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Does Eric Adams Need Big Ideas?
The politics of non-ambition, and a personal reflection
Last week, I set out for Prospect Park. During the omicron wave, I have become one of those people mass transit advocates revile, occasionally defaulting to my automobile. This is the outer borough boy in me, glued to his comfortable climate-killing death machine, rolling through these cluttered streets. But the traffic, oddly, has been somewhat tolerable in this new year. Let me just say here—again, apologies to the transit community—that driving in the city when a lane or two clears has its own intimate pleasures. In a matter of minutes, you can pass among whole worlds, church spires and mosques and synagogues rushing past your window, a tidal roar of city life. And if there’s a good song coming across the radio, that alchemy of sound and memory is all you really need.
I was driving to—where else?—an Eric Adams press conference. This has been a ritual in the new year. Last Wednesday, Adams was making an announcement about transportation, his first with his new Department of Transportation commissioner, Ydanis Rodriguez. They had picked the corner of Caton and Coney Island Avenues for the press conference, next to Prospect Park. I wended my way there, from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to the Prospect Expressway, one Robert Moses-built artery to another. I arrived on Caton Avenue to hunt for parking and found a few choice spaces next to the Parade Ground. Unfortunately, the spaces were across the street and a sudden swell of traffic was keeping me from getting where I needed to go. With good New York resentment, I bided my time and eventually, when the cars cleared, snagged my space.
A word on the Parade Ground. Across the way are the tennis courts where my mother played a lot of tennis. Near where I parked were the baseball fields. Remodeled years ago, they remain legendary in Brooklyn, the fields where a number of the city’s future Major Leaguers came of age. Sandy Koufax and Joe Torre were Parade Ground stars. Other very good players of the midcentury, like Rico Petrocelli and Tommy Davis, played there too, as did Willie Randolph. In my amateur baseball career, I never ended up there, despite appearing on almost every other ballfield, beautiful and godforsaken alike, in the borough. My right knee is still more sensitive than my left after sliding on a gravel-like infield in my early teens, the skin torn open, blood staining my pants.
But the Parade Ground gave me one amusing athletic triumph. In 2015, Bill de Blasio, an avid baseball fan, arranged a softball game with the City Hall press corps. I don’t do many things well, but playing softball, a useless specialty, is one of them. It helped that I spent, from the ages of five to eighteen, obsessively playing baseball, sometimes appearing on two or more summer league teams at once. At some point, after the handball and football essays, you’ll get one on that too. Softball, at least played at the level of modified fast pitch, is easier for me than baseball, since the ball is much larger.
De Blasio had the advantage. A gangly middle-aged man with balky knees couldn’t beat us, and maybe not even his City Hall press office was formidable, but there were enough amateur athletes in the city agencies to defeat our team comprised of journalists who cover the mayor. I’m proud to say, though, I did my part in making the game close. We played on a field at the Parade Ground and after grounding out to de Blasio, of all people, in the first inning, I proceeded to smack a single, a triple, and a glorious inside-the-park homerun. In my mind’s eye, I still see the line drive arcing to right-center field, future City Councilman Lincoln Restler bobbing after it. No, he was not going to throw me out. I was running full tilt.
So yes, this memory was with me as I walked up to the Adams press conference, masked and bundled up. At every press event of the Adams era I’ve intended, I’ve often come in with a similar thought—is this the one with the big idea? By now, readers of me know this has been something of a theme, whether of my recent piece in the Daily News or the many dispatches from this newsletter. Eric Adams, mayor of New York City, has not proposed many new programs or policies of note nearly one month into his administration. On New Year’s Day, he promised the release of a “100 days agenda” that has yet to materialize. The old policy book from his campaign has apparently vanished.
I drove to Prospect Park, in part, to be proven wrong. Here was a transportation announcement, the very first of a new mayoral administration. What innovations or promises was Adams making? De Blasio famously took on the near-impossible goal of reducing pedestrian fatalities to zero. He failed, of course, and the pandemic has reversed years of progress, but his Department of Transportation set this goal and began rolling out measures to make a difference, like lowering the speed limit and banning many more left turns at busy intersections.
At his own announcement, with Rodriguez at his side, Adams promised to go further. His administration will redesign 1,000 pedestrian crossings to make them safer and push police to enforce more traffic violations, all welcome changes. The city will run a public awareness campaign with the slogan “stop, let them cross” which will urge motorists to pump the brakes at intersections. Adams officials would not identify which intersections were being redesigned.
Missing, though, was the greater vision for making New York a place where fewer and fewer people should be driving at all—people like me. Adams has yet to pitch a plan for upgrading buses and introducing more select bus service with dedicated lanes and traffic signal control. So far, with the power she wields over the MTA, Kathy Hochul has backed the greatest reimagining of outer borough transit to date, putting her full weight behind the Interborough Express, a train line that could connect Bay Ridge, Midwood, and Astoria. Adams still has plenty of time to declare he will exploit his office’s dominion of city streets to bring New York closer to a European reality, where pedestrians truly are prioritized and motor vehicles are not necessary to move comfortably from neighborhood to neighborhood.
The Adams transit announcement—relative continuity from the de Blasio years, piecemeal in approach—was emblematic of how he has pursued the mayoralty so far. Adams races to the scene of every crisis, as he should, and displays great and welcome energy. In his declarations of confidence and metaphorical flexing for the media, there is still, however, a startling lack of ambition, a small-bore vision of governing that may persist for a while yet. Adams almost treats the office of mayor like it’s a position on the City Council, breathlessly fronting press conferences, producing fun videos on social media, and pitching quick-fixes for greater challenges—heat sensors for an apartment rather than landlord accountability—that require much more from the city’s most powerful elected official.
But there is another unsettling question—can it make sense politically to imagine less? Yes, the grandly ambitious can live on forever, but those who try and fail are subject to humiliation. The New York media can be short-sighted and unforgiving. De Blasio raced headlong into getting a tax hike for his universal pre-K program from the Republican-run State Senate and Governor Andrew Cuomo. Every setback in this quest reflected negatively on the narrative journalists and pundits were writing of his mayoralty. De Blasio’s lofty rhetoric—I will reduce income inequality!—was quietly or loudly mocked, and it became clear that even when certain goals were achieved, like standing up universal pre-K in a short amount of time, they could not boost his polling numbers or change a popular perception that bullies like Cuomo were perpetually outflanking him. Aim higher, fall harder.
De Blasio, through his own poor political skills, certainly brought plenty of misery upon himself. Nattering reporters didn’t do him in. Adams, though, might be learning a lesson: taking the sweep out of your vision could lead to less humiliation, at least in the short-term. It’s easy to redesign an undisclosed list of intersections. It’s easy to beg the feds to do more for housing assistance. It’s easy, really, to race to the scenes of crimes and disasters. All you have to do, as mayor, is be there (on time) and look good. The police officers and firefighters are managing the thornier tasks, those pertaining to life and death. Adams, undoubtedly, has nailed the aesthetics of leadership. He’s well-dressed and well-muscled. He’s an ex-police captain. He is already joining the pantheon of New York characters, with Bloomberg and Koch and Rudy, worthy of the Bonfire of the Vanities treatment. Not long ago, I remarked to a friend that Adams reminded me of someone Tom Wolfe would dream up, frothy 80s swagger reborn for the 2020s. Being a character can take you far in this town.
On Monday, Adams gave a grand speech promising to arrest New York’s crime wave. The plan, coming as two police officers were killed in Harlem, is not terribly new. He wants to resurrect the anti-gun, plainclothes police teams disbanded in the wake of the George Floyd protests in 2020. He would, in an equally troubling turn, ramp up the use of facial recognition technology to chase suspects. He will ask state lawmakers to weaken bail reform laws passed in 2019 and seek to have minors charged for gun crimes in criminal court. In addition, he has promised an expansion of summer youth programs.
Stemming the flow of illegal guns into the city is imperative and Adams is right to partner with Governor Kathy Hochul and the federal government to cut off the trade where possible. Blaming gun violence on criminal justice reforms is wrong because other cities have seen huge spikes in shootings and murders since the onset of the pandemic without any correlating changes to local or state law. Police do need to be funded to be police, but the employment and social services equation is critical. Young people commit most violent crime and they are more likely to join gangs when they have less going on in their lives. It has become apparent long-term school closures played a role in the fraying of this social safety net, particularly in crime-plagued Philadelphia. Adams, meanwhile, could have offered more radical steps, like plowing more of New York’s $100 billion into the kind of program that would guarantee youth employment for every interested New Yorker.
Stopping crime, on its own of course, is a big idea. The trouble for Adams is that he will be staking his mayoralty on outcomes that are usually national in scope, driven by outside forces that are still debated to this day. And even now, there is far more to governing the city than rushing to crime scenes and flooding troubled neighborhoods with police. Adams, entering his second month on the job, will learn that too.