TIMES SQUARE is the only neighbourhood in New York City where regulations require a minimum amount of display lighting. Before the pandemic, tourists flocked there to gawk at the dazzling lights or to take selfies with someone dressed as Elmo or Spiderman, or maybe with the guitar-strumming Naked Cowboy (who in fact wears Y-fronts). But for decades until the mid-1990s, New Yorkers and visitors alike avoided this “Crossroads of the World” because of its reputation for crime and drugs. On May 8th, when a gunfight erupted in Times Square and a toddler and two visitors were wounded, New Yorkers feared, not the first time, that their city was sliding back into its old ways.
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On promises to make New York’s lights shine brighter than ever, about a dozen Democrats are running for mayor, known as the second-toughest job in America. They are elbowing one another for attention from the city’s diminished media. New Yorkers are still struggling to keep track of their names, much less the fine points of policy that (sort of) distinguish them. The candidate leading in the polls is the one with the most name recognition, Andrew Yang, who competed for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, and who is positioning himself as the field’s tech-savvy moderate. He was quick to condemn the shooting, saying “everything is contingent upon whether our streets and our subways are safe”. The Democratic primary is on June 22nd, and it is likely to be decisive. There are two Republican candidates running, but Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city seven to one.
Typically mayoral candidates find themselves arguing about how to manage New York’s growth. This is the first election for a generation in which they are confronting the hazards of shrinkage. Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but even before the epidemic the population was declining very slightly. Last year it shrank by perhaps 300,000 people (an estimate from CBS, a broadcaster, based on postal changes of address). Perhaps more worrying, the Partnership for New York City, an industry group, surveyed the city’s big employers and found that only 10% of Manhattan’s office workers had returned to their desks by March. Employers expect only 46% of their people back at their desks by September, and they expect 56% will work remotely at least part of the time after that.
With so many commuters vanishing, thousands of small businesses have closed their doors, taking one out of every eight jobs with them. On once-busy commercial streets, storefronts are empty and dark. Though Broadway is set to reopen in September, the hospitality industry has taken a beating during the pandemic: more than seven in ten of those working in the sector lost work last year. Across the city, employment is not expected to recover its pre-pandemic levels before 2024.
Crime is still much lower than it was at its height three decades ago, but New Yorkers list it among their top three priorities for the next mayor, along with stopping the spread of covid-19 and kick-starting the economy. Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s borough president and a former policeman, is second in most polls and has made combating crime a focus. He compared gun violence to a virus. “If we do not inoculate against it now, it will spread and spread and it will mean the death of countless New Yorkers and the city we have built.” Fearmongering, perhaps, but also a sign of how fearful many constituents are. When Mr Adams recently strolled down Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Avenue, which he once patrolled, many passers-by shared their concerns about violence with him. “I’m afraid to walk to work,” said one Fed-Ex worker.
Crime is again confronting many American cities. But the next mayor will also face problems that are peculiar to New York. One is how to raise taxes enough to finance more spending without prompting more Wall Street firms to leave town. Several, including Blackstone, a private-equity giant, have already opened offices in Florida, where taxes are far lower.
Another New-York-specific problem is the subway, beset before the pandemic by delays caused by an ageing signal system and now seeing a decline of two-thirds in daily riders, which was 5.6m before covid-19 struck. New York’s governor actually has more control over the subway, which only makes the next mayor’s task harder: the city will not rebound if the subway doesn’t. Not only the virus but fear of crime is keeping New Yorkers from going down into the tunnels. The current mayor, Bill de Blasio, has felt it necessary to create a travel-buddy scheme for city employees.
New Yorkers have more reason than usual to master fine distinctions among all the candidates because this is the first big-city election to be decided by ranked-choice voting. Voters will be able to express their preference, in order, for up to five candidates. But whom to rank where?
Each candidate has a plan for the city’s recovery. Ray McGuire, a former Citigroup executive, says through measures like salary subsidies to small businesses he will bring back 500,000 jobs. He ticks a lot of boxes. He had a modest upbringing by a single mother, but at Citi he advised on transactions even bigger than the city’s $99bn budget. Several progressive candidates, including Dianne Morales, a former non-profit executive, are calling for new programmes and higher taxes on the wealthy. But the city cannot raise taxes without the state government’s approval, and New York City already faces the highest income-tax rate in the country.
Mr Yang has some intriguing ideas, and New York’s mayors are supposed to do things that other cities copy. But he stands apart mainly because the city likes a star: Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg were all well-known before they became mayors. Mr Yang has said he would hire Kathryn Garcia, an experienced problem-solver in city government, to help him run the place. Like a true New Yorker, Ms Garcia, who is also a candidate, shot back that Mr Yang could work for her. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Uncertainty and the city”