Thoughts on oligarchy

Is it disingenuous to not think of the United States as an oligarchy when the brother of a former president (their dad was also a former president) has a decent chance of being our next president, as does the wife of a former president? This is all in the last three decades over four administrations.

From Wikipedia: “Oligarchy, meaning ‘few,’ and ‘to rule or to command,’ is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next…”

I draw no grand conclusions from this, but it’s worth considering.

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Speaking of #fail

I’m going to unpack this tweet I made earlier today, mostly because it doesn’t make sense without context (140 characters, sorry) and because the column in question is frustrating insofar as it relates to Occupy Wall Street (lol remember that?).

A bit harsh, but read on.

A bit harsh, but read on.

I agree with the central thesis of the Daily Beast’s column, Why Industry Hashtags #Fail: because they’re easy targets that are easily co-opted by critics and can easily go viral. The notion of a social media campaign – corporate or otherwise – going completely toe-up is catnip in the twittersphere.

As a case study the author used #MyNYPD, a social media debacle in which the NYPD tried to solicit photographs of friendly interactions between officers and the public. It failed miserably. Social-savvy activists, including the main Occupy Wall Street Twitter account, began to collate photos of abuse (perceived or actual) by the NYPD, mainly in the context of the protests.

I was tracking with the column until I read this:


Why Industry Hashtags #Fail, by Samantha Levine. The Daily Beast – May 5, 2014.

The author is right, none of the established news organizations that deigned to cover the protests delved into accusations of wholesale misconduct or systemic brutality. However, that’s not – as she suggests – evidence that such widespread, systemic conduct did not occur.

And is it really a base instinct to question the police department’s handling of Occupy, something that neither Bill de Blasio nor Bill Bratton has really addressed in the context of future protests? No news outlet here in New York, that I’ve seen, has even attempted to take the police department to task for illegally detaining people or the widely documented instances of abuse of power and force. No news outlet that I’ve seen took a comprehensive look at how the NYPD reacted to Occupy and came back to the police department with questions.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying there was widespread, systemic brutality in the NYPD’s handling of Occupy protestors, though if presented with such a case I’d have no problem believing it based on what I personally saw. I’m not saying the NYPD isn’t well-liked, as I believe they are by everyday New Yorkers.

What I am saying is that even though the point of the column – why industry hashtags don’t work – is ultimately made, claiming that there wasn’t systemic abuse in the NYPD’s handling of Occupy because there weren’t any news reports about such a thing is lazy and careless in any context. The question was never really asked. My larger point is that the question should have been, and should still be, asked of the NYPD.

Forget for a minute the ideology behind Occupy Wall Street. There’s a right way and a wrong way of handling protests, especially those that are big enough to warrant a full-scale response from the world’s largest police force. I’m not convinced the NYPD handled it anywhere close to the right way. And there hasn’t yet been a reckoning from those who have since come to power.

What’s going to happen next time, like if New York City wins its bid to host to the 2016 Democratic National Convention?

I’ll close with this excerpt (linked above as well) from The Atlantic that looked at the 14 most egregious allegations of abuse by the NYPD during the Occupy protests and was based on an eight-month study conducted by law clinics at NYU, Fordham, Harvard and Stanford.

14 Specific Allegations of NYPD Brutality During Occupy Wall Street. The Atlantic - July 25, 2012

14 Specific Allegations of NYPD Brutality During Occupy Wall Street, by Conor Friedersdorf. The Atlantic – July 25, 2012

Occupy had its run in the mainstream news cycle, and has long ago ceased being much of a story. But the media largely failed in holding police departments across the country accountable for how they handled Occupy protesters. There are bound to be more large-scale protests in New York, and we would do well to start asking the questions that should have been asked and answered years ago, perhaps starting a national dialogue among law enforcement in the process.


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Push for Park Avenue

Upper East Siders fighting for historic district on Park Avenue heard by landmarks commission. This piece was published Feb. 26 in Our Town

“No one at the meeting really understood why these areas had not been incorporated into an existing or proposed historic district,” said Slater. “At that time, there was a feeling on the part of the commission that there really was not a perceived threat to Park Avenue, and that the commission had to focus on other boroughs of the city.”

Slater said her group understood the need for historic preservation in other areas of the city, but that “sadly we lost the first of several buildings along Park Avenue shortly after that meeting.”

Upper East Siders supporting historical designation on Park Avenue, who have coalesced under the umbrella name of Historic Park Avenue, had their long-awaited hearing before the LPC last week.


The Upper East Side is home to many landmarked buildings. Photo by Laura Naefe.

The proposal actually calls for the creation of two historic districts along Park Avenue to fill in the 14-block gap between the existing Carnegie Hill and Upper East Side historic districts. The goal, say supporters, is to protect historic buildings – and the lots on which they sit – from being developed. The two proposed areas run along Park Avenue between 79th Street and 91st Street and 94th Street and 96th Street.

Elected leaders who support the proposal include council members Dan Garodnick and Ben Kallos, as well as Assemblyman Dan Quart, Senator Liz Krueger and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

“There’s no reason to exclude buildings above 79th Street from protection,” said Krueger, who provided a statement to the LPC through a representative.

Over 70 people showed up to testify at the hearing, including representatives of the local elected officials. Garodnick’s office said that of the 68 buildings in the proposed historic district, five are in immediate danger of being developed.

According to Tara Kelly, executive director of the group Friends of the Upper East Side, five buildings have been lost to development since 2010. These buildings were built between 1856 and the mid-1900s, by famous architects such as J.E.R. Carpenter and Rosario Candela, according to members of Historic Park Avenue.

“This important stretch of Park Avenue, along with the Park Avenue Christian Church and parish house, deserves the permanent protection that is offered by landmark designation,” said Kelly. “Thus we ask the commission to act with all possible speed to ensure that these historic buildings are preserved.”

The debate surrounding Park Avenue Christian Church, built in 1911, is one that’s divided residents on the Upper East Side between those who want to landmark the church building and its adjacent parish house and the church administration itself, who say they need to monetize the lot that the parish house is built upon in order to survive.

Valerie Campbell, a lawyer at Kramer & Levin representing the church, said the church supports the creation of a historical district along Park Avenue, but doesn’t want to be included in it because that will prevent them from following through on a deal they have with Extel Development for the parish house lot.

“Park Avenue Christian Church has been a conscientious steward of its church sanctuary for almost 75 years, it has no plans to leave its spiritual home,” said Campbell. “The proposed designation should not be used as a tool to stop a sensitive plan for development that will not result in any adverse impact on the historic sanctuary or any other historic structure proposed inside the district.”

Extel wants to build a 210-foot residential tower that will cantilever over the church itself, a plan that’s infuriated local residents who say it will ruin views of the historic church and is ill-suited to the surrounding architecture. The church’s rationale for seeking the parish house’s exclusion from the historical district is that the building – which used to house a day school – was built in the mid-1960s.

While there’s no shortage of critics of the proposal – former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who grew up next to the church, had a representative at the commission hearing and called the cantilever plan “horrendous” – the decision on whether it goes forward ultimately lies with the city.

The LPC will research Historic Park Avenue’s proposal and issue a designation report, after which the commission will vote on it. From there, the proposal – if it passes – will go to the City Planning Commission for review and another public hearing before being sent to a vote from the City Council.

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Grief, and Safety Ideas, after Traffic Deaths

Upper West Side residents meet with DOT to discuss pedestrian safety issues. This piece was published Feb. 6 in the West Side Spirit.

In January, three pedestrians on the Upper West Side were killed in separate incidents after being struck by vehicles. Perhaps the most wrenching was the death of Cooper Stock, a nine-year-old boy who was struck and killed by a cab at the intersection of 97th Street and West End Avenue. Stock was in the crosswalk, holding his father’s hand, and the two had right-of-way.


Inspector Nancy Barry of the 24th Precinct speaks to the crowd at the meeting.

The meeting was called so the Department of Transportation could unveil safety measures it’s proposing at 96th Street and Broadway, the same intersection where the two other pedestrians were killed: Alexander Shear, 73, the same night Cooper died, and Samantha Lee, 26, 10 days later on Jan. 19.

The safety proposals at the intersection include banning left hand-turns from 96th on Broadway, and banning left-hand turns from Broadway heading eastbound on 96th Street. The DOT is also calling for expanded pedestrian space on the northeast corner of the intersection and new crosswalks, as well as simpler signal phasing for cars and pedestrians that will “significantly” improve the travel-time for the latter.

Overall, the DOT said, the improvements will cause less confusion and lead to more natural compliance with signals.

The DOT’s Ryan Russo said the agency would like to begin implementing the improvements as early as March, after taking into account the input from residents and CB7. “We’d start in March and probably finish in March or April,” said Russo.

The DOT was commended by residents and local leaders who spoke up at the meeting, and their proposal was characterized as a good starting point for fixing safety issues on the Upper West Side.

But the almost three-hour meeting was also a forum for residents to talk about safety issues they see in other areas of the neighborhood. What has made this recent spate of tragedies particularly difficult is that residents, and local leaders, said they’ve known for quite some time that serious safety issues exist on the Upper West Side.

Findings from a pedestrian safety study commissioned by CB7 last year, and released in September, included examinations of both locations where people were most recently killed. The study looked at a swath of the Upper West Side from 94th Street to 96th Street between Central Park and the Hudson River. The crowd implored CB7, local leaders, the DOT, and members of the 24th precinct to crack down on aggressive drivers.

To that end, 24th Precinct Inspector Nancy Barry touted her department’s recent crackdown in the area, saying officers gave out 79 summonses in January for failure to yield to pedestrians, an increase of 182 percent over the same period last year. But her precinct was criticized for what locals perceive as a focus on ticketing pedestrians, especially after a high-profile incident in which police roughed up an elderly man at 96th Street and Broadway, allegedly for jaywalking.

“Cyclists and walkers do not kill innocent people. Cars driven by reckless and distracted drivers do,” said Barron Lerner, Cooper Stock’s uncle. Lerner underscored the tension that has bubbled up – much of it online – between pedestrians/cyclists and motorists, who blame non-motorists for putting themselves in harms way.

“There’s nothing we can do for this family, they’re not going to get their child back. But what we can do is enforcement, to show the community that we’re out there,” said 24th Precinct Inspector Nancy Barry, voice cracking, after holding a moment of silence for the victims.

Lerner also highlighted bureaucratic obstacles to improving safety, including state oversight of the city’s traffic laws and control over the allocation of funds for things like traffic cameras.

“We love Cooper very much and miss him beyond words,” said Lerner. “We beg you, please do not let politics, bureaucracy and interest-group squabbling prevent meaningful reform in the name of Cooper and the other innocent victims of reckless and careless drivers.”

State Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell recently introduced legislation that would reduce the city’s speed limit from 30 to 20 miles per hour, but said he needs a home rule message from the City Council to let the state know it’s behind such an initiative.

Helen Rosenthal, the newly elected councilwoman for the Upper West Side, said mobilizing state support is key to improving pedestrian safety in the city. She’s working on building support to increase the fines for motorists who fail to yield to pedestrians. She’s also a major proponent of lowering the speed limit to 20 miles per hour.

“The political will is big, and that’s very exciting for our community,” said Rosenthal. “Pedestrian fatalities at [96th Street and Broadway] have never been like this.”

Fellow councilmember Mark Levine said the time to act is now.

“Momentum to change the pedestrian safety laws in New York City has never been greater,” he said.

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Public Financing for Private Schools

Under-the-radar agency helps exclusive schools raise hundreds of millions of dollars– all while public schools scramble. This article was published Feb. 5 in Our Town, Our Town Downtown and the West Side Spirit

A little-known program within the city’s Economic Development Corp. has become the chief vehicle by which private schools in Manhattan refinance their capital projects, funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to some of the priciest schools in the city.

In 2013 alone, the Build NYC Resource Corp. brokered more than $439 million in low interest, tax free bonds for 24 private schools in Manhattan. The schools use this money to pay down prior debt they incurred from bonds they took with the city’s Industrial Development Agency and commercial banks at higher interest rates, money they used for their initial expansions.A little-known program within the city’s Economic Development Corp. has become the chief vehicle by which private schools in Manhattan refinance their capital projects, funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to some of the priciest schools in the city.


Grace Church School

On the Upper East Side, schools such as the Spence School, the Chapin School, and Convent of the Sacred Heart School have secured millions in low-interest bonds for their capital projects. On the Upper West Side, the Calhoun School received a bond of $34 million and the Studio School got an $8.8 million bond. Downtown, the Grace Church School used $40 million in city-brokered financing to cover expansions they made in 2006 and 2011.

The city’s rationale for the program is that when these private schools expand, they create jobs and additional tax revenue for the city. BNYC’s stated goal is to act as a “conduit-bond issuer,” setting investors – banks – up with not-for-profit entities that use the money for capital projects, which ultimately, the city says, will provide increased jobs and tax revenue.

Through a spokesperson, the EDC said that BNYC merely acts as a conduit, or access point, for private schools and other entities to secure low-interest bonds, and the city does indeed benefit from such deals. “Build NYC is not loaning the city’s money capital,” said the EDC spokesperson.

But the prevalence of exclusive private schools in these bond deals has some public school proponents wondering why the city is diverting resources to help these schools – many of which come with $40,000-a-year tuition – in the first place.

Shino Tanikawa, president of the District 2 Community Education Council, learned of the program just as her Lower Manhattan district is bracing for a shortage of 1,000 elementary school seats.

“I find it outrageous the city is essentially financing the expansion of private schools when our students in public schools are crammed into classrooms with as many as 38 students in a room, families are put on a wait list for their zoned school, asbestos and PCBs still linger in our older buildings and many schools are still not ADA compliant,” said Tanikawa. “The list goes on for what our public schools need while private schools are getting a sweetheart deal with the help of the city?”

Private schools are not the only not-for-profits that BNYC helps with refinancing. The corporation has also brokered favorable bond deals for organizations like the American Red Cross and the American Cancer Society. One such bond was issued last year to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in the amount of $8.9 million.

But given the strains in the public-school budgets, it is the school financing that is likely to raise the most eyebrows.

Grace Church School, for instance, secured a $40 million bond last May that it used to cover two previous bonds for expansions in 2006 and 2011. George Davison, head of the school, said the availability of these bonds is generally known in the private school community, and that it made more fiscal sense for the school to issue a bond through BNYC than to stick with the terms of their two original bonds.

“Build NYC is designed for organizations just like us, who are creating jobs in New York City,” said Davison. “When the Build NYC vehicle came on line, it’s much more appropriate than a standard bank loan for a not-for-profit because it’s tax exempt financing.”

Davison said the 2006 IDA bond was also tax exempt, but came with a flexible interest rate that adjusted every week. “Most everyone is fairly sure that we’re not going to get lower rates than we have now,” said Davison. “For what we were doing, fixing our rate for the next 10 years – which is what [the BNYC bond] allows us to do – makes much more sense in terms of our planning.”

Davison said that during a two-week period in 2008, the flexible interest rate on the IDA bond whipsawed from 1 percent to 9 percent. While that swing is an aberration connected with the 2008 financial crisis, and it may be impossible to tell how much revenue the IDA bonds would have ultimately brought in, projections for that revenue seem non-existent in records kept by BNYC.

In the case of the Birch Wathen Lenox School on the Upper East Side, which is in the process of securing an $8 million bond to refinance money it used to expand in 2004, the city estimates the school will generate $9.1 million in tax revenue over the course of a 15-year term.

“So yes, this is in line with the mission of promoting economic and community projects, and it is not a ‘handout’ to a wealthy school,” said an EDC spokesperson.

Tanikawa said she’d like to see some way in which public schools benefit from the city’s brokerage of finance deals to private schools.

“I think the new mayor should be made aware of this,” said Tanikawa. “Perhaps the banks can be made to pay taxes on the interest and that revenue can go into the [School Construction Authority’s] capital fund. Perhaps the interest rate should be on a sliding scale based on the private school’s assets.”

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