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Top Stories of 2007

by Gail Robinson, Dec 17, 2007
 

Calm is a word rarely associated with New York City. And certainly with half the city a construction site, tourists packing sidewalks and roads and subways jammed, the city in 2007 was hardly peaceful. But, as far as news goes, it was a relatively quiet year in the five boroughs as the mayor and City Council continued their era of good feeling, and some of the biggest stories involved debates over "sustainability."

News junkies looking for a little excitement could always go to Albany. There the year began with the inauguration of Gov. Eliot Spitzer and continued with battles between Spitzer and sundry legislators, including a particularly nasty feud between the governor and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno

These are the top New York stories of 2007. (A lot of things did not happen in 2007 as well. For a look at them, click here.)

Spitzer Becomes Governor but the Steamroller Sputters:

Following a landslide election victory in 2006, Eliot Spitzer became governor on Jan. 1. “Like Rip Van Winkle, the legendary character created by the New York author Washington Irving, New York has slept through much of the past decade while the rest of the world has passed us by," Spitzer declared. Now, he said, “Day One of our time for change has arrived."

But the lofty ambition soon floundered. State Assembly Democrats defied Spitzer when they ignored the recommendation of a panel appointed by the governor and named one of their own, Thomas DiNapoli, state comptroller. Although the governor, Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver managed to hash out a state budget before the April 1 deadline, some observers viewed the final agreement as a setback for the governor, who had to back down on proposed health care cuts and his pledge to make the process more transparent.

Then came Troopergate. A report by state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, released in July, found that aides to Spitzer had improperly used state police to gather possibly damaging information on Bruno. Although neither Spitzer nor his aides have been charged with any crime, the report prompted the resignation of a top Spitzer aide along with several investigations. The controversy sparked a virtual blood feud between the state's top Democrat and its top Republican, further snarling Albany's already notorious gridlock and derailing some key state business, such as campaign finance reform.

At year's end, with investigations continuing and the acrimony showing no signs of abatement, numerous articles examined whether Spitzer could recover from his rocky start. “Spitzer lunges. He seems not to be a person of strategy. He slipped on a banana peel, or six, and once down has thrashed around," one Albany observer told the New Yorker's Nick Paumgarten. In 2008, a key issue will be whether he can get up.

Two New Yorkers Run for President:

No New Yorker has occupied the White House since Franklin D. Roosevelt but two New Yorkers spent much of 2007 on the campaign trail trying to change that. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton (an Illinois native and former Arkansas first lady who represents New York in the U.S. Senate) announced her long anticipated candidacy in January. "I'm in it and I'm in it to win," she said.

And in the Republican Party former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani formally entered the race – again to few people's surprise – in February. While debate about Clinton has centered on her decisions in the Senate, her role as U.S. first lady and her stands (or lack thereof) on issues, Giuliani's run has focused attention on his record as mayor – the only elective office he ever held. For months, this seemed to work to Giuliani's advantage as he touted his calmness and steadfastness in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Recently, though, the former mayor's time in City Hall has emerged as more of a mixed blessing. Critics have targeted his combative personality. His relationship with his now indicted police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, has come under scrutiny. Opponents have contrasted stands he took in New York with his current position on issues such as immigration and gun control. And tabloids have thrived on accounts of how New York City police protected his then girlfriend now wife, Judith Nathan when Giuliani served as mayor.

Both Clinton and Giuliani held strong positions in the polls during much of 2007 but seemed to falter as the year drew to a close – and the early primaries drew ever closer.

Bloomberg Presents PlaNYC including Congestion Pricing:

To mark Earth Day in 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a sweeping plan for New York to accommodate 1 million additional residents by 2030 and become a more “environmentally sustainable" city. It set out 127 specific proposals on land use, water supply and quality, transportation, energy, air quality and reducing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The ideas ranged from the specific -- planting more trees, for one -- to vaguer and possibly grander notions such as using "creative financing" to boost use of solar power in the city.

By and large, the plan won praise from an array of experts. And the administration set to work implementing some of them, opening more school playgrounds for use after hours, for example.

But one aspect of the plan -- the proposal to charge an $8 fee for motorists driving into part of Manhattan on weekdays -- garnered most of the attention and opposition. Although the mayor lined up support from many environmental groups, Spitzer, some key city politicians and business leaders, he failed to win the backing of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the State Assembly. Instead a compromise was forged, calling for a panel to consider “traffic mitigation" proposals, including congestion pricing, and submit a plan for approval first to the City Council and then the state legislature before it would take effect. The panel's report is expected early in 2008.

Department of Education Issues Report Cards for City Schools:

After New York's 1.1 million public school students returned this fall, the education department released its first ever report cards for almost every school in the system. While the report cards rated schools in several areas, the evaluators at the Department of Education's headquarters in the Tweed Courthouse boiled everything down to a single letter grade.

The grade would have consequences. The department said it would shut some failing schools starting at year's end.

While Bloomberg said the report cards would hold schools accountable for their performance, some parents and educators criticized the ratings for being confusing, too tied to standardized tests and penalizing schools with a long history of high student achievement.

Controversial Plan to Give Licenses to Undocumented Immigrants Fails:

Perhaps Spitzer's biggest single defeat in a year studded with adversity came on his plan, announced in September, to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants in New York State. Spitzer said the idea, was a "common sense" move that would increase public safety.

Many disagreed, including Bloomberg and some county clerks upstate who vowed they would not give driver's license to people who could not prove they were here legally. After holding adamantly to his position for several weeks, Spitzer abruptly changed course announcing a compromise plan that would create three types of driver's license: one for people here legally; one for New Yorkers who frequently cross the border into Canada; and one for people here illegally. Michael Chertoff, the U.S. secretary of homeland security gave the plan an endorsement that was tepid at best -- but virtually no one else liked it. Advocates for immigrants were surprised -- and angry, with City Councilmember John Liu calling the three-tier licenses "a new segregation." Bloomberg still didn't like the idea, and the county clerks said they would continue to press their lawsuit to stop it.

Perhaps most grievously for Spitzer's scheme, his proposal reared its head on the national political stage. Asked about it at a Democratic candidate's debate, Hillary Clinton floundered, prompting one of her opponents, former Senator John Edwards, to remark, "Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of two minutes."

With Democratic officeholders in the state complaining the license issue could be used against them , Spitzer dropped the idea completely -- before the next debate when Clinton, who Spitzer has endorsed, was sure to face more questions about it.

But the fight over identification will almost certainly rear its head again in 2008. That's when Spitzer has to decide whether New York will issue another kind of license -- a federally recognized license known as the Real ID, which can be used for boarding planes and entering federal facilities. The Bush administration is pushing the Real I.D., but complying with federal requirements for the Real I.D. would make it even more difficult for undocumented immigrants to get licenses.

A Fire at the Deutsche Bank Building Kills Two Firefighters:

As rebuilding continued around Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, the former Deutsche Bank building stood as a grim reminder to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Efforts to raze the building, seriously damaged in the attacks, had been hampered by high levels of toxic substances. But in August, workers were well along in their efforts to dismantle the structure floor by floor.

Then on August 18, a fire broke out in the building. Two firefighters, responding to the call, died. In the weeks, that followed it emerged that a string of failures by contractors, individual construction workers, and government agencies contributed to the tragedy. Three top fire department officials lost their jobs because the department had allegedly failed to inspect the building or devised proper emergency plans. A number of lawsuits and investigations are still pending.

Meanwhile part of the building still looms near Ground Zero -- and officials remain unable to say when it finally will be demolished.

Crime Continues to Fall with Murder at Record Low:

If present trends continue, New York City will record fewer than 500 murders this year -- the lowest number since such records began in 1963. Perhaps even more noteworthy, some experts said, was that fewer than 100 of those victims were killed by people they did not know. This, the New York Times observed, "belies the common imagery that New Yorkers are vulnerable to arbitrary attacks on the streets, or die in robberies that turn fatal."

The drop was part of a continuing decline in crime in New York City that began under the Dinkins administration and has continued even since -- even while crime rates in many other cities have increased.

Despite Economic Jitters, Development Continues:

With Wall Street going through what is at best a period of "volatility" and low-income New Yorkers losing their homes because of mortgage foreclosures, development continues in New York. As the year drew to an end, the Bloomberg administration announced its latest plan to develop Coney Island, the Atlantic Yards project wound its way through the courts and Columbia's plans to dramatically expand its campus into West Harlem moved along the approval process. The City Council in September approved the largest rezoning effort in the city's history, laying the groundwork for a massive redevelopment in Jamaica, Queens, aimed at creating a transit hub tied to John F. Kennedy International Airport and revitalizing the area's commercial district. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority sought public reaction to five plans for the Hudson Yards on Manhattans' West Side, all featuring commercial and residential skyscrapers, opens space and links to the planned park on the High Line.

With The City's Poverty Rate High, Bloomberg Begins Paying People for Good Behavior

Despite the economic boom in the city, almost one in five New Yorkers have incomes below the poverty level ($20,650 for a family of four), according to recent data from the U.S. Census. The New York City area had the greatest difference between rich and poor of any major metropolitan area in the country, with the gap a yawning chasm in Manhattan where the wealthiest 20 percent of residents made nearly 40 times more than the poorest 20 percent. While about half of all New York City children are born into poverty, an analysis found the average household income for white families with young children in Manhattan had reached $284,208 a year in 2005.

The persistence of poverty came despite a generally good economic picture in the city and a national decline in the poverty rate.

Faced with persistent poverty, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who largely ignored the issue during his first term, began taking some steps to implement part of a poverty plan announced in 2006. In particular, the city embarked on a controversial effort -- now funded with private money -- to begin paying poor families to do such things as make sure their children go to school or go for regular medical checkups. Bloomberg who modeled the plan on one in Mexico, said it would give poor families, who have a lot of stress in their lives, "a financial incentive to look ahead and to make decisions that will improve their prospects for the future." Others criticized it for paying poor people to do what they should do anyway, while some experts said such an incentive program seemed to blame the poor for being poor.

At the same time the Bloomberg administration began to pay some students for going to class, getting good grades and passing the state standardized Regents exams for high school students. In a particularly odd twist, the administration is considering rewarding good students with cell phones, a device it has banned in the very schools those students attend.

Schools Reorganized – Again:

Catching many observers by surprise the Bloomberg administration announced in January that it was reorganizing its reorganization of the nation's largest public school system. The rather arcane plan seeks to give more power to principals and hold them more accountable for what happens in their buildings. The department devised a new school funding formula aimed at removing some of the complexity and arbitrariness of the old system. It also features school repot cards (see above) and, as with previous plans hatched by Bloomberg and his Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, even more standardized tests.

Klein said he would tighten standards for teachers to get tenure and followed that up later in the year with a drive to remove teachers the department considers unsatisfactory. And perhaps most surprising to many, Klein eliminated the 10 educational regions he had established in Bloomberg's first term when the city decided to strip community school districts of most of their power. Klein said the districts were being eliminated because they had largely accomplished their goals, but no observers could recall that Bloomberg had ever indicated the regions were intended to be temporary.

The effects of all this at the classroom level, less than four months into the new school year, remain unclear. But the reorganization raised the issue again of just how successful the Bloomberg education initiatives, the centerpiece of his administration have been. While city students do better than they did previously on most state standardized tests, their scores on a national exam have barely changed since the advent of mayoral control. And while Bloomberg basks in national acclaim for his efforts -- most recently from Republican presidential contender John McCain -- at home he has plenty of critics along with fans.  

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