To Fix NYC We Need to Reinvent the City’s Strong Neighborhoods of the Past

New Yorkers had no purpose other than to watch with certain gallows humor the progressive deterioration of their city.” Mailer and Breslin believed that decentralizing city government into self-ruling neighborhood municipalities would offer creative solutions to long term problems and put pressure on the mayor and the city council to act more responsibly and less corrupt.

By: Gary Tilzer

The late journalist-novelist Pete Hamill once wrote that New York’s neighborhoods are a series of interconnected hamlets, one block and it was a different world, but all connecting its residents to the beautiful city fabric. Hamill said developers were sucking the life out of NYC’s neighborhood eco-system, causing New Yorkers to lose a sense of themselves as people in control of their own lives. Hamill further said the richness of character of growing up in the city’s neighborhoods, was being determined by some other standard but not by the standard that had shaped him and the generations that made New York City a special place.

None of the candidates running for mayor or reporters covering them understand what Hammill knew—that NYC’s strong neighborhoods gave New Yorkers meaning and protected residents from the City Hall and Albany gangs. During this year’s mayoral campaign nothing has been said about empowering the public and the city’s neighborhoods. Candidates running for office this year are shouting at us that only they can fix the city’s problems, meanwhile most of them have little or no record of accomplishment in city government. Remember in 2013 de Blasio said only he can fix homelessness, public housing and was arrested protesting the closing of a hospital that he closed in the first year of his first year as mayor. This year candidates are shouting their messages at New Yorkers who are frustrated and deflated by mismanagement of de Blasio and Cuomo exercising king-like power, seemingly untouchable no matter what they do.

In one democratic party NYC with no reform movement checks and balances have been crushed. There is no democracy when elected officials only worry about U.S. Attorneys and not what the public thinks and needs. Only by restoring power to the city’s neighborhoods and its residents can New Yorkers put pressure on the next mayor and city council to really fix the homeless, affordable housing and small business problems and not use the funds directed to solve problems as pay to play schemes. The power to govern, which should be in the hands of New Yorkers is now in the hands of what the late reporter Jack Newfield called the city’s “permanent government”: lobbyists, their developer and city contractors’ clients, the unions and the extraordinarily rich.

It will be extremely hard, after the campaign, to push out the city’s permanent government and restore power to the neighborhoods. It has been 50 years since a mayor or a candidate for mayor tried to restore power to the city’s neighborhoods. Both were an attempt to deal with the 70’s fiscal crisis. Mayor John Lindsay created a plan for a network of Little City Halls in “as a counterpart to what the political clubhouse used to do but did not do anymore,” according to his plan.

Lindsay wanted to transfer power to the city’s 62 community boards to decentralize the city government into a system of “Little City Halls, to speed up services and give the communities a voice on making those services are properly run. Lindsay wanted to pick each of the 62 district managers. The democratic majority City Council blocked republican Lindsay’s Little Town Hall plan because they said it would function as a political clubhouse for the mayor. The city council did not want the community boards to have power over them and decades later they still control the community boards.


In 1969 Both Mailer and Breslin Wanted to Decentralized City Hall Power into the Hands of Community Leaders

In 1969, NYC was suffering from sinking finances, rising crime rates, an expanding, dysfunctional city bureaucracy and millions of middle-class residents fleeing to the suburbs, eerily similar to today. The award-winning author Norman Mailer ran for mayor with journalist Jimmy Breslin on his ticket for the discontinued office of the Council President. Both men ran on the platform seeking to transfer City Hall power into the hands of the neighborhood’s leaders. They both believed that power centralized in City Hall blocked the “energies of the people of New York who had no purchase on their own natural wit and intelligence.

New Yorkers had no purpose other than to watch with certain gallows humor the progressive deterioration of their city.” Mailer and Breslin believed that decentralizing city government into self-ruling neighborhood municipalities would offer creative solutions to long term problems and put pressure on the mayor and the city council to act more responsibly and less corrupt.

New Yorkers had no purpose other than to watch with certain gallows humor the progressive deterioration of their city.” Mailer and Breslin believed that decentralizing city government into self-ruling neighborhood municipalities would offer creative solutions to long term problems and put pressure on the mayor and the city council to act more responsibly and less corrupt.

How is the next mayor going to empower NYC’s neighborhoods to restore New Yorkers a sense of themselves as people in control of their own lives, if they do not understand what made the city great or built the richness characters of gowning up in the city’s neighborhoods that Hamill wrote about.

It is a shame that candidates are telling us to reimagine NYC, when the city in Hamill’s time was able to push former Sectary of State Colon Powell, originally from the Bronx, and millions like him up the ladder to have extraordinarily successful lives. There is no way to restoring NYC’s economy and get residents and businesses to move back to the city without including the residents and empowering the neighborhood they live in. The people who are moving out of NYC today say it is because the city is out of control, nobody is in charge.

The secret magic of NYC is that the welcome of the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty did not end with immigrants arriving at the NYC shores. The city helped the immigrants and others came here to become the best they can be. With the loss of jobs and businesses that important ladder is being broken.

The Old Tammany Hall Machine was as corrupt as today’s pay to play lobbyists who now run New York’s political system. But the Tammany of the Boss Tweed era also empowered the neighborhoods that it served and was responsive to the voters. Terry Golway book “Machine Made” explained how Tammany Hall used a network of neighborhood leaders called district captains to turnout voters to win elections. To make sure the voters came out on election day to vote for Tammany’s candidates, Tammany captains offered the voters and their families social services at a time when the City Hall and Albany did not, provided jobs when the alternative was hunger and illness, and protected communities where votes came from. Tammany Hall even work for justice at a time when the poor did not have access to public defenders.

Tammany Hall governing style was responsible for creating New York’s strong Neighborhoods of old. Tammany leader George Washington Plunkitt met with voters, elected officials, district leaders several times a week to find out who was happy with Tammany’s services and who required some special attention.

Even reformer Ed Koch adopted the party machine after he helped take down de Sapio’s Tammany Hall and replaced it with a reformer from his club Village Independent Democrats, Edward N. Costikyan. When Koch ran and won the election for mayor in 1977, he had the tacit backing of machines in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

The power of David Garth’s TV campaign commercials for Mayor John Lindsay in 1966, Ed Koch in 1978 and others, the reform movement led by Eleanor Roosevelt pushing out Tammany Leader de Sapio for not backing her son for governor, district leader Ed Koch’s reform club, the anti-Viet Nam activist reform movement after the war, reduced the patronage flowing from City Hall to the political parties’ machines in the 1960’s.

With the reduction in patronage, the party machines had to adapt, to survive. The machine abandoned the captain system that offered jobs, social services to the voters and protected neighborhoods to protect Tammany’s votes. The post 60’s party machine started working or doing favors for only its members, clients, family and friends. To make money for its bosses, the machine charged judicial candidates for their endorsement and continued using the candidates they elected for pay to play favors for their developer and city contractor clients.

Today’s old party machines have outsourced running campaigns to private lobbyist-consultants, who gain power by getting candidates elected and then use them to get zoning changes and contracts for their clients. The lobbyist-consultants never meet the voters as the old Tammany Hall captains did. The private lobbyist-consultants business model does not care if their developer clients are pushing out long time neighborhood residents. They simply find a new candidate in the next election who appeals to the new gentrified voters of the district -lobbyists make money off of racially resegregating neighborhoods. In the last 20 years these lobbyists-consultants have formed an unelected shadow machine and government that runs New York City.


Reformer Koch’s Deals with the Party Machines Helped Them Adopt and Survive in A Changing NYC

As mayor, Koch’s biggest scandal was turning over the city’s money-making Parking Violations Bureau to the Queens and Bronx machines. The Citisource’s stock scandal was caused by the mayor giving a contract to the Queens Boro President Donald Manes and the Bronx County leader Stanley Freidman to make handheld ticket printers to a company that did not have the technology to do the job. U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani indicted Bronx Boss Deputy Mayor Friedman and personally tried him and other Citisource company leaders. After their conviction, Giuliani became the city’s leader in fighting corruption, setting up his run for mayor.

Tammany Hall brought ethnic, religious, and racial groups together to win elections. In the 1960’s when Boss de Sapio was being pushed out of controlling Tammany Hall, he brought in black, Latino and women community leaders to help him hang on to power. Nothing in today’s election system brings diverse groups together. Transferring power to local Town Halls will result in ethnic, religious, and racial group working together on a long-term basis, helping their communities.

The failure of the newspaper business has given more unchecked power to the lobbyist-consultants, party bosses and elected incumbents and contributed to the disconnect of the public from their government. Paul Starr, the distinguished Princeton scholar, maintains that NYC lost leadership with the dying of the newspaper business. He said that NYC’s newspapers used to set the public agenda, served as the focal point of controversy, and credibly represented themselves as symbolizing and speaking for the city. Starr wrote that the dying newspaper business undermined the economic basis of professional reporting, fragmented public’s understanding of current political events and weakened the newspapers’ ability to act as effective agents of public accountability.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism from the Pew Research Center states the decline in newspapers in the last two decades, means that more politics will occur in shadows which will create more government corruption.

Professor Starr maintains that strong newspapers provided the public a powerful means of leverage over the state, and that this leverage is now gone. If the newspapers are considered as the fourth estate or the fourth branch of government, the end of the age of newspapers implies a change in our political system itself, where insiders will gain more control.

At the time the city’s newspapers began to fail, private lobbyist-consultants began to gain power over NYC’s politics. While in 2010, NY lobbyists pulled in $49.3 million, that amount grew to $113.2 million in 2020. Lobbyist-consultants were at the center of both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senate Skelos’s corruption convictions and the de Blasio pay to play federal investigations. Most of today’s pay to play corruption after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara are ignored by local prosecutors, the news media and even the mayoral candidates.

Just this year, the lobbyist-consultants made over seven million (from the city, not their private clients) just from running mayoral candidates’ campaigns to date. Many of the same lobbyists that were investigated because for their prior work with the mayor, city council and Albany, are now working for campaigns for comptroller, city council, DA, and judgeships.

The Pew Research Center also reports that failure of newspaper business depresses average citizens’ engagement in state and local politics, leading to left wing activists dominating the media and internet chatter. Indeed, Twitter and marchers without permits appear to have more power over NYC’s government, than most New Yorkers, because the latter lack ways to express their views. The voice of common-sense residents who want reduction in crime and homelessness, as well as better schools for their children, have been silenced by the political system we have in NYC. A recent NY1 poll showed that two thirds of New Yorkers want more police patrol on their block, yet the city cut the NYPD budget by a billion last year and many of the candidates running this year, despite the high rise in crime want to cut it more.

Since the mayoral candidates appear to not want to return the power to the communities, one would hope that either the city’s good government groups or the issues-oriented activists would be trying to reduce the power of the lobbyists permanent government that run elections, but they are not. Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause, pushed for the coming train wreck of the Ranked Choice Voting system, which does nothing to empower New Yorkers or their neighborhoods.

Lerner, who has been in her job for decades, did not try to switch the city’s matching fund program to the democracy vouchers system, which puts New Yorkers in charge of which candidate gets matching funds, thus reducing the number of candidates running. Currently there are over 10 candidates running for Mayor leaving the public confused as indicated by the number of undecided voters and recent polls.

After Cuomo and de Blasio, it is disappointing that none of the candidates or the good government groups are calling for New York to have the ability to conduct recall elections or other ways to empower New Yorkers to defeat the elected mob, the lobbyists, the party machines and their developer and city contractor clients. It appears there is no one who is interested in giving more power to city residents to fix their city. The permanent government with their new elected officials wins for now, until New Yorkers get a lot smarter.