When I heard that the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce chose Brooklyn for its 20th annual study mission, I thought it was an odd choice. Sacramento is a city of trees, Brooklyn is celebrated in one of America’s best novels for one tree growing in it. Sacramento was really just a fort before the 1850 gold rush, and didn’t become a major metro area until after World War II; Brooklyn has several hundred years of history. The two cities could not be more different.
But in my seven trips with the chamber, I have always come away with a new perspective on the problems and opportunities that we face in our capital region. So off I went earlier this month, spending several days with 100 Sacramento businesspeople, nonprofit and government staff and a dozen or so elected officials, going from one workshop to another, meeting with local Brooklyn experts.
The scheduled workshops focused on workforce development, housing creation, waterfront parks and transit. Yet for me, the major takeaway from our study mission was income inequality, or as Mayor Bill de Blasio described it in his first state of the city address in 2014, “Tale of Two Cities”: one city focused on the financial sector that is doing extremely well, and then the other city where everyone else exists.
In his address, the mayor said that “for millions in this city—New Yorkers living in all five boroughs—the economic rebound hasn’t just been slow in coming. It seems a distant fantasy—with the ladder up to the good life stretching farther and farther out of reach. … 46 percent of our city’s residents live at or near the poverty line. Our middle class isn’t just squeezed; it’s at risk of disappearing altogether.”
And that’s what we experienced: One city for the small number of rich and super rich people who can afford fabulous places to live, expensive restaurants and stores, arts and entertainment. And a second city where middle-class job opportunities are decreasing and poor people are being priced out of their neighborhoods.
An extreme example of this tale of two cities was the creation of a $400 million, 85-acre Brooklyn waterfront park replacing the old piers. Affluent New Yorkers fought low-income housing in their neighborhoods, but they agreed to a park. The neighborhood allowed very expensive high-rises and hotels to be developed if all the property tax went to a park in their neighborhood. So instead of the tax revenue going to the general fund to help all New Yorkers, the taxes went to a single park next to a very affluent neighborhood, which coincidentally increased the value of the properties in that neighborhood.
The decrease in middle-class jobs was most represented by changes in the world-famous Brooklyn Naval Yard, which during World War II was at the center of our country’s shipbuilding efforts. The Yard, which at one time employed 75,000 people in solid middle-class jobs, was deactivated in 1966. They are now making a comeback as an incubator for budding entrepreneurs and subsidized low rent manufacturing with 400 different businesses employing 7,000 people. It’s unlikely these companies will create significant middle-class jobs in Brooklyn.
The mayor of New York could have been describing California when he spoke of two cities. We have more in common with Brooklyn than I thought.