If the true measure of a society is how it cares for its disadvantaged and downtrodden, I wonder if there is any sense of regret from our nation’s standard-bearer in urban enterprise: New York City. In the June 14 edition of the New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni described the revitalization of city parks as a centerpiece of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s municipal policy. A triumph of both local activism and central planning, it ostensibly allows the Big Apple to consolidate its place as a vanguard among American cities as an age of New Urbanism, however nascent, asserts itself on the national stage.
To be clear, these parks are a good thing; the High Line is an epiphany in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District, as instantly essential as the ribbon of greenery extending north from the Battery to Riverside Park. The new Brooklyn Bridge Park has perhaps the greatest promise of all, with its impressive vistas of Manhattan and the bridges spanning the East River, as well as a bold multi-use plan that will meet the multifarious needs of a diverse (and growing) populace.
However, the location of these parks is what has precipitated this article, and at the risk of burying the lede, I place it here: What does it say when the landmark parks of the Bloomberg era are located nearest the city’s affluent districts? (Note: map uses data from 2006, but patterns remain similar today.) I don’t begrudge the city its parks in the aforementioned areas - they provide great utility and myriad positive externalities to its core, along the Lower Manhattan-Brooklyn axis. Yet ultimately, I can’t ignore how much the city has to gain by pursuing such visions in less affluent areas that currently lack marquee attractions.
As we look to the future of our cities, we must be willing to trust our most challenging neighborhoods and enclaves with the best of what we have to offer. This doesn’t just mean parks, but also libraries, schools, community centers, and branches of local universities. New York has by no means abandoned struggling neighborhoods like East New York or Mott Haven, but it can do more, and I suggest that in regard to these public works, it shoot for the moon.
Other cities have provided a semblance of top-flight facilities, and seen a semblance of improvement in quality of life. Such measures don’t improve markedly because public goods are merely decent; when public goods become extraordinary (as New York has shown it can deliver, time and time again), that is when we reach the tipping point. Parks and attractions bring in needed foot traffic and money to otherwise isolated areas, as well as a healthy release for recreation and exercise. Libraries provide a venue for education and a third place that encourages virtues such as literacy, critical thinking, and civic engagement. Community centers build the social capital that knits a neighborhood together. High quality schools and universities train students for brighter futures, providing the raw skills and knowledge that beget better job prospects. For those who await such improvements, they will arrive not a moment too soon.
To this end, I propose that just as city council has worked to tie a portion of new revenues from the park’s footprint to the maintenance of new marquee parks, it should use a fraction of the funds generated by sports teams (which draw from the entire city and outlying areas) to help fund the efforts in less affluent neighborhoods. Linking the franchises to the attractions and facilities is a boon for publicity, and as fortunes rise in the affected neighborhoods, more and more fans can afford to attend games and buy merchandise – a classic win-win situation. Eventually, as the neighborhoods develop a stronger financial core, the city can make the transition to using local business and/or real estate revenues to help finance the upkeep, if it so desires.
At present, I’d argue that the biggest risk to the Big Apple is simply maintaining the status quo. Keeping to the same course of action and expecting better results is the definition of insanity. As a municipality, the city has repeatedly achieved excellence in its public works, and by extending that excellence to its least-advantaged, it will provide a clear example of principled leadership in a time of economic and political uncertainty. The city that never sleeps might just be the right city to make this dream of social justice come true.