Feelings of inadequacy often elicit the need to overcompensate, and so it was with Mayor’s Spano’s 2016 State of the City Speech earlier this month. Picking up where he left off with his January inauguration speech, Spano leaned heavily on the hackneyed catchphrases “better today” (repeated 10 times) and “greater tomorrow” (mentioned just 7 times) to extol what he views as his administration’s triumphs. But is there any substance behind such empty sloganeering?
After listening to (or reading) the Mayor’s State of the City speech, one wonders which City the Mayor has in mind.
When he says that “the world looks at Yonkers in a new way” and then segues into self-congratulatory remarks about development along the waterfront and unsubstantiated claims of “a billion dollars in development over the past four years,” one has the distinct impression that the Mayor is pulling a bait and switch. Behind the marketing hype is the disturbing reality of a city out of sync with Spano and his administration’s brand (e.g. Yonkers as the hippest city).
Yonkers has always been parochial and inward-looking due in part to a nagging inferiority complex that seems to haunt smaller cities. When you share a border with New York City, you have to find a way to grab the spotlight, which explains Spano’s overreaching, exaggerated rhetoric:
“Instead of a city consumed by old conflicts about housing, they see a diverse and thriving community […] Instead of a city whose finances were on the brink of collapse, the world sees a city that is fiscally responsible […] Instead of a city that is old and graying, the world sees a city that continues to attract new families, whose schools are growing, and whose restaurants, shops and businesses are thriving.”
It all sounds good, but there’s a hitch in Spano’s pitch. The world isn’t looking at Yonkers, at least not for the reasons Spano would have you believe. If people know anything at all about Yonkers, particularly those from abroad, then their knowledge is recent and historical. HBO’s miniseries Show Me a Hero has given Yonkers a global footprint, but the image is an unkind one since the show examines the institutional racism within Yonkers City government during the 1980’s and 1990s that resulted in a federal mandate to desegregate Yonkers public housing.
This, then, is the actual image of Yonkers that the world sees: crime, racism, inner city blight, income inequality, joblessness – in short, a bifurcated, Jekyll-and Hyde city in which the dysfunctional urban landscape of impoverished minorities is juxtaposed with the manicured lawns of largely white, largely affluent suburbs.
It is jarring to hear one of America’s least educated mayors eulogizing about the value of education. After four years of scandals under his watch involving a quarter of a million dollars in missing school equipment, a $55 million accounting error in the Yonkers Public Schools budget for which YPS Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio lost his job while his successor stepped down amidst allegations of viewing pornography on a City computer, and crumbling, underfunded, and overcrowded schools, it is little comfort to hear Spano enthuse about his commitment to public education in Yonkers. With minimal actual formal education himself and an endless trail of budget scandals, Spano’s Albany advocacy efforts might actually jeopardize the future allocation of State money to Yonkers schools.
Crime continues to plague the poorest sections of Yonkers, primarily in the southwestern portion of the City. Shootings, stabbings, and gang violence, often fueled by the drug and gun trades, continue to terrorize local populations of largely black and brown residents. While Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have made inroads recently in combating the criminal activities of violent, local Yonkers gangs such as “Cruddy 650,”, their involvement and efforts indicate the gravity of the situation, one that now requires the highest levels of federal law enforcement. And yet Spano irresponsibly claims that Yonkers continues “to lead the nation’s cities in providing a safe place to live.” Such claims indicate a mayor ill-equipped or unable to address and ameliorate the presence of habitual violence in his city. The first step in solving a problem is to acknowledge the presence of one.
Problems related to aging infrastructure have become symptomatic of the American experience in the twenty-first century and Yonkers is no exception. As anyone who has driven along the City’s main arteries can attest, the roads continue to deteriorate. Whether on Riverdale Avenue, South Broadway, Nepperhan Avenue, Warburton Avenue, or Central Avenue, potholes of varying sizes pockmark the streets, and pedestrians are forced to navigate uneven sidewalks. While Yonkers might have “installed the first solar and wind powered turbine street light in the United States,” such “innovations” do nothing to address the urgent needs of an aging municipal infrastructure, one well past its prime.
Another innovation much-lauded by Spano is the smartphone app that allows users to pay their parking meter remotely. During his four years, Spano has also introduced another innovative method for Yonkers drivers to pay into the city coffers: the red-light camera. Effectively an unofficial tax on Yonkers drivers (as well as those just passing through Yonkers), Spano has installed 50 red-light cameras at “dangerous intersections” throughout the city. How much did it cost to buy and install these cameras? How much does it cost to operate and maintain these cameras? How did a city beleaguered by budget deficits pay for the equipment? What is the city doing with the 24-hour video footage being recorded at each intersection? Is there any empirical evidence to support the claim that these cameras are for safety purposes? It’s anyone’s guess, but should you receive a citation in the mail then you can make an involuntary donation of $50 to the City of Yonkers – now that’s one innovative way to raise revenue for the city and you don’t even need a smartphone app.
Mayor Spano was quick to thank the Yonkers City Council, which he described as “the most bipartisan and most successful Council in our City’s history.” Of course it helps to overlook the fact that the City Council members (Liam J. McLaughlin, Christopher Johnson, Corazon Pineda-Isaac, Michael Sabatino, Dennis Shepherd, Mike Breen, and John Larkin) voted unanimously during the very last meeting of 2015 (just before the Christmas holidays) to give themselves a pay raise, and this despite a 2015 Albany bailout to help Yonkers balance its books. One would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting picture of bipartisanship. Unfortunately, it is also an image of savvy, self-interested political careerists who have become disconnected from the needs of their constituents.
All of this begs the question: Whose city did Spano’s speech address? To listen to Michael Spano Yonkers is awash in money and development as shopping centers, hotels, housing, and businesses sprout and bloom like the cherry trees and tulips of Untermeyer Gardens each spring. Better today and greater tomorrow, right?
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