There was more than COVID to the year of COVID.
2020 is a year when the silly and predictable recitation of the top stories of the past 12 months is particularly silly and predictable: We all know what the top story of the year was—and no, it wasn’t the presidential election, which is a distant second.
The immensity of the COVID-19 tragedy, however, is actually an argument for thinking briefly about other significant developments on the local stage, lest they be blotted out entirely.
Here, then, in no particular order, is a quick look at some (certainly not all) of the stories that emerged in 2020 and are likely to have an impact on the five boroughs next year and thereafter.
Defunding the police: The surge of outrage over the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd transformed the national conversation around policing, especially in New York City, where the anger over stop-and-frisk, the Eric Garner killing and other policing controversies had never really faded. Suddenly, mainstream politicians were talking about “defunding the police”—although it became clear that the phrase meant different things to different people. A “defend the police” backlash soon arose. While the city’s cuts to the NYPD budget in 2020 were modest, the fact that they were made at all amid rising crime numbers illustrates how potent the criticism of the status quo had become. Beyond the budget, the recent Department of Investigation report on how city protests were policed makes clear that there’s a lot more work to be done, most likely by the next mayor.
Housing plan hurdles: The year began inauspiciously for Mayor Bill de Blasio when one of his proposed neighborhood rezonings, in Bushwick, fell apart amid opposition from local elected officials. The pandemic then forced delays in consideration of another neighborhood plan, covering Gowanus. Meanwhile, fiscal pressure led the city to push capital spending for the housing plan into later years and scrap an experiment involving legalizing basement apartments. Some of the capital money was restored, but taken together, the changes undermined the mayor’s signature policy heading into his final year in office.
Rise in singles: From November 2019 to November 2020, the number of families with children in the city’s shelter system decreased 16.4 percent. The number of adult couples in the system fell 19.2 percent. But the number of single adults rose 8.8 percent. While the number of children in shelters (17,000 or so as of December 23) is still significant, the growing presence of single adults indicates a shift in the complexion of homelessness in New York City. And the de Blasio administration’s disastrous handling of the Lucerne controversy indicates it will be a difficult to manage for mayors easily cowed by NIMBYism.
Corps Cancellation: The decision by the federal government to freeze work on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study of how to protect the city from catastrophic storm surge was a blow to efforts to prepare New York for climate change. While it was hardly the only resiliency effort underway, and while much of the Corps’ narrow approach was controversial, the study still created a framework for addressing the most dramatic risks the city faces. Good news came late in the year with Congressional action that did not restart the study but made sure it would have a broader focus if, as is expected, the Biden administration green lights it again.
Industry City: Mainstream observers cast the withdrawal of IC’s application to expand its Sunset Park footprint as another nail in New York’s economic coffin, coming after Amazon’s HQ2 pullout and amid the devastation of COVID-19. Critics of the plan, however, said it was another indictment of episodic, developer-driven planning. The new City Council push for a comprehensive planning system creates an opportunity to devise a better for way for changing how the city’s most finite resource—its land—gets used. Will pro-development factions support that kind of planning in hopes of avoiding the next Industry City, or opt to stick with the status quo?
NYCHA plan: NYCHA’s Blueprint for Change, released last summer, would put a separate public trust in charge of renovating the authority’s decaying buildings, and use a new federal funding stream to pay for those repairs. The Blueprint covers the 110,000 units of housing that were not part of the previous de Blasio plan for NYCHA, NYCHA 2.0, which aims to place 62,000 units under private management and effectively convert them from traditional public housing to the more reliable Section 8 funding stream. While much work remains to secure and implement both plans, together they represent a comprehensive—though, given the involvement of private entities, controversial—approach to stabilizing public housing. De Blasio, whose big spending on NYCHA hasn’t spared him from big criticism for ignoring the scale of problems at the authority, might end up being remembered for putting NYCHA on a stable, if very different, footing.
Welfare’s rise: October saw a 16 percent rise compared with the same month last year in the number of households receiving cash assistance in New York City. An even larger, 17 percent rise was recorded in August. It’s a simple story of a social-safety net functioning the way it is supposed to—assisted in doing so by an administration that, while not perfect in its handling of COVID, was generally committed to making it easier for people to access help.
A supermajority after all: In the early hours after election day, it looked like New York Democrats had not only fallen short in their effort to secure a veto-proof supermajority in the state Senate, but might have lost ground. From within and outside the party came the critique that progressives had pushed too far and exposed moderates to defeat. But within a few weeks it was clear the Democrats would, in fact, achieve that supermajority. That largely puts the critique to rest, and creates a fascinating dynamic in Albany as Gov. Andrew Cuomo heads into the second half of his third term—and looks ahead to a possible fourth—with a more muscular progressive Senate to contend with.
Bloomberg’s presidential miss: Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s spending $500 million on a presidential run that netted him just 55 delegates proved two important lessons. The first was that no mayor of New York City will ever go on to be president. Forget John Lindsay, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani or de Blasio—if a three-term mayor with an international profile and billions to spend cannot win, no mayor ever will, so mayors should stop thinking about that possibility. The second lesson was that, despite all the flaws in how the U.S. picks a president, money alone still cannot win the highest office in the land. That’s something.
School admissions changes: The one-year suspension of academic screens in middle schools is a sea change for schools, faculty, parents and students. It is timed for a revisit in late 2021 or early 2022 that will either present de Blasio with a last chance to put his stamp on the school system or give his successor a tough call to make. And eliminating the absurdly elitist geographic restrictions that a few districts and schools were allowed to maintain is a major step toward a fairer high-school system. However, it appears the next mayor will have to figure out what to do about the Selective High School Admissions Tests, not to mention the many high schools that use screening systems far more opaque and subjective than the SHSAT.