As New York City approaches the New Year, it is a time of incredible ascendency in the history of African-Americans in elective office in the nation’s largest city.
True, a milestone was achieved in 1989, with the election of David N. Dinkins as the city’s first Black mayor. That historic landmark came 35 years after Hulan Jack became the first African-American Manhattan borough president. Also, the city watched with pride the career of Constance Baker Motley, an African-American, as she became the first woman to serve as Manhattan borough president in the mid-1960s.
But when Jan. 1, 2014, comes, the city will turn a new page in the history of African-American elected officials. On that day, Letitia James will become New York’s first African-American public advocate and the first Black woman to hold a citywide office. On the same day, Eric Adams will become the first African-American to hold the position of borough president in Brooklyn. Also in Brooklyn, Kenneth Thompson will be that borough’s first African-American district attorney, another historic moment.
This represents a far cry from the not-too-distant past when, for example, Percy Sutton served as borough president in the 1970s. At that time, he was the lone Black figure among the city’s elected officials in boroughwide office or higher.
So the changing of the guard represents a time of celebration, a moment to reflect on how far African-Americans have come in the leadership of New York City. But it should also represent a moment of sober commitment. This period represents an opportunity to have new people with new energy at the table of electoral power, and to find new ways to expand economic opportunity to those who have been marginalized in this city.
The last dozen years in New York City have represented something of a heyday for developers who cater to the luxury world of America’s leading metropolis. Just as an example, we have seen the unveiling of a gleaming new arena in Brooklyn, but with no affordable housing whatsoever to accompany it, despite agreements that were reached.
The growing number of people who have been displaced because of skyrocketing rents—many of which are right in the shadow of that arena—should be the focus of this new class of elected officials. And there are thousands of others just like them throughout the city.
As these officials prepare to take office on Jan. 1—and along with them a number of other African-American, Latino and progressive officials in the City Council—it is crucial that they work with even greater zeal than their predecessors to ensure that New York City remains a place where workers can earn a decent living and where families can live without fear of being displaced out of gentrifying neighborhoods.
And so the dawning of a new year is not just a time to make resolutions and take stock of the year gone by. It is also an opportunity for elected officials to make a commitment to accomplish a significant change in the lives of New Yorkers.
Too often, campaign seasons are filled with candidates’ platitudes to make schools better, to enhance economic opportunities for the city’s residents and to ensure that people can live in decent, affordable dwellings. But this is a time to convert those pledges into policies with a newfound zeal. That would make this not just a moment of historic significance, but the dawning of a new era of sweeping action to improve the lives of New Yorkers.