The New York City Left Could Get a Chance to Define the Post-COVID City

With retail outlets and wealthy residents fleeing New York City, the battle over its post-COVID city has begun. Ahead of next year’s mayoral elections, socialists and their allies are battling developers and mobilizing for a municipal Green New Deal.

The former Domino Sugar Refinery, now Domino Park, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in October 2018. Photo: Daniel Prostak / Wikimedia Commons

A glut of vacant apartments and office space, empty hotel rooms, closed restaurants and entertainment venues, shuttered retail storefronts — all such signposts of the current economic plight of New York undermine the city’s glittering boom of the past two decades.

Yet as explained by the late radical urbanist Robert Fitch and others, all are outgrowths of the city’s FIRE economy, meaning the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors that have dominated the city since the mid-1970s. Those same interests propelled the rise of gentrification, tourism, and the various culture industries that have helped create a “luxury city” that caters to the middle and upper classes.

In the wake of past economic crises, including the fiscal collapse of 1975 and 9/11, the FIRE elite has mobilized behind their preferred candidate for mayor. In 1977, that figure was Ed Koch, and during his three terms, he helped enact the new blueprint, starting in Midtown Manhattan. A member of that same elite, during his three terms, Mike Bloomberg then brought that blueprint to Brooklyn and Queens, rezoning manufacturing areas along the East River waterfront in order to make way for condo towers.

Although he made combating the inequalities produced by Bloomberg’s luxury city his central campaign theme in 2013, Bill de Blasio in no way altered the FIRE agenda. Instead, De Blasio and his union allies sought improvements for the city’s working class — e.g., paid sick days, universal pre-K — that didn’t challenge the preeminence of Wall Street or large developers. Amid the current crisis, the term-limited De Blasio is now struggling simply to keep the city budget in the black.

As next year’s race for mayor takes shape, Bloomberg’s developer allies are searching for their new point person. Meanwhile, unlike 1977 or 2001, the current race features a significant new factor: the DSA-led insurgent left. Even though there is presently no left-wing mayoral candidate in the race, there are many openings for grassroots activists to help shape the next administration’s agenda.

Although the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) currently is not supporting a candidate for mayor, this week, Brooklyn state senator Julia Salazar, a DSA member, backed city comptroller Scott Stringer. In 2013, the Working Families Party (WFP) supported Stringer in his successful citywide run for comptroller (the city’s chief financial officer).

Stringer, a front-runner, is running to the left of fellow challenger Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s borough president. Both Stringer and Adams have advanced their political careers in the FIRE era, with ample support from the city’s large developers.

Next year will see the introduction of ranked-choice voting in New York City races, meaning that the entry of several DSA and/or WFP-backed candidates in the council races also will influence how the campaign for mayor plays out in those same districts. Unlike past elections, mayoral contenders will need to do more than just appeal to their bases. The importance of second- and third-place tallies means they will now be looking for support in many districts where the Left’s candidates are running.

In advance of next June’s Democratic primary, both the DSA and the Working Families Party have circulated questionnaires to prospective city council candidates, which will be followed by interviews and endorsements. Because of term limits in city offices, thirty-five of the fifty-one council seats will be open. The Left has also recently shown its ability to knock out incumbents, although most of the vanquished have been longtime holders of seats in the state legislature (which has no term limits).

This new dynamic means that the DSA and WFP can help move the debate in the mayor’s race to the left. The agendas put forth by both groups envision a city premised on equality, not luxury.

Although the two groups share nearly identical positions regarding police reform and workers’ rights, the DSA has put forth a far more coherent blueprint for reorienting the city economy. Rather than a city driven by real estate speculation, the DSA envisions New York as a center of ecosocialism.

Among the many interlinked components of that vision are a commitment to the Green New Deal, 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, free public transit, public control of energy, and the vast expansion of urban farms. Building a sustainable future also requires energy retrofits that can spur local manufacturing.

All such proposals will be ridiculed by the real estate industry and its extensive PR apparatus, which has persuaded two generations of politicians and opinion-makers to see large-scale private development as the only viable direction for future growth. Even with the current glut of office and retail space, various city councilmembers are presently parroting a private developer’s claims that there is a need to rezone Industry City in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park in order to create more such space.

Over the past few years, UPROSE, a long-standing local Puerto Rican community organization, has been mapping out an alternative plan for the Sunset Park waterfront that it calls the Green Resilient Industrial District (GRID). In mapping out a future for the waterfront that emphasizes green manufacturing rather than retail, the GRID plan potentially will produce thousands of good-paying jobs.

The South Brooklyn chapter of the DSA recently joined the effort to stop the developer’s plan for Industry City, mapping out a plan similar to the GRID. The City Council will vote on whether to allow Industry City’s plan to proceed between now and November. Consider it the first battle of the 2021 campaign — and the beginning of the Left’s attempt to build a new, sustainable foundation for New York City’s future.