Have you heard? Five of our courageous and compassionate mayoral candidates ventured into heart of darkness over the weekend–into a land of “moldy walls … urine-soaked elevators … darkened hallways,” as the Daily News noted, where they “braved rooms without air-conditioning, and endured showers with weak water pressure,” as the Times observed.
And, the five candidates were sure to convey to the public, they were shocked and outraged to learn of these terrible living conditions.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, for instance, was “startled” by her host’s living conditions at the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem: “This would be unacceptable in any building anywhere in New York but when the city of New York is the landlord … it’s even more unacceptable,” she declared. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio was “taken aback”–“What kind of management would think that this was okay?” he wondered aloud. “You need people in haz-mat suits to clean it up,” former Comptroller William Thomspon said of the mold in his host’s apartment. Comptroller John Liu observed, “People were saying there are a lot of problems here.” So perhaps former Congressman Anthony Weiner was prophetic when he noted before the sleepover, “When you’re in it and you live it, even for 24 hours it leaves an impact on you.”
After all, as the Times reported, “It was a stark change of scenery for the candidates.”
But this wasn’t about personal impact, of course: It was about the spectacle. To quote the paper of record once more: “The mayoral race took on the air of a reality show.” And reading that has got to make Al Sharpton smile. Because it was all a gimmick, a media circus drawn straight from the Sharpton playbook and executed to perfection.
Sharpton framed the high-rise slumber party as a method for helping the mayoral candidates better empathize with the lives of the city’s lowest-income residents: “When one of you gets to Gracie Mansion, remember your night in Lincoln Houses,” he proclaimed.
But unless Aaron Sorkin were secretly choreographing this mayoral race, it’s hard to imagine that a night in the projects would shift a potential mayor’s legislative priorities. The troubles in the city’s public housing system have been well-documented over the years, and any high level public official somehow still not familiar with the gory details must be simply uninterested in the issue.
More to the point, the five Democratic candidates who accepted Sharpton’s invitation have already taken reform-minded stances on public housing. At a forum in April, those same five candidates promised to end NYCHA’s requirement to pay the city $100 million for security ($75 mill) and sanitation ($25 mill). And last week, Public Advocate de Blasio called out NYCHA for its thousands and thousands of unresolved repairs, even suggesting that the agency might be lying about the size of its backlog.
Sharpton’s ploy was not to get the candidates to make lofty promises about the future of public housing. It was to get those lofty promises, heightened by public shock and outrage, into the front of our minds, tied to our memories of, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “one of the most unusual events of an already unusual New York City election year.”
Those promises, for the record, as reported in the Daily News’ article on the sleepover:
All five promised to find new ways to attack the backlog of 220,000 unresolved repair requests. There are 3,800 such requests at Lincoln alone.
And all agreed to end the current policy that requires NYCHA to pay $75 million each year for police and $25 million for sanitation.
There are pictures, dozens of them, of Liu taking in a game of spades in the courtyard, of Thompson watching TV on the couch, of Quinn carrying a pillow, of de Blasio chatting with a resident, of Weiner laying out his sleeping bag, and more.
So perhaps if the spectacle is seared into the city’s collective consciousness, so will the promises.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 22, 2013