Mayor De Blasio held a townhall meeting on March 28th in Jackson Heights, Queens. The event was co-sponsored by councilperson Daniel Dromm, Community Board 3, and was marketed as a bottom-up venue for meaningful and honest dialogue between community residents and the mayor. Unfortunately, the townhall was neither meaningful or honest. It was the same old, same old.
Let’s be straight about the form and function of townhalls. In a city dominated electorally by the Democratic Party, townhalls are staged political events that reflect and reinforce the existing unequal distribution of power. And in Community Board 3 – which includes the immigrant dense neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Corona, and East Elmhurst – the local political landscape is defined by a self-serving and inter-locked trinity: a borough-wide political machine, a rapacious real estate driven growth coalition, and well organized and politically articulate gentrifiers.
The De Blasio/Jackson Heights townhall mirrored the reining exclusionary political ecology. Community, in this context, was largely defined by those with an acceptable political voice, which constrained realistic and meaningful criticism. When rare contrary voices critiqued the corporate expulsion of residents and family-based businesses, the mayor treated these everyday occurrences as episodic and isolated events. In short, the predatory character of real estate interests was attributed to the natural working of the marketplace, thus ignoring the proactivist interventionist role of city government. Which brings me to ask: What happened to the mayor’s progressive campaign promise – in this city of working-class immigrants – to address the systemic socio-economic inequality that drove the “Tale of Two Cities” narrative?
Let’s set the context. The local Queens political trinity views immigrant residents as a residual subset of non-voters. And when immigrants do appear on the mainstream political landscape they largely function as strategic props that validate the so-called progressive credentials of elected officials. In effect, local and citywide elected officials take a transactional self-serving approach to pressing immigrant issues. Electeds support Dreamers, advocate for a liberal version of comprehensive immigration reform, and vociferously denounce the Trumpian anti-immigrant narrative, while simultaneously supporting regressive real estate-driven growth strategies that fosters gentrification, immigrant and working-class expulsions, and the incremental destruction of small family-based immigrant businesses. It’s the old political shuffle of one step forward and two steps backward.
This politically self-serving approach came through loud and clear at the townhall. While the mayor unequivocally lauded councilperson Dromm’s so-called progressive credentials, he strategically ignored Dromm’s political complicity in Jackson Height’s hyper-gentrification, the accompanying secondary demographic overflow into overcrowded surrounding immigrant communities, and the steep rise in social and economic inequality. Where, one can ask, was the progressive discussion on New York’s regressive model of economic growth that favors speculative real estate investments that is destroying our neighborhood’s diverse socio-economic profile?
Unfortunately, in a one-party metropolis dominated by long-standing real estate interests, truly progressive bottom-up political engagement calls for forthright and non-careerist elected officials that honestly adhere to New Yorker’s pressing need for a livable and just city. And as things currently stand, what is urgently required is an inclusive bottom-up insurgent grassroots social movement that will courageously address this regressive and unsustainable regime. Is this a realistic scenario or mere pie-in-the-sky? Time and emerging political circumstances will tell.
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is an urban planner and the former 10-year chairperson of the Newest New Yorkers Committee, Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, Pratt Institute, and various Latin American universities.