The last time New York City welcomed a new mayor on New Year’s Day, it was January 1, 2002. It was, needless to say, a very different time. The shock of September 11 still hadn’t dissipated, and in the shadow of that horror, Michael Bloomberg kept his inauguration theatrics low. (Someone who worked at that event recalled seeing snipers positioned on the roof of City Hall.)
Twelve years later, on January 1, 2014, Bill de Blasio stepped up to take the oath of office in a festive atmosphere, with a meticulously executed piece of political theater that matched the exuberance of the wave he was elected on. With a ceremony that at times felt less like an assumption of office and more like a political rally, de Blasio, comptroller Scott Stringer and public advocate Letitia James took their oaths of office and exhorted the assembled crowd at City Hall Park to help them reestablish New York as a progressive capital.
Bill de Blasio takes the reigns of a much different New York than the one Mike Bloomberg inherited. The “deeply uncertain time for our city” that Scott Stringer referred to in his remarks has passed. Instead of being greeted by Ground Zero and the smell of burnt metal lingering in the air, arrivals coming out of the Fulton Street station on their way to City Hall were greeted by the new World Trade Center looming overhead. Security was visible, but not overwhelming.
That the city is more sure of itself, back in the New York groove, if you will, was evident by the contrast in styles between the first inauguration of New York’s former mayor and that of its new one. De Blasio’s party DJ, (“DJ Democracy“) eschewed Bloomberg’s O.B.G selections for 70s R&B, mixed with some contemporary family-safe party music, and while there weren’t balloons or fireworks, opening the inauguration up to the public was politically in line with the inclusive nature of de Blasio’s politics and reflective of a new comfort and stability found in the city.
Incidentally, the ticket giveaway also netted an audience as varied as young 20something Brooklynites, parents with children in tow and Dick Barnett, member of the 1970 and ’73 New York Knicks championship teams, who said he was hoping de Blasio would do something to improve the dropout rate of New York City students.
The de Blasios emerged from the Brooklyn Bridge subway station shortly after noon (late again…), a nod, however inadvertent, to the way Bloomberg once did. But unlike something Mike Bloomberg can be imagined doing, the whole family stopped to shake hands with crowd members along the way to the stage, while “New York, New York” melted into “Empire State of Mind.” The entrance was similar to the way a beloved group of “good guy” wrestlers might come out to the ring, but then, these are the things you can do when you win 73 percent of the vote.
Until Bill Clinton said something nice about outgoing mayor Mike Bloomberg before swearing Mayor de Blasio in, taking potshots at Mayor Mike, without naming him, was a running theme of the afternoon. Opening speaker Harry Belafonte criticized stop-and-frisk. Scott Stringer livened up a speech about fiscal responsibility with a timely reference to New York’s 22,000 homeless children in shelters he described as “squalid.”
Letitia James, joined on stage by child-of-the-moment Dasani Coates, took aim at tax subsidies for stadiums and the fact that nearly half of New York City’s population is at or near the poverty level, before declaring “We live in a Gilded Age of inequality.” Even NYC’s Youth Poet Laureate Ramya Ramana got in on the fun, her poem “New York City” including the line “We will no longer stay silent to this classism.” Bloomberg, who sat on stage through the speeches, took his nightmare version of This Is Your Life pretty well, all things considered.
Not that the crowd seemed to mind the tone. Summing up the Bloomberg years the way so many New Yorkers look at them, audience member Tanya Elder, who got one of the thousand tickets given away to the inauguration, said that while there were good things about the Bloomberg era, “I was angry about the third term,” and that she was “tired” of him.
The day’s speeches weren’t limited to what was essentially subtweeting Mike Bloomberg, though. Rekindling New York City’s commitment to liberalism, after 20 years of Republican/rich guy rule was also a theme. “Pursuing a progressive agenda and being fiscally responsible are not mutually exclusive,” Stringer argued in his speech. “All of us share a progressive vision for this city’s future,” James said, while Bill Clinton ditched the careful centrism of the man known for ending welfare as we know it and remarked that he “strongly endorsed” de Blasio’s core campaign commitment before administering the oath of office to the new mayor.
De Blasio used his inaugural address to recall the memories of beloved New York mayors Al Smith, Fiorello La Guardia and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguing that his ideas on social and economic justice are nothing new and that “the same progressive impulse has written our city’s history.” Ending three consecutive paragraphs detailing his agenda with the refrain “We won’t wait,” de Blasio urged New Yorkers to remain involved in his pushes for items like paid sick leave, universal pre-K, reforming stop-and-frisk and making the city a more equitable place economically.
The ceremony was followed by a reception line for a picture and brief chat with the new mayor. The line of well-wishers, possibly numb anyway after two or three hours in the cold, didn’t seem to mind waiting around on a line that stretched outside of City Hall, for a chance to meet the newest, and tallest, mayor of New York. In a food tent next door, Chirlane McCray posed for pictures with supporters, while people ate food representative of each borough. Heroes for Staten Island, ballpark pretzels for the Bronx, assorted bagels for Manhattan, sesame noodles for Queens and mini-cheesecakes from Junior’s for Brooklyn.
For a man who started the mayoral election as a relative unknown outside of his Park Slope neighborhood, the inauguration showed Bill de Blasio was unafraid to set high expectations for his term, taking aim at the very existence of income inequality. After twelve years of New York as a luxury product, as Mayor Bloomberg described his perception of it, de Blasio immediately sought to recast New York as the country’s beacon and leader of progressivism. Now that the pomp and circumstance is over, we move on to the question of whether he reaches that goal, and is remembered for anything more than being New York’s tallest mayor.