How the High Line Changed NYC

There is no better illustration of gilded, internet-age New York than the High Line. Anchored on the south by the relocated Whitney Museum and on the north by the high-rises of Hudson Yards, the elevated park sits at the center of a real estate frenzy that has uprooted earlier generations of gentrifiers, art galleries, and even the city’s sense of who should control public space.

The story of how we got here, however, has evolved over time. Before it opened with a series of ribbon-cuttings between 2009 and 2014, the High Line spent a decade in gestation, developing as the idea of a group of Chelsea residents, then spreading to the city’s gala-hopping elites, and eventually winning the embrace of the Bloomberg administration. During this era, much of the public discussion about the park was old-fashioned boosterism, gushing about its high-design, post-industrial aesthetic, its magnetic pull on tourists, and its role as lynchpin for the mushrooming art, restaurant, retail, and condominium scene in West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District.

This type of cheerleading is epitomized by New York Post restaurant and real estate writer Steve Cuozzo, who earlier this year called the park a “masterpiece” and “true wonder of our age” that has enabled “limitless popular pleasure.” Anyone who has misgivings about the High Line, he said, implies “that the High Line is somehow a racist creation” and is sympathizing with “reactionary leftists who prefer the crime-and-decay-ridden New York of the 1980s.”

Inconveniently for Cuozzo, one person with second thoughts is Friends of the High Line co-founder Robert Hammond, who now thinks the High Line didn’t pay enough attention to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, particularly those in public housing next door to the park. “We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” he told CityLab in February. “Ultimately, we failed.”

Lately, Hammond has been seeking redemption, pushing other high-profile park projects around the country to bake equity into their decision-making processes. Friends of the High Line has also been trying to make up for lost time, launching arts and jobs initiatives with residents of nearby public housing. Danya Sherman, former director of public programs, education, and community engagement for Friends of the High Line, details these efforts in her contribution to Deconstructing the High Line, a series of essays by academics, architects, and those involved in the making of the elevated park.

Equity initiatives are worthwhile, but Hammond’s recent conversion and Sherman’s essay evoke a sinking feeling that these good intentions are simply too little, too late. Before the High Line proffered progressivism through its programming, other contributors to the book note, it cast cold, hard capitalism in concrete.

In recent years, mountains of ink have been spilled about how the ills facing contemporary New York and cities around the globe have been exacerbated by the High Line’s complicity, including its fostering of income inequality and “growth machine” politics, inequitable parks funding, and private influence over public space. Other books about the High Line either don’t engage these critiques or only do so through the eyes of Hammond and Friends of the High Line co-founder Joshua David, who authored a book promising “the inside story” in 2011.

Hammond often says the High Line “gets too much credit and too much blame” for the redevelopment of West Chelsea. But this elides the fact that the High Line was joined at the hip with the West Chelsea rezoning, which did not include affordable-housing mandates. The park’s sleek design and elite supporters also place the High Line at the center of a “creative class” vision for a hyper-gentrified Manhattan, to the point that the neighborhood’s transformation has even priced out all but the most expensive art galleries.

Defenders often praise the High Line as a modern-day project on par with Central Park, but beyond noting the role both parks serve as iconic green spaces, few make the connections illuminated by journalist Tom Baker. Both parks, he says, are pastoral constructions of an idealized past — for Central Park, a rural vision, and for the High Line, an industrial one — serving as romanticized respites in the ever-quickening city. Picking up that thread, architecture professor Christoph Lindner also notes the irony that both parks were built with the goal of spurring real estate development: These spaces are meant to be experienced slowly, but are also designed to accelerate the surrounding city.

Yet for all the High Line’s flaws, there is a silver lining, argues anthropologist Julian Brash: It was built primarily with public funds and envisioned from the start as a city park open to all. “We need to see the High Line not as representing a new paradigm of public space, or as its betrayal,” he writes. “Instead, we need to see the publicness of the High Line as an unfulfilled promise.” Without this belief in the High Line as a public endeavor, there would be little space for the parks-equity movement to question the wisdom of using private funding to support discrete components of the parks system while parks in less well-off areas face continued budget cuts.

While academics and the public continue to learn lessons at the intersection of private interests and public space, the billionaires who made the High Line possible are continuing down the road of ever-greater private influence. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, who gave tens of millions of dollars to Friends of the High Line, have donated an even larger sum to the Hudson River Park Trust to build an elevated, undulating concert venue on stilts above the Hudson River at Pier 55. It would be open to the public but managed by a nonprofit created by Mr. Diller and his family foundation.

It’s this type of conspicuous, plutocrat-driven development that makes the High Line (and modern Manhattan itself) iconic, but it remains an example with limited utility to other places. Other elevated parks are either completed or proposed in Jersey City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and essays in Deconstructing the High Line look at efforts in Queens, São Paulo, and Rotterdam, each with its own series of parallel and divergent tracks from the glitzy West Side showpiece.

While other cities pursue their own elevated parks, the High Line’s location in the backyard of billionaires makes it a powerful symbol at the center of debates over our increasingly unequal and divided society.

But sometimes, it’s just a nice place to take a walk.


Trump Tower’s Smoke & Mirrors

It’s spring, 1983. My Californian family is on a trip “back East,” a place still exotic to us. During a few days in New York — my first trip here — we visit the United Nations, Windows on the World, the Met. And we visit the partly opened Trump Tower, where we pay homage, as so many tourists did that year, to the sixty-foot waterfall, the marble atrium (described, over the years, as salmon, rose, or peach, but never pink), the brass TRUMP TOWER over the door (I’m sure I thought it was gold), and to Donald J. Trump himself.

We weren’t alone — “Tourists flock to 68 stories of elegance,” the Los Angeles Times, our hometown paper, reported later that year (breathlessly, and incorrectly: While Trump has always maintained the building has a 68-story height, it has only 58 floors). It seems astonishing that my parents, for whom “gauche” and “gaudy” were favorite disapprobations; who lived surrounded, but unimpressed, by wealth in Los Angeles; whose travel with us was usually geared toward exposing us to American history, would want to see such a place.

The exterior, seen from across the street.
Secret Service agents cleared the lobby moments before the president came downstairs for an unexpected visit.
Secret Service agents cleared the lobby moments before the president came downstairs for an unexpected visit.
An unknown man, in Grand Army Plaza, close to Trump Tower.

Clearly, to them, it was a piece of history. But of what kind? Were we marveling in the court of the Sun King, or gawking at his bad taste? I’m not sure it mattered to him. He had learned how to command our attention — with hyperbole, excess, gloss and shine (“we demolished a mountain of marble,” his wife, at the time, said) — and he never lost it. “My projects now sort of self-promote,” he told Graydon Carter, in an encounter better remembered for Carter’s light demolishment of his small hands. In the end Trump, diminutive hands and all, “self-promoted” his way to the presidency.

Like many megalomaniacs, he saw himself as an artist, with real estate as his medium. The power was nothing, he said in a 60 Minutes profile in 1985. It was the “creative process” he loved. In the twelve-hour documentary Trump: Made by America that will one day be crafted, the building of Trump Tower will be a pivot, like O.J. Simpson’s time at the University of Southern California.

With Trump Tower, Donald Trump realized what he could be, what people would let him be, what people wanted him to be. It is astonishing how many times he — a brash young developer with a few buildings to his name and the sulky mien of a teenager — was asked, in those years, whether he thought about running for president.


Trump Tower as seen from the Top of the Rock.
Trump Tower as seen from the Top of the Rock.
A carriage horse on 59th Street.
A carriage horse on 59th Street.

Is it uniquely American to believe that if one excels — or manages to convince people he excels — in one area, he is graced with the genius to excel in every other? By the fall of 1984, with Trump Tower open only a year, Trump was announcing to the Washington Post his desire to negotiate with the Soviets on nuclear arms:

“‘Some people have an ability to negotiate,’ he says. ‘It’s an art you’re basically born with. You either have it or you don’t….It’s something that somebody should do that knows how to negotiate.’”

Or doesn’t this, from the New York Times in 1983, sound like his presidency, with all its unfilled positions? “At Trump headquarters on the 26th floor of the Trump Tower astride Fifth Avenue, he opened the door of a room furnished with a vast table. ‘This was supposed to be a board room but what was the sense when there’s only one member,’ said Donald Trump. ‘We changed it to a conference room.’”

Twenty years later, when it came time to film The Apprentice, a boardroom set — a facsimile — was built in Trump Tower.

The intersection of 55th Street and Fifth Avenue.
The intersection of 55th Street and Fifth Avenue.
New York City police officers protect the entrance to Trump Tower during a snowstorm.
New York City police officers protect the entrance to Trump Tower during a snowstorm.

Trump Tower should have dispatched his father complex, his hunger not just to impress, but to outdo, his old man. (“Everything he touches seems to turn to gold,” the Trump Organization website modestly quotes Fred Trump saying about his son, a hilariously literal, and possibly tongue-in-cheek, statement.) But such complexes are never dispatched. Trump’s hunger — for approval, for celebrity, for public embrace — has no end.

Trump didn’t make Manhattan safe for the wealthy — they were already there — but he made it hospitable for the crass: the kleptocrats and oligarchs and criminals who eventually found their way to Trump Tower and buildings like it. From the start, Trump sold his Tower as a residence for a new generation of Astors and Whitneys. The reality, as the Voice’s Wayne Barrett wrote, was that Trump Tower’s first residents were as likely to be Medicaid cheats and mobsters. He anticipated so much of what Manhattan would become: the ostentation and phallic reach, concentrated along 57th Street; the leveraging of public money for private gain; the barely occupied pieds-à-terre and tax havens for wealthy foreigners.

Inside Trump Tower
Children in Trump Tower’s marble lobby.
Children in Trump Tower’s marble lobby.

The 1980s, when Trump built his Tower, planted his flag in Atlantic City, and bought the Plaza, turned out to be the apex of his career as a developer: Peak Trump. The milestones of his subsequent real estate career were golf courses and bankruptcies. Not only did I never visit Trump Tower during close to twenty years of living in New York, I never once thought about it, not even when I walked by.

None of that mattered. The myth was impermeable by then, the long con well under way. The dazzle of Trump Tower — the dazzle of publicity around Trump Tower — obscured everything afterward.

Coffee mugs for sale in the Trump gift store.
Coffee mugs for sale in the Trump gift store.
A doorman looks out from the entrance of Trump Tower.
A doorman looks out from the entrance of Trump Tower.

I met Trump once, although “met” may not be the correct word. It was the summer of 2001, six weeks before the September attacks. I was at a party in Jane Rosenthal’s apartment in the Dakota (I was there as a reporter, I should say, not a guest). The penthouse was packed with the famous and wealthy — Oscar de la Renta, Robert De Niro, Harvey Weinstein — who had come to hear former president Bill Clinton speak about the International AIDS Trust. Donald Trump was there too, and he and Clinton greeted each other like the friends they were then. Trump invited Clinton to come golf at one of his courses, and Trump turned to me, whom he took for Clinton’s lackey, to take down his phone number.

It’s a reminder how cozy Trump once was with the Manhattan liberal elite. It was his celebrity — the myth cemented by Trump Tower — that had granted him access.

The view out through the entrance.
The view out through the entrance.
Trump Tower’s escalators
Trump Tower’s escalators

Looking back, it’s not the relationship between Clinton and Trump that interests me, but the relationship between the Dakota and Trump Tower. The Dakota, at 72nd and Central Park West, sits diagonally across the park from Trump Tower, and is its antithesis. Built a full century earlier, it bespeaks class, elegance, exclusivity. It’s a National Historic Landmark whose architects also designed the Plaza Hotel, which Trump so coveted. The Dakota to Trump Tower is East Egg to West Egg, old money to new. Trump Tower is Gatsby’s mansion: “a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of ivy, and a marble swimming pool….”

The Manhattan represented by the Dakota would never have been open to him, just as East Egg was closed to Gatsby. The Dakota is a co-op, where someone like Trump would run a high risk of rejection, if he would even agree to open his finances to what he once called “the scrutiny of a bunch of prying strangers.” (We taxpayers, asking for his tax returns: We also are a bunch of prying strangers.)

Trump had to create his own world — a building tall enough to look across the park and down on the Dakota, one whose lavishness would make up for its lack of history. Amid the financial euphoria of the 1980s instead of the 1920s, this is what he did. Most residents of the Dakota would likely never want to live amongst his marble and gold in the “Louis XIV style,” but bigger and more expensive was all he had.

The only thing that separated Gatsby from his mansion was death. Only the presidency extracted Trump from his Tower. In the weeks after his victory, it was almost as if he didn’t want to leave.

Pedestrians walk past a beggar on Fifth Avenue.
Pedestrians walk past a beggar on Fifth Avenue.
A Trump supporter in front of Trump Tower wears a ring shaped like a gun
A Trump supporter in front of Trump Tower wears a ring shaped like a gun

Fearless Girl Is Not Your Friend

When the “Fearless Girl” statue first appeared in Bowling Green the day before International Women’s Day on March 8, staring down the “Charging Bull” statue on Wall Street, it did so through a city licensing program that issues temporary permits for commercial activity in public space. It’s the same program that regulates the blight of cookie-cutter “street fairs” and under which, last August, a giant walk-in Prego Pasta Sauce jar was erected in Chelsea to raise public awareness about the company’s new line of “Farmer’s Market Sauces.”

This makes lots of sense: “Fearless Girl” is its own exercise in corporate brand-burnishing, the product of a campaign conceived in the New York offices of an enormous multinational advertising conglomerate, McCann, working on behalf of a worldwide financial colossus, State Street Global Advisors, an arm of the 225-year-old State Street Corporation, which currently manages an estimated $2.5 trillion in assets.

As the investment management division of State Street Corporation, which also includes a custodial bank administering $28 trillion in assets, State Street Global Advisors devises customized investment strategies for institutions with a lot of money to deploy — pension funds, universities, major charitable foundations — and builds mutual funds and exchange-traded funds for ordinary investors.

State Street’s last appearance in the headlines, in January, was occasioned by the company’s settlement of a suit brought by the United States Department of Justice, which alleged that it had defrauded its own customers by charging them secret commissions. In exchange for a deferred-prosecution agreement, State Street agreed to pay a $32.3 million fine to resolve the charges and offered to pay the same amount as a civil penalty to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Fearless Girl’s carefully choreographed debut coincided with SSGA’s announcement that it would begin pressuring the 3,500-odd companies in which it invests to install more women on their boards of directors. State Street’s public statement couched its argument in narrowly economic terms, noting that “companies with strong female leadership generated a return on equity of 10.1 percent per year versus 7.4 percent for those without a critical mass of women at the top, which is a 36.4 percent increase of average return on equity.”

TV cameras and photojournalists surrounded the Fearless Girl statue last month, awaiting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that she would stay opposite the bull into 2018.
TV cameras and photojournalists surrounded the Fearless Girl statue last month, awaiting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that she would stay opposite the bull into 2018.

In the weeks since Fearless Girl was rolled out, a growing parade of ordinary citizens and politicians have celebrated the installation as a powerful work of public art and a symbol of a critical issue of our day. Pilgrims come to Bowling Green to take selfies with the statue, among them Senator Elizabeth Warren, who paused in her crusade against the unregulated excesses of the financial industry to caption her own tweeted statue-selfie with the slogan “Fight like a girl.”

Misty Allen, a 47-year-old from Portland who works in tech, was so moved by the Fearless Girl that she had it and the bull tattooed on her arm. The sculpture feels like a testament to the sexism Allen has encountered in her own career: “It’s a reminder to myself to put my hands on my hips and open my mouth and stand up for myself,” she told the Voice.

For some, Fearless Girl carries extra significance in the age of Trump, the perfect embodiment of the overlap of financial avarice and violent sexism. “Right after [the election], this miraculous girl appears and created such a powerful sensation because she spoke to the moment,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio last month, announcing that he had interceded to allow the statue to remain in place beyond the limits of its commercial permit. “Sometimes, a symbol helps us become whole, and I think the Fearless Girl is having that same effect.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio posed with the statue for the cameras March 27.
Mayor Bill de Blasio posed with the statue for the cameras March 27.

The statue’s fans thrill to her apparent gesture of challenge and resistance to the Charging Bull, Arturo Di Modica’s 1989 love letter to the wild, surging energy of Wall Street and finance capitalism, installed as the market worked to recover in the wake of the “Black Monday” financial collapse of October 1987. In its conception of the newer statue, McCann brilliantly appropriates the iconic image of the ballerina dancing atop the bull, created by the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters, that became a foundational symbol of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. The notion that Fearless Girl is positioned in opposition to the bull has been reinforced by Di Modica himself, who is driven to distraction by this recontextualization of his statue, spitting out a steady fusillade of angry press releases and threatening to sue State Street for what he considers a profound alteration of his work. “I put it there for art,” Di Modica told the New York Post and MarketWatch last month. “My bull is a symbol for America. My bull is a symbol of prosperity and for strength.” The spectacle of an old man raging against an upstart girl for adulterating his celebration of capitalism has only helped cement the perception that the girl and the bull are in conflict. “The sculptor is annoying & the combined image is refreshing & complex,” Emily Nussbaum, a TV critic for the New Yorker, tweeted recently.

A poster that ran in Adbusters magazine in 2011 helped set off Occupy Wall Street.
A poster that ran in Adbusters magazine in 2011 helped set off Occupy Wall Street.

But if the dyad of girl and bull has been cleverly staged to evoke a thrilling frisson of opposition and dissent, that is emphatically not what the company that commissioned it is actually selling. Fearless Girl is intended “as a complement to the charging bull, which represents economic strength,” said Lynn Blake, an executive vice president at State Street Global Advisors, at a press conference at City Hall last month. “She’s not even defiant. She’s not raising her fist against the bull. She’s there to represent her role as a leader, to stand on equal footing and to play a powerful role in expanding economic prosperity for the world.”

Kristen Visbal, the sculptor who created Fearless Girl, also emphasized the statue’s conciliatory ambitions. “She is strong, but not belligerent,” Visbal said at the press conference. “She is proud, but not confrontational.” Visbal echoed an argument at the center of State Street’s campaign: that companies with more women on their boards of directors make more money for shareholders. “Together we make this wonderful contribution,” Visbal said, “these better decisions that result in increased profits.”

The genius of Fearless Girl, then, is that it siphons the growing groundswell of resistance to worship of the golden bull and all it signifies, and redirects that enthusiasm back into a channel of assent. The bull and the girl are not in opposition. They are, in fact, on the same side, two faces of the same thing: capitalism, presented both in its raging, china-shop-obliterating aspect and in its approachable guise, the one that promises that anyone — even a girl! — can aspire to preside over this energy from the Olympian heights of a boardroom.

Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted a picture of herself with the statue, along with the words “Fight like a girl.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted a picture of herself with the statue, along with the words “Fight like a girl.”

Let’s leave aside State Street’s own recurring trouble with the law, which includes not only this year’s episode but the great Magnetar pit-trap of the pre-crash bubble, a famous scam in which State Street sold more than $1.5 billion in mortgage derivatives without telling its customers that the product had been designed by a hedge fund poised to profit if the product failed. When the dodgy mortgages underlying the product inevitably went belly-up, State Street’s customers took a bath, and the hedge fund, Magnetar Capital, cashed in its short bets.

Let’s leave aside as well the question, itself the subject of much debate, of whether or not the best application of feminist energy is the Lean-In project of helping already wealthy women ascend the final rung of the ladder to sit on the boards of multinationals, or whether that effort is better spent pursuing economic and labor reforms, like equal pay or maternity leave, that would benefit a wider circle of more vulnerable women, but which might not mesh as seamlessly with corporate profit-seeking.

Let’s table, too, the fact that State Street’s commitment to its stated corporate-feminist goal is transparently thin, considering its own corporate leadership is a catastrophically unreconstructed sausage-fest in which 82 percent of its senior executives and all but three of its eleven directors are men.

With its Fearless Girl, State Street seeks credit for intervening in the amoral logic of the market to pressure companies it invests in to install more women in corporate leadership. But seeking plaudits for pursuing a moral agenda invites ethical scrutiny of the rest of State Street’s behavior, which will lead to some dark and destructive places.

Misty Allen, of Portland, Oregon, was so inspired by the Fearless Girl she had it tattooed on her arm.
Misty Allen, of Portland, Oregon, was so inspired by the Fearless Girl she had it tattooed on her arm.

State Street invests its clients’ trillions across virtually every sector of the investment universe and offers them innumerable investment products, most of which are passive funds constructed to meet some investment goal — regional diversification, say, or tracking the overall performance of given market sectors. In this respect, it’s no different from other investment giants like BlackRock or Vanguard. The grand Wall Street tradition is chasing profits wherever they may be found, a pursuit outside of moral distinctions. (Exchange-traded funds, by definition, mirror the activity of the stock exchange itself.) What these companies also have in common is that, with the exception of a handful of small funds designed to eschew particularly ethically unsavory industries, their financial products are all generally designed to fulfill a single purpose: make money.

Through its funds, State Street is deeply committed to an industry whose entire business model is taking as much carbon as possible out of the ground and putting it into the atmosphere. As of the end of last year, State Street owned $18 billion worth of ExxonMobil, $14 billion worth of Chevron, $1.8 billion of Valero, $2 billion of Kinder Morgan, $2 billion of Anadarko, $2.8 billion of Occidental Petroleum, and $3.2 billion of ConocoPhillips.

And if there is money to be made from tools of war, State Street will make it that way as well. The company owns $12 billion of Lockheed Martin and $5 billion of Northrop Grumman, $4 billion of Boeing and $2 billion of General Dynamics, so it makes money from Tomahawk missiles, Paveway bombs, ICBMs and submarine-launched nuclear missiles, and all sorts of attack helicopters and warplanes, including the one that dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan this month. Through Northrop Grumman, State Street makes money keeping America’s nuclear missiles ready to rain hellfire anywhere our president may direct them. It owns $1.7 billion of Raytheon, which makes missiles, depleted-uranium weapons, and a microwave gun — for use against crowds — that makes its targets’ skin feel like it’s boiling. A recent Intercept report spotlighted three major defense contractors poised to profit from Trump’s push to fortify the border with Mexico. State Street has a stake in all of them, to the tune of more than a third of a billion dollars.

State Street owns $5 billion each of Philip Morris and Altria, and $1.8 billion of Reynolds American, which means it makes money from an addictive drug that kills nearly half a million people a year in this country alone. State Street looks at an industry with a six-figure body count and sees a revenue stream, a valuable component of a diversified fund.

Pepsi pulled an ad featuring Kendall Jenner after controversy erupted over its co-option and commercialization of protest imagery.
Pepsi pulled an ad featuring Kendall Jenner after controversy erupted over its co-option and commercialization of protest imagery.

This is not to say that State Street’s executives take actual pleasure in the cancer wards full of smokers, in the slow-rolling annihilation of climate disaster. More likely they view those things as incidental, dissociated through the gray calculus of exchange-traded funds and well-balanced portfolios. It’s a safe bet they view the Fearless Girl in the same way: not as a virtuous cause, but as just another means to the one and only end.

It’s possible that popular resonance of the Fearless Girl can somehow wrest the master’s tools from his hand and re-inscribe the statue with a more hopeful and promising meaning than its creators intended, one that stands outside the closed loop of passive complicity in the status quo. For that matter, it’s conceivably possible that the recently controversial Pepsi commercial — which enlisted a denatured simulacrum of street protest as the backdrop against which Kendall Jenner demonstrated the power of carbonated high-fructose corn syrup to soothe a glowering riot cop — could yet be repurposed in the service of a global movement for social justice. But that sort of jiujitsu is no easy thing. Works born of cynicism have a way of staying stickily cynical. We are better off making our own art, seeking out symbols unburdened by the entanglements that perpetuate the suffering we wish to overcome.



Why the NEH and NEA Matter More Than Ever

In 1790, in the first ever State of the Union address, George Washington told Congress he understood that federal support of agriculture and commercial ventures across the nation needed no special defense. He wanted to insist, however, that the government give equally concrete encouragement to new inventions and “the promotion of science and literature.” Why? Knowledge is “the surest basis of public happiness” everywhere. But in a representative democracy, where the laws and policies of the government are molded directly by “the sense of the community,” knowledge is essential.

When Washington described laws as the product of the sense of the community, he was choosing his words carefully. In the context of eighteenth-century science and philosophy, “sense” meant not only the facts citizens collectively hold to be true, but also their convictions, opinions, feelings, and self-understanding.

Fast-forward to a powerful documentary released just a few weeks ago, I Am Not Your Negro, in which director Raoul Peck brings alive the words of the brilliant James Baldwin, who died in 1987 after decades of writing about American life and the place of black Americans in it. The question white America has to ask itself, Baldwin told one interviewer, is why it invested itself so deeply in the notion of racial categories in the first place. White Americans, Baldwin says, have got to find out why they invented them, and why they need them — “and the future of the country depends on that.”

Baldwin is challenging Americans, to use Washington’s phrase, to figure out “the sense of the community” about race and racism in our country. What knowledge do we need to do this? To make a sensible start on race — and note we can say the same about class, religion, ideology, and anything else that divides the national community — we need some political and social and economic history, psychology, economics, political theory, and philosophy, as well as literature, art history, music, and cinema. Next, since we seek the sense of the whole community, we need to talk with people who disagree with us; even in the course of disagreement we can find common ground, most likely through the discovery of shared histories or hopes, tastes or emotional commitments, on which we can move forward together.

In short, we need the knowledge provided by the arts and humanities. So we can see the president’s new “skinny” budget, which proposes to end two federal agencies, the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and for the Humanities (NEH), as it truly is: a blow against our capacity to gain the sense of our community and from there the insight to tackle, together, the wicked problems besetting us.

The question is bigger than whether we want the federal government to support particular programs (though a preliminary study by the Digital Fellows at the CUNY Graduate Center vividly displays the benefits of NEH funding enjoyed across the country, including, ironically, in “red” states). It’s about what kind of political culture we Americans want — whether we are willing to place a high enough value on knowledge and the skills of thinking together that Washington and Baldwin believed to be crucial to democracy.

To hear a poetry reading in a public library, to learn about the past at a local museum, or to attend a Greek play about war mounted by veterans: These aren’t the pretty extras of life in a modern democracy but the engine of inspiration and imagination that keeps a robust democracy going. We’ve had this argument for generations. W.E.B. Du Bois argued long and hard against the notion that the permanent uplifting of black men in America rested in material advancement alone. The vocational school that guarantees the skills to earn a living cannot be our final and sufficient answer, he insisted, because life is “more than meat.” The kind of education that encourages aspiration and complex thinking is not a privilege of the well-off, but a necessity for citizens engaged in democratic decision-making.

Especially in these emotionally loaded days, citizens also need practice in dialogue about thorny questions, so that we can handle differences of perspective, emotion, and opinion as we think and (inevitably) disagree. Baldwin describes how a teacher named Orilla Miller “gave me books, and talked to me about books, and about the world.” It is because of her, Baldwin observes, that he “never really managed to hate white people,” despite the rage he felt at the prejudice and hatred he sensed all around him.

Learning to think critically about how words and images work, and how they can be manipulated for good or evil, pleasure or prejudice: This is what the NEH and the NEA do. Yes, these are small programs, and yes, private sources of funding for the arts and humanities exist. But if we believe along with Washington that knowledge is the surest basis of public happiness, then we should celebrate our public investment in knowledge.

Joy Connolly is provost and professor of classics, the Graduate Center, CUNY.



Report: Charter Schools Poised To Take A Much Bigger Bite Out Of NYC’s Budget

New York City charter schools may be in for a major budget boost, according to a new report from the city’s Independent Budget Office, one that puts New York City taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars.

The city Department of Education’s budget for charter school funding in 2018 represents an increase of $138 million over current levels, but according to the IBO, that number could rise to as much as $274 million for next school year.

Funding for charter schools is determined by a formula codified in state law, and has twice been frozen, causing spending for charter schools to lag behind that of district schools despite overall increases in education spending. In 2014, the state legislature set charter school tuition at $13,527 per student, plus a supplement of $500 this year, sending a total of $14,027 per student to city charter schools. The 2014 act expires this year, which means the tuition formula would shift to determine the new funding amount by multiplying the city’s district school spending in 2015-2016 by the percentage growth of the state’s total education spending over the last three years.

The IBO used three estimates of said growth to calculate its projections after the formula changes — spending for charter schools increases substantially on the city’s dime under each one. Mayor Bill de Blasio has long battled with the city’s charter school representatives over taxpayer’s fiscal responsibility to the schools, which are partly run using public dollars but privately managed.

Currently, charter schools in the five boroughs receive over $1.7 billion from the city DOE’s budget, used to educate over 100,000 students — a small fraction of the city’s over one million public school students. And while it’s true that charter schools have traditionally received less per-pupil funding than their district counterparts (and their funding has increased more slowly, due to tuition allocation freezes in 2009 and 2013), it’s also true that the DOE provides “non-cash resources” to the schools, which tacks on an additional $4,904 per student at charters located in DOE buildings (for schools who receive lease reimbursement and those with none, the numbers are $3,993 and $1,188 per student, respectively). This includes books, materials, transportation, food, and, in some cases, rent-free building space (or lease reimbursements). Charter schools also receive supplementary funding for special needs students, and are eligible for private funding.

When IBO accounted for charter schools that receive rent-free building space in existing DOE schools, per-pupil funding rises to $18,933 per student this school year, narrowing the disparity with district schools to a difference of 5.7 percent; traditional public schools got $20,078. The disparity is larger for a small number of charter schools that receive lease reimbursement for private space, and those who do not receive any public assistance for building space—these schools got up to 24 percent less money than district schools. Private funding to charter schools varies widely, with some major chains with hefty financial backers, while other “mom and pop” schools rely primarily on DOE funding.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, a charter school ally who has in the past received large donations from charter school supporters, most recently a $65,000 donation from the pro-charter school, Wal-Mart backed group New York Campaign for Achievement Now, has proposed to keep the supplemental funding but would shift responsibility from the state onto the city, to the tune of an additional $54 million, which is included in IBO’s estimated city tax burden. Earlier this year, he proposed lifting the city’s charter school cap, which restricts the number of new schools allowed to open each year (Mayor de Blasio is a staunch supporter of the cap).

The IBO report comes just days after President Donald Trump’s “America First” budget proposed deep cuts in federal public education spending, partly to help fund a $1.4 billion voucher program, which lets parents use public tax dollars to send their children to private schools.


NYC’s Climate Research Resources Are Melting Faster Than the Ice Caps

On February 17, Senate Republicans (and two Democrats) confirmed climate change denier Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA, an agency he’s vowed to dismantle. The specifics of how Pruitt’s distaste for environmental protection will impact New York City, which stands to suffer greatly from the effects of climate change in the coming years, aren’t clear yet. But local environmental agencies have already been set reeling by President Trump’s January blanket freeze on all EPA grants and contracts, even those that had already been awarded.

“I think the press and the general public don’t quite understand how dramatic putting things on hold is. It actually has major consequences,” said Timon McPhearson, an associate professor of urban ecology at the New School who collaborates with the mayor’s office on resiliency projects. He’s been shocked by the speed at which Trump has managed to imperil the work that he and his fellow researchers have been doing. “Work we’ve been working on for a year and a half is now completely jeopardized,” he said, including a study on how heat waves affect vulnerable populations in New York.

“You can’t make up those relationships,” between climate change and public health, McPhearson notes. “They require scientific study, which requires support,” he said, then recalled a meeting with city officials earlier this month in which he’d had to explain that the results of a particular study would not be delivered as previously promised. The news came as a disappointment to the officials, who McPhearson said were “concerned and saddened” by the risk the delay posed to the populations the research was intended to help.

As for climate change itself, it’s hard to overstate the peril faced by New York City as the planet continues to heat.

Studies from the mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency predict that while devastating storms like Sandy are likely to become more common, New York City is also increasingly vulnerable to heat waves, heavy downpours, and severe droughts. By some estimations, the surrounding sea level may rise as many as 30 inches, and the number of people living in the 100-year floodplain is expected to balloon to around 800,000 by the 2050s. Studies also predict a 90 percent probability that the number of “heavy downpours” will increase, and by mid-century, New York will likely see a preponderance of 90-degree days, with triple the possibility of heat waves. The city’s climate change strategy, McPhearson pointed out, is built on the backbone of good science like this.

But science requires money, and the EPA has in the past been an important source of funding. Financing comes from other places too, of course, like NASA and the National Science Foundation, through those streams are also in peril: Trump has previously declared that he plans to strip NASA of its entire Earth science division in favor of “deep space” exploration. He’s also promised “between two and five” new executive orders aimed at the EPA, to be revealed once his full cabinet is confirmed.

Pruitt, for his part, has vowed to weaken EPA regulations, having gleefully declared his intention to withdraw Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States Rule, which was used to clarify the EPA’s authority under the Clean Water Act. Such regulatory handicapping would seriously undermine New York’s hard-won climate change progress. Pollution into our already filthy waterways could increase, and managing the overflow of storm water in the city’s antiquated sewage system — a longstanding and serious problem — would become even more difficult. “When you weaken the regulations, it sort of cuts the bottom out of a lot of that effort,” McPhearson said.

Defenders of Pruitt maintain that states should be allowed to regulate their own environmental practices. If you put aside the fact that pollution cares nothing for state lines, this could be a thin silver lining for New York.

John Rhodes, the president of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, told the Voice that his department’s functions — namely, Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision, or REV — will not be affected by anything that happens on the federal level under Trump’s administration.

“We are in control of our energy agenda,” he said. “What we’re doing is not reliant on the federal government to make things happen.”

The state’s other agencies were more reluctant to speculate. A joint statement issued by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health said only that “New York is closely monitoring all actions by the new administration and impacts on funding for vital New York programs. We will continue to work with the federal government and our partners on every level to ensure that our environment and public health are protected.”

Raul Contreras, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said the city intends to gird itself against the new administration.

“Whatever happens at the federal level, we’ll still do all we can to mitigate the effects of climate change at the municipal level,” he wrote in an email. “That means expanding solar and our electric vehicle fleet as well as retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient and curb their greenhouse gas emissions. Now more than ever do cities need to do their part to fight climate change.”

Contreras said that the city doesn’t receive any EPA funds that would impact its climate change agenda, though it has been allocated $4.2 billion for Sandy recovery from Housing and Urban Development, as well as a $176 million grant for resiliency projects. Asked whether he’s concerned that the reimbursement process will grind to a standstill under Trump, Contreras responded only that it was too soon to tell.

McPhearson, the New School professor, phrased his fears more bluntly.

“I think we can say, in a combined way, that the lack of funding for research and decreased regulation are certainly going to cost lives,” he said.



What Free Tuition Can’t Buy: Students Need More Than Scholarships to Prep for College

Governor Andrew Cuomo, said to be positioning himself for a run at the White House in 2020, recently announced the Excelsior Scholarship program, which will make state college tuition free for New Yorkers whose households earn less than $125,000 annually. The program is considered a “last dollar” plan, meaning it will cover financial gaps left by students’ aid packages, including the state’s Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell Grants. Several other cities and states host similar programs or soon will, including Tennessee, Rhode Island, Oregon — even humble Kalamazoo, Michigan, where a group of private, anonymous donors has paid the full cost of tuition at any state college for all of the city’s high school graduates since 2005.

Virtually everyone agrees on the necessity of making college affordable for more people. Student debt nationwide surged to more than $1.4 trillion this year; the average student debt load for New York residents in 2015 was $32,200. But critics have pointed out that the neediest students — those who already qualify for the Tuition Assistance Program and Pell Grants, aid directed at individuals and families with income between $10,000 and $80,000 — may still require loans to pay for housing and other mandatory fees.

And there are some, including Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the Higher Education Committee, and the Empire Center, a conservative think tank, who have questioned the governor’s cost estimate, which they’ve set at $163 million over the next two years. Indeed, the New York City Independent Budget Office estimates that it would cost as much as $232 million to eliminate tuition at CUNY community colleges alone.

Moreover, some experts say scholarships don’t solve two crucial obstacles many students face on the way to a college degree: academic underpreparedness and the lack of extramural support systems. In 2014, 78 percent of city graduates at CUNY community colleges took remedial courses. And at the high school level, there is much work to do.

“A good number of schools are graduating kids that are not academically prepared to go to college,” said Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough New York, a nonprofit that begins working with low-income, high-achieving students in the seventh grade and supports them through college. By Breakthrough’s standards, just thirty of the city’s more than four hundred public high schools are college prep. And many — or even most — schools lack the college counselors to help every kid prepare. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent call for fourteen thousand volunteer mentors for high school students could help, says Wong, but without ensuring that mentors make personal, lasting connections with students (and without improving outcomes at every city school), it’s reduced to “good intentions with clumsy follow-through.”

Cuomo would do well to heed the example set in Tennessee, where all high school graduates are eligible for five semesters of tuition-free community college — a $10.6 million commitment in 2015. The system started off much smaller than it is now, however: first, in 2008, as a privately funded scholarship for students in Knox County, an urban district home to Knoxville, then growing in 2014 as part of Governor Bill Haslam’s campaign to increase the number of college graduates there from 32 percent to 55 over ten years. After the statewide expansion, Tennessee’s college-going rate swelled by nearly 5 percent in the first year — more than in the previous seven years combined. But officials quickly learned just how unprepared many students were to be there.

In 2016, 26 percent of high school graduates nationwide were considered “college ready,” as measured by their ACT scores. In Tennessee, the number was just 20 percent. Some districts performed even worse: 11 percent in Nashville and a sobering 7 percent in Shelby County, anchored by Memphis. Nearly 70 percent of community college freshmen in Tennessee require remedial coursework. According to Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, only 28 percent of students who need remedial classes earn degrees.

So education officials there got to work. Tennessee Promise students agree to mandatory college coaching with the state’s partner organization, Tennessee Achieves, which pairs students with counselors who closely monitor their academic progress. The Summer Bridge program offers free, three-week intensive courses, taught by college professors, to underperforming students. The state also increased funding streams, in the form of grants between $75,00 and $140,000, for universities accepting Promise students. In 2016, 89 percent of participants in Summer Bridge tested out of remedial courses, according to Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of Tennessee Achieves.

Yet another partner program aligns college remediation coursework with high school classes to help students test out of them, and the state now allows students to take regular classes simultaneously, to keep them from getting trapped for semesters on end in coursework that doesn’t count for credits. “You can’t have a conversation about increasing the number of kids entering the [college] pipeline without coupling it with some kind of support system…it wouldn’t work,” said DeAlejandro.

As for Cuomo’s plan, recent state budget announcements included a $1 billion bump in education aid that could go toward needed supports for the scholarship, a cumulative 31 percent increase over six years, according to Frank Sobrino, a spokesman from the governor’s office. The funding also includes $50 million for community schools, $35 million for after-school programs, and $5.3 million for early-college high schools.

“Excelsior Scholarships will create an opportunity for New Yorkers to succeed no matter what zip code they come from,” Sobrino said. But thus far, the Excelsior Scholarship is just that — a scholarship, with no additional provisions announced yet.

To be sure, some state schools already have programs designed to help low-income students reach graduation, including the major, statewide Educational Opportunity Program, which offers academic and financial support; SUNY Buffalo’s Finish in Four program; and CUNY’s successful Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which offers advisers, financial aid, and MetroCards. While the most recent data from SUNY shows they boast a 49 percent four-year graduation rate, higher than the national average, CUNY’s rates continue to lag, particularly at community colleges, where fewer than 25 percent of students graduate within three years. The best free-college model will evaluate these programs for gaps, and fill them.

Despite these complications, said Wong, the Breakthrough New York director, we shouldn’t “let perfect be the enemy of good.”

“The key thing would be to make an investment in supports alongside lowering the barrier of tuition,” she said. “It’s a big step in the right direction, but it’s not the be-all, end-all.”


The Islanders Should Just Head Back to Nassau and End This Charade

The New York Islanders, the metropolitan areas vagabond hockey team, is possibly looking at a 2019 departure from Barclays Center. For anyone (anyone?) who has seen a game there, that’s not surprising. Games are sparsely attended, a good portion of the views are obstructed, and ownership has done as little as possible to alert Brooklyn residents that there’s an alternative to seeing the Nets at Barclays. Simply put, the marriage was not meant to last.

So what now? Since at least the summer, there’s been grumblings about the Islanders moving to New York City’s other borough on Long Island, and adding even more of a stadium glut to the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park area. As long as legal battles have simmered over Willets Point, which sits beside Citi Field, sports ownership groups have speculated over ways to cram another arena into an area that already has a Major League Baseball stadium, the preeminent (and newly expanded) tennis center in the country, and an olympic-level aquatics center. A few years ago, pols tried to cram through a Major League Soccer stadium in the heart of the park itself, only to see the soccer-loving communities that surround the park unify against it. The appetite for an arena is simply not there. And yet it keeps being brought back up.

The latest politician to get on board with a Queens hockey arena is Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who said during her state of the borough last week she’d like to see a hockey arena or soccer team on the Willets Point site. As my colleague Neil deMause points out, Katz has zilch power to move forward with that idea, so it’s more of a gesture than anything substantive. On top of that, Willets Point itself, while still being cleared auto shop by auto shop by the city in a torturous process that has dragged on forever, has to be decontaminated before anything can be built on the land. Right now, the current plan, spearheaded by the Mets ownership, is to put a parking lot on it, and replace the Mets current parking lot with a mall. That plan has been met with lawsuit after lawsuit over the alienation of parkland, and now the case is stalled in state court, with a possible resolution one way or another coming as soon as this spring.

So to throw a hockey arena into the mix seems like pure fantasy. Or is it? The battle over the Mets parking lot is over whether the parkland the parking lot currently sits on could be turned into a mall without violating the “public trust doctrine,” which limits uses of parkland and makes any development contingent on approval from the state. Shea Stadium used to sit directly on the land where the parking lot now resides, so there might not be a violation of the doctrine if a hockey arena were to be built there. And while that would surely also result in legal action as well, it certainly serves more a public and park-like function than a shopping mall. The Mets (and Islanders) parking lot could still head for Willets Point, where remediation (and future flooding) makes the development of a neighborhood challenging.

But that doesn’t mean it should happen. Flushing Meadows Park is already overburdened by sports facilities, and a soccer stadium or hockey rink is a poor use of badly needed public space. If the Willets West mall get approved by the courts, then a mall it shall be, with some talk of eventually building a mixed-income neighborhood on the site of the parking lot (which, because of bad deals cut by the Bloomberg administration and local councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, will never ever happen).

The Queens Islanders are a fantasy and a ploy, as a wayward ownership group tries to bilk New York City out of some taxpayer money or public land in exchange for another hockey team no one wants. But you know who does want the Islanders? Long Island. You know who just renovated an arena that has the capacity of what the Islanders consistently draw? Long Island. You know where they Islanders are going to be playing in 2019? On Long Island, where taxpayers smartly refused to publicly fund a new stadium until wealthy developers just went ahead and remodeled their old one. They deserve their hockey team back, and Queens is ready, once and for all, to let its fascination with even more stadiums finally die.


In the Latest Pension-Fund Corruption Scandal, Everyone’s Paying but Wall Street

The intricacies of pension fund malfeasance are not always the stuff that tabloid writers dream about, but the unveiling of the indictment of a director of New York’s largest public retirement fund just before Christmas was an exception. Navnoor Kang, a former tennis pro turned portfolio manager for the New York State Common Retirement Fund, is charged with accepting bribes in exchange for directing billions of dollars of the fund’s trading business to two broker-dealers, FTN Financial and Sterne Agee. Coordinating payments through the smartphone app WhatsApp, Kang received luxury watches, travel, bottle-service, cocaine, strippers, prostitutes, and — wait for it — tickets to a Paul McCartney concert. “Drug-fueled pay-to-play scheme,” shouted a New York Post headline.

When Kang allegedly started taking the bribes from Gregg Schonhorn, an employee of FTN Financial, and Deborah Kelley, an employee of Sterne Agee, neither company was doing any business with the pension fund at all. They weren’t even on the fund’s list of approved broker dealers, so Kang had to launder their business through other companies, meaning New York’s public employees were paying double commissions on every one of those trades. Kang eventually managed to get the companies on the fund’s whitelist, however, and by last year, Sterne Agee and FTN Financial had gone from $0 in annual business with the fund to $179 million and $2.4 billion, respectively. FTN Financial alone was making $1 million per month in commissions on its trades for the fund.

The episode is hardly unique. With billions and billions under management, and in many instances spotty oversight, public pension funds can look like the juiciest wildebeests on the veldt to financial predators. Last June, Norman Seabrook, the president of the New York Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the group’s union, was charged with accepting a Ferragamo bag full of $60,000 in cash in exchange for steering $20 million from the New York City Correction Officers’ pension fund to Platinum Partners, a spectacularly dodgy hedge fund with ties to both a Florida Ponzi scheme and a plan to illegally profit off the deaths of terminally ill patients.

In this instance, it makes sense that the focus of the outrage in the wake of the indictment is on Kang, the man who allegedly sold off his duty to elderly pensioners and hard-working public employees. It also makes sense that Tom DiNapoli — who as state comptroller oversees the New York State Common Retirement Fund, and who came into office pledging to purge this kind of corruption — is taking heat. His predecessor, Alan Hevesi, pleaded guilty in 2010 to steering a quarter billion dollars in investments from the same fund toward one company in return for nearly $1 million in travel, fake consulting fees, and campaign donations.

But there is an asymmetry here. The only parties so far to emerge from the scandal unscathed are the companies themselves.

“The firms weren’t necessarily bad actors,” Dawn Dearden, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, told the Voice when asked why the companies weren’t facing any repercussions. “It was individuals.” True, both Schonhorn and Kelley were indicted, as individuals, alongside Kang; and true, both FTN Financial and Sterne Agee had in-house policies against bribery. But both of their Wall Street firms will walk away from this smoldering trainwreck intact, carrying the millions they made with them.

“If the bribery scheme is not just to personally profit a number of brokers, but they’re doing it in a way that their employer is gaining from the business, it’s logical to think about whether the entity ought to be liable,” said Brandon Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and the author of Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations. “A company shouldn’t be allowed to profit from an illegal scheme.”

And though the companies may have had internal rules on the books against employees engaging in bribery, that isn’t necessarily enough to get them off the hook, says John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in securities regulation and white-collar crime. “These bribes were paid to get business for the corporations,” he said. “There is at least legal liability here. You could have a bylaw that says you may not pay a bribe — it has no legal effect.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which generally files parallel civil suits alongside Justice Department prosecutions of financial crimes, has the power to compel companies — even without blaming them for what happened — to “disgorge” any money made wrongfully, returning it to its rightful owners. “That doesn’t punish the company, but it should be a bare minimum,” Garrett said. “The company should have to give up its illegal gains.”

The SEC has indeed filed its own civil suit, and is seeking disgorgement of “ill-gotten gains,” but its only targets are Kang, Schonhorn, and Kelley. The companies could always return their illegally procured profits to New Yorkers voluntarily, of course, but they don’t seem to be leaping at the opportunity. “No comment,” was the reply from an FTN Financial spokesperson to the Voice when asked about it. “I’ll get back to you,” said a spokesman for Kelley’s former employer.

It’s possible that the senior management of FTN Financial and Sterne Agee had no idea that their employees were paying bribes. It’s possible that they believed that the billions of dollars in pension fund business was simply the reward for honest hustle. The white faces of managerial rectitude smiling out from these companies’ “About Us” pages may have committed no crimes at all. And New York’s public employees can reasonably hope that their pension funds will take steps to tighten their anticorruption protocols and strengthen oversight.

But as it stands, the two enterprises have profited from crimes, and in a culture ruled above all by the iron law of rational self-interest, there seems to be little disincentive for them or their fellows to continue profiting from the corruption of public officials charged with safeguarding the retirements of firefighters, civil servants, and school cafeteria workers. From the mortgage crisis and financial collapse to Wells Fargo’s scheme to fraudulently open accounts for its unwitting customers, the last decade has been a bonanza of financial malfeasance, but when it comes to accountability, and the kind of penalties that might provide meaningful deterrence, prosecutors and regulators have left Americans in the lurch. With a new federal administration packed with Goldman Sachs alumni and an SEC nominee who’s spent a career representing such Wall Street giants, it hardly looks like that’s going to change.


Uber, But For Benefits: NY Tech Companies Propose a Gig Economy Solution

Inder Parmar has driven for Uber since 2013.

It’s a grueling routine. He puts in about sixty hours a week and drives another ten on side jobs he earns from giving his business card to passengers. Parmar takes the occasional day off at home in Nassau County, but he usually works seven days a week, picking up and dropping off customers in New York City. It all adds up to about $900 a week — and that’s before gas and insurance. Since Uber considers Parmar, 54, an independent contractor, it doesn’t pay him minimum wage or overtime. It doesn’t reimburse him for basic upkeep costs. And it doesn’t offer any benefits.

“I barely get by, from hand to mouth,” Parmar says. “If any unnecessary expense comes up, I have to go to my elder son or take it out from my wife’s savings account.”

Uber is the largest and best-known company in the so-called gig economy, an umbrella term used to describe largely app-based platforms that offer a range of on-demand services: Handy offers variety of housekeeping services, its thousands of cleaners taking appointments with as little as a day’s notice; Josephine sell users gourmet meals prepared by one of the company’s distributed network of cooks; Jiffy, whose headquarters are in Toronto, dispatches licensed technicians to install your home appliances. While government statistics don’t track the number of workers involved, a March study estimated that about 600,000 people work regularly for such apps nationwide — including tens of thousands in New York.

The growing sector isn’t known for its workplace benefits, but the industry says that’s about to change. The state is considering a bill that these companies say will provide much-needed relief to Parmar and others like him. Championed by Handy and Tech NYC, a newly formed statewide tech-industry trade association that includes Uber, the legislation would lay the foundation for the first-ever “portable” benefits plan for gig economy workers.

The assembly’s majority leader, Joseph Morelle, is expected to introduce the bill in the upcoming session, which begins in January. The Village Voice has learned that Democratic senator Diane Savino, former chair of the labor committee, is leading efforts in the state senate. And in a bid to win support from organized labor, industry supporters have enlisted the aid of Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, who co-signed a letter with other business leaders last December calling for benefits for “independent workers.”

“The world of work is changing, whether we want to believe it or not,” Savino says. “We can stand by and do nothing…ignoring the fact that more and more people are taking these nontraditional pathways to compensation, and leave them in some gray limbo, or we can try and be creative.”

Here’s how the program would work: Under the existing proposal, participation is voluntary. Companies that choose to take part would contribute at least 2.5 percent of the fee for each job performed by the gig economy worker to a benefits fund. Workers could then access the account in order to purchase retirement, health insurance, and other benefits — and it would cover all work performed for any of the companies that choose to join. According to a draft bill circulated by supporters, companies would have broad discretion over what kind of benefits are offered.

As it stands, though, the proposal comes with a catch. It would classify everyone who works for a participating company as an “independent contractor” under state law. Most of the apps already treat their workers as such, sidestepping basic employment obligations like the minimum wage, overtime, or unemployment insurance. The proposal would essentially codify this practice.

For Tech NYC executive director Julie Samuels, it’s a necessary compromise. Companies in the gig economy don’t see themselves as employers, and they don’t want regulators or judges to view them that way either. Employment classification comes with an array of rules and costs. As a result, Samuels says, any portable benefit plan offered by the companies must come with the assurance that they can continue to operate under their existing business model.

“If they were to start [providing benefits] right now without any legislation, my understanding is the majority of the workers who use their platforms would be classified as employees,” says Samuels. “And if all the workers on these platforms are classified as employees, it’d be very difficult for many of [the companies].”

For labor law experts and union leaders, though, the proposal marks a significant retreat in terms of workers’ rights. They say it’s not worth the costs.

“This bill is pure capitulation,” says Bhairavi Desai, founder and executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance. “Companies, whether it’s Uber or Handy, they’re not looking to make concessions. They’re looking to have labor capitulate and have politicians lay down that framework for capitulation.”

Desai says the bill offers companies valuable ammo to defend themselves against costly misclassification lawsuits.

As she points out, the question of whether people who work for apps are employees is far from settled. Former workers have filed dozens of lawsuits against app-based companies to that effect, asking for millions in unpaid wages. In response to arguably the most high-profile class-action suit, Uber brokered a $100 million settlement — but in August, a federal judge rejected the proposed deal on the grounds that it wasn’t fair enough for drivers.

“Given that many of the gig economy companies are facing lawsuits that are pending on this issue directly, [the bill] seems somewhat problematic,” says Miriam Cherry, a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law who has written about the intersection of apps and workers’ rights. “The legislation may in fact be an attempt to foreclose those lawsuits.”

Chris Townsend is director of field mobilization for the Amalgamated Transit Union. ATU already represents New York City bus drivers and is seeking to organize a citywide union for Uber drivers. Townsend isn’t just critical of the proposal’s independent-contractor mandate. He says the benefits are paltry too. The current figure of two and a half percentof each job is unimpressive —Parmar, for example, would earn about $3.21 in benefits in an average workday under the existing proposal And anyways, he adds, drivers can already purchase health insurance on their own. “What is it that they’re giving them that’s new?” Townsend asks. “I don’t see what the big innovation is with someone saying, ‘We’re gonna segregate your funds into an account.’ ”

Senator Savino defended the proposal while acknowledging that she’s “not married to the language in this bill,” noting that “I believe this is the beginning of a conversation that is long overdue.”

Parmar isn’t excited about the plan. He sees it as a way for Uber to avoid treating him as what he really is. “If I make one mistake, Uber can fire me at any time. Uber wants me to have a car. Uber wants me to have insurance. [They tell me] who to pick up and who to drop off,” he explains.

“I do feel like an employee.”