For many years my grandfather worked as a mechanic for the MTA, until one day while under a subway car repairing a break, a distracted motorman moved the train before Pop could get out from under it. The accident left my grandfather with a limp and my family with a lifetime supply of subway tokens. When I turned 13 and was allowed to venture into “the city” with my friends, these tokens became my form of social currency, thrusting me to the upper echelons of middle-school popularity. I was the girl with the free train rides.
On Saturdays my best friend and I would do our chores, collect our measly allowance, and use our restitution tokens to venture from South Brooklyn into Lower Manhattan. Vintage-clothing stores like Antique and Unique, artists selling work off tables on West Broadway, an endless array of quirky bookshops, record stores, and cheapo diners equated to a plethora of ways for young New Yorkers to while away an afternoon. Indeed, with our Manic Panic hair and hodgepodge fashions, we were unintentionally a sideshow for the tourists coming to do all of the above while also gawking at the imps of New York City.
As we got older and our curfews (or our ability to come up with a good cover story) expanded, the adventures grew to include raves, comedy clubs, and live shows at venues big and small. New York has always been expensive, but not, in those days, at the cost of interesting: It was a veritable playground of weird, cheap shit to do. There truly was something for everyone.
These were the earliest days of the Giuliani administration and we did not realize that once the broken windows were fixed, he would set his sights on squashing anything and everyone that slightly discomforted the upper crust whom Hizzoner was so desperate to ingratiate himself with. Infamously, this took the form of well-known racist policies like stop-and-frisk, but also his Scrooge-like War on Nightlife. The minorities and the freaks were brushed to the outer edges of the city in order to make room for the corporate takeover of Manhattan.
Our taste in mayors varies wildly, but one thing can be counted on: New Yorkers aren’t afraid of commitment. After eight years of a Giuliani police state, we waltzed into more than a decade of Bloombergian hyper-leadership, as the city and our lives in it were remade to his upper-class specifications. I will admit: Many of these changes were ones that I appreciated at first—before I looked around, and barely recognized the place. Perhaps this is why, like a rebound following the end of a seemingly happy marriage, the electorate then careened into the arms of an egotistical headless horseman?
Since 2014, New Yorkers have watched Bill de Blasio manage this town about as well as he did his own time: poorly. If the ’90s and the ’00s were about focused gentrification and redesigning Gotham, the de Blasio years have been the Wild West of urban development. Luxury developments popping up willy-nilly, public services and transportation rapidly declining, an explosion of homelessness, and a collapse of retail. And this was all happening before COVID.
But with last Tuesday’s election of Eric Adams, we find ourselves at the dawn of a new era and I’m trying my best to be cautiously optimistic. I won’t lie, I’d had a different dog in this fight—an intensely competent Brooklynite named Kathryn Garcia. But in my admittedly biased book, a native Brooklynite is better than no Brooklynite at all. At the very least, we know we’ll have a straight shooter who loves his hometown. (I’d often indulged a fantasy that de Blasio—who hails from Cambridge—was actually a Manchurian candidate sent to us by Red Sox fans.)
Not only was Adams born here, one of his previous jobs (in addition to having been a cop) was president of the fucking borough. No one really understands what borough presidents do, but I can tell you that as a kid, nobody aspired to be a New York state senator or governor, or even mayor of this fair city. Everybody wanted to grow up and be the Brooklyn borough president. Many are called; the chosen are few. Eric Adams was one of them. He’s a man so Brooklyn, he once came under fire for telling transplants to the borough, “Go back to Iowa” and leave New York “to the people that [were] here and made New York City what it is.” Like I said, straight shooter.
So, despite some misgivings about him during the primaries, when word got out about his glittery party at the ultra-tony Zero Bond club, I was more intrigued than skeptical. (After all, de Blasio famously skipped the glittery Met Gala for years, and where did that gesture get us?) Nor did I take issue with the fact that Adams drew a VIP crowd—who wouldn’t want Ja Rule on hand to wish them well? Indeed, not only do I appreciate a mayor who enjoys a party, I’d argue that a little love of nightlife might go a long way to, as Adams declared at his event, “bring New York City back.”
What gave me pause, though, were not Adams’s declarations to make this town “one of the most business-friendly cities,” but the question of what kind of business does he want to be friendly to? In addition to famous names in entertainment, our mayor-elect was speaking to billionaires like Google alum Eric Schmidt, Madison Square Garden CEO James Dolan, and the financier Rich Handler. All of whom were beside themselves with enthusiasm for Adams. “We need a mayor like Eric to bring everyone together,” Handler was quoted as saying.
This is not an exhortation to “eat the rich”—I don’t think a mayor at war with our city’s mega-rich is a winning position for anyone. But I am also not naive. When a billionaire thinks of “everyone coming together,” pardon me for being skeptical about who they imagine “everyone” being. I don’t doubt our mayor-elect’s sincerity in wanting to get New York “back on track.” But I’m wary that the people whispering in his ear are directing him back toward the same worn-out route that has already sucked so much lifeblood out of this city in the first place: over- ingratiation with Big Business. A journey around Manhattan for a New York teenager these days involves strolling past block after block of unoccupied retail boxes and TD Banks.
What makes New York City a vibrant, exciting place is not global corporate headquarters or luxury high-rises. It’s the opportunity to engage with a diverse array of aesthetics, cultures, and personalities. Small businesses—from sole-proprietor boutiques to indie bookstores to local restaurants—are more than just economic entities. They weave together the social fiber of a place. A reason so many people have flocked to Brooklyn during the hyper-gentrification of New York at large is that we still believe in “neighborhood businesses.” They are the places where we live our lives when not “at work.” They create character and community. When we shop at these places we are doing more than spending money; we’re supporting someone’s dream. That doesn’t happen at Zara or Starbucks.
Those SoHo haunts I so loved as a kid? They were the result of a few creative, entrepreneurial people seeing an opportunity to turn an abandoned leg of Broadway into something cool. They made some money and New York was made better for it. A win for all. We, once again, find ourselves at a potential moment of opportunity. Or not. During COVID, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce estimated that the federal Paycheck Protection Program saved about 2.7 million jobs here in NYC, the lion’s share with businesses that employed fewer than 10 people. Sadly, nearly half of these businesses didn’t survive. If Mayor-elect Adams truly wants to bring New York “back,” these business owners and other prospective small-scale entrepreneurs need to not just have a seat at his table as he plans; they should be his guests of honor.
Commerce has always been woven into the fiber of life in this city. So I need to entertain the fact that the issue is not just that New York has changed, but that the nature of capitalism has. Entrepreneurs in this moment aren’t celebrated for job creation or community building but for valuation and going public. If I find the streets of New York feel a little soulless these days, perhaps they simply are reflecting back to us the heart of American industry in this current moment.