From 1993 to 2013, New York City underwent a startling transformation — one that defied expectations and redefined what good public policy could achieve. The streets became safer, the city cleaner. Businesses returned, tourists flocked to visit, real-estate prices skyrocketed, and New York became a glittering symbol of promise and potential to millions. Brooklyn, in particular, became the hippest part of America's greatest city — helping spread change far beyond the five boroughs.
Unfortunately, New York City's many gains have dwindled over the course of the past eight years. The homeless have returned, in greater numbers and with increasing aggressiveness. Many businesses are fleeing, and tourists are choosing other destinations. The streets and alleys are noticeably dirtier, and, most significantly, crime is rising, as lawlessness has increased sharply. In July of 2020, shootings were up 177 percent over the previous year, and murders were up 59 percent. For now, Brooklyn remains hip, or at least hipper than it was in the dreary 1970s and 1980s.
Part of the reason for the city's recent decline is of course COVID-19, which both hit New York particularly hard and generated stricter lockdown policies there than in many other parts of the country. Another factor in New York's decline is the city's ultra-progressive, Red Sox–supporting, and not-that-hard-working mayor, Warren Wilhelm — a.k.a. Bill de Blasio. So argues author, journalist, and New York City resident Seth Barron in his alarming new book The Last Days of New York. As Barron shows, de Blasio is an inveterate progressive and dedicated ideologue who has systematically undermined every major institution that helped sustain the city and allow it to prosper.
In Barron's telling, de Blasio's reign of indolent leftist incompetence is a problem, to be sure, but it is not at the root of New York City's problems. Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg helped turn the city around during their tenures, but they only held off the inevitable decline, while de Blasio accelerated it. The problem, according to Barron, is progressivism itself, or "the Prog," as he calls it. New York's progressives may have been temporarily set back, but their infiltration of the institutions has been ongoing and funded by tax dollars. As Barron explains, public funding "fuels an interlocking complex of political organizations on the left, including endorsements and campaign work." All the politicians who run New York, and all the likely candidates to replace them, share the same worldview and will pursue the same policies. De Blasio might go away, but the policies are almost certain to stay the same in the one-party system that governs New York politics.
These Progs are not only elected officials but city bureaucrats who preside over hollowed-out and ineffective institutions. Barron looks systematically into these weakened institutions — including the transit, education, health, and housing systems. He is particularly good at debunking the myths at the heart of New York's progressive policies. He explains, for example, that the story of Pablo Villavicencio, an illegal immigrant who was supposedly detained for "delivering a pizza" in 2018, was far more complicated than advertised. Villavicencio was indeed caught while delivering a pizza, but he was driving without a license or insurance, had been under a deportation order since 2010, and would later be arrested again for allegedly beating his wife.
No matter, the case was seized upon by progressive activists, including de Blasio, as part of a process of what Barron calls the "elevation of illegal immigrants as a special class." In another example, Barron shows that the myth that "the grade at which we look at incarceration in the future is third grade" is false. That does not, however, stop progressives from using the claim to argue both for public pre-K education and against prison funding. In fact, much of the book reads like an urban-policy version of Jonah Goldberg's underrated The Tyranny of Clichés, with Barron showing how false narratives drive power grabs from the left. Of course, showing that the myth is false does not help change the ruin that accepting the myth has wrought, but it is useful to understand the history that has brought it about.
De Blasio was determined, Barron writes, to make "every policy in New York — education, housing, health, transit, park access, statues and monuments, environmental sustainability, sanitation infrastructure — about the rectification of racial grievances." City institutions shifted away from providing services to meeting progressive ideological goals, with predictable results. What's more, de Blasio brought to his mayoralty a certain enervating malaise and individual lethargy. Instead of trying to run the city, he was focused on his gym sessions in Brooklyn, his fruitless run for the presidency, and, Barron notes, rewatching all five seasons of The Wire. As Barron archly observes, "New Yorkers were relieved to learn that the legendarily second-hardest job in America includes ample time for reruns." These, it should be said, were the publicly reported distractions. There were also widespread rumors of heavy use of a certain substance that is on the path to legalization.
Ordinarily, a lazy progressive might be better than an industrious one, as the lazy progressive is less likely to initiate bad policies. With de Blasio, however, the entire city machinery was set up to move in a progressive direction, so his finger on the master switch was hardly even needed for the city's bureaucracy to move away from the management of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years.
There was little that critics could do to challenge the mayor's self-righteousness. As Barron explains at length, a leftist takeover of the city was the point. If middle-class taxpayers were alienated and left the city, de Blasio would likely view it as good news: That simply meant that people who disagreed would not be around anymore. It was impossible to tell him that he was not serving constituents, because for him the only constituents who mattered were the loudest progressive voices and the municipal unions upon whom he showered city beneficences. As for the critics, Barron explains why they did not matter to the mayor: "Anything that bothers one of his 'enemies' vindicates his actions, and as a political creature, anyone who opposes him is an enemy. Therefore, the angrier he makes people, the more he knows he is doing a good thing."
One must have sympathy for the New Yorkers stuck in de Blasio's ailing city, although it should be noted that their poor choices saddled New York with his mayoralty. But Barron is more concerned with the city's long-term trajectory than with this one extremely problematic mayor. New York must get off its current path; otherwise disaster awaits. Without changes, as Barron puts it in his conclusion, "New York City will descend into disorder, dispossession, and bankruptcy. Bye-bye."