The Republican victory in New York City’s ninth congressional district Sept. 13 — in a special election to replace disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner — shocked the nation. But more important, it also could have signaled the end of the idea, propagated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, of New York’s future as a “luxury product.”
For a decade, the Bloomberg paradigm has held the city together: Wall Street riches fund an expanding bureaucracy that promotes social liberalism and nanny-state green politics. Indeed, Wall Street’s fortune — guaranteed by federal bailouts and monetary policy under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — has been the key to the mayor’s largely self-funded political success. Under Bloomberg, Wall Street’s profits allowed city expenditures to grow 40% faster than the rate of inflation. Bloomberg was also able to buy political peace by bestowing raises two to three times the rate of inflation on the city’s unionized workers.
Now this calculus is falling apart. Layoffs are mounting on Wall Street, while bonuses — the red meat that fuels everything from high-end condos to expensive boutiques and restaurants — are expected to drop 30% from last year.
The newly Republican ninth district — stretching from south Brooklyn through the upper-middle-class strongholds around Forest Hills, Queens — reflects growing unease in the non-luxury parts of the city. The area is decidedly middle class, but with a median income of $55,000 it is the city’s least wealthy white district. For the most part, its residents have not benefited from Bloomberg’s management nor from Obama’s economic policies.
Rather, the district reflects the kind of anxiety that is sweeping middle class areas across the country. “These people are worried about their kids and their future,” says Seth Bornstein, executive director the Queens Economic Development Corp. “The fire may not be in the backyard, but it’s around the corner.”
Like many native New Yorkers, Bornstein sees Manhattan — the epicenter of the “luxury city” — as something of a “fantasy land,” inhabited by those who, despite living in Gotham’s historic core, are “not really New Yorkers.” Most Manhattanites, he notes, did not grow up in New York, and a majority live in single households. They largely either go to school, work in media or Wall Street, or make their livings servicing the rich.
The ninth district is different socially as well. It is family-oriented. Barely one-third live in single households, compared with a near majority in Manhattan. Unlike the tony Upper East Side or trendy Soho, there are few celebrities or multi-millionaires. Although some of the ninth district’s inhabitants do work in the financial sector, many are tied to industries such as garments, work as professionals, such as doctors or accountants, or own their own small businesses.
Some Democrats like California Rep. Henry Waxman have another explanation for the vote: greed. “They want to protect their wealth,” he explained, “which is why a lot of well-off voters vote for Republicans.” You almost have to admire the chutzpah of such views from a man who represents Beverly Hills.
Waxman, of course, is wrong. This election was driven not by desertions of the rich but by the shift to the GOP among largely middle or working class voters. In many ways this election followed the pattern established by Sen. Scott Brown’s stunning 2009 Massachusetts victory, which came largely from middle-income voters. The ninth district’s new representative, Bob Turner, won big in modest Middle Village and South Brooklyn, while losing decisively in the wealthiest precincts such as Forest Hills and some minority, immigrant-oriented enclaves.
The big story here, as Bornstein suggests, lies in the growing unease about the national and New York economies among large sections of the city’s beleaguered middle class. Despite the enormous wealth generated on Wall Street, New York’s middle class has been fleeing the city at breakneck speed for decades.
According to the Brookings Institution, New York has suffered the fastest declines of middle class neighborhoods in the U.S.: Its share of middle income neighborhoods is roughly half that of Seattle or the much maligned Long Island suburbs. Twenty-five percent of New York City was middle-class in 1970, but by 2008 that figure had dropped to 16%.
Even the young, who so dominate parts of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, do not appear to be hanging around once they get into their 30s, particularly after their children reach school age. One reason: Bloomberg’s much touted school reforms have been, for the most part, ineffective in turning the bulk of the city’s public schools around.
Ultimately, the basic truth is this: Bloomberg’s luxury city has failed most of its citizens. Despite its self-celebrated “progressive” image, New York has the most unequal distribution of income in the nation. The bulk of the job growth has not been on Wall Street, where employment has declined over the decade, but in hospitality and restaurants, which pay salaries 60% below the city average. In fact, restaurants are now the largest single private employers in Manhattan, with more people serving tables than trading equities. As the New York Post quipped: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere — as a waiter.”
It gets worse for the poor. One in five New Yorkers lives in poverty. Black male joblessness hovers at around 50%. Overall, New York’s household income, based on purchasing power, ranks 21st in the nation, behind not only such rich areas as San Francisco or Washington, but also places like Houston, Dallas, Indianapolis, Kansas City and even Pittsburgh.
Ultimately, suggests Jonathan Bowles, president of the Center for an Urban Future, the future of New York’s middle class depends on reducing dependence on Wall Street. The city needs to focus on industries and niches outside finance, including education, health, design, high-tech services, media and smaller businesses, many of them owned by immigrants.
Bowles suggests diversification needs to speed up particularly now that Wall Street, the very engine of the “luxury” economy, is sputtering. Such a change will require a new political climate. Voter engagement and political choice in New York have atrophied under the Medici-like Bloomberg, who has managed to pay off many interest groups with a combination of his own and the city’s money. Combined with a union-financed get-out-the-vote, the choices offered by the city’s once contentious politics have become increasingly constricted.
But something is stirring in the boroughs. The district’s voters not only embarrassed their civic betters by voting Republican, but they also demonstrated that New York’s middle class, politically quiescent under Bloomberg, may need to be taken seriously again.
This gives hope for what Bornstein calls “the real New York” — a place that is neither particularly glamorous nor severely bifurcated between the rich and those who service their needs. With a more diversified economy and family orientation, this unexpected rebellion could represent the first step toward restoring New York’s roots as a city not of luxury but of aspiration.
This piece originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.
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