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What Kind of New York City Do We Want?

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Last week, Michael Bloomberg gave a final address as New York City Mayor to the Association for a Better New York, and choked up a bit as he reflected on his many accomplishments as mayor and progress made during his dozen years in office. For New Yorkers, this is a time to look back at where we've been and look ahead to where we are going. In less than a month we will have a new mayor, providing us with a moment to imagine the city a decade from now and ask, what kind of city do we want to live in? What do we value and want to retain and what do we need to do better? Like many longtime residents of New York, I miss some elements of the city I grew up in, but for the most part I like today's city better than the one we've left behind.

The main characteristics of New York City are its diversity, dynamism, sense of opportunity and endless possibility. New York is a mixture of old and new; of pre- and post-industrial; of old people and young people. That has not changed and will probably never change. While some people say this is a very cold place, I find it is a place of great compassion and almost self-conscious neighborliness. It is also a place that inspires great deeds and great art, and because of its sheer complexity and size, it's a place where it's possible to move seamlessly from group to group and generation to generation. It is a place where it's possible to excel and still be ignored or lost in the crush of action, high-powered media, and utter brainpower.

Many of my students who come from other parts of the country and other parts of the world think Manhattan is New York City. While I've now lived in Morningside Heights for most of my life, I grew up in Brooklyn and I know that the real New York is much more diverse and complicated than what the people I grew up with call "The City." New York is a collection of distinct and identifiable neighborhoods that are constantly undergoing demographic, physical and economic change. Sometimes I find myself walking along blocks that I remember as a teenager and I wonder if I've gotten the street wrong. But I haven't; the physical transformation of the street is so profound that, like an archeological dig, you have to look twice to imagine the city that used to be. While sometimes I get a little nostalgic for that old New York, a walk along the High Line or the Promenade or Columbia's College Walk reminds me that change can be quite beautiful, and here in New York, it is inevitable.

One change I would like to see in the city of 2024 is a reduction in poverty and homelessness. Beneath the glitter and gloss there is too much suffering to be satisfied with what we have built. I am not looking for equality, just a little less inequality and a more functional system of social services. I know this is not beyond our reach. The struggling, marginal and near bankrupt city of the mid-1970s will be a half-century gone a decade from now. The city that built and continues to maintain 400,000 public housing units, a great library system, a public hospital system, a magnificent water system and so much more can figure out a way to weave together a social safety net that works better than the one we now have. A lot of good and great New Yorkers work every day to protect foster children, house the homeless and educate the next generation. While it is difficult to move forward with a federal government too dysfunctional to help us, New York needs to figure out a way to improve the lives of its working poor and its impoverished children.

While working on the moral imperative of poverty reduction, we cannot allow ourselves to ignore the need to nurture and support our business community. From the food carts on Broadway to the titans of Wall Street, we need them all. New York is an expensive, complicated place to start and run a business, but people put up with the noise and nonsense because New York continues to provide unparalleled opportunities and human energy. We almost lost that edge in the mid-1970s, but New York's dynamism proved to be too resilient and deeply ingrained in our social fabric to be defeated.

New York is in the last stages of its transformation from a commercial port and small manufacturing city to the global capital of the creative and brain-based economy. There is physical evidence of the transformation: The Hudson River along the west side of Manhattan used to be America's greatest shipping lane and today provides wonderful views for a park with a great jogging and bike path. On Columbia's Manhattanville campus, the old Studebaker vertical auto factory has been transformed into a modern office building. The High Line was built to ship materials to and from factories and today is an amenity for an emerging neighborhood of high-tech businesses and plush residences. I anticipate and hope for a city packed with amenities like the High Line in every borough.

Along with beautiful parks and architecture, though, we need an educational system that prepares people for the employment opportunities we will see in coming decades. This will include math and science, but also design, arts and communication. If America and New York have an advantage in the global economy it will come from the diversity of its people and the freedom to create and experiment. New York City has always been a center of commerce, from the construction of the Erie Canal to the creation of Wall Street's Financial District. The nature of that commercial world is changing. Today, most wealth comes from our brainpower, creativity and capacity to navigate and produce via organizational networks. This changes the economic function of cities, but in no way eliminates the need for humans to interact in person and in communities.

Many of our best and brightest young people are shunning the suburbs and repopulating small downtowns and neighborhoods in big cities. This cultural move presents the opportunity for a more energy-efficient and well-managed sustainable city. It provides a way to replenish the human energy that is a central element of the modern post-industrial city. Young people from all over the world are attracted to New York's collection of people, economic opportunity, public spaces, culture, entertainment, food and fun. Our universities benefit from this trend and it seems to be generating start-ups and high-tech businesses. I hope the New York City of 2024 continues to attract and energize people and does everything it can to ensure that those among us who are unable to compete are always given a helping hand.

Finally, I want to see a New York that continues to inspire. I remember a night many years ago, driving north with my father on the old elevated West Side Highway when the road curved on 23rd Street toward Midtown. My dad looked out at the lights of Midtown and said to me, "Look at that, New York is the greatest city in the world. Europe is just an overrated old place; my parents were right to leave." I reminded him that like most Jews, his parents were chased out of Europe, but I couldn't break his mood. He just continued talking about the beautiful lights of our home city. That is the kind of New York City we've had for a long time and one I hope we'll continue to have.