Say the words “Koch years,” and a flood of images pours forth (bankers in yellow ties, break dancers, gay bathhouses with caution tape across the doors). Ditto with “Dinkins years” (the “gorgeous mosaic,”, tennis rackets, Crown Heights riots), “Giuliani years” (squeegee men, Derek Jeter, Twin Towers) or “Bloomberg years” (bike lanes, luxury condos, waterfront parks). Love ’em or hate ’em, each of them had their drama.
The “de Blasio years”? The mind goes blank. It’s hard to say, four years in, what represents this era. Gourmet food trucks, maybe? Food halls? As the mayors got taller, the mayoralty got smaller.
The public scourges Minnie Mouse and Elmo are confined to mascot ghettos in Times Square known as designated activity zones. There was, if memory serves, a blizzard that everyone freaked out about, although it’s hard to remember when, or why. It’s hard enough to remember just how to spell the mayor’s name. (It’s not “DiBlasio,” but you can be forgiven if you have to Google it.)
Mayor de Blasio’s New York is neither a city on the brink (despite this past week’s deadly terror attack) nor a city reborn. Crime is down, and test scores are up, but few seem to be paying close enough attention to know that.
At last, here’s an image that floods to mind: ¯_(ツ)_/¯
To be fair, no one was shrugging at Terminal 5, the music club on West 56th Street, this past Monday, as the mayor took the stage with his wife, Chirlane McCray, and Senator Bernie Sanders, in what passes for a climactic campaign appearance in a mayoral battle that is shaping up to be as lopsided as … something incredibly lopsided. Polls show the mayor, seeking a second term, ahead of his Republican challenger 61 percent to 17 percent. (Extra credit if you can name Mr. de Blasio’s Republican challenger — double extra credit if you can spell it: it’s Nicole Malliotakis.)
Despite the presence of Mr. Sanders, the hall was maybe half-full. Efforts to get a “four more years!” chant faded quickly as the mayor, looking like a retired Knicks power forward (he is 6-foot-5), rose to tower over the podium in a gray suit and yellow power tie.
“I want to start with a tale of audacity,” Mr. de Blasio said, sounding more amiable than audacious, before ticking off his administration’s accomplishments, which included universal pre-K, two rent freezes and free legal counsel for people facing eviction.
The mayor spoke glowingly of Mr. Sanders as the shining beacon of his own “progressive” politics. (Mr. de Blasio backed Hillary Clinton in 2016.)
“Bernie Sanders defines the idea of audacity,” he said, showing America’s left “that we had a power that we didn’t even know we had.”
A crowd of union members in red jackets sipped beer from plastic cups in the back. That seemed fitting: The affable, jocky Mr. de Blasio, more than any mayor in memory, certainly fits the time-honored political test of “who would you want to have a beer with?” (If you tried to play quarters with Mr. Giuliani, he’d probably arrest you for gambling.)
But the mayor tacitly acknowledged that he is more of a conduit for a political philosophy than a lightning rod.
“The candidate matters,” he said, quoting a Sanders talking point, “but the movement matters even more.”
Mayor de Blasio’s movement, such as it is, has left a mark. Despite howls that changes to policing would send the city spiraling back to the “Death Wish” 1970s, school crime is down and major crimes are down 9 percent during his tenure — with, the administration says, a 93 percent reduction in the “stop and frisk” tactics by police that long have marred the daily life of, in particular, young African-Americans. What’s more, a recent Quinnipiac University survey reported that 82 percent of likely African-American voters expressed a favorable opinion of the mayor.
The problem is that Mr. Giuliani long ago cemented his legacy as the crime fighter mayor in the public imagination, however deserved that may be. Any mayor who follows is simply Crime Fighter 1B.
Mayor Bloomberg never achieved quite the same action-hero persona, but as an archetype of the politician-as-C.E.O., he was nationally famous enough that he is still having to explain why he did not grace the 2016 presidential ticket with his presence.
Mayor de Blasio, in theory, might someday enter the White House (without joining a group tour). But as what, exactly? What is his “brand?” Many of his administration’s headline-making initiatives seem comically pointillist in scope, even absurdist, as if conjured by a late-night Mad Libs sessions in City Hall. Who can forget the crackdown on motorcycle wheelies? The striking down of the ban on ferret ownership? The new curbs on subway pole dancing?
That is the outsider’s view, anyway. To those who work in or around city politics, this administration has been anything but dull. The mayor — at times feisty, at times aloof — has become embroiled in countless headline-grabbing tussles with the tabloids, the police force and, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat. He has had to fight off both a state and federal investigation into his fund-raising.
Legacy, however, is about perception, not policy, and when it comes to perception, timing is everything. It is neither fair nor sane to credit (or blame) a mayor with everything that happens in the city on his watch. Everyone does it anyway.
New Yorkers, for example, tend to forget the patronage scandals and crack wars of the years under Mayor Edward I. Koch. What they remember is “Hizzoner,” a cuddly cartoon vision of an irrepressible New Yorker who we think brought New York back from the dead.
Not that Mr. Koch had much to do with the booming stock market, which flooded the streets with Salomon Brothers bonus money that heated up the market for TriBeCa lofts, bad installation art and squid-ink pasta to surface-of-Mercury levels. Mayor Koch was not out there on the floor at Danceteria, teaching a young Madonna her moves, or scribbling rhymes for Slick Rick, or guiding Basquiat’s paintbrush. But it is all part of the lore of the “Koch years.”
Mayor de Blasio, by contrast, inherited a city that was in fine health, but even so, we’re left feeling around for its pulse.
The new mayor had not even moved from his home in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn to Gracie Mansion when celebrated New Yorkers, including David Byrne, the former frontman of the Talking Heads, started to decree the city “over.” In an oft-quoted Guardian essay from 2013, Mr. Byrne decried the sterile, moneyed New York as a lifeless museum city, like Venice — since “most of Manhattan and many parts of Brooklyn are virtual walled communities, pleasure domes for the rich.”
The next year, Moby, the techno pioneer, tea shop entrepreneur and longtime cultural truffle pig, went so far as to declare Los Angeles, not New York, the new mecca for young bohemians, in another Guardian essay. Having done the Horace Greeley thing himself, Moby, a former East Village resident, hailed his new West Coast headquarters as a place where young artists “can really experiment” — and live cheap and fail fast.
This creeping bouge-ification that left the city a sea of chain stores and Starbucks did not happen overnight. But even Mr. Bloomberg had the Strokes.
Those tattooed New York cool kids who haven’t yet decamped for Silver Lake might at least give Mayor de Blasio credit for trying. His tenure has seen the loosening of marijuana enforcement (low-level possession often results in a summons, not arrest, particularly for whites), and the overturning of the oft-derided cabaret law, which made it illegal to dance in bars, going back to the days of the Charleston.
Even so, the aging hipsters who forever croak about the grit and glamour of the bad old days will hardly find solace in a New York where CBGB is still a John Varvatos boutique, smoking remains taboo unless we’re talking lox at Barney Greengrass, and the police hand out $190 tickets for running a red light … on a bicycle. Sodom and Gomorrah this ain’t.
Maybe we should count it as a blessing that, after a four-decade journey back from the brink, New York as a whole has, for what may be a very brief moment between recessions and terror attacks, the luxury of worrying about small things.
On a recent trip home to Brooklyn on the F train, for instance, I spotted a poster sponsored by the Office of the Mayor. “Midnight Snack,” the message read, over a close-up of a raccoon’s masked face. “Like all New Yorkers, raccoons know where to find a good meal. Please don’t feed NYC’s night life.”
You could say this expenditure of city resources on a marginal issue was a measure of a city shrinking in its historical mission. Or, you could say it is a sign of victory. For now.