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The divided city

Monika Griebeler, New York / alsNovember 4, 2013

New York is set to vote for a new mayor on November 5. But the person to get the job will have a slew of problems to solve. What direction is New York headed? Will it be a city for the rich, or a city for all?

Homeless man in New York Monika Griebeler
Image: DW/M. Griebeler

"What's pleasurable about eating sour food with mold on a regular basis?"

"Bloomberg, how can you call yourself mayor of activity? You don't care about the homeless."

Those are just some of the voices you'll hear on the streets of New York. But they come from people who are more invisible than the Big Apple's shiny, majestic skyscrapers, less radiant than Brooklyn's young, creative crowd.

They live in want on the fringes of the city, and they are angry. On a big board in the office of the aid organization "Coalition for the Homeless," homeless people have written their messages to current mayor Michael Bloomberg. He had previously commented on the shelters for homeless people, describing them as a "much more pleasureable experience than they ever had before."

"Bloomberg's record on homeless policy has by and large been a disaster," criticizes Patrick Markee, of the Coalition for the Homeless.

"We have an all-time record number of people sleeping in our shelter system each night. We've got more than 51,000 people, including more than 21,000 children, sleeping in NYC shelters tonight."

"That's a 65 percent increase since mayor Bloomberg took office 12 years ago," he noted.

Markee said that it's mostly children and families who are homeless.

"The average length of stay in a shelter now for a homeless family is 13.5 months, which is up from 9 months just a few years ago."

'Better place to live than 10 years ago'

Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Michael Bloomberg leaves behind a difficult legacyImage: picture alliance / AP Photo

Many major cities share New York's problems, making the upcoming election for mayor intriguing for metropolises around the globe. More and more injustice, horrendous rent prices that just keep rising, only very few rich people - but those are the ones who keep the economy going. And many poor people, who just want to survive.

"There is no question that when you look at almost any objective measure the city is a much better place to live today than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago," says Sam Roberts, urban affairs correspondent for the New York Times. "When you look back at the 60s, 70s, even the 80s, the city was really a mess. Crime was rampant, slums were prevalent all over the place, there was abandonment of housing and that has changed a great deal."

The middle class fled to the suburbs, and the city banked on neoliberalism as a solution to the problem: less money for welfare and social concerns, more incentives for big business.

Michael Bloomberg himself was a wealthy businessman when he took office as mayor in 2002. Critics called him an an autocratic ruler. And yet, New York has become a safer, cleaner, more affluent city during his terms of office. The crime rate is at an all-time low. More bike paths, more parks and more green spaces have been created - and the some 8.3 million New Yorkers are living longer than they did a decade ago.

But of course there's a catch: "It is not an affordable city - that is one of the things that Michael Bloomberg seems to be a bit tone-deaf about," says Roberts. According to municipal statistics, around 46 percent of the people in city are living below poverty level or just above - for a family of four the poverty level is around $23,000 per year. "And by no standard can that be acceptable," he says.

Struggling to pay the rent

Howard Brandstein sits in front of an old Jewish synagoge in Manhattan's Lower East Side and bites into a raw Brussel spout. Brandstein is director of the Sixth Street Community Center, which was created in 1978 by single mothers who aimed to clean up the neighborhood. Brandstein came to the area around that time, when "the government used to do things for people - you know, when the government started programs - the old, ancient times."

street in New York Monika Griebeler
Idyllic transformation: Lower East Side has become the Manhattan spot to live inImage: DW/M. Griebeler

Nowadays, it's a hip neighborhood full of whole foods stores, cafés and community gardens.

"You have this level of gentrification that's really incredible, starting in the mid-to late-80s in a big way," Brandstein recalls. "All these buildings are private. If you were, say, to rent a small apartment, a three-room-apartment, I'm sure you'd be paying $2,000 dollars (about 1,500 euros) a month."

In 2002, New Yorkers spent an average of 28 percent of their income on rent. In 2009, it had risen to 34 percent. For people with lower incomes, it's now up to 50 percent. "People here are struggling, working hard to hustle, to pay the rents in this area," said Brandstein.

And the middle class is shrinking. "I asked a public official just the other day how she would define 'middle class,'" says Times reporter Roberts. "And she defined it as someone - a family or a household - that makes somewhere around $100,000."

"In almost any other place around the world or any other city in the US, that would be considered rich or wealthy or well-to-do. In New York - with the standards of our cost of living, high rents and everything else - that is middle class."

A billionaire's dream of steel and concrete

Under Bloomberg's reign, New York has become a luxury product - enticing to tourists and billionaires, many of the latter Bloomberg's own friends.

Mayor Bloomberg repealed the historic restrictive convenant on property use for 40 percent of urban space - and building has boomed since then: on the waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens, at Hudson Yards on Manhattan's far West Side, and right in the heart of the city. Every street corner seems to be home to scaffolding.

Building in New York Monika Griebeler
The building spree continues unabated, however few can afford the new living spaceImage: DW/M. Griebeler

According to Bloomberg, such growth and development is supposed to funnel wealth into the city in the long-term. But this promise hasn't turned into reality. More than 200,000 new apartments and living spaces may have been created during his terms of office, but "the housing that's being built in the city is mostly luxury and upper income housing," notes Roberts. "So we're not replacing affordable housing that's being lost to conversion, to demolition, to just high-rent increases."

Tale of two cities

How can New York remain a vibrant, modern metropolis without leaving anyone behind? That's a central question in the election campaign for mayor. Democrat Bill de Blasio works as a New York public advocate, and is considered the most promising candidate - also because he tells the tale of two cities: that of the rich and that of New York's poor.

"Without a dramatic change of direction, an economic policy that combats inequality and rebuilds our middle class, generations to come will see New York as little more than a playground for the rich," the 52-year-old has said in his campaign speeches.

De Blasio aims to raise municipal taxes for the rich. He wants to build new, affordable housing. And he wants to cut the tax breaks for major companies, and offer them to smaller ones.

His opponent, Republican Joseph Lhota, wants to lower taxes for businesses and property owners. The former chairman of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority would also like to see building companies receive subsidies to creat affordable housing.

In short, de Blasio wants to see New Yorkers do well in order for New York to prosper, while his opponent wants the city to thrive so that New Yorkers may benefit.

Two sides of the coin - and New Yorkers have to choose.