Our campaign song is “It’s up to US, New York, New York!”, and it’s that change in the lyrics that makes all the difference. The exuberant singer is already a New Yorker, and is singing with other New Yorkers who have been here awhile. The song starts: “Start spreadin’ the wealth! I’m hoping to stay! I came to live my life here, New York, New York!” The storyline of the new song is pretty straightforward: a chorus of citizens demanding fairness from landlords and developers who are making the city unlivable.
It’s hard to imagine that the deal that millions over the centuries agreed to when they moved here, acting on the famous offer made by the big green lady standing in the harbor, could actually be changed. The corporations and the super-rich have done that, while performing the advertising trick of glorifying the thing they are destroying. The Statue of Liberty is lifting her torch throughout the imagery that pours from the media factories of Wall Street. She is a favorite logo for banks and insurance companies and brokerage firms, along with eagles, flags and George Washington.
Lady Liberty offers something different than Wall Street. She is not lighting up the big board with her torch. She is raising a grand glorious welcome to our immigrants’ neighborhoods, where relatives or at least some tribal or artistic group is ready to help the newcomer. Keep looking, she says, there is a neighborhood here you can live in. Lady Liberty is offering, in fact, a city of 500 neighborhoods, where we will be buoyed up by gift economies of those around us. Wall Street is trying to change that message, by its gradual take-over of our monument of generosity. Neighborhood economies, the heart of the immigrant’s hope, operate independently from the new corporate-scape of the city and are its potent competitor.
Coming to this city is an act of faith — precisely because so many of us arrive here broke and powerless and this dream of New York City is all we’ve got. Immigrant neighborhoods are really extended patterns of families — and the generosity of kin is usually how the arrival in New York City starts, for at least a generation. That gestating-time has happened in neighborhoods and still happens in those human-scale places. It is non-corporate. In fact, these communities pursue what the economists call “gift economies.” The attitude is “Let me help you” – and the money will come later. That’s what the “us” is in “It’s up to us, New York.”
But the promise of the old New York myth belted by Broadway hoofers has been betrayed. The fans who can still afford Yankee tickets — they get the Sinatra version of “New York! New York!” blasted like arena rock after the last fly-out of the game. Meanwhile, back in the city, you can no longer be sure your rented home will remain your shelter; cannot assume the values of land and of buildings will remain steady enough to commit your family’s welfare to; and you can’t raise a child trusting in the continuity of a healthy neighborhood.
The final lyric “It’s up to YOU…” has become a desperate plea that we return to the faith. What is happening now? Predator companies sweep in, real estate speculators and chain stores distort the market. The long-time shops are evicted. Long-time residents see their rent jacked up. Wall Street is the financier, and the city government of Mike Bloomberg, with the tax write-offs and legal advantages going to the landlords — Mike is the fixer. The City of New York, Inc. — the corporation that Mike runs — considers the 500 city neighborhoods to be soft old colonies, Third World countries ready for profit-taking.
Wall Street crashed before Mike, Inc. was able to gobble up all 500 neighborhoods. At the height of the take-over last year we had an epidemic of evictions and foreclosures. But many communities resisted. We have a lot to learn from the neighborhoods that are now alive and well, with small banks and credit unions accepting deposits and loaning out money, with independent shops that have long histories on the block keeping their faithful customers. In our campaign we celebrate these local cultures. We can stand on their corners and we witness in each neighborhood its special quality — the calling out of first names, the offering to help, the rough, sweet generosity of street life in a healthy neighborhood — that creates the same fairness offered by Lady Liberty when we entered this harbor.
“Livability” is our uniting campaign issue. New Yorkers must have access to healthy neighborhoods and mobility from one part of the city to another. Bottom-line: you don’t have New York anymore without a rent that is reasonable and public transportation you can use. End of story. If you don’t have these two basic rights, then the health care and schools and policing and all the qualities of a good city cannot happen. If you don’t pay your rent and get where you need to go? Then it’s not New York. Mike Bloomberg dreams of stadiums and skyscrapers and Olympics and says the great city must have no less. That’s not New York’s essence, not its greatness.
Fairness is greatness, here in this city. The hand of Lady Liberty that isn’t raising the torch is cradling the book of justice. The treatment of immigrants in these illegal prisons that sprouted up in the Bush/Giuliani era would be called by our corporate mayor “a federal matter,” but we know better. It is the heart of our identity. It is the fertile center of this city. This is the deal with the Lady and with her welcome — she gives us the go-ahead to create our neighborhoods. There are eight million of us. A third of us weren’t born here, and in a way, we are all immigrants to this city. It’s up to US, New York, New York.