New York Magazine
November 5, 2017
By Justin Davidson
As Bill de Blasio glides toward a second term at the head of a global city, he is acting like the mayor of small things. New York, once thought to be ungovernable, has never been richer, more populous, more diverse, or better positioned to lead the ever-expanding urban world. That gives today’s leaders the breathing room to think about the New York of a couple of generations from now, a metropolis primed for a barrage of climate threats, technologies like driverless cars, economic vicissitudes, and shifting population pressures. And yet, instead of offering a vision for the future of the physical city, the de Blasio administration runs down a punch list: repaint crosswalks, add bike lanes, fix up playgrounds, tweak zoning, and hope these measures compensate for the lava flow of inequality sweeping across the world. Unable to narrow the income gap between the stupefyingly rich and everybody else, unwilling to rewrite the rules that govern the city’s growth, and unequipped to wrest power from real-estate developers, de Blasio contents himself with fussing around the fringes of New York life.
He need not be so timid. The real estate he directly controls — parks, streets, and public spaces — makes up fully 40 percent of the city’s area. The Department of Transportation is the largest landholder, and the New York City Housing Authority the biggest residential landlord. The mayor may have inadequate tools with which to reduce inequality and homelessness, but he does have the power to mold the physical city in profound ways. He could build new parks and transform old ones, shore up the city’s defenses against climate change before it’s too late, lead the conversion to a post-car city, and pioneer new ways to think about growth. In the public realm, though, he prefers puttering to planning.
Parks commissioner Mitchell Silver is a man with a lot of little plans that he hopes will one day add up to a big one. “I have the funds we need,” he says, before launching into an explanation of how he began his tenure by rejiggering garbage-pickup routes and gardener schedules to make the system more efficient. “Just saying give me dollars is not my first response.” The department’s budget for capital projects stands at $1.6 billion — a significant increase from the final year of the Bloomberg administration — with the annual budget for operating expenses exceeding $500 million. Silver’s flagship program revivifies patches of land so long neglected that they barely qualify as parks at all. The Bloomberg administration aspired to place a park within a ten-minute walk of every New Yorker; Silver recognized that schlepping to a square of torn-up asphalt doesn’t do much to improve anyone’s quality of life. Dilapidated, deserted parks serve more as drug marts than as green escapes. And so, in 2014, he launched the Community Parks Initiative, which will eventually spend $318 million to resurrect 67 of the most neglected parks all over the city. Among them is Sol Lain Playground on the Lower East Side, which has been fitted out with a climbable igloo, tiny stools on springs, and a lime-green slide-and-ramp combo. Silver is proud of these surgical interventions. At one ribbon cutting, he said, “People were crying, coming up and hugging me.”