New York Has a Checklist for “Going Back to Normal,” but “Normal” Wasn’t Working

New York Has a Checklist for “Going Back to Normal,” but “Normal” Wasn’t Working
Katherine Walsh, courtesy of Katherine Walsh.

On Saturday, Governor Andrew Cuomo released a detailed checklist for New York State that will determine when businesses can begin to reopen and life can go to a “new normal.”

What was “normal?” More than 25,000 New Yorkers have died from coronavirus. So right now “normal” has meant watching our family members, friends, and neighbors die preventable deaths from a mismanaged pandemic.

Coronavirus arrived to a “normal” New York City where 10% of our public school students are homeless. Now most New Yorkers can’t afford rent, health care, and don’t have $400 to spare in case of an emergency. “Normal” finds our immigrant communities risking their lives as essential workers while being left behind by the federal stimulus, terrorized by ICE, and living in overcrowded apartments where they are especially vulnerable to Covid-19. “Normal” is our state government making deep budget cuts to Medicaid, public education, and transportation instead of raising taxes on ultra-millionaires, because cruel austerity budgets have become “normal” in Albany. And “normal” was watching our homes and businesses destroyed by Hurricane Sandy back in 2012 with no plans in place to protect us from the next superstorm.

Normal does nothing to make us more resilient to the next pandemic, nor to the cascading threats of climate change, nor does it tackle the deep economic inequality that undermines progress in our city and state. Clearly the old “normal” is not something we should look back at with nostalgia and longing. We need a new normal, and we must use the coronavirus recovery process as an opportunity to create a more livable, just, and sustainable New York for all.

That’s why I organized a group of 59 candidates running for office in New York to pledge their commitment to a Green and Just Recovery for New York. We promise that, if elected, we will advance recovery and stimulus legislation that holistically tackles climate change and economic inequality; fighting poverty, eliminating pollution, and improving public health, all while protecting our communities from climate change.

Prior to coronavirus, New York’s “normal” was punctuated by record-setting temperatures, rising seas, and ever more frequent extreme weather events, including wildfires, floods, and hurricanes like Sandy. In my waterfront Assembly District in South Brooklyn, AD51, Hurricane Sandy caused $19 billion worth of damages and untold personal suffering. Seven years later, Red Hook still hasn’t seen the kind of investments needed to be fully resilient to the next superstorm.

This shouldn’t be normal, but it is. Why is it that 7 years after Hurricane Sandy, the New York State government still has not done everything it could to protect us from another superstorm? How is it that this same district is now being even further burdened with massive last mile trucking facilities and toxic fumes from the cruise terminal when we already have the highest asthma rates in Brooklyn?

The problems facing my district have only worsened over the past two decades: economic injustice, inadequate affordable and public housing, underfunded schools, corruption, unsafe streets and crumbling infrastructure. In that same time span, more affluent neighborhoods have seen new parks built, street trees planted, and even shiny new billion dollar subway stations with multiple elevators. And the deep-pocketed and well-connected organizing efforts of Brooklyn Heights have monopolized discussions about the future of the BQE while our communities in Red Hook, Gowanus, and Sunset Park are left to breathe toxic fumes.

This is a failure of our elected leadership, not coincidentally, the same leadership we have had in the State Assembly for 26 years under Assembly Member Felix Ortiz. Ortiz could be using the power of his State Assembly seat to introduce legislation and fight for budget dollars that protect this district. But unsurprisingly, the same leadership that has failed to do anything about our worsening problems also failed to prepare for or protect New Yorkers from a lethal pandemic. It is clear that our government’s choices in preparing for and responding to this public health emergency have exacerbated our suffering and caused still uncounted-deaths, while exposing and widening serious fault lines of inequality and vulnerability.

New York will need a major economic recovery effort after this pandemic. The disruption caused by coronavirus means that we have a chance before us in 2020 to reprioritize our “normal” like never before. How we choose to build back and recover will directly determine how ready we are for the next crisis. The government will be making massive investments in coming years – but what will we be investing in? Fossil fuels and energy inefficient infrastructure, tax breaks for big corporations, privatization of social services, and the prison-industrial complex? Or green jobs, clean energy, public schools, and Healthcare for All?

New Yorkers deserve leaders who are not afraid to spend their personal political capital or risk angering the establishment leadership to protect the most vulnerable New Yorkers and by protecting us from the existential crisis of our time, climate change. As an urban planner, I’ve spent a decade working with cities across America to tackle the climate crisis and develop plans and policies for green housing, transit, and local economic opportunities. I am running for State Assembly to be the first representative in Albany with a professional background in climate planning, but I must not be the last. We need representatives committed to creating family-sustaining, career-track green jobs as well as building an economy resilient to 21st-century threats, including climate change, pandemics, and recessions. We’ve seen what the current legislature is willing to do, and it’s not enough. Our current representatives are stuck in the old normal. If Assembly member Felix Ortiz hasn’t fixed our problems for the last 26 years, why would he start now?


Sign in or become a Bklyner member to join the conversation.