A City at the Crossroads
By Jonathan Mahler
Illustrations by Jorge Colombo
On the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 13, Sandra Lindsay, the head of critical-care nursing at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, stopped by work to check on the conversion of part of the children’s unit into an overflow area for critically ill Covid-19 patients. The second wave of the coronavirus had just hit New York, and the need for beds was surging. Lindsay’s day took an unexpected turn when the hospital’s chief nursing officer, Margaret Murphy, pulled her aside: The Food and Drug Administration had just approved emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. The first doses would be arriving at Long Island Jewish as early as the following morning. Was she interested in being inoculated?
Since the pandemic struck, no city in America had experienced more death or economic devastation than New York. It felt like a tragedy that would never end, and the disparity in the suffering between white New Yorkers and Black and Latino New Yorkers had revealed another, more intractable crisis: the ever-growing inequalities in wealth, well-being and opportunity that had come to define every aspect of life in the city.
Now, finally, it was possible to imagine an end to the suffering and maybe even the beginning of a new era. Across the centuries, New York City had thrown together people from every class, constituency, race and religion; it was, at its best, a place that welcomed everyone, and where anyone could make it, the teeming embodiment of American pluralism. To truly heal from the pandemic, it would need to reaffirm those values.
Sandra Lindsay, a nurse in Queens, in December became the first New Yorker — and first American — to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
Peter Foley/EPA, via Shutterstock
Lindsay’s story spoke directly to the promise of New York. Now 53, she moved to the city from Jamaica when she was 18, working first as a cashier in a supermarket near the Bronx apartment she shared with her mother and brother before earning an associate degree in nursing at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, part of the city’s public university system. Lindsay rose through the ranks at Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side, moving to Long Island Jewish in Queens in 2016. Her son was now grown, and she lived alone. During the pandemic, she worked 12- and even 16-hour days, caring for Covid patients, supervising overextended nurses, taking bodies to the morgue. One night, she returned home to her apartment feeling sick, convinced that she was going to be next. “I was afraid to close my eyes,” she told me. “I thought, Please, God, don’t let me die in here alone.” She was back at work the following morning.
After 10 solid months of hell, there was finally some hopeful news. That Sunday night, just a few hours after Lindsay had agreed to be inoculated, Onisis Stefas, the chief pharmacy officer for the hospital’s parent company, Northwell Health, received an email from Pfizer informing him that the first doses had been shipped for overnight delivery to Northwell’s hospital in Forest Hills, Queens. The email included a UPS tracking number, so he could follow the package’s progress from Pfizer’s plant in Kalamazoo, Mich., to a UPS depot in Louisville, Ky., and then on to Kennedy Airport. “I barely slept,” Stefas told me. “I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve.” He was at the loading dock of the Forest Hills hospital early the next morning as the UPS truck backed in. Stefas cut open the 66-pound box — “I still remember seeing all of the smoke from the dry ice” — removing a single vial from the tray inside. Once it had thawed, a security officer drove him 20 minutes to Long Island Jewish, the first doses sitting in a cooler in his lap.
Lindsay was waiting in her blue-and-white scrubs when he arrived. She had arrived at the hospital as instructed at 8:15, unsure what to expect; she figured that maybe someone from Northwell’s in-house newsletter would be there to document the event. Instead, she was greeted by what looked like every media outlet in the world. “We wanted it real, we wanted it raw and we wanted it in front of the American people,” Joe Kemp, Northwell’s assistant vice president for public relations, told me.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, now in his third term, arranged to livestream the event just before his regular Monday-morning news conference.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Gov. Andrew Cuomo was going to be part of this historic moment, too; he arranged to livestream the event just before his regular Monday-morning news conference. One of his senior advisers, Gareth Rhodes, called Lindsay as she waited nervously to tell her that this would not only be the first shot administered in New York. It would also be the first shot administered in the United States. “This is going to be a very big deal,” he said.
By June, more than 55 percent of adult New Yorkers would be fully vaccinated, outpacing most of the rest of the country. Lindsay’s shot would signal the beginning of the end of the pandemic. With all its fanfare, though, the hope seemed to be that the moment might just also mark the start of New York’s larger reawakening from the chronic inequalities that had made the suffering so much worse for so many people.
Lindsay took her seat in a large conference room. The governor suddenly materialized on a monitor facing her. Northwell’s director of employee services, Dr. Michelle Chester, rolled up Lindsay’s sleeve, punctured the tiny vial with a needle and slowly drew back the syringe. Millions of people were now watching. “The cameras started flashing, and I didn’t know which way to look,” Lindsay says. “So I just looked straight ahead at Governor Cuomo. I didn’t even feel it when Dr. Chester pierced my arm.”
New York was about to get a second chance.
Six months have passed since that first shot. Much of New York no longer looks all that different from the way it did before the pandemic. The masks are coming off. The subways are becoming crowded. People are eating indoors. Uber prices are surging. Spike Lee is courtside at Madison Square Garden — or was, until the Knicks’ season ended in disappointment. New York is returning to normal. But is normal what we want?
Nearly everything about the pandemic seemed to point directly at New York’s long-term failures. The city’s underresourced public hospitals lacked the capacity and the supplies they needed to meet the onslaught of critically ill patients. The paucity of affordable housing accelerated the spread of the virus through crowded apartments where isolating the ill was impossible. Many students in the public school system couldn’t participate in remote learning because they lacked the necessary devices or stable internet service. Hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers lost their jobs, even as the city’s wealthiest residents got vastly richer — during the early months of the pandemic, the collective wealth of New York State’s 118 billionaires grew by $45 billion. Who lived and who died largely came down to two factors: your race and your income. Month after month we were shown a grim X-ray of the perverse inequities that had been eating away at the city’s body politic for decades.
The roots of today’s divided New York can be traced back to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. With manufacturing and tourism in decline, the city’s tax base was shrinking, prompting cuts to services like policing and garbage collection. Middle-class New Yorkers began fleeing to the suburbs. Immigration was slowing, further limiting economic growth. New York was going broke. The city’s sprawling network of public institutions, subsidized housing and mass transit were no longer the tent poles of a great working-class city; they were unaffordable emblems of the excesses of big government.
In the 1970s, the city ran out of money, and its sprawling network of public institutions, subsidized housing and mass transit began its long decline.
Washington refused to bail the city out. Instead, it was the private sector that came to the rescue. In the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia spent his Sundays driving around New York, thinking of things his government could build. Fifty years later, the city’s leaders left it to private actors, offering generous incentives to anyone who would build something, employ someone or help repair some public institution. By the most visible measures, the plan worked. Old single-room-occupancy hotels became luxury co-ops; new glass skyscrapers like Trump Tower rose; neighborhoods were rediscovered and reinvented. Central Park was reborn. People from all over the world again flocked to the city, to visit and to live. But there was a problem. What had been a blueprint for emergency action had become the playbook for managing the city.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia spent Sundays in the 1930s driving around the city, thinking of things to build.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
By the turn of the 21st century, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, took office, New York City had been transformed. In its new conception and incarnation, it was — in Bloomberg’s 2003 phrase — a “luxury product.” The idea was that wealthy corporations should pay a premium to be in the city, and in so doing would help subsidize services for the poor. Developers were allowed to build ever-bigger luxury apartment buildings as long as a percentage of units was priced below the market rate. Failing schools, like the unprofitable divisions of a corporation, were identified and closed. Bioscience and high-tech companies flocked to New York, joining its countless financial firms. Wall Street boomed and property values soared, drawing foreign investors who parked their fortunes in constantly appreciating New York City real estate.
As the city grew richer, its tax base expanded, but it could not keep pace with the growing needs of a vast majority of its residents, who now faced higher rents — property values in Central Harlem rose 222 percent while Bloomberg was in office — and increased living expenses. Inequality continued to widen: Between 1980 and 2013, the end of Bloomberg’s tenure, the income share of the city’s richest 1 percent rose to nearly 40 percent from 12 percent, according to James Parrott, an economist at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said wealthy companies should pay a premium to be in New York, calling the city in 2003 a “luxury product.”
John Moore/Getty Images
In his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, Gov. Mario Cuomo drew a stark contrast between President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” and another city, one in which people were sleeping “in the gutter” — “guttah,” in Cuomo’s Queens-ese — “where the glitter doesn’t show.” Countless politicians have trotted out the “two cities” metaphor since then, usually without much success. But when Bill de Blasio built his 2013 mayoral campaign around this theme, it finally seemed to resonate. Standing on the steps of City Hall at his 2014 inauguration, he vowed to take “take dead aim” at the “Tale of Two Cities.” And New York’s poor did participate in the staggering economic growth during the years that followed. The city’s minimum wage doubled, and unemployment rates were lower than they had been in decades. But the pandemic has revealed how fragile and limited that progress was.
There’s an opportunity now to redirect, to use this new awareness to make New York a better, fairer place. The city is emerging not only from the pandemic but also from a year during which tens of thousands of New Yorkers poured into the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd by a public servant whose very job was to protect him. It is awash in federal recovery money that would have been inconceivable just a year ago. Donald Trump — as fitting a symbol of the luxury city as there is — is out of office. The city is on the brink of electing a new mayor. Its City Council, which exerts considerable sway over New York’s neighborhoods, is also up for grabs; two-thirds of its 51 seats are turning over, attracting a flood of first-time candidates. It feels possible to think very differently about how the city works and for whom; about how it approaches development, education, health care, criminal justice, transportation, even its cultural institutions. I’ve lived in New York for more than 30 years and have been writing about it for nearly as long. I can’t think of another time in the city’s modern history when its future felt more alive with possibility.
When it works, New York is the purest expression of America’s promise. It’s a place where a certain alchemy of risk-taking, ambition, hard work and simple chance can transform lives. But this can’t happen with two distinct, disconnected social and economic ecosystems. Unifying the city is not just a moral imperative; it’s also a practical one. It’s New York’s anything-can-happen-ness that gives the city its unique dynamism and greatness. Once everyone’s destiny is predetermined, that dynamism dies, and New York is just another stratified supercity.
What will New York do with this moment? I spent the last six months traveling around the city, talking to people who are trying to shape its post-pandemic future. What became clear, no matter whom I was talking to or what we were talking about, was that we were really talking about one of two things: real estate or schools. In a city as dense and yet divided as New York, everything flows from where you live and where you, or your children, go to school. More than anything, these factors define your quality of life and your prospects for improving it. It’s within these two realms that the city’s divisions are the starkest and the possibilities for transformation most profound. To grasp the truth of their fundamental importance, you need only follow the money: Where does it come from, and where does it go? It used to come from manufacturing and shipping, but real estate gradually took over. Today property and other real-estate-related taxes provide more than half of the city’s annual tax revenues. Much of this money goes to the public schools, which account for 37 percent of the city’s yearly expenses, more than any other line item. If a different future is possible for New York, if Sandra Lindsay is to be more than just an empty symbol, it will begin with what the city does with its real estate and its schools.
New York City has historically built itself out of crises, and development will be a critical economic engine in the months and years ahead. But history also provides a cautionary tale: The audacious investment and growth that have often followed the city’s darkest moments — from the skyscraper boom of the 1980s to the post-9/11 explosion in luxury condos — helped create the very fault lines exposed by the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus.
For New York and other cities, there’s an often-unavoidable tension between planning that benefits neighborhoods and planning that maximizes revenues. You need only look at projects like Hudson Yards, with its constellation of skyscrapers and its 720,000-square-foot high-end shopping mall, to see how this tension has been resolved in recent decades. Real estate developers have always enjoyed close relationships with city officials and leveraged those relationships for financial gain; in the 1970s, a young Donald Trump exploited his developer father’s ties to City Hall to obtain a huge tax break for his first hotel. But as the city’s economy grew more and more dependent on property taxes, the political power of developers increased. The relationship was symbiotic and transactional: The real estate industry donated tens of millions of dollars to political candidates and in turn received tax subsidies and rezonings that allowed them to build ever-taller towers. Even before the pandemic, some state and city legislators and activists were pushing back against developers’ control over the cityscape, arguing that too often their projects were accelerating gentrification — in effect, benefiting one city at the expense of the other. Rejecting their donations has now become a kind of litmus test for progressive political candidates.
In the ’80s, the city turned increasingly to private developers to direct the city’s growth. New glass skyscrapers like Trump Tower rose, and cities were again the future of America — at least for those who could afford them.
Building has always been a fraught process in New York, and it wasn’t always private developers who were at the center of the battle: In the postwar era, neighborhood activists fought the planning-and-construction czar Robert Moses’ sweeping plans to reshape the city. In New York, land has always been hotly contested, because there’s so little of it. You can see how this dynamic has played out across the city, but in recent times there’s one neighborhood — and one family — that has brought all of these competing forces and considerations into especially sharp relief.
Robert Moses, New York’s planning-and-construction czar, reshaped the city in the mid-20th century by mastering its arcane rules and regulations.
Archive Photos/Getty Images
In the 1930s, an Iowa-born engineer named Louis Pfohl developed a new method of shaping plastic that he called “thermoforming.” Out of a single factory in Flushing, Queens, he manufactured, among other things, models of Allied and Axis fighter planes for the U.S. military during World War II. Business was booming when in 1949, Moses invoked the city’s powers of eminent domain to seize the land beneath Pfohl’s factory. Pfohl built a new one in Long Island City — specifically, on Anable Basin, a 1,000-foot artificial inlet carved into the Queens side of the East River waterfront.
At the time, Long Island City was nearing the end of its long run as a shipping-and-manufacturing hub. Even as many of the neighboring factories closed and the area became increasingly deserted, Pfohl never doubted that it would have another life. So he started buying up properties and buildings adjacent to his factory. Pfohl died in 1986, before his bet on the future of the neighborhood could be vindicated, but his grandchildren have since inherited the land, which includes 12.7 acres of waterfront property along the basin. “It’s one of the last great undeveloped sites in New York City,” his granddaughter Paula Kirby told me in March in the company’s wood-paneled offices in Long Island City.
Paula Kirby’s family relocated their factory to the Long Island City waterfront in 1950; now their main business is real estate.
From Paula Kirby
Kirby, a former executive at Prada, first tried to develop her family’s land on Anable Basin in 2017. Her initial $3 billion plan featured a soaring 70-story waterfront apartment tower, affordable housing — as mandated by the city when a neighborhood is being “upzoned” for development — and some commercial space and an esplanade. While the project was working its way through the city’s approval process, Amazon announced that it was looking for a site for a new corporate headquarters. Kirby and other local property and business owners pitched Long Island City.
She could hardly believe it when Amazon sent a team of executives for a tour, and was even more surprised when she learned in late 2018 that her group had won. “They could see the potential for this area that we could see,” she told me. By now, we had left the office. New York State had just expanded vaccine availability to anyone 50 or over, and people were lined up outside an empty art studio that Kirby had rented to the city to use as a vaccination center. The Democratic mayoral primary — for all intents and purposes, the general election, as there are no viable Republicans running — was three months away, and the celebrity candidate Andrew Yang was leading the polls. Earlier that month, President Biden had signed a $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue package that would send desperately needed money to the states, though how much of that money would make its way to cities — and this city — was still anyone’s guess.
In the postwar era, New York was a working- class city, its infrastructure shaped by the New Deal and, especially along the waterfront, the needs and desires of manufacturers.
The question with the Amazon deal, as it always is with development, was who would benefit. Certainly, developers and speculators: The news set off a feeding frenzy in Long Island City’s already booming real estate market, driving up property rates before ground was even broken. But what about the neighborhood’s existing residents? Just a few blocks north of Anable Basin is Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in the country, whose residents had enjoyed few of the economic benefits of Long Island City’s renaissance. Its tenant leaders were initially wary of Amazon but were ready to welcome the company to Queens if it committed to training Queensbridge tenants for some of the 25,000 six-figure jobs that it was planning to bring to the area. Amazon, a $1.5 trillion company that had been promised $3 billion in city and state tax breaks to move to New York, had pledged to invest only $5 million in work-force development and was unwilling to make any guarantees about hiring locally.
In February 2019, in the face of protests and rancorous City Council hearings, Amazon announced that it was pulling out of Long Island City. It was a victory for activism and street-level organization, but it came with a risk. The growing resistance to development in the city — fueled, partly, by the defeat of the Amazon deal — could hold back New York’s economic recovery. This resistance is often driven less by broader concerns over how a given project will affect the local community than by pure NIMBYism, whether that means preserving your views or protecting the value of your property by preventing an influx of new residents.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, now in his second and final term, has proposed the biggest budget in New York City history.
Photograph from the Associated Press
After Amazon pulled out of Anable Basin, Kirby and a few of her neighbors responded to the city’s request for yet another proposal for the area. This time, they conducted a series of workshops with the local community before finalizing their plan. In addition to market-rate housing, the plan included some affordable housing, schools, commercial space and parks. It was rejected last fall by the de Blasio administration, which argued that it still did not provide enough infrastructure funding for the broader area. Kirby’s family could just sell the land, no doubt for hundreds of millions of dollars, but she is determined to try again under the city’s next mayor, who she hopes will be friendlier to development. “We’ve been here for 75 years,” she told me, “and we plan to be here for 75 more.”
Long Island City went through a building boom in recent years, as wealth spilled out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn and Queens. It is emerging from the pandemic with a glut of vacant high-end apartments, including the tallest residential building in Queens: the recently completed 67-story Skyline Tower. Its 802 units just hit the market, with prices ranging from $500,000 to $4 million. These apartments are out of reach to a vast majority of New Yorkers, including the largely Black and Hispanic tenants of nearby Queensbridge, where the median family income is under $16,000.
Residents of Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in the country, lived just a few blocks from the proposed site of a new Amazon headquarters, but they had little hope of getting many of the 25,000 six-figure jobs the company had promised.
This juxtaposition suggests another way to think about the two cities. One is a city of homeowners, who effectively own a share of New York’s explosive growth. The other is a city of renters, giving an ever-larger portion of their incomes to their landlords. Homeownership rates are much higher among white and Asian New Yorkers than Black and Latino New Yorkers; Black homeownership has yet to fully recover from the 2008 recession, despite the economy’s explosive growth in recent years. Things may get even worse in the months ahead. The city’s pandemic-era eviction moratorium is set to expire this summer, which could leave a lot of New Yorkers with staggering debts from months of unpaid rent. Wealth generates more wealth, and if you’re not in the game, you’re losing. There’s no mystery about who’s winning and who’s losing in New York right now.
New York’s Board of Education first identified segregation as an urgent problem for the city in 1954, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, explicitly stating that public education in “a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of democratic education.” In other words, if the city was failing to bring together all its students under one collective roof, it was failing to provide them with a fundamental requirement of a democratic society: the opportunity for mobility. A master plan for integration was drawn up. It went nowhere. A decade later, more than 460,000 students and teachers staged a walkout to protest the city’s failure to desegregate in what was one of the largest civil rights demonstrations of the era. By the late ’60s, with the integration movement stalled and the city starving majority-Black schools of resources, some frustrated communities started demanding greater control over their school districts. There were more protests, citywide teachers’ strikes and rising racial tension, but again no meaningful change. As the decades passed, the schools became increasingly separate and unequal. Today one of the most diverse cities on the planet has one of the most segregated school systems in the country: More than half of New York’s schools are at least 90 percent Black and Latino. They are separated by more than just school buildings. Black and Latino students as a group perform far worse on state test scores than white and Asian American students, and they graduate from high school at a much lower rate.
Richard Carranza, who stepped down as chancellor of New York City’s public schools in March, left them no more integrated or equal than he had found them.
New York City Office of the Mayor, via Associated Press.
When Richard Carranza, who had run the school systems in Houston and San Francisco, was named chancellor of New York City’s public schools in 2018, he vowed to change this. He stepped down on March 12, moving back to Houston, and now works for an educational-software company that helped facilitate the city’s remote instruction during the pandemic. Carranza left the city’s schools basically no more integrated or equal than he had found them. “I did as much as I could,” he told me recently. “I can’t live regretting what didn’t happen.”
New York City’s public schools receive a portion of their funding from the state, which has broad discretion about how much money to allocate to them. In 1993, Robert Jackson, the president of Community School Board 6 in northern Manhattan, concluded that the state was unconstitutionally underfunding New York City’s system, and that resource-starved schools in Black and Latino districts were suffering the most from this lack of investment. He sued the state, arguing that it was violating its obligation to provide a sound basic education to all its children. After eight years, Jackson finally won. But the year after the state came up with a new budget formula that would provide 20 percent more funding to schools with high concentrations of poverty, the 2008 recession hit. The money was no longer there.
Robert Jackson, a community school board president, sued the state in 1993 claiming unequal school funding and won — only to see overall funding gutted by the 2008 financial crisis.
Jude Domski/Getty Images
The city’s own education policies have also failed to directly address segregation and have frequently only made it worse. Concerned about the flight of middle-class families to the suburbs in the 1970s, New York, with start-up money from a private foundation, created a Gifted and Talented program that students could test into at age 4. Whether or not the program helped slow white flight, it certainly further divided the city’s student body: In a school system that’s roughly 70 percent Black and Latino, some 75 percent of the students in G.&T. elementary school programs are white and Asian American. Mayor Bloomberg’s business-centric approach to the schools — focusing on the values of choice, competition and accountability — was intended to lift up everyone but only further stratified the system. Charter schools skimmed off the most motivated families, and new algorithms designed to match students with schools screened many Black and Latino students out of the city’s top-performing high schools.
After Sept. 11, Mayor Michael Bloomberg overhauled Lower Manhattan, even as inequality widened: Between 1980 and the end of Bloomberg’s tenure, the income share of the city’s richest 1 percent had more than tripled.
Carranza’s agenda was ambitious. Among other things, he wanted to stop the practice of labeling 4-year-olds as gifted and talented — or, conversely, average — and to eliminate the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, which the state requires students take to gain entry to the city’s most selective high schools. (This year, only eight of 749 spots at the hypercompetitive Stuyvesant High School were offered to Black students.) But Carranza was in many ways his own worst enemy. Last year, he came under fire for directing too much of New York’s $34 billion school budget to high-priced consultants, and for mocking the concerns of parents who worried that dismantling the city’s testing regime or reserving seats for underperforming students in strong middle schools could hurt the educational opportunities for their children. “I never felt a sense of anger,” Carranza told me. “I felt a sense of sadness: How did we get to a point where these systems that are so obviously broken are just accepted?”
The criticisms of Carranza’s leadership intensified during the pandemic. After a summer filled with constantly shifting plans for the upcoming school year, the first day was delayed twice. Schools finally began opening their doors in late September but closed them again in November when the city’s positivity rate hit 3 percent, under an agreement with the teachers’ union. Staggered reopenings followed, beginning with elementary schools, but families who didn’t opt for in-person learning that fall were told they had to remain remote, at least until late in the school year.
One hallmark of a divided city is that its problems become self-compounding. Structures are built that lock them into place, making even incremental change difficult. Once you effectively have two school systems — one desirable and one not — how do you even begin to merge them when for many parents that could mean compromising your child’s education? The pandemic brutally exposed all of the deeply embedded differences between the two student populations. Some had apartments large enough to accommodate students attending school from home. Others didn’t. Some students had iPads, laptops and high-speed internet access. Others didn’t. There was also the uneven toll of the virus itself. Even as many white families sent their children back at the first available opportunity, many Black and Latino families opted to keep theirs at home. Of the 100 biggest school districts in America, New York City’s school system already spends the most per capita. It will need more money than ever now in order to even begin to remediate the loss of learning over the last year-plus.
Carranza remains optimistic about the prospects for desegregation. “It’s possible that it just requires a new and different kind of conversation,” he told me. Maybe. But talk will not be enough to reverse 70 years of New York history. That’s going to take a lot more, and it will require recognizing that the problem is not just the schools; it’s the city. Why does New York spend so much money on its students? The answer is that 73 percent of them qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch; 20 percent of them have special needs; 13 percent of them are still learning to speak English; and 9 percent of them — more than 100,000 children — live in temporary housing or homeless shelters. New York spends so much money serving the needs of its students because it is failing to meet the needs of its neighborhoods.
In the 1970s, the South Bronx became an international symbol of urban decay, Exhibit A for the argument that cities were no longer worth trying to save. The neighborhood was so burned-out and depopulated, and the city so broke, that one city housing official, Roger Starr, proposed starving it of resources and letting it die. “Planned shrinkage,” he called the idea. Today the neighborhood’s population is again booming, fueled largely by the arrival of successive waves of immigrants from Latin America and Africa. Some 97 percent of its residents are Black and Latino or Hispanic. But it remains poor — in fact, as recently as 2017, it formed the bulk of the poorest congressional district in the country. Median household income in the South Bronx is $27,100, less than half that of the city as a whole.
In a city where money translates into political power, the South Bronx has been historically vulnerable to the sorts of self-perpetuating urban-planning decisions that make it very difficult for neighborhoods to alter their trajectories. There are nine waste-transfer sites in the South Bronx, as well as a 630,000-square-foot Fresh Direct warehouse — the company was lured there by $130 million in incentives from the city and state — from which a large fleet of diesel trucks comes and goes every day, adding still more pollution to an area that sits at the nexus of four highways. All of this helps explain why the Bronx has the worst health outcomes of any county in New York State, with high rates of asthma, hypertension and diabetes.
It also helps explain why residents in some areas of the South Bronx were dying at more than twice the rate of those in other parts of the city during the peak of the pandemic. The health crisis was accompanied by an economic one: Unemployment in the Bronx rose to nearly 25 percent last year, and was surely much higher in the South Bronx, the borough’s poorest section. “We’d been telling the city for years that they were planning a disaster,” Monxo López, a local community activist, told me one afternoon in late March. “Our health infrastructure is failing, our schools are failing, our businesses are treading water.”
While the coronavirus slowed most of the city to a crawl, commuting from poorer neighborhoods of the Bronx — the borough with the highest rates of Covid hospitalizations and deaths — largely held steady, because so many essential workers lived in them.
López was standing on the stoop of his red-brick rowhouse on Alexander Avenue in the enclave of Mott Haven, a block once known as the Irish Fifth Avenue because it was home to so many Irish doctors. López was born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to New York in 1999 to get his Ph.D. in political science at the City University of New York. He lives just a few doors down from the 40th Precinct station house, which was at the center of one of last summer’s most violent crackdowns on protests against police brutality. Human Rights Watch reconstructed the events of the night in a 99-page report, detailing how dozens of officers trapped a group of protesters using a method called “kettling.” More than 260 people were arrested, and many were beaten and pepper-sprayed.
It says a lot about the enormous sums being made on property in New York that even a neighborhood as blighted as the South Bronx has been drawing land speculators for years. In 2006, the real estate doyenne Barbara Corcoran named it one of the five “hottest” markets in the country. Nine years later, a pair of developers bought two properties beside the Harlem River, with plans to build a cluster of high-end apartment towers there and rebrand the area “the Piano District,” evoking its 19th-century history as a center for piano manufacturing. “Luxury waterfront living,” a prominent billboard at the time promised. The buildings never materialized, but the developers sold the property a few years later for nearly three times what they paid for it.
Monxo López helped found a nonprofit community land trust in the South Bronx, one of more than a dozen in neighborhoods around the city.
The long-predicted gentrification still hasn’t arrived in the South Bronx, but housing prices have nevertheless risen. By the definition of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a family is “cost-burdened” if it spends more than 30 percent of its income on rent. A substantial number of the South Bronx’s residents spend more than half of their income on rent, effectively freezing them below the poverty line. Very few of its residents are building equity in their homes: As a borough, the Bronx has the lowest homeownership rates in the city; as of 2019, it was around 20 percent. “This neighborhood has been planned on over and over again for 50 years,” López told me. “The question is, How do you break that cycle? How do you begin planning in different ways?”
His own answer goes back to one of the central questions of a city: Who decides what to do with the land? López is a co-founder of a nonprofit community land trust in the South Bronx, Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards, one of more than a dozen scattered in neighborhoods around the city. Land trusts take a very different approach toward growth than private developers. Rather than maximizing the profitability of a piece of land, they seek to place it in a trust and develop it in partnership with the local community. The Cooper Square Community Land Trust, on the Lower East Side, has existed for three decades, but in recent years, the movement has started spreading across the rest of the city.
Much of its energy is focused on creating housing that will be affordable to even the city’s poorest citizens. The East Harlem Community Land Trust recently purchased four buildings that would probably otherwise have been bought by a private developer and converted into market-rate apartments; now they will provide 38 affordable rental apartments to local residents, including four homeless families. But land trusts also help communities build and retain equity. A group called the Interboro Community Land Trust recently bought the Brooklyn homes of two African American families facing the threat of foreclosure, placing the land in trust and leasing it back to the families. The arrangement allows the families to keep their houses and also performs a neat accounting trick, limiting the resale value of the homes so they will be affordable to future buyers.
López took me to see what he hopes will be the first project for his land trust: an empty Department of Health building that he has been lobbying City Hall to allow him to turn into a community center. It looked as if the local community had already started taking control of the building: One of its outer walls was covered with an impressionistic mural painted two years ago, a memorial to the children who had been separated from their families at the border.
Community land trusts may represent just a tiny counterforce in the face of the powerful currents that drive real estate and development in New York; they certainly don’t scale as easily as private development, with its access to billions of investment dollars. But the very fact that they exist shows that there are alternative ways to think about land use in the city. There will certainly be a lot of distressed real estate on the market in New York in the months ahead. The City Council member Brad Lander has proposed that instead of allowing private investors to buy it all up, the city itself should purchase at least some of the properties and place them in “land banks” for community-driven development.
For now, community land trusts are not more than small pockets of possibility in the vast cityscape. López showed me one such pocket on a tiny piece of land under the Major Deegan Expressway. The property is owned by the Department of Transportation, but it is being used as a community garden. There was nothing blooming yet in the flower beds, but there was a small stage for performances, solar panels and a picnic table that local activists had been using for meetings during the pandemic. In this urban garden with trucks rumbling loudly overhead, it seemed self-evident that giving communities more control over what happens to their neighborhoods would make the neighborhoods better. But this is not exactly the same thing as unifying the two cities. That would require thinking differently not only about land but also about how prosperity is created.
When New York’s first public college opened its doors in the middle of the 19th century, it represented a radical experiment in democracy. Unlike private colleges, the Free Academy of the City of New York, now City College, accepted anyone — or all men, that is — who qualified for admission, regardless of race, class or religion. It also did not charge tuition. This was not an act of charity. The idea was not only that a high-quality education should be a basic right in New York but also that the better educated the city’s residents were, the more prosperous it would become. Today the City University of New York system comprises 25 campuses sprawling across all five boroughs and educates as many as 275,000 students each year.
Over the course of its long history, and often against the odds, CUNY has been an unceasing engine of mobility for New Yorkers. For decades, many of those New Yorkers were Jewish immigrants or children of Jewish immigrants who were shut out of anti-Semitic Ivy League schools, earning City College the nickname “the Jewish Harvard.” In 1969, a group of Black and Puerto Rican students padlocked the gates of City College to protest Black and Latino underrepresentation. More protests followed on other campuses, and their voices were soon heard: CUNY in 1970 adopted new admissions policies designed in part to increase enrollment among students of color. In just a few years, the number of Black and Puerto Rican students in the system tripled.
Just as the gates to CUNY were flung open, it started charging tuition. The decision, made in 1976, was part of a regime of budget cuts that often seemed to find their way to institutions that benefited people of color. A history of underfunding, one that ran parallel to a growing politicization of “big government,” ensued. Between 2009 and 2020, a decade of tremendous growth for New York, CUNY’s four-year colleges saw a substantial inflation-adjusted reduction in direct operating aid per full-time equivalent student, according to the Professional Staff Congress, a union that represents many of CUNY’s employees.
The cumulative effect of this divestment is clear in the system’s frequently overcrowded classes — often taught by underpaid adjunct professors — and decaying facilities. The ongoing neglect of CUNY is part of a broader neglect of New York’s public institutions and infrastructure, including its subway system and its public housing. Here is yet another way to think about the two cities: One is filled with well-capitalized and well-cared-for private institutions, the other with struggling public ones.
Even with its limited resources, CUNY keeps transforming lives: A recent study written in part by the economist Raj Chetty, “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,” found that CUNY lifted almost six times as many low-income students into the middle-class and beyond than all eight Ivy League schools, as well as a handful of other elite private universities, combined. Their success is New York’s success. A city study found that CUNY graduates working in New York State earned $57 billion in 2019 and contributed to the state an estimated $4.2 billion in income taxes. A founder of Intel, the City College graduate Andy Grove, has described the school as “an American-dream machine.”
It has never been easy for CUNY to keep that machine running, but the pandemic brought even greater challenges. Governor Cuomo withheld 20 percent of New York State’s scheduled contribution to CUNY in anticipation of large state budget deficits; the system lost dozens of faculty members and administrators to the virus; and an alarming number of its students were suddenly in danger of dropping out. “To do the kind of work CUNY does means that you will experience whatever New York City experiences,” Dara Byrne, the associate provost for undergraduate retention and dean of undergraduate studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told me in March.
John Jay has a unique identity within the CUNY system. It was founded in 1964 as the College of Police Science, a college for aspiring police officers. Over the decades that followed, it gradually evolved into a more traditional liberal-arts college — expanding its emphasis on criminal justice to one on justice more broadly — but it retains a close relationship with the New York Police Department. A twisted steel beam that once supported one of the World Trade Center towers is prominently displayed inside the school’s large building on Manhattan’s West Side, a memorial to its 67 alumni who lost their lives on Sept. 11. Criminal justice remains by far the school’s most popular major, and many of its students go on to join the N.Y.P.D. Its student body is 16 percent Black and 51 percent Latino, and includes students from more than 130 different nations, many of whom are either DACA recipients or related to one. A considerable number of its graduates go on to become lawyers: Every year, more Black and Latino students apply to law school from John Jay than from all but a handful of other colleges.
Dara Byrne, an associate provost at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, spent the pandemic working to keep students from dropping out.
From Dara Byrne
Byrne got her Ph.D. at Howard University before moving to New York in 2002. She had tenure-track offers from multiple public and private research universities, but she chose John Jay. It’s a central part of her job to make sure that students stay at the school and eventually graduate, ideally in four years. Even in pre-pandemic times, this could be a challenge, given the economic pressures faced by John Jay’s student body. Most of its 13,000 undergraduates come from households that earn less than about $40,000 a year, and before the pandemic many worked at least 21 hours a week. They are often first-generation collegegoers. “When students at John Jay leave, they don’t easily come back,” Byrne told me. “The idea is to prevent them from leaving.”
One of the first things she did after the pandemic hit was to enroll in a program in emergency management at John Jay’s department of security, fire and emergency management. The pandemic, with all its many related challenges, was obviously very different from any sort of emergency that the department had confronted in the recent past. “An academic disaster was something we needed to spend time thinking through,” Byrne said. She assembled what she calls an “academic recovery team” to reach out to students who were struggling academically because of the pandemic. John Jay raised more than $70,000 from private donors so that 250 students who were employed as essential workers or whose lives were otherwise directly affected by the coronavirus could attend summer classes free and make up missed coursework. In January, the school used federal Covid relief money to relieve the debts of students who could not register for the spring semester because they still owed the school money for the fall semester; in some cases, the unpaid balances were as little as $100.
Despite all of Byrne’s efforts, at the current rate of attrition, John Jay is on track to lose more than 25 percent of the students who entered the school last fall by the start of the 2021-22 school year. The dropout rates have been especially high among Black and Latino students. By late March, Byrne was worried that the students who had managed to remain at John Jay and pass their classes were not where they should be, academically, after a year of virtual learning and the trauma of the pandemic.
Would she be able to help them catch up? Biden’s recovery package provided states with a lot of money, but would Cuomo steer any of it to CUNY, or would he go ahead with his stated plans to make budget cuts to the system? “There’s no good place to take money from,” Byrne told me. “Where are we taking it from? Instruction? Academic support for students? We’re a school. We’re not spending money on flowers. We’re spending it on learning.”
On April 19, Cuomo signed the biggest budget, by far, in the history of the state: $209 billion. For the last decade, Cuomo had kept a tight grip on spending, cutting costs wherever he could and insisting that the budget never increase more than 2 percent in a given year. The new budget represented an increase of roughly 12 percent. The age of austerity was over.
In a sense, Cuomo had no other choice. Biden’s recovery package had sent $123 billion to New York as a whole, with $12.7 billion going directly to Albany, a recognition of the fact that no state had been hit harder by the pandemic. Cities, generally, had suffered more economic damage than rural areas, but New York’s role as a gateway for international travelers, along with its unique density and its dependence on tourism, nightlife and the activity generated by daily commuters, had made the shutdown all the more devastating. Forty-five years after the infamous “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” headline appeared on the cover of The Daily News, Washington had a very different message for New York.
Budgets are essentially political documents, and this one was very much a product of the shifting ground in Albany. A new wave of progressive state legislators who swept into office after the 2018 and 2020 elections pressured Cuomo to substantially increase the size of his own proposed budget. And because Cuomo was now being accused of having concealed the number of Covid deaths in the state’s nursing homes — not to mention facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment — he had very little leverage to resist them. The final budget was $13 billion more than the one Cuomo initially proposed.
Most notable, the progressive wing of the Legislature had managed to push through some $2.8 billion in new taxes on the state’s richest residents. The prospect of new wealth taxes had set off a furious debate across the city. Activists held rallies and blanketed social media with #TaxTheRich posts, noting that the state’s tax code had long favored its wealthy residents and powerful lobbyists: Cuomo’s 2016 budget, for instance, included a tax break for yachts. Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, which represents some of the city’s most prominent business leaders, served as the principal spokeswoman for the other side. In interviews and opinion pieces, she said new wealth taxes would only hurt the city by driving away the rich, which would be crushing for the state, given that the top 2 percent of its earners pay about half of its income taxes.
The pandemic was proof of concept that many rich New Yorkers didn’t need to be in New York to get richer. Billion-dollar money managers like Paul Singer were already relocating to Florida, which has no personal income taxes. More would certainly follow if rich New York was forced to pay more to help poor New York, or so the argument went. In fact, there were signs that most of the city’s rich weren’t going anywhere. Days before the new budget was signed, The Wall Street Journal reported that Manhattan’s residential real estate market had just experienced its biggest one-month boom in 14 years.
The state’s new budget would deliver billions of dollars to workers who hadn’t qualified for federal aid, including undocumented workers, many of whom staffed the bars and restaurants that would be critical to the city’s recovery. (“Woke insanity,” said the chairman of New York’s Republican Party, Nick Langworthy.) The budget also directed billions in relief to tenants who were behind on rent payments and utility bills and at risk of eviction. The budget at least partially restored the 20 percent in funding that had been withheld from CUNY early in the pandemic, eliminated other proposed cuts to the system and ensured a three-year tuition freeze. But the biggest winner may have been New York City’s public schools: The state was at last going to deliver all of the funding that it had long owed the city; more than 1,000 high-poverty schools serving some 700,000 students would have substantially bigger budgets to help them address the legacy of the pandemic.
De Blasio, who was already being treated to the spectacle of the ongoing public humiliation of his longtime nemesis in Albany, was now flush with cash to finally make good on his pledge to unify the two New Yorks. In late April, he released his own record-breaking budget for the city, $98.6 billion, his last after what would soon be eight years in office. De Blasio did not leave anything on the table. Among many other things, he reversed pandemic-era cuts to garbage and compost collections and announced plans to implement countless expensive new programs, including free preschool for all 3-year-olds and a New Deal-inspired cleanup corps 10,000 people strong to help beautify the city’s streets, not only picking up garbage but also painting murals and tending to community gardens. It was the stuff of another era, when the city’s government still drove its agenda and New York still aspired to be a working-class utopia. “We have a radical investment in working families,” de Blasio said. “We’ve never seen anything like this in generations in this city, focusing on working people, on families, on kids, in ways that we just haven’t even imagined in so many years.”
The Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan organization that makes fiscal policy recommendations for the city, warned that de Blasio was endangering the city’s future. How would it pay for all of these new programs and employees once all the money was gone? Why wasn’t he setting aside more money to cover future budget deficits? Wasn’t this just the sort of unsustainable municipal largess that could threaten the city’s very survival?
These would all be someone else’s problems.
The last time New York had such a wide-open, high-stakes mayoral race was 1977. The decaying, depopulated city was emerging from a crisis then too, or at least hoping to: the fiscal death spiral that followed years of overspending. Ed Koch, a former City College student then serving in Congress, tacked right to win over low-income white voters who were worried about the city’s surging crime rates. He defeated Mario Cuomo, Bella Abzug and several others. In his inaugural address, Koch invited “urban pioneers” to help him reinvent New York, and many did. In a sense, it was Koch who set the city on its current path, and to a large extent, he didn’t have any other options. After its brush with bankruptcy, New York was effectively being run by a “crisis regime” of boards appointed by the state. Koch’s mandate was unambiguous: Cut spending and provide incentives to the private sector to generate growth.
Ed Koch became mayor in 1978, when the South Bronx was an international symbol of urban decay.
Dan Goodrich/Newsday, via Getty Images
New York is facing daunting economic uncertainty now as well. And yet this moment is very different. There’s the huge windfall from Washington, but also the benefit of hindsight. The path New York chose all those decades ago produced an enormous amount of prosperity, but only for one part of the city, which accumulated ever more riches and resources, powers and privileges. Is there anyone among the mayoral candidates who, once this crisis recedes, will be able to chart a new course for the city that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past?
With his name recognition and relentlessly upbeat, tech-bro appeal, Andrew Yang had been the front-runner since he entered the race in January. But in May he was overtaken by Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, in a poll of 500 likely primary voters. A veteran of the N.Y.P.D., Adams was no doubt benefiting from growing unease over the spike in violent crime in the city; shootings had nearly doubled since the spring of 2019. But Adams also has an undeniably compelling biography. The son of a housecleaner and a butcher, he grew up poor in South Jamaica and Brownsville, and at age 15 was beaten while in police custody after being arrested on charges of criminal trespassing. He went on to become a police officer, earning his bachelor’s degree from John Jay.
The mayoral candidate Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s borough president, graduated from John Jay.
Ron Adar/Sipa USA, via Associated Press
Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in May, Adams raised the intertwined subjects of real estate and education himself. He volunteered, unprompted, that he bought his multifamily home in Bedford-Stuyvesant for $350,000 in 1995, when he was working as a police officer in the city. The income from Adams’s rental unit helped him cover the college tuition of his son, who just graduated from American University. “It was $55,000 a year — straight-up cash,” he told me. “He’s leaving school with no debt.”
Like many Brooklyn neighborhoods, Bed-Stuy has become gentrified in recent years; the house next door to Adams’s, he said, was listed for $1.7 million. Adams said that the diversity had been good for the neighborhood. When I raised the issue of displacement and the city’s lack of affordable housing, Adams, a former Republican, offered a pro-growth and yet progressive solution: encouraging more private development with mandated affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods like SoHo.
The issue of inequality has been central to the mayoral race. One of the first virtual forums was moderated in part by a homeless man, and the urgent need for more affordable housing and the integration of the city’s schools have been recurring themes. Scott Stringer, Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales are considered the progressive candidates, but almost every member of the crowded field is pitching himself or herself as the one who can succeed where de Blasio failed at bringing the two cities together. Even the “pro-business” candidates often sound like progressives: Yang adapted the universal basic income plan from his presidential run for New York City, making it a central plank of his campaign. Adams has been reminding voters of his history of speaking out against racist policing and has campaigned with Abner Louima, the victim in one of the most notorious cases of police abuse in the city’s modern history.
The mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, after an unsuccessful run at the White House, led the polls for much of the spring.
Jasmine Clarke for The New York Times
For all of the money and momentum for change in New York right now, memories can be short. The urgency experienced so acutely during the pandemic months will almost certainly fade with the growing relief that some New Yorkers now feel at having their lives back, and the two cities could continue to drift further apart, no matter who wins the election. All mayors promise to create more affordable housing, but there’s still never enough of it to prevent rents from rising faster than incomes. Building affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods — a seeming prerequisite for true integration — raises the degree of difficulty even higher. The SoHo rezoning that Adams mentioned is already being met with fierce opposition from the local community, as no doubt will future efforts to upzone upscale neighborhoods. The pandemic may have drawn a bright line under the moral imperative to desegregate the city’s schools, but as a practical matter it will be that much harder to accomplish while a large segment of the student population is trying to make up over a year in lost learning.
In late May, the campaign took yet another turn when Kathryn Garcia, who had recently been endorsed by The Times and The Daily News, pulled narrowly ahead of Adams and Yang in a poll of 570 likely voters. It would all come down to who turned out on June 22. All of the candidates were competing furiously for Hispanic voters, who are expected to make up about 20 percent of the electorate. And yet even talking about the “Hispanic vote” is misleading; New York’s Latino population is itself enormously diverse — geographically, demographically and ideologically.
The mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia, formerly the commissioner for the New York City Sanitation Department, pulled ahead in the polls in late May.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
The election presents its own seemingly intractable problem: Even if most New Yorkers now agree about what’s wrong with the city, how do you unify everyone around a shared set of values and solutions? Tracking the campaign donations by neighborhood, New York looks less like two cities than dozens of them. Yang has been receiving a lot of support from Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Asian communities in eastern Queens. Adams has been getting donations from the southern parts of Brooklyn and Queens — Jamaica, Howard Beach, Canarsie — all neighborhoods with relatively large percentages of Black homeowners. Garcia has picked up a lot of support from her own progressive brownstone neighborhood, Park Slope; Stringer, from the progressive Upper West Side; Ray McGuire, a former Citigroup executive, from the wealthy Upper East Side. Morales has done well in the Hispanic neighborhood of Hunts Point in the Bronx. Tribalism is not merely a political concept; it’s where, and how, people live. Like any large, diverse city, New York is a place of invisible ethnic fault lines and colliding political, cultural and economic interests that can never really be reconciled.
New York has always attracted and generated enormous amounts of capital. That wealth built large parts of the city and provided jobs for a lot of its residents. It was no accident that Louis Pfohl realized his entrepreneurial dreams — and made his fortune — not in his hometown, Dubuque, Iowa, but in New York.
There’s a parallel and paradoxical narrative of New York too, though. The same city that supercharged capitalism has also across the decades sought new ways to ensure that it was giving all of its residents a chance to live healthy, prosperous lives. The same city that is so dependent on the ever-increasing value of its real estate has a long history of treating housing not as a financial investment but as a social good. It was New York that created the nation’s first public housing authority and its first public housing, as well as the largest cooperative housing development in the country: Co-op City in the Bronx. (“I am a cooperator, interested only in building the cooperative commonwealth,” said Abraham E. Kazan, the president of the nonprofit that built it.) New York has 11 public hospitals that share a simple mission — to care for everyone who walks through their doors, regardless of their immigration status or ability to pay — and a sprawling subway system whose 665 miles of track physically embody the very concept of mobility.
New York has clung stubbornly to these and other public institutions even as they deteriorated and even as the forces of history were pushing in the opposite direction. Other cities have long since closed or privatized their municipal hospitals and dynamited their public housing projects. New York’s public hospitals still treat more than one million people a year. Its projects still house 380,000 authorized residents, and probably hundreds of thousands more; their condition is beyond shameful — they are currently under the supervision of a federal monitor and require an estimated $40 billion in capital improvements — but they still exist, broken monuments to the city’s failures but also to its aspirations.
The pandemic reminded us of the importance of these public institutions. The municipal hospitals absorbed wave after wave of critically ill Covid patients. New York had shut down, but its subway continued carrying to work the New Yorkers whose jobs were indispensable to the city’s survival. Even the darkened public buildings — schools, libraries and museums — took on a new resonance in their emptiness; one day, New Yorkers would gather there again.
The spine of a more equitable city still exists. It just might take some creativity and yes, money to restore and transform it. But the benefits will be incalculable, and all of New York will own a share in them. Decades ago, when CUNY was a redoubt for newly arriving Jewish New Yorkers, it produced no fewer than 13 Nobel Prize winners. What might be possible now, if instead of giving CUNY just enough money to survive, we gave it twice what it needed? What if the barriers to pursuing a dream in New York were even just a little bit lower? What might the city become if its neighborhoods and schools were truly mixed?
A few months after Sandra Lindsay received her first shot, her uniform and vaccination card were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for safekeeping. One day, when the pandemic has fully receded into history, they will presumably go on display. They will be symbols of the end of one era, but perhaps also of the dawn of a new one.