New York City Could Use a Champion. Who Will Step Up?

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Waves of death and joblessness, hunger and economic depression — all at a scale rarely rivaled in New York City history.

Shootings and homicides have risen from last year. Civil unrest has seldom been higher. And some of those who could afford to leave the pandemic-stricken city have done so: Between March 1 and May 1, some 5 percent of New Yorkers fled town.

And to hear New York’s leaders tell it, they understand why.

“Crime is up, a lot of people have left,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo told reporters last month.

“The city,” he said, “is in very troubling times and we are seeing deterioration on a number of levels.”

When New York City has been confronted by crisis, from the near-bankruptcy in the 1970s to the physical and psychic devastation after the Sept. 11 attacks, its recovery has been aided by a civic champion — a leading elected official who can persuade people and businesses to stay, and help convince Washington to do more to speed the city’s recovery.

But this time around, New York seems to be missing that type of voice.

A native New Yorker resides in the White House, but President Trump seems to take special pleasure in tarnishing the image of the city that helped created him.

“It’s turned out to be a hellhole, and they better do something about it because people are leaving New York,” Mr. Trump said in July, not quite a year after changing his primary residence from Manhattan to Palm Beach, Fla.

Mayor Bill de Blasio could fill the role, but he has never been one to extol the city’s virtues. His initial campaign for mayor was based on portraying New York as a place that had failed working-class New Yorkers; Mr. de Blasio tends to avoid marquee events, cultural institutions and the type of civic boosterism expected of big-city mayors.

Yet New York’s economic future may well depend on appealing to the New York loyalties of the very New Yorkers whom Mr. de Blasio has had such a hard time connecting with.

“The guy’s not running for re-election,” said Scott Rechler, the chairman and chief executive of RXR Realty, which controls 25.5 million square feet of commercial real estate in New York City. “He’s done.

“So this is where the guy stands up and helps lead in these difficult times in a way that puts the partisan politics to the side and focuses on running the city and helping build a path to the city’s future.”

The stakes are significant. If wealthy New Yorkers cut bait and flee, or if corporate titans with global reach drastically diminish their footprints in the financial and cultural capital of the United States, New York City’s tax base could erode, potentially undermining the city’s ability to fund the schools, food pantries and public housing on which so many New Yorkers rely.

The tax base “will shrink and New York’s ability to pay for services will also shrink, which will reduce quality of life and the level of public service and make New York City all around a less attractive place,” said Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission.

The losses already being experienced by New York have drawn comparisons to the economic crisis of the 1970s or the financial nadir that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We’ve got to get people’s spirits up again,” said Donovan Richards, a Queens city councilman who heads the Council’s public safety committee. “It’s just finding that opportunity to do it. It’s tough.”

The absence of a champion for New York has gained notice, particularly among old hands who witnessed and participated in past New York City crises and yearn for more inspiring leadership.

They speak longingly of the civic leadership they witnessed firsthand in the 1970s and early 1980s, when New York City was running on fumes, almost declared bankruptcy and then began to regrow.

Who, they wonder, will emerge to rival labor leaders like Victor H. Gotbaum; businessmen like David Rockefeller and Lewis Rudin; governmental leaders like Felix G. Rohatyn, Gov. Hugh L. Carey, and Richard Ravitch, all of whom set the city on a course to solvency and growth.

Who will be the 21st century version of Edward I. Koch, the former mayor whose cadence and mannerisms oozed New York: During the 1980 subway strike, he exhorted commuters crossing Brooklyn Bridge on foot to not “let these bastards bring us to our knees!’”

For the first months of the pandemic, Mr. Cuomo seemed to warm to the role. In his daily televised briefings, he often spoke of the importance of the nation helping New York, and was able to secure ventilators and other medical essentials for the city.

But the governor, who often proclaims that he’s “a Queens boy,” has found it hard to resist portraying the city in an unflattering light, in an unsubtle jab at the leadership of Mr. de Blasio, a fellow Democrat but a frequent rival.

“There hasn’t been an effort to get people in an organized way to talk about New York City’s incredible virtues and that we’re all in this together,” said Carl Weisbrod, who has spent four decades in and around city government, most recently as Mr. de Blasio’s planning commission chairman.

It is easier to despair of civic cohesion than create it. Civic and business leaders interviewed for this article say they are doing what they can absent muscular centralized leadership — speaking to business people about New York City’s future, lobbying Republicans in the White House and U.S. Senate to come to New York City’s aid. But the fault, they argue, lies largely with Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Cuomo, who have bullhorns capable of breaking through the noise.

Mr. de Blasio particularly strikes them as disinterested in championing New York City, or of listening to their ideas about how to do so.

They despair of his disinterest in resuscitating the Industry City development in Sunset Park that would, its developers say, create 20,000 jobs. The mayor’s “fair recovery task force,” was supposed to release an economic “recovery road map” for New York City in early June. The report is now two months late.

“I don’t need anyone to tell me how bad things are, we’ve already lived through that in 1977, in 2001 and in 2008,” said Peter Madonia, who served in Mr. Koch’s administration and as chief of staff for the former mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Mr. Madonia said he’s looking for a leader who “tells me what to look forward to and why, and tells me how they are going to make it happen.”

Peter Ajemian, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, asserted that “no one is pulling harder for New York City than the governor.”

He highlighted several infrastructure projects, including the Second Avenue Subway and La Guardia Airport, as evidence that the governor had the city’s interests at heart.

“Construction at LaGuardia and J.F.K. is even more important now than ever before because that is a significant boost for New York City and New York City needs a significant boost with all the problems they’re experiencing,” Mr. Cuomo said on Friday.

The mayor’s press secretary, Bill Neidhardt, said that Mr. de Blasio has been cheerleading for the city, and will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead. In the coming days, Mr. de Blasio will even visit some newly reopened tourist attractions to drum up support for an industry that has all but vanished.

“Cheerleading for New York City’s comeback is not just about big business, and anyone who tries to portray it as such really has a twisted view of what a true economic recovery means and looks like,” Mr. Neidhardt said. “And for us, our version of cheerleading is really about working people getting what they need to rebuild and have their lives come back.”

The Democratic primary that is likely to determine who succeeds the term-limited Mr. de Blasio happens in June, and the field of potential candidates has not been particularly vocal about New York’s future.

To some business leaders, the scarcity of expressions of faith in the future of New York City makes perfect sense. The city has only just recently managed to wrestle coronavirus to the ground. It has yet to fully reopen. New Yorkers continue to die, and to mourn.

“What we need is a reckoning with the terrible economic consequences of the pandemic and a plan for how our city is going to get through the next few years with a minimum of pain,” said Kathryn Wylde, who heads the Partnership for New York City, whose board includes the chief executives of Citigroup, BlackRock and Goldman Sachs. “That is what we are missing right now.”

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