Volume 76, Number 24 | November 1 - 7, 2006

Talking Point

The (other) war at home; We’re not winning it

By Daniel Meltzer

Mayor Bloomberg’s recently announced war on poverty is neither a war, nor will it ever defeat poverty. Just as the war on terrorism isn’t really a war either, the mayor’s battle cry is a call to arms without an honestly defined enemy. We have also had “wars” against graffiti and panhandlers.

Terrorism isn’t a who; it’s a how; hostile acts by various small factions, skilled, mobile and motivated today by festering grievances and/or religious fanaticism.

Poverty is a condition more to be pitied than hated, certainly not a target to shoot at. President Lyndon B. Johnson, perhaps the savviest politician this country ever produced, waged a war on poverty in the 1960s. He couldn’t win it either. Without the poor, in fact, there would be no true measure of prosperity. What is wealth but insulation from the poorhouse?

Politicians who have not fought in one like to use the word “war.” They think it makes them sound tough and determined. President Bush’s bogus war on terror, a declaration of permanent hostilities, affords him dictator’s powers to override our Constitution, which was designed, largely, to protect the weak and vulnerable from the powerful and unscrupulous. Article 1, Section 9, specifically forbids suspension of habeas corpus, except in “cases of rebellion or invasion.” We have suffered neither. By thus abrogating the Constitution, Mr. Bush violates his oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend” it. He deserves to be impeached for doing so.

Locally, the mayor’s “war” plan is really a call for profit-hungry realtors to invade and seize vulnerable neighborhoods, and to exploit residents’ fear by calling on them to “buy now before prices go even higher!” Their joint goal is a Manhattan of millionaires who will pay higher taxes and patronize extravagant emporia and ludicrously overproduced and overpriced “entertainments,” i.e. resident tourists. A small percentage of the token poor will get ghettoized into lower floors of selected luxury high-rises, or they’ll move to the outer boroughs, or beyond.

Is the latest deal to set aside land in Long Island City for “mixed-use, middle-income housing” part of the grand plan to segregate the city by income? The conversion of historically rent-regulated Stuyvesant Town on the East Side to a vast community of costly condos and the proposed mammoth “market-rate” (a.k.a. “luxury”) developments on the West Side Penn Yards properties would allot a small percentage of temporarily affordable units, many to be doled out in a competitive lottery, pitting poor against poor, further splintering this once community-rich and diverse island.

Upscale professionals, land-rich suburbanites and exurbanites, along with foreign investors exploiting the weakened dollar, will benefit. Struggling young people, salaried workers, artists, students, working immigrants and older residents on fixed incomes will all suffer.

The mayor’s “war” cannot eliminate poverty. It will just drive it underground or concentrate it in less desirable, less visible neighborhoods or apartments, marginalizing the non-rich, so that the more prosperous can live, park their cars and S.U.V.’s, or summon their limos, and shop where the action is. Energy consumption and environmental pollution will increase further. The rest can ride the subways, where fares will rise and cutbacks in service have been threatened.

Mr. Bloomberg has said he wants our population to increase by greater than 10 percent, from the current 8 million to 9 million. Will he also widen the avenues and streets to accommodate the increased traffic?

What is needed here is not more and more high-rise, high-end housing, but better protection for the bright, the gifted, for working people and for the elderly who do not want to be ghettoized, marginalized; for income-frozen citizens who have spent the better parts of their lives here and who don’t want to get out of the way for the rich; for all those New Yorkers who cannot afford the impossibly inflated housing costs — the very people who have made our city the money magnet that it is today. Without serious and effective protections for these neighbors, our city, once heralded as the gateway for the land of opportunity, is in danger of becoming known merely as a metropolis for opportunists.

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