Tales of One City

Bill de Blasio rallied the five boroughs with his message of two New Yorks. He wasn’t the first Columbian to bring the city together.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2013-14
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Photograph by Andrew Burton / Getty Images

On February 6, 1912, Seth Low 1870CC, the former president of Columbia and former mayor of New York, presided over a 350-guest dinner at Delmonico’s restaurant on Fifth Avenue. The occasion was the centenary of Charles Dickens’s birth. This pairing was consistent for Low. In 1901, as a mayoral candidate, he had campaigned with Mark Twain, who was often called “the American Dickens.” It was Dickens who moved Low to offer birthday benedictions at Delmonico’s, and Dickens who, a hundred years hence, would inspire another Columbia-educated New York mayor — one who, like Low, had roots in Brooklyn — supplying him with a campaign slogan that spanned more than just the centuries.

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, and certainly it was the age of metaphors. “Let’s be honest about where we are today,” Bill de Blasio ’87SIPA said to the knot of reporters on hand for his campaign kickoff in Brooklyn last January 27. “This is a place that in too many ways has become a tale of two cities.” Thus a catch phrase, if not Victorian literature itself, entered the political mix of 2013. Though the metaphor for income inequality wasn’t exactly congruent with the London–Paris reference of Dickens’s title, the repetition of “a tale of two cities” did evoke Dickensian social imagery, and de Blasio carried the theme straight through to election night.

His victory speech took place in Brooklyn’s Park Slope Armory, a nineteenth-century National Guard building whose long, vaulted drill hall, hangar-huge, now serves as the basketball-courts-and-track area of the local YMCA. In a city accustomed to having its candidates gather with supporters under the chandeliers of hotel ballrooms, this was an unusual setting: the metal bleachers and goldenrod floor emitted a distinctly informal, outer-borough flavor of rec leagues, Lions Clubs, and canned-food drives.

But, then, Bill de Blasio, the public advocate for the City of New York, was an unusual candidate. Unknown to most New Yorkers as recently as the summer, de Blasio and his tightly run ship gained current on July 10 after his arrest during a protest over the closure of Brooklyn’s Long Island College Hospital; caught a late-July zephyr stirred by the sinking of Anthony Weiner; and cruised full-sail ahead in August with the unfurling of a TV ad featuring his Afroed, Brooklyn-jacket-wearing fifteen-year-old son, Dante — establishing, in thirty seconds, the candidate’s bona fides on stop-and-frisk, public schools, boroughs not named Manhattan, race relations (his wife, Chirlane McCray, is African-American), and family values. A growing crew of supporters saw him breeze through the Democratic primary to become, astonishingly, the presumptive next mayor. And with each successive stop — the Children’s Aid Society in East Harlem to tout universal pre-K, with Bill (always “Bill,” even to these preschoolers) ducking into a classroom and regaling a dozen four-year-olds with a reading of the adoption-themed My Family Is Forever by Nancy Carlson (“Families are formed in different ways,” he began, “so they don’t always look alike”); the rally on behalf of $7.35-an-hour fast-food workers in front of a Financial District Burger King (“This is an insupportable situation where everyday hard-working people can’t make ends meet”); the raucous, red-clad New York State Nurses Association powwow by City Hall (“I am committed to that outlandish notion you deserve a fair contract”) — with each appearance, they saw the candidate become, at no cost to his rolled-up-shirtsleeves affability, increasingly mayoral. They felt the peculiar crescendo of the inevitable, measured in the swelling crowds, the press and cameras, the men in dark suits and white earpieces, and the trails of excited passersby who pursued the candidate down sidewalks and across plazas to the waiting black SUV.

Of the dozen alumni of King’s College and Columbia who became mayor of New York, three in particular had a far-reaching impact on the city.

DeWitt Clinton 1786CC, who was the first graduate of Columbia College, became mayor in 1803. Clinton established the city’s public-school system, appointed the planners of its grid of streets and avenues, and later, as governor, fought for the construction of the Erie Canal. Then there was Abram Hewitt 1842CC, benefactor of Cooper Union and dedicator of the Brooklyn Bridge, who became mayor in 1886 and earned the title “father of New York underground rapid transit” for having pushed through a bill in the state legislature outlining plans for a subway system. And Seth Low? He spearheaded the consolidation of the twin cities of New York and Brooklyn and the territories of Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island into a single municipality in 1897, and became mayor of that metropolis five years later.

Now comes de Blasio, whose own Erie Canal–sized task may be to convince the state legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo to raise the city income-tax rate from 3.88 percent to 4.41 percent for five years on New Yorkers making half a million dollars a year or more, in order to fund universal pre-K and after-school programs for all middle-school students. Might the tale of two cities come down to New York and Albany?

At 9:00 p.m., people file into the Park Slope Armory. The Other New York, you could call it, nothing hoity-toity, just swatches of the “gorgeous mosaic” celebrated a quarter century ago by David Dinkins, New York’s last Democratic mayor and now a professor of public affairs at SIPA. A youthful core of enthusiastic, middleclass college graduates makes this reminiscent of a 2008 Obama rally, though with more Hasidim. The citizens fill the space in front of a platform that holds risers and a lectern posted with a campaign-red sign reading PROGRESS.

There are no balloons. No nail biting. The results are foregone, and the mood is one of post-climactic contentment. At 9:45 p.m., on a giant screen, de Blasio’s opponent, MTA chief Joe Lhota, who warned in a TV ad that a de Blasio victory would plunge the city into a montage of 1970s graffiti and overturned squad cars, concedes defeat. Two thousand partisans in the Park Slope Armory cheer. The music picks up, signaling hipness and optimism: Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over,” Fun’s “We Are Young,” and U2’s “Beautiful Day.”

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