionalization that complicate the growth machine's dynamics.
At the same time, he doesn't explain that the main forces behind the negative aspects of the growth machine he critiques are more basic, namely being a capitalism that creates a logic that limits, dampens and absorbs left opportunities for change. The result is an oversimplified view of the many longterm challenges faced by this emerging progressive urban movement he identities in moving the needle in policy and politics. Can this progressive upsurge be sustained and, if so, how, at least at the moment, as politics at the state and fedral levels are going in the opposite direction. For example, much of de Blasio's policy successes depend on the availability of a budget surplus, but what effect will a draconian Trump federal budget have on de Blasio's agenda in his second term? Can what Gonzólez calls "the nation's last surviving centers of progressive governance" survive as such from these national and state-level assaults?
In his chapter three," "Radical Outsider or Political Insider?" González reviews de Blasio's political career. He provides rich detail on such things as the rise and role of ACORN, SEIU Local 1199 and the Working Families Party. A problem with this chapter is that as he gets into the weeds, he loses their connection to his characterization of de Blasio. He does a better job of describing him as a political insider and a weaker one as a radical outsider.
His chapter on "The High Costs of Michael Bloomberg's New York" reviews the many scandals that plagued the Bloomberg Administration, such as the CityTime one. González, however, doesn't give Bloomberg much credit for any positive. Albeit neo-liberal, policies and for what could be seen as a stronger city economy upon which de Blasio is funding his progressive policies. He does, however, a good job of painting Bloomberg as an enemy of progressive policies.
In his chapter on "Urban Neighborhoods in Revolt: The First Wave," González begins to sketch out the national contours of the new urban progressive politics. He does so by reviewing the examples of Nick Licata of Seattle, Gayle McLaughlin in Richmond, California, and Wilson Goode and Helen Gym in Philadelphia. He also points to the rise in New York City of what he calls the "Upstart Women in New York's City Council," Public Advocate Leticia James and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
He follows this with a chapter on "The Wall Street Crash and the 99 Percent." He presents the rise and impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the campaign for the $15 minimum wage of fast food service workers. These are movements that helped fuel much of the progressive politics and policies that González later sees emerging in parts of urban America. He sketches out de Blasio's supportive role in these campaigns.
In the chapter "Insurgents Capture City Hall," González describes how de Blasio assembled a staff of both outsiders and insiders for his new administration. Latinos reading this book would be struck by his statement that joining this group was,
"Arnie Segarra, a veteran political operative who worked in the Lindsay administration and who had served as an advance man and confidant for both Mayor David Dinkins and Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, became the first major Latino leader to join de Blasio's circle of mostly white and black supporters."
This is the case because it became very clear that Segarra was never a serious part of the administration, whose campaign to get de Blasio to make him his pro-bono Hispanic advisor never got the Mayor's support, relegating him to an unpaid commissionership at the Commission on Human Rights instead.
It is also significant that González points out that de Blasio's circle was made up "mostly white and black supporters." He, however, completely ignores the three years where a coalition of Latinos, the Campaign for Fair Latino Representation, was dogging Mayor de Blasio about his lack of Latino appointments. As he does in the book on other campaigns and organizations he doesn't have to agree with this Latino critique of the Mayor, but it is interesting that he basically erases it totally from his book.
Despite this aberration in his analysis, he goes on to explain correctly that "The combination of de Blasio, Mark-Viverito, Stringer, and James had produced the most radical municipal government in New York's history." He does not, however, adequately address why this occurred the way it did in New York and not elsewhere.
"New Day in Gotham" is the chapter in which González provides an inventory of what he calls "Two, Three, Many Reforms to Count." In this chapter he lists Mayor de Blasio's successes in providing equitable funding for city parks, the adoption of municipal ID cards, the expansion of after-school and summer programs, the adoption of paid parental leave and broad ban for all. The reforms he chose to list in this section come off, unfortunately, more like the text of a mayoral campaign brochure than an objective analysis.
He closes this celebratory chapter with a discussion on the declining crime rate and the Mayor's worsening relations with the shrill Police Benevolent Association (PBA). He describes police disenchantment with de Blasio rooted in public statements he made that were interpreted as anti-police as well as their discontent with their contract negotiations. González points out that there has always been friction between the policy and mayors, but fails to adequately explain why in the case of de Blasio it has been the sharpest in the city's history. It turns out it is a "bad day in Gotham" when it comes to the police relations with the Mayor.
In the chapter on "The Movement Spreads," González writes:
"By early 2016, America's major municipal governments had moved dramatically to the left. Of the country's seventy-five largest cities, 80 percent had Democratic mayors, many of whom were advocating a raft of liberal policies . . . Many of their mayors were facing personal tests of their own, with de Blasio, Murray, Hodges, Walsh, and several others all facing formidable challenges to their own reelection hopes."
He goes on to chronicle the careers of his list of new progressive mayors. These include Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi, Bill Peduto in Pittsburg, Betsy Hodges in Minneapolis, Martin Walsh in Boston, Ed Murray in Seattle (who just resigned due to a sex scandal, which Gomzález acknowledges), Ras J. Baraka in Newark, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's 2011 progrtessive challenger, Jesús "Chuy" García.
Earlier in the book, he mentions the group, Local Progress, which he explains helps to coordinate and promote progressive politics among these left-leaning mayors and officials. This group, created by the Center for Popular Democracy, itself an offshoot of New York's Make the Road by Walking, is chaired by NYC Councilmember Brad Ladner and includes on its board Bronx Council member Ritchie Torres. Unfortunately, González never explains how this group does this coordination nor how successful has it been in this role.
His closing chapter, "Fierce Resistance and Major Missteps," seeks to balance out his treatment of de Blasio by discussing his limitation and missteps. He sums it up viewing de Blasio's main flaw as,
" . . . his belief that he could fight the system while also depending on key figures within the system; that he could seamlessly combine grassroots neighborhood activists and labor leaders of all political stripes with a major wing of the Democratic Party's neoliberal 'growth' machine of consultants, lobbyists, and wealthy donors, many of whom typically regard proximity to political power as a way to make money, no matter who was in charge."
In this chapter, he discusses what he terms establishment attacks on de Blasio by the charter school movement, the PBA, and the Rent Stabilization Board. This included criticisms of his many out of city trips, the pushback on his affordable housing plan, his failed homelessness policies, as well as his conflicts with Governor Cuomo. On his most ambitious project, affordable housing, however, González leaves de Blasio off the hook by blaming Deputy Mayor Alicea Glen and other Wall Street types that somehow infiltrated his Administration (not that the Mayor had anything to do with making this happen).
He looks at de Blasio's failed attempts to project himself nationally as a leading progressive urban voice. De Blasio's effort to host a Presidential forum he called Progressive Agenda was, González admits, "an embarrassing bust." A New York Times analysis also did a good job at revealing de Blasio's many failures to establish him as a national urban spokesperson.
He also discusses de Blazio's legal problems with and media criticisms of his pay-for-play tendencies. While found not be criminal, it look like they were generally seen as unethical. This was a problem that plagued him for months with many headaches and increased the media'a skepticiam of him. There were other issues, such as his lack of transparency, that resulted in news media lawsuits to gain greater access.
González tries to acknowledge that de Blasio is no saint in an attempt to underscore that his analysis in this book is being pragmatic and not ideological. He concludes that,
"At a time when urban America is both a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and an engine of enormous prosperity, when our cities remain centers of inclusion and diversity in a nation gripped by intolerance and ultranationalism, how important would it be to rally around progressive local leaders, with all their flaws and failures, in the long and winding fight to reclaim Gotham for its people?"
In the book's afterword, he adds a further caveat:
"Such twists and turns in local politics are all too commonplace, but when it comes to the cities examined in this book we would be mistaken to allow a particular upheaval or setback in one or another locale, or the failures of one or another leader, to obscure for us the bigger picture of a political and social movement that has been steadily gathering strength in urban America for more than a decade. That movement's finest moments are yet to come."
Ultimately, however, it is never clear what New York Bill de Blasio is reclaiming. Is this the left version of the Right's call for a return of the idyllic fifties? González goes to some length to distinguish this new politics he is focused on from past liberal-leaning administration of LaGuardia and Lindsay. He seems to be arguing that what he is descfibing today is something new, making the choice of the book's title a bit misleading.
His characterization of this new national urban progressive movement is, nonetheless, quite inspiring and perceptive. The major flaw in the book is by so personalizing itself by anchoring its analysis so much in the person of Bill de Blasio. Goinzález (highigted in the books titke). He has argued that he had no intent in personalizing his account, but by focusing it overwhelming on de Blasio, he has no choice but to do so. The argument he is making would have been much stronger if he had focused instead on this movement, placing de Blasio more in its context rather as its presumed potential leader.
González is also not very precise in what he means as left-leaning or progressive. He sometimes throws in "liberal." In the old days, when he was a Maoist, he was much more discerning about the meaning of these political terms, but in this book he is kind of all over the place, casting a wide ideological net. This is no doubt the result of his political maturing since his Young Lords and SDS days and more pragmatic approach to politics. But in comparing different urban leaders to point out their political commonalities, without a more rigourous framework he could be simply comparing apples and oranges in many cases.
My initial reaction to the book was that it largely ignores the Latino community. There is a tendency by González to homogenize the experiences of the city's communities of color by constantly referring to "Blacks and Hispanics" or "Blacks and Latinos." In the process, he misses the opportunity to put de Blasio's progressive agenda to the ultimate test of the city's most vulnerable one-third of its population, Latinos.
By interpreting my critique as just referring to his failure to discuss the lack of appointments of what he characterizes as a few Latino "perfuunados" (conceited elites) he reveals an unfortunate and very surprising tendency to almost erase the role of the largely poor and working-class Latino community. While focusing on criticizing a few Latino "perfumados" seeking appointments, he doesn't do the same with the mostly Black and white "perfumados" (to use his term) who are a part of the de Blasio circle. In a recent interview, he characterized a Latino campaign for better representation in the de Blasio Administration as an effort to get jobs for those he considered "perfumados" as opposed to the poor and working classes, which he rather piously proclaimed as his main interest. He makes no explanation for why it is okay for white and Black "perfumados" to be repsesented but not Latino ones. Seems like a double-standard to me.
The fact that the Census Bureau found that the Latino population in Brooklyn in 2016 had decreased while increasing the rest of the city, points to the existential threat of gentrification and income inequality to the city's Latino community. It should have made clear by González that Latinos are probably the most vulnerable population to the neo-liberal policies that he and de Blasio criticize. And yet, González decided to ignore this perhaps ultimate test of his thesis.
When Gonzales discusses de Blasio's redistributive policies by quantifying as best he could the $21 billion he estimates they all add up to, he assumes that these economic gains are equitably distributed. However, despite the progressivity of these policies, the Latino experience has been that the benefits of such policies do not fully reach this community. It is a problem I have called "trickle-down progressivism" as a variant of the trickle-down economics of the Right.
González has covered and been involved in the Latino community long enough to understand this. (It is also notable that in explaining his qualifications for writing this book, he stresses his journalistic experience but makes no reference to his role as a leader of the Puerto Rican militant group, the Young Lords!) In ignoring de Blasio's Latino problem, he misses the opportunity to strengthen his book's argument about de Blasio's assault on the "tale of two cities" problem. Has González matured politically enough where he has reached a point where he prefers to distance himself from the "tribalism" of the Latino community?
"Claiming Gotham" is, despite these reservations, a good book for progressives to pick, read and learn from as well as soberly assess González' hopeful future for a successful urban social justice movement to counter The Trump Challenge and other obstacles to progressive change. The book is a good basis from which to ground a much-needed debate on the subject.
"Reclaiming Gotham" is a good read and refresher on recent critical events in the city's political history and new developments in the urban elsewhere. In parts, it seems a bit is overwritten and connections are not always successfully made. But it is well-researched and sourced.
Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP). He is co-editor of the new reader, "Latinos in New York: Communities in Transition, 2nd Edition" published by the University of Notre Dame Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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