Hell Is Other Hacks, or, a Good Time To Be In Local Politics

08.1.2005 | Harry Siegel | Urban Affairs | 1 Comment

A version of this essay appeared in The New York Post

“Just wait until 2009,” the true believer told me as we were departing Tuesday’s mayoral forum on the parks. The prodigal party will return to Gracie Mansion, and all will be made whole.

He then excused himself to join the line of party regulars waiting to shake hands with full time stalker and occasional mayoral candidate Christopher X. Brodeur, who’d snuck into the press seats and then occupied himself making obscene gestures.

Freelancers, used to calls not returned, checks not sent and other reminders of their lowly place, seek glory, or at least notice, where we may. So when I was invited to blog live from Tuesday’s mayoral forum dedicated to the city’s parks, I said what the hell.

This was a mistake. Hell, to paraphrase Sartre, is other hacks.

There’s something timeless about such political gatherings, from the flunkies sweating outside sloganeering and passing out campaign literature (I use the word loosely), to the early arriving operatives and cameramen forced into conversation with the lonely souls who attend all such events, to the sacred promise that no ideas or substance shall contaminate the ritual.

Here was the place to find the last of the New Deal devotees, still devoutly clinging to the idea of the city’s Democratic Party as more than the sum of its interest groups, most of which have in any event already been purchased or at least rented by Mayor Bloomberg, who sensibly declined to appear.

The mayor’s absence gave Ferrer perhaps the only cutting line of the night — “Last time, Bloomberg spent $74 million on ads to let us know who he is, he said. This time, he’s going to spend tens of millions more than that to make us forget who he’s been for the last several years.”

A crowd of people with politics in their blood, if not their brains, whose arms would fall off before they’d vote Republican, pretending that C. Virginia Field’s vision for parks (“Those who can’t afford summer houses… they too have a right to go to public parks, and to enjoy them.”) is something to get excited about.

Even with what now looks to be 16 years in the wilderness in a city where Democrats outnumber barbarians by more than five-to-one, the ritual remains.

Democratic hopefuls Fernando Ferrer, C. Virginia Fields and Gifford Miller, along with Tom Ognibene, the former Staten Island Councilmanic become quixotic campaigner for the Republic ticket, gathered in Greenwich Village to publicly proclaim their love of parks. A bold stance.

The organization holding the event, Parks1, has asked the candidates to sign a pledge to “WORK toward committing 1% of the city’s overall operating budget to our parks and playgrounds.” A pledge to work toward a commitment — this is something even Gifford Miller (A man who can’t wait to be corrupt, as a friend put it) can get behind.

The pledge also calls for dedicating concession revenue to the parks system, and I spent the hour expecting someone to use the word “fungible.”  Or to bring up the Hudson River Park, and the plans for the Brooklyn waterfront and the East River. Or how we could better spend the $200 million a year that already goes to parks. I was, of course, disappointed.

When a panelist asked Ferrer and Miller what particular parks each man would improve or build as mayor, there was a good five seconds of silence. “All of them,” Miller finally replied. Vision. He elaborated: “A variety of, uh, different overhauls of, uh, public facilities in our parks … we ought to try to find the funds to do those. We now have to sit down and do the hard work of doing whatever’s necessary for our park facilities without the silver bullet of, uh, you know from out of this hat we’ll pull this rabbit and apparently there was no rabbit in there.” The true believers then cut him off with their applause.


In New York City, even the parks people are an interest group, out for their cut of America’s third largest local budget, behind only California and New York State, holding a forum in which the candidates all agreed: more money for parks with no mention of where this money would come from.

It’s a good time to be in local politics. There’s plenty of graft to be had, honest or otherwise, and not many people paying attention. A panelist I went out with following the event recalled to me how it felt at Jack Newfield’s funeral, asking, “Who’ll get these bastards now?” It won’t be the bloggers seated beside me, who seemed to have no idea this was theater.

Perhaps that’s because they weren’t listening very much (not that there was so much to listen to), but were instead posting away, pausing to read what other bloggers were posting or to catch a line or two of boilerplate from the candidates, and then typing some second generation boilerplate about that, occasionally stopping to fantasize about writing cover stories for New York Magazine  — Is Brooklyn the New Manhattan?, Is Abstinence the New Sex?

Given a choice between hearing Freddy Ferrer explain that parks are essential, or reading comments like “Giff is so feisty! Grrr!” I’d have to go with the hecklers who were taken out by security, chanting “No Police State!” At least they knew this was theater.

01.3.2006 | Kate

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