Top NYC Stories of 2014 Set the Stage for Sequels

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray and children Dante and Chiara wave to the crowd after the mayor took the oath of office. It was the beginning of a tumultuous 12 months for de Blasio, his progressive agenda and the city itself.

Official Photo by New York City Mayor's Office

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray and children Dante and Chiara wave to the crowd after the mayor took the oath of office. It was the beginning of a tumultuous 12 months for de Blasio, his progressive agenda and the city itself.

New Year’s is easily our most arbitrary holiday, marking neither a birth nor a declaration, commemorating no explorer’s arrival nor war’s end. It’s just a day when our “365 ‘Mama’s Family’ Facts” desk calendar runs out and we need to break out its “365 Days of Fleetwood Mac Trivia” replacement. For some reason, it’s become an occasion for singing an old Scottish poem, resolving to do something about one’s sugar intake and making lists of things that happened and people who died in the past 12 months.

At least in the city, where new mayors are inaugurated on New Year’s Day, January 1 represents the anniversary of a government—making the year’s end a logical milestone for looking back on accomplishments and failures so far. In the case of Bill de Blasio, who became mayor on a very chilly 1/1/2014, that also means looking ahead, because many of the biggest stories in 2014 involving his young administration set the stage for what we’ll all be talking about in 2015.

Here then are our picks for the year’s top stories, ordered from No. 10 to No. 1:

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10. Casinos: In some ways this was not a New York City story: The state Gaming Facility Location Board decided this month not to place a casino in Orange County, relatively close to New York City, opting instead to try to inject more economic stimulus into the Catskills. Meanwhile, casinos closed in Atlantic City, Philadelphia approved a new one, Foxwoods struggled in Connecticut and Massachusetts voters doubled down on a plan to launch gaming facilities. But in that tumultuous—and, some might wager, over-saturated—environment, the New York City market loomed ever larger. Attracting city gamblers will be important to the hopes of casinos in at least five states, especially if New Jersey moves to place a casino at the Meadowlands. And if any of those casinos actually succeed at drawing the city crowd, expect the downstate racinos in Queens and Yonkers to start pressing for their own full-scale casino licenses.

9. Immigration: President Obama’s announcement that undocumented immigrants would be able to legitimize their status—temporarily—doesn’t go nearly as far as immigration advocates might hope. It’s reflective, therefore, of just how stalemated the immigration debate was that the president’s measured move felt like a revolution. Given New York City’s role as a home for immigrants documented and not, the executive order is likely to have a major impact on families and neighborhoods here. Meanwhile, the city moved toward introducing a municipal ID that, like the president’s move, is aimed at giving undocumented people the semblance of membership in our society. A surge in unaccompanied minors meant challenges for the city’s school system. At places like the nearby immigration detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., one question for the next year is what practical impact the Obama move will have on deportations.

8. Progressive takeover: Do elections matter? It’d be hard to look at the first few months of 2014 in New York City and suggest they don’t. On both style (his Harry-Belafonte-headlined, spoken-word-infused inauguration) and substance (moving to end stop-and-frisk litigation, settling the FDNY lawsuit, naming Steve Banks as welfare chief), the start of the de Blasio era marked a sharp break from what came before. Meanwhile, the ascension of a progressive Latina to the Council speaker’s chair, boosted by an increasingly powerful Progressive Caucus, led to a quick legislative victory for sick-leave legislation. Public Advocate Letitia James staked out her own territory on the left by bringing Dasani Coates to the inauguration and Comptroller Scott Stringer moved to settle lawsuits alleging police and corrections wrongdoing faster than even the de Blasio team wanted to act. After 20 years of Republican leadership in City Hall, the change was swift and visible. A fascinating question for 2015: What does Year 2 of the new “progressive era” look like?

7. Charter combat: The charter-school lobby knew a clash with the de Blasio administration was inevitable, and leapt at the first opportunity to land a devastating blow. When the de Blasio DOE in February released a review of 49 planned co-locations of multiple schools (sometimes charters) in a single building, it approved 35 of them, including 14 charter schools, five of which will be run by Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies chain. It also set four plans aside, ordered one to be revised, and shot down nine proposed co-locations; six were regular schools and three were Moskowitz charters. In the version of reality promoted by Moskowitz and her allies, this modest pushback against the very real irritant of co-locations was cast as tantamount to all-out war on the charter system. Charter champions bused school-kids and parents to Albany for a rally headlined by Gov. Cuomo, who promised to save charter schools from the existential threat of … three denied co-locations. In the end, charters won an entirely new set of protections in state law and de Blasio—whose administration badly bungled the announcement of the co-location decisions—lost valuable political capital. This set the stage for the looming Albany fight in 2015 over the charter-school cap and mayoral control.

6. Pre-K: The charter debacle undermined de Blasio at a most inopportune time, just as he was trying to sell Albany on his plan to tax rich New Yorkers to pay for universal pre-K and middle-school after-school programs to help fight income inequality. In the end, de Blasio didn’t get his tax hike, but he did get state funding for his signature policy program—although UPK fared much better in the budget than the middle-school after-school component did. In September, with a flurry of activity and amid some pesky questions from Stringer, the UPK program began. Next September sees the full implementation of the plan. Soon after will come the questions about what impact the program is having.

5. Housing: Even before the UPK battle was over in Albany, some in de Blasio’s team were candid that the real challenge for using policy to reduce inequality was still ahead. “In some ways, UPK is easy,” one insider told me on a late winter day. “Building or preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing? That’s hard.” Indeed, given the centrality of housing costs to the affordability anxieties that fueled de Blasio’s campaign—and given the dearth of detail in the mayor’s campaign promise to build affordable housing—his May roll-out of the affordable housing plan was probably the most anticipated policy move of the mayor’s first year. The plan was notable for its commitment to density, the sheer array of policy levers the administration indicated a willingness to use and the lack of a citywide template in favor of a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach that will play out beginning in 2015.

4. A Teachout moment: Cuomo’s grandstanding on charter schools and rebuff of de Blasio’s call for a tax on the rich to fund UPK added to a list of complaints by the Democratic left about the centrist governor. Those gripes were laughed off at first because of the governor’s fundraising prowess and establishment support. But they began to gain traction when an unknown law professor, Zephyr Teachout, announced she would challenge Cuomo for the Working Families Party nomination. At a testy convention outside Albany in late May, the WFP came very close to actually nominating Teachout. They were swayed by an odd video message from the governor and a bevy of assurances from progressive leaders that Cuomo would make good on promises to pursue a more progressive agenda. Instead, Cuomo soon moved to weaken the WFP and did little to elect a Democratic senate. Teachout challenged him in the Democratic primary and made a solid showing against steep odds. For Cuomo, a wily politician with hopes of national office, the rise of the party’s left could complicate his agenda over the next four years, though the Republican retake of the state Senate will provide a countervailing force.

3. Rikers abuse: The New York Times exposé and U.S. Attorney’s investigation of conditions on Rikers Island laid bare the crisis in a system that usually operates well outside public view: De Blasio admitted that jails, which house around 12,000 people on a typical day, weren’t high on his agenda when he took office. For advocates who have tried to get attention to the flaws in the bail system, the impact of misdemeanor arrests and conditions behind bars, the sudden attention on violence and mental illness in the city’s jails was years in coming. A mayoral panel released recommendations late in the year that focused on preventing mentally ill people from getting to jail in the first place. Still, a federal lawsuit looms.

2. Fracking: Rarely has a period of procrastination ended so definitively. Hail it or hate it, the governor’s decision to accept his health and environment commissioners’ recommendation and not allow hydraulic fracturing in New York is a milestone in the state’s environmental and economic history. And it’s unique in a state as large and economically diverse as New York State for a single policy decision to mean so much to so many people in such diametric disagreement over what was the right thing to do. In 2015, will we see some real Plan B for economic development in upstate New York?

1. Policing: We could have predicted that law and order would be a top story in 2014, what with the importance of the Dante ad and the critique of stop-and-frisk to de Blasio’s election last year. We never would have guessed that the issue would have taken on such tragic contours as the loss of four people: Eric Garner and Akai Gurley, two unarmed men killed in encounters with police; Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, two police officers murdered by an apparently mentally disturbed career criminal on a spree that he dedicated to avenging Garner and Michael Brown.

Even before those deaths, the topic was doubly divisive: police unions and conservative commentators lamented the arrival of an NYPD inspector general and blamed a brief uptick in violence on the rollback of stop-and-frisk, while groups on the left protested the return of Bill Bratton to the commissioner’s post. The sergeants union even lobbied against New York getting the 2016 Democratic convention. The First Lady’s first chief of staff turned out to have an ex-offender boyfriend with a habit of dissing cops on social media.

Then came the Garner grand jury decision. Days of anguished protest followed. It was overwhelmingly peaceful but the images of small groups of protesters scuffling with cops on the Brooklyn Bridge or calling for “Dead Cops” upped the temperature. Then came the astounding sight of union officials and members turning their backs on the mayor at Woodhull Hospital after the slayings of Liu and Ramos, followed by union leaders actually suggesting the mayor was personally culpable for the killings.

With shootings spiking in December and key police contracts still in negotiation, the rift with cops is now the biggest challenge to de Blasio’s progressive agenda.

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The first story this reporter penned for City Limits was about city preparations for Y2K, the possibility that computers built in the 1900s would stop functioning the moment the 2000s began. In mid-1999 there were worries that we were hopelessly underprepared for that threat. By the time New Year’s Eve 1999 rolled around, most people were mostly certain the world wouldn’t collapse.

Still, on a rooftop in the East Village, as the last seconds of the 20th Century ticked out, there was a lingering sense that something big and bad could happen. But the clock struck 12, the lights stayed on and no planes fell from the sky. There were a few fireworks and a couple car honks and a hoarse rendition of Auld Lang Syne around us, but overwhelmingly, the city was quiet. No news. Nothing happened. It was an odd moment of peace—something the arbitrary end of our current 365-day period might grant us again. Maybe.

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