By KYLE J. KILKENNY
On Monday, Feb. 13, students of Dr. Christina M. Greer’s “Introduction to Urban Politics” course waited on line outside the world-famous Apollo Theater for what was to be a historic night. Mayor Bill de Blasio was to give his annual State of the City Address, outlining his administration’s accomplishments over the course of his tenure, and his hopes for the coming year. In a crowded room of reporters, elected officials (former Mayor Dinkin was in attendance), and members of NYC’s academic community, one of New York’s progressive beacons took the stage. However, in a time where the news cycle is plagued by stories about the length of neckties, espionage and the rights of global citizens, this second-generation American delivered a surprise: a mellow speech.
Dr. Greer’s class introduces students to the politics of major urban centers, and de Blasio’s speech was seen as an opportunity to allow students to see their weekly course readings and material come alive. It should also be noted that this address carried incredible significance, as it is the last State of the City before the Mayor’s re-election campaign this fall. With a Democratic primary contest in September, and the general election in November, Mr. de Blasio had to make the case that he deserves to stick around in City Hall for another term. Here’s how he set the stage- literally.
Unlike past addresses, the Mayor and his administration carefully picked out the Apollo Theater as the venue for Mr. de Blasio’s de-facto campaign kickoff. Once a failing performance venue which was not open to people of color, the Apollo has since become an iconic hot spot for Black artists and entertainers, including James Brown, and even a pre-teen Stevie Wonder. Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, greeted the audience with a brief history about the Apollo, and that despite being a door to stardom for so many performers, the theater remains a not-for-profit and a public space for all New Yorkers.
The speech was a clear victory lap for the engaging campaigner. Stop-and-frisk is down 97 percent since Mr. de Blasio took office, New York public schools are enjoying the highest graduation (72.6 percent in 2016) and lowest dropout rates in their history, and Mrs. McCray’s ThriveNYC initiative is helping combat the stigmas surrounding mental health throughout the five boroughs.
Fordham students watched with curiosity as the mayor spelled out a clear blueprint for the coming year: lower unemployment, increase incomes, and provide affordable housing for more New Yorkers. The members of NYC’s AARP chapter responded joyously as Mr. de Blasio said, “When you sell a home worth $2 million or more, you pay a little bit more. That gives us $336 million, and we use that money to provide affordable housing for 25,000 senior citizens in New York City.” The mansion tax proposal was just one of the many initiatives Mr. de Blasio touched upon in an effort to address New York City’s affordability crisis.
As some of New York’s most politically-conscious individuals, Fordham students shared what they enjoyed, what they didn’t and what they wish they heard during the State of the City Address. One of the highlights of the speech had little to do with the speech at all: the video which proceeded Mr. de Blasio’s remarks and, among others, featured a very well-spoken first grader. “I need to see Mayor de Blasio aggressively address the issue of homelessness in New York City. With the help of the famously charismatic and determined preschooler Gershey, di Blasio can make a real impact in an issue that has been swept aside for far too long,” said Johanna Cyran, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’20. Chandler Dean, FCLC ’18, also enjoyed the video, stating, “The implementation of Universal Pre-K and the NYC ID garnered huge cheers from the crowd, but they were followed by more benign achievements, like the filling of potholes. This montage of accomplishments could have built to a crescendo and helped de Blasio begin his speech with goodwill from his audience. Instead, the speech was similarly uneven.”
As for the speech itself, Kayla Wolf, FCLC ’19, stated “I feel like I’m spoiled because I grew up in the Obama era. Whether or not you liked Obama’s politics, you have to admit he is an incredible speaker. Because I grew up in his presidency, I just thought everyone could speak like that. de Blasio, however, cannot.” Some notable omissions from the speech included climate change solutions, such as carbon pricing, New York’s status as a “sanctuary city,” and mention of the ongoing conversations about the rights of Trans and gender non-conforming New Yorkers and the closing of Riker’s Island, two issues that are being thrust into national spotlight. But perhaps most notably, why does Mr. de Blasio deserve another four years in City Hall? I would argue this was the Mayor’s attempt to get a feel about some potential campaign issues—a taste test of sorts—before diving into the main course as the fall approaches.
As for what’s next for the mayor, Dean observed, “de Blasio is right on many of the issues, and I suspect he will continue to make progressive strides as he winds down his first term. He might just need to bring his wife on the campaign trail to get people excited about it.”