The actor Clive Owen ambled around a corner in Bedford-Stuyvesant sporting a mustache and early 1900s attire complete with bowler hat just before 10:30 a.m. Sunday. He was snapped by a startled news photographer who was staking out a Baptist church not for him but for the man most likely to be New York’s next mayor.
Owen proceeded on across Marcy Avenue, to where Steven Soderbergh was shooting The Knick, his upcoming TV series set in Harlem’s Knickerbocker Hospital during the early 20th century. An advance team continued to await Bill de Blasio’s arrival at the Concord Baptist Church of Christ. The photographer told one of his press people that she had just missed seeing the actor.
“Oh my God, Clive Owen was here?” she exclaimed.
A few minutes later, a black SUV pulled up with de Blasio in the front passenger seat and his wife, Chirlane de Blasio, in the back. He had a document of some kind and he folded it twice, creasing it sharply between thumb and finger in a small sign of a deliberate man before placing it in his suit coat pocket and striding with his wife into the church.
Rev. Gary Simpson announced the Democratic candidate’s arrival, telling his parishioners that they have an opportunity to help elect a man who will champion “those who have been forgotten for these past 25 years.”
In truth, the residents of the city’s rougher neighborhoods have greatly benefited during the previous two decades of Republican mayors. The unspoken secret of the historic reduction in crime is that for the first time, the NYPD addressed it as seriously when people of color are victims as when whites are victims. The schools still need much improvement, but they are generally better. The economy is tough, but New York has recovered from the recession faster than most cities. A person who needs a city service at least can attempt to get it by calling 311. Public places, even parks, are smoke-free, and longevity is above the national average. The air is cleaner than at any time in half a century.
Even so, the reduced crime has been accompanied in most recent years by an aggressive stop-and-frisk strategy that has made too many upstanding young people feel like presumptive criminals. And the long-struggling residents of gentrifying neighborhoods see the city’s great strides resulting in their being pushed out by an influx of white perennial college kids from beyond the Hudson River. A condo six blocks away from Concord Baptist church recently sold for $1.04 million. And just before de Blasio arrived on Sunday, a Caucasian couple with a stroller who seemed to imagine they live in a suburb without lawns had been complaining to a TV location person that they had been barred during the filming from parking outside their home.
“That’s a legal parking space,” the woman had said.
De Blasio now addressed the congregation with the central themes of his campaign. He spoke yet again of the Tale of Two Cites. He said white kids are seldom stopped by the cops, while kids of color are stopped again and again in what he described as an assault on their self-image. He spoke of taxing the rich to fund the schools. And he spoke about the need to keep community hospitals open.
“Heath care has to be local to help people,” he said. “Health care for all means a hospital you can actually get to in your community.”
Not unexpectedly, his sentiments resonated with the all-black congregation. The continuing surprise in the mayoral race has been his standing in the citywide polls. He is by some measures 30 points ahead of his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, ahead of the November 5 election. And that is despite revelations that in his younger years de Blasio was a supporter of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
De Blasio is managing to generate some support even among the rich he intends to tax. He was met with silence when he addressed the business leaders at the Association for a Better New York last year. But when he returned last week, he received nine rounds of applause even before he offered a newsmakingly moderate reply to a question from the audience about a hotel tax.
“I want to pleasantly shock the room and say I’m a fiscal conservative,” de Blasio said. “I’m a progressive-activist fiscal conservative, but I’m still a fiscal conservative.”
After his remarks at Concord Baptist on Sunday, he spoke with reporters outside the church and was asked about being a self-described “fiscal conservative.” His response was in keeping with the way he creased the paper on his arrival, saying he was aware of the need to maintain a balanced budget.
“I’m a fiscally responsible progressive,” he added, in a slight change of emphasis from earlier in the week. “I don’t want anybody to misunderstand my core.”
Just across the street, Soderbergh was preparing to shoot a scene for The Knick, using as a stand-in for the hospital the Romanesque edifice that was once Boys High, alma mater of Norman Mailer, Isaac Asimov, Aaron Copland, and Man Ray, among others.
The real life Knickerbocker Hospital in Harlem was renamed Logan Hospital and then torn down after becoming one of 25 community health facilities closed in 1979. That was just as New York was climbing out of a fiscal crisis resulting from overspending and fleeing business and other ills sometimes associated with Democrats. Those who protested the closing of the former Knick alleged that such cuts were being done “on the backs of the poor.”
“This is a rough neighborhood,” a storeowner named Roy Howard was quoted as saying at the time. “Friday and Saturday nights people get hurt around here, and Logan is the only place around that they can get cared for. Where are they going to go now?”
Such social unraveling made the city ready for 20 years of Republican mayors, two terms of Rudy Giuliani followed by three terms of Mike Bloomberg—the third made possible after he skirted a term-limit provision he had supported until it applied to him.
Some of de Blasio’s standing in the polls represents a visceral desire for change among voters who take many of Bloomberg’s accomplishments for granted and view him as a billionaire who essentially bought a third term. He seems to have inflamed the only remaining socially acceptable prejudice: resenting the rich.
But part of Lhota’s troubles can be traced to his party affiliation. That other billionaire, David Koch, has gotten considerable bang for his buck bankrolling the Tea Party, but the money he is pouring into a political action committee supporting Lhota might just as well be going straight into the sewers.
In New York, the word Republican these days does not mean historic lows in crime in the city streets. It means a government shutdown in Washington, D.C. That, along with sequestration, can only hurt the city.
And de Blasio did not waste an opportunity to use the R-word to describe his rival on Sunday.
“Joe Lhota’s a Republican…a lifelong Republican,” de Blasio said. “I don’t understand in this day and age how somebody could continue to be a Republican and say they want to help New York City.”
De Blasio then rode off in his SUV, leaving unasked and unanswered the question of how he will achieve the change that the voters so ardently desire and he so ardently promises without a rise in crime and taxes.
The danger is the city may fall back into the bad old days. Among other things, those days saw the end of the hospital that was at the forefront of medicine in the horse-drawn time depicted in The Knick.
But the hope is that New York will become not just the safest but also the most equitable of cities.
If de Blasio can manage that, he will be even bigger than Clive Owen.