We all know mayor Bill de Blasio was weak but the velocity at which his tail sailed between his political legs was off the charts.
For weeks the Mayor, warring publicly with the app company Uber, insisted that his administration should study traffic and pollution effects of new for-hire cars piling into the city before the company expanded further. Then, in the middle of a week when de Blasio was in Rome talking with mayors from around the world, the fight was over. Uber not only defeated the city's attempts to cap its cars while a one year study was conducted (it agreed to a 4-month study and no cap), it also handed New York City's mayor his most visible loss to date.
Normally I wouldn't care about de Blasio. We've chased him down, protested him and called him a sellout for his appeasement of the police department and its unions--after saying no to 1,000 extra cops, de Blasio agreed to 1,300 extra cops. But a political shellacking at the hands of a relatively young app company raises questions not only about this administration, but also about this city's future.
In her 2006 book, Millennial Monsters, Anne Allison described a post-war Japanese culture that had begun modern day capitalism with their own fantasies and, really, themselves. Explaining the power of "Enchanted Commodities", Allison describes both children and adults sold cartoons and superheroes "packaged to feed a consumer fetishism that, in this age of millennial and global capitalism, penetrates the texture of ordinary life..." That growing and obsessive fascination with technology can easily describe Uber, whose software is nestled into smartphones that claim a bigger and bigger share of our attention than ever before. A love of things, of options, of 'innovation' have very specific and local political wings as well, it seems.
Founded in 2009 and now worth $50 billion, operating in 58 countries, Uber isn't the first company to bully a local government or see a meteoric rise in prominence. In developed urban cities around the world you have the option to order food, buy movie tickets and make dinner reservations at the touch of screen. However, Uber might be the first company I've seen that so publicly launched a political campaign that not only slapped down the mayor of the New York City, but won the quick support of his constituents. In a few short weeks the company blanketed the city with mailings, as well as web, TV and radio ads. It seamlessly absorbed the backing of local politicians, from Brooklyn borough president (and wannabe mayor) Eric Adams to city comptroller Scott Stringer. It showed no sense of decency in trying to co-opt a racial justice message around the policing killing of Eric Garner as it courted Al Sharpton.
This was a full court press and it paid off as I read polls and listened to call-in shows where regular people were fully on board Team Uber.
People were ready to fight for their app. They were citizens of New York but they were also consumers and staunch proponents of free enterprise, it turns out. In fact, Uber talked about "free enterprise" a lot. That and their constant harping of "more jobs!" really kind of clinched my disdain for the whole campaign. This was the typical chamber of commerce-type garbage. It might as well have been Donald Trump spearheading it, and not Obama's former campaign manager, David Plouffe.
The media were generally on board as they gave life to Uber's exaggerated claims of government interference. CNBC described the city's pretty mild attempts to put a check on Uber as de Blasio being a "modern day Boss Tweed". Uber is here, it's a fact of New York life. The only thing the city planned to do was cap its growth--which it would still be allowed to do. With all the hysterical reactions you'd have thought Fidel Castro was marching on Wall Street.
NY1's Errol Louis, who, like others, wrote a fawning op-ed in Uber's defense, described the company as a "godsend" as he complained about shitty experiences using traditional yellow cabs. De Blasio's Deputy Mayor, Anthony Shorris, calmly slapped down Louis' Uber-mania point by point during an interview on Inside City Hall.
Still, de Blasio, the weakest mayor at least in my lifetime, gave in. But so did a lot of New Yorkers. For something that's as New York as the Statue of Liberty or pizzas (although yes, one came from France and the other from Italy), the city seemed pretty willing to cast aside yellow cabs. What a throw-away society we've become when an app comes along and redefines the culture of New York City. What an unflinching faith we have at the altar of new gadgetry.
Some have described this as a battle of old New York versus new New York. It's also simply the usual outmaneuvering of government by laissez faire capitalism. And de Blasio, like a Washington General, played his role. Helping in all of this is the fact that New York has so drastically changed in the last 10, 20 years. Who lives in this town nowadays, anyway? Is it the working class New Yorker who takes public transportation mostly and a cab maybe once in a while? Is it the black and Latino New Yorkers who already use livery cars and the cheaper dollar vans? Or is it the gentrifying nouveau New Yorker who can afford a pricier Uber car and would rarely be caught squeezed into packed train with the rest of us?
The city's changing. Uber's cars will whisk new New Yorkers between their luxury condos and $100-a-class yoga studios. Broken Windows cops, of course, will be deployed to keep the homeless out of our way to the Apple store.
Maybe I'm exaggerating but exaggerating seems to make things move in this town--Uber's town now.