By: Joel Epstein
Here’s my platform for New York City’s next mayor. In honor of John Lennon who was assassinated forty years ago today, let’s imagine a better city.
No I’m not running! But as we endure the destruction visited upon the City and country by the pandemic and the ineptitude of the loser of the 2020 presidential election, I am thinking a lot about who might be our next mayor. My comments are heavy on transit, public space and the environment and lighter on other important issues I know less about.
As mayor, showing up to work and leadership matter. Post-pandemic, I want her/him/they to be a full-time public servant, not someone like the current part-time occupant of City Hall. One of the most important jobs in the country if not the world and our lame duck, Park Slope mayor doesn’t think we deserve his undivided attention?
But I digress. We’re looking forward, not back, and we’re going high. Here’s my wish list for consideration by the growing roster of candidates who think they are up to the task.
It’s time for congestion pricing. Maybe it made sense to delay its implementation with hundreds of thousands of commuters afraid to get back on the buses and trains but now the time has come. The MTA needs the income that congestion pricing will generate to maintain its rolling stock and service and be the clean, safe transportation solution the city needs to recover economically.
Whoever is elected mayor should continue to make clean and safe trains and buses a priority. The trains have been cleaner during the pandemic than they have been in decades but safe, not so much. The mayor should say to the transit police, if you don’t like the chants of “defund the police” then do your jobs by policing the trains and platforms in a nondiscriminatory manner rather than sitting in your cars blocking the bike lanes and sidewalks at 145th Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue.
Has that intersection and countless others outside police precincts across the City ever been free of improperly parked police cruisers and placard abusing private cars?
The City and the MTA should also advance partnerships with companies like Dollaride that are improving private sector transit options in New York’s transit deserts. And OONEE POD which is building secure free bike parking so those of us who choose emission-free transportation don’t have to worry that our wheels will be pinched while we’re at work or out shopping for groceries.
It’s time for emission-free electric MTA buses. I know they are coming but what took the transit agency so long?
Integral to good transportation is an expanded network of protected bike lanes throughout the five boroughs. And Citibike citywide. While strides have been made, our current mayor doesn’t seem to get the connection between safe streets, the goals of Vision Zero and protected bike lanes. New East River and Harlem River pedestrian and bike crossings will also help reduce traffic fatalities and improve air quality in the City.
Invest in our public schools so that every preschool thru high school student can avail themselves of the best public education available.
Support for public colleges and universities must also remain a priority. And with regard to both systems, the City should redouble its efforts to find businesses and philanthropists willing to invest in and adopt schools throughout the system not just at schools like PS 6.
Parks & Open Space
Expand tree planting and maintenance and keep the parks clean, rather than dumping grounds for polluters. Our parks are the City’s lungs and a refuge for millions of New Yorkers holed up in their apartments. The uneven care given to our parks and the abuse they take should be made a thing of the past.
Public space along safe streets and the car-free blocks that have been created during the pandemic where open air restaurants districts have flourished should stay and the program should be expanded when the vaccine has made Covid 19 a bad memory.
Many of our traffic islands can be activated, turned green with tree plantings, and otherwise repurposed as pocket parks for city residents. Tearing up the concrete at these largely useless wastelands throughout the City serves the secondary goal of reducing the heat island effect created when so much of New York was mindlessly paved over.
One of the few bright spots in the Covid-19 economy is that tech continues to expand in the city. Chelsea and parts of Brooklyn and Queens have been beneficiaries but biotech is also a force to be reckoned with in places like Manhattanville in West Harlem next to the new Columbia University campus. Where will those workers live and what will be the impact on transportation and affordable housing in the adjacent communities? And what sort of sensible concessions in terms of living wage jobs, job training for city residents and smart cities technology can New York extract from the companies that need us more than we need them?
The failed Amazon HQ2 bid speaks to our past shortcomings in finding win-win solutions that serve the City overall while addressing the valid concerns of activists who see the resulting gentrification without any upside for New York’s poor and working class residents. A private East River helipad anyone? The shameless loser who found it beneath his dignity to share the spotlight with anyone will be gone from the White House on January 20th. It is time that civility is restored to the local political dialogue as well so that future opportunities that might benefit us all are not squandered because we can’t find a common path that addresses disparate voices’ valid concerns.
Equity is inextricably tied to economic development. Our failure to heed the rise of smart, well-organized progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other local officeholders supported by groups like Sunrise Movement which is leading by promoting the Green New Deal, leaves us poorer both as a city but also in the civic sense generally. It’s time for Wall Street and City Hall to break bread, from a Covid 19 safe distance of course, with AOC and New York’s other progressives, rather than continue to promulgate the us versus them approach which never works.
Enough with the embrace of Russian oligarchs who want their own 23,000 square foot triplex in a supertall on Billionaires Row. It would be great if they paid their fair share of taxes but like the loser of the November election’s tax lawyers and accountants, too many of the oligarchs know their way around the Internal Revenue Code better than the guys who wrote it. The City also needs a safety net for New Yorkers priced out of Gotham by the greed of developers who think it’s fine to warehouse their buildings until the day they can tear them down and put up another eyesore for the kinda buyers who think New York is only about the supertalls or a pied-à-terre at Hudson Yards.
The City needs a plan for its considerable stock of NYCHA housing. Take the D train to the end of the line, Stillwell and Surf Avenue, in Coney Island and you are still fifteen plus blocks away.
O’Dwyer Gardens. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Calling O’Dwyer “Gardens” is a bad joke and the scaffolding that will obscure the entrances to the 3,500 unit New York City Housing Authority apartments for another seven years does not help any. These buildings in the 30s on the west end of Coney Island, are home to the forgotten people, except by Brooklyn Community Services (BCS) which operates a full-service community center at O’Dwyer. Conditions at O’Dwyer and too many other NYCHA developments remain a disgrace that no elected official should accept.
Housing policy that encourages the construction of affordable housing must be central to the new mayor’s agenda. Anyone can see that post-Covid, we’re never going to need as much office space as has already been built in this city. Perhaps it’s time to encourage the conversion of some of those office buildings and rezone more of downtown and midtown to residential.
Repeal of the Scaffold Safety Law which has been abused by too many building owners to keep their scaffolding up for years, rather than repair their properties as the law intended, would also go a long way to improving the public’s experience on our streets and sidewalks. To quote my mother about the law and many other things, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The next mayor should expand our recycling and organic waste composting and promote educating the public and building supers about the importance of separating trash from recyclables and compostable waste. There are significant environmental and financial costs to our slothfulness. As Streetsblog has reported, “the Departments of Sanitation and Transportation are collaborating to create rules for the first time that would allow an estimated 350,000 commercial building owners to store their garbage [à la Europe] in sealed containers on the street instead of how they currently do it now: piling up huge, leaking plastic bags on sidewalks all over town… where they present a health and safety issue for pedestrians…”
Other action that can help improve public health, create a sense of community and clean our air include expanded street tree planting and sanctioning illegal dumping by scofflaws like the ones who repair their cars along Edgecombe Avenue between 145th and 150th Street. We should all be tired of people using the streets in this way and dumping their used parts, motor oil and car batteries along the sidewalk. If we accept this as a valid use of our streets, then the City should designate suitable locations where it can happen and car parts and used motor oil can be recycled or properly disposed of. If you think you should be mayor and you’re not thinking about stuff like this, then you don’t deserve our vote!
Targeting packaging waste. We’re a huge market, perhaps Amazon’s largest globally. Amazon is or will soon be the country’s largest employer. The company has made strides towards sustainability but still has miles/kilometers to go. Over a decade ago, recognizing that shipping costs were one of its largest business inputs, Walmart (of all companies!) required the large agricultural company I worked for, and other vendors, to reduce their packaging waste. This saved Walmart and ultimately the vendors considerable money on shipping and significantly reduced their carbon footprint.
Along those lines, how many of us are tired of enduring the mountains of trash, plastic and recyclable cardboard that arrives at and leaves our buildings daily. My girlfriend gets credit for this one:
With multiple Amazon packages being delivered to multiple addressees at the same apartment buildings daily, why does Amazon individually pack these quotidien items rather than bulk deliver them with minimal packaging or just an address label? A great idea. Customers could still request to have items like lingerie, sex toys and breakables delivered discretely and safely. This would save New Yorkers the deluge of waste that arrives daily and spare the cutting down of the entire forest. Thanks E, which also stands for Environment!
Enforce the plastic bag ban! If you insist on hiding your 40’ in a bag while drinking on the train or on the corner, use a reusable bag and then carry home your bottles and cans to be recycled rather than thrown in the street.
In Los Angeles where I lived for many years I earned the moniker, El Basurero for picking up trash in my neighborhood and logging illegal dumping requests with 311. Things are no better here in New York in the trash department. Now that they’re not sweeping the streets on the first alternate side of the street parking day, maybe Sanitation should reassign workers to pick up the overflowing trash cans filled with household and construction debris that sit on many corners.
The three ring circus de Blasio orchestrated at the Lucerne Hotel on the Upper West Side shows no signs of abating anytime soon. How about acknowledging the long-term shelter, mental health and substance abuse needs of New York’s homeless instead of thinking residential neighborhoods like the UWS and even the latest addition to our list of residential neighborhoods, FiDi, are going to embrace the sans-abri with open arms. Whatever you do, just don’t let the homeless advocates and the courts say the homeless have the right to live in tents overnight on the streets and in the parks as has happened in LA. Do we have a homeless crisis? Yes, and we’ve had one for years. Declare a public health emergency and get the federal resources needed to adequately house the homeless in shelters offering wraparound services, rather than tourist hotels just up the block from elementary schools, senior centers, parks and grand boulevards with excellent livability and walk scores. Covid 19, the City’s high cost of living, uneven public school options and lousy civic leadership have already scared away too much of the middle and working class.
The PBA still seems to own this town. The NYPD’s heavy handed response to mostly peaceful protests in support of Black Lives Matter speaks to the ongoing need to reform the police and to better define their role in our city and society. Maybe “defund the police” is the wrong way to go. It is surely a provocative slogan that alienates good cops and many others who feel the police have a role to play in keeping our city safe. Instead, let’s start by taking away the NYPD’s toys, including equipment better suited to military scenarios than urban policing. And we can and should go even further. The biggering of the NYPD fleet is absurd. Why should the NYPD be using burly SUVs, weapons in their own right, to shuttle around patrol officers, mayors and other electeds, when police cruisers did just fine until a decade or two ago? And whatever happened to beat cops and Community Policing? Are those dirty words in the Commissioner’s office? Bratton was supposed to have given us smart targeted policing with software like CompStat. Whatever happened to those supposed innovations? Did our software licenses expire? Maybe it’s time the department used its technology and in-house statisticians to identify and weed out rogue cops who like to put their knees on the necks of African American men?
Legalize It! New Jersey has, and who needs all those New Yorkers driving back and forth to pick up their weed and edibles. More importantly, the discriminatory legacy of drug arrests in this city has stigmatized too many black and brown people for too long to justify any concerns about the entire city becoming a show at the Fillmore East, circa 1970.
Among the declared candidates for mayor are some able committed souls with the smarts, awareness of the need to listen and management experience to undo the damage done by the current mayor, Covid 19 and the lame duck president. New York needs a mayor with the goods to lead the City into the future. The primary and the general election can’t come soon enough. And when they do, VOTE!
Yours in transit,
Joel Epstein is a New Yorker and an advocate for public transit, livable cities and public space.
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