January 31, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
“¡Eso es!” people called out as Melissa Mark-Viverito entered the theatre at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx Jan. 29, preparing to take her oath of office as City Council Speaker in front of an overflow crowd of more than 1,000 people.
The event celebrated Latinos’ arrival on the main stage of New York City politics. If the mid-20th century was dominated by names like LaGuardia, O’Dwyer, and Lehman, and 1989 saw David Dinkins elected the city’s first Afro-American mayor, Mark-Viverito is the first Puerto Rican—and the first person of any Latino ethnicity—to hold citywide office.
A troupe of Afro-Caribbean percussionists marched down the aisles, shaking shekeres and beating djembe and bata drums. Hostos College, the venue Mark-Viverito chose, is a product of the 1960s Latino civil-rights and anti-poverty movements, named after the 19th-century Puerto Rican activist intellectual Eugenio Maria de Hostos. And the MC, Tony-winning composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, introduced the elected officials on stage—the six up front were Mark-Viverito, Congressmembers Nydia Velazquez and Jose Serrano, Public Advocate Letitia James, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and former borough president Fernando Ferrer—as “the Fania All-Stars.”
“I haven’t been this joyous about our politics in New York for many years, Ferrer told the crowd. “New York is and can be better than it’s been for the last 20 years.”
The night’s other theme was what Mark-Viverito called “the great inequality crisis.” She noted that she’s the first Council Speaker to represent the Bronx, whose working-class and immigrant residents were among those hardest hit by the budgets and public policies of the past decade.
“Today, we live in the most unequal city in the nation,” she said. “But it is a new day in New York City. Now is the time to embrace our progressive moment and put our values into action.”
To do that, she and Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose speech followed hers, outlined similar—and relatively modest—priorities. Both called for universal all-day pre-kindergarten classes and after-school programs for middle-school kids, paid for by “a modest income-tax surcharge on our city’s top earners.” Both called for strengthening the laws passed last year requiring employers to give workers paid sick days and for city-subsidized businesses to pay an above-minimum “living wage.”
She called affordable housing “the single greatest challenge facing so many of our communities,” saying she was proud that the 20,000 public-housing apartments in her South Bronx-East Harlem district are the most in any one in the city.
“We must do all that we can to preserve this critical housing stock, as we look to new ways to create additional income-targeted housing for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers,” she said. De Blasio’s main way to do that will be “inclusionary zoning,” requiring developers of new luxury housing to include a percentage of apartments that lower-income people can afford.
Some people, Mark-Viverito added, “are rooting for us to fail” and “think that by trying to raise people up we are trying to bring others down.” Her message to them, she said, is “New York is at its best when we all work together. A progressive New York will be a fruitful New York because more will share in our success.”