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Top 10 Stories of 2004

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Dec 20, 2004
 

New York was a city of losers in 2004. Former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik lost a big job - and his reputation - after he had to withdraw from his nomination as U.S. secretary of homeland security. An overwhelming majority of New Yorkers backed the losing candidate in the presidential elections. Hawks Pale Male and Lola lost their posh East Side aerie, at least temporarily. And the New York Yankees suffered perhaps the most ignominious sports defeat of all times when, after leading three games to none, they lost the American League Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox, who went on to win their first World Series in 82 years.

But some New Yorkers had a winning season in 2004. In a year of Republican victories, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer won re-election to the U.S. Senate by the largest margin in state history. Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City finally won Mr. Big (and visa versa) - or so it seemed at the HBO series' final fadeout in February. And baseball star Alex Rodriguez became a New Yorker, playing for the losing Yankees but capturing $252 million in the process.

Here, in more or less chronological order, are the Top Ten Stories of 2004.

1. Construction at Ground Zero

In early January, a panel of experts selected "Reflecting Absence," by architect Michael Arad from among some 5,200 proposals for the 9/11 memorial, setting off a year of progress at Ground Zero. To address criticisms that the design, which featured two sunken pools, was too austere, Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker revised it to include a garden.

Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava did not have to make any such adjustments about a week later when he unveiled his design for the downtown transportation hub. His proposal - an oval of glass and steel with wings rising from it - met almost universal acclaim.

Many questions about financing, as well as design, remained unanswered on July 4 when Pataki presided over the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone for the Freedom Tower, the twisting skyscraper that has been the center of redevelopment plans.

Also in 2004, work continued on the building to replace 7 World Trade Center, which collapsed late in the afternoon of September 11, 2001. The 52-story structure is scheduled for completion in 2005.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation selected occupants for a new arts and museum complex downtown: The Joyce dance theater, the Drawing Center, Signature Theater, and the new Freedom Center. And a jury ruled that the attacks on the twin towers were two separate incidents. This could mean that Larry Silverstein, who holds the lease on the World Trade Center, will collect at least a billion dollars more than had this jury ruled the attack was a single incident (though this is neither the first nor the last word in this complicated case.)

Five Years of Stories

In 1999, the economy was booming, Amadou Diallo was shot, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum sick and offensive. It was also the year that Gotham Gazette began -- and began covering the top NYC stories of the year. On our fifth anniversary, we offer a selection from our past end-of-year lists:

1999
The city economy continues to boom, setting records for sustained growth and new jobs.

Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, is shot and killed by four police officers as he leaves his Bronx apartment building, sparking widespread outrage and eventual elimination of the New York Police Department's Street Crime Unit.

The "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn museum, particularly a depiction of the Virgin Mary dappled with elephant dung, so appalls Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that he tries, but fails, to stop funding for the museum.

2000:
Outgoing first lady and Illinois native Hillary Rodham Clinton is elected to the U.S. Senate from New York after Giuliani, facing prostate cancer and concerns about his personal life, withdraws.

Tensions between police and many New Yorkers continue after an Albany jury acquits four officers accused of murder in Diallo's death and a police officer on an undercover operation kills Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed security guard, on Manhattan's West Side. Howard Safir resigns as commissioner, and Giuliani appoints Corrections Commissioner Bernard Kerik to replace him.

New Yorkers cheer as a Subway Series pits the Yankees against the Mets in the World Series, but the joy soon fades for Met fans as the Yankees win, four games to one.

2001
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, killing 2,800 people and leveling the Twin Towers, dwarfs all other events of 2001. But other things did happen that year.

With term limits forcing the retirement of all three city-wide elected officials, four of the five borough presidents and 35 of the 51 city council members, there are some 420 candidates vying for the positions.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire media mogul with no experience in public office, spends almost $70 million of his own money and is elected mayor.

A New York State Supreme Court justice rules that New York's system for funding schools deprives some students of the sound, basic education they are guaranteed by the state constitution.

2002:
Facing a $7 billion deficit that City Council Speaker Gifford Miller calls "the greatest fiscal crisis in the history of this city," city government borrows $1.5 billion; cuts money for education, parks, cultural programs and homeless shelters; raises dozens of fees; and increases the property tax.

The state legislature gives Bloomberg almost complete control of the city's troubled school system an authority his predecessors had long sought but failed to get.

Work begins on rebuilding Ground Zero. After the public and critics overwhelmingly reject six plans for the World Trace Center site, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation unveils nine other, more designs from major architects and invites the public to comment on them.

2003
The reconstruction of Ground Zero and the rest of Lower Manhattan takes shape, as plans are announced for a 1,776-foot Freedom Tower and a transportation hub and as services continue to be restored to the area.

On August 15, New Yorkers find themselves in the midst of the largest blackout in U.S. history. Power will not be completely restored in New York until the next day, but most city residents take the event in stride.

New York City Councilmember James E. Davis is shot and killed on July 23 by a gunman inside City Council chambers during the council's regularly scheduled meeting. A police officer then shoots and kills the assailant, a political rival of Davis's who had accompanied him to City Hall.

2. Tale Of Two Stadiums

While many New York sports teams failed on the playing field, they scored successes in the political arena. New York drew closer to building new facilities for two major league teams that could dramatically affect the futures of large parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki announced plans to build a $1.4 billion stadium for the football Jets on the far West Side of Manhattan, with the taxpayers picking up $600 million of that. The stadium is part of the mayor's overall plan for the area, which includes extension of the Number 7 subway line, enlarging the Javits convention center and opening the area to new office buildings and apartment houses.

Much of that has widespread approval - but not the Jets stadium. Bloomberg and other backers present it as vital to the West Side plans, New York's economy and the city's hopes of landing the 2012 Olympics. Critics deride it as a poor use of public money, question the funding mechanism, and want the mayor to submit the plan to the City Council. As the year ended, the State Legislature approved much of the West Side plan, but remained silent on the stadium.

Brooklyn, meanwhile, wants the Nets basketball team, now in New Jersey, to play in a proposed arena on Brooklyn site Walter O'Malley spurned before taking his Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. In January, real estate developer Bruce Ratner, who now owns the Nets, presented a plan for an arena for them, designed by Frank Gehry. The plan for the area around Flatbush and Atlantic avenues also includes office space, residences and retail. Much of the opposition centers on the displacement of an estimated 1,000 area residents and businesses as well as concern about increased traffic in the neighborhood.

3. Gay Marriage

Last winter, as gay couples in San Francisco and New Paltz, N.Y., received marriage licenses, dozens of gay and lesbian couples in New York City lost in their attempt to marry here. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said gay marriage remains illegal under New York State law.

In the spring, the mayor vetoed a bill passed by the New York City Council that would require all businesses doing a significant amount of business with the city to provide domestic partners of employees with the same benefits they give the spouses of employees. Bloomberg said the city should not use its purchasing power to promote social causes. The council overrode the mayor's veto but all indications are that the city has not enforced the new law.

4. Reforming Albany

In April, for the 20th year in a row, the legislature and governor missed the deadline for passing the budget -- and this year it was later than ever. The state's leaders could not agree on how to reform school funding, despite a court order to do so. The "three men in a room" who run Albany -- Governor George Pataki, Senator Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- seemed at loggerheads about every major issue, stymieing any action. And a Brennan Center report (in pdf format) called the legislature the least democratic in the nation, making average New Yorkers the losers.

In short, 2004 was the year the state capital became synonymous with dysfunction.

Legislators, often oblivious to criticism, got worried this fall when several incumbents lost their bids for re-election, a virtually unheard of event in the legislature. Everyone -- including those considered responsible for the mess in the first place -- began promoting themselves as champions of reform. This created some momentum in a post-election legislative session that produced changes in the state's harsh Rockefeller drug laws and an increase in the minimum wage. But, as though to prove nothing really had changed, those actions were hashed out in secret by the "three men." And the legislature failed to override Pataki's veto of a bill reforming the budget process.

5. The 9/11 Commission Hearings

In April, the federal 9/11 commission focused on the events leading up to the attacks on the World Trade Center and what had been done since then to help prevent any future disasters. Many relatives of victims were particularly disturbed by accounts of intelligences failures in the months prior to the attacks.

In May, the commission came to New York, looked at whether city officials thought anything could have prevented the death and destruction and what, if anything, the city has done to address possible failures in the rescue operation on 9/11. In the first day of hearings, commission members lambasted three former commissioners in the Giuliani administration, with one calling the city's emergency response system "dysfunctional," and "not worthy of the Boy Scouts, let alone this great city."

But, to the irritation of some families, Giuliani escaped any such opprobrium the next day, as commissioners listened to him respectfully, if not reverentially.

Four days earlier, the impeding hearings had spurred Bloomberg to issue a plan (in pdf format) for coordinating emergency response. But many critics called his policy incomplete and scored it for failing to address long-standing rivalries between the police and fire departments and to designate one agency that would be in charge during an emergency.

6. Velella's Early Release

State Senator Guy Velella pleaded guilty in May to bribery charges, agreeing to resign his seat and serve a year in jail. But almost as soon as he arrived at Riker's Island this summer, Velella had second thoughts - the food was bad, for one thing -- and began trying to persuade the previously obscure Local Conditional Release Commission to let him go. Inundated with appeals from leading New Yorkers, including former Mayor Ed Koch, it did, and Velella walked after three months, seemingly destined to fade into obscurity.

But at a time of rising concern about apparent abuses of power in Albany, the release attracted immediate outrage from all the city's newspapers, and a wide range of New Yorkers including the mayor, even though he had appointed some members of the panel.

Bloomberg, who nevertheless said he had never heard of the panel, replaced its old members with new ones, who ordered the Bronx politician and his two co-conspirators back to Rikers. Velella appealed - his lawyers said he did nothing wrong and besides, he was suffering from prostate cancer - but this week a five-judge panel of the State Supreme Court's Appellate Division unanimously ordered him to return to jail on December 27th.

7. The GOP in NYC

For the first time in its 150-year history ,the Republican Party held its national convention in New York City in Aguust. While many New Yorkers fled the city -- out of fear of terrorists or fear of Republicans -- the city remained safe. Bloomberg, who worked to bring the convention here and donated $7 million for it, called it an "extraordinary" economic engine for the city, though the exact amount it brought in for the city is virtually impossible to come by.

As expected, hundreds of thousand of protestors took to the streets in this overwhelmingly Democratic city to protest the policies of President George W. Bush. After allowing a peaceful protest the day before the convention, on subsequent days police arrested about 1,800 demonstrators -- or people they thought were demonstrators -- and detained many in jail or in a makeshift prison on a Hudson River pier. Reportedly only about 75 of those cases resulted in convictions. Meanwhile, the city faces lawsuits from people who say the police violated their civil rights.

Whatever the opinions of the demonstrators, the convention provided a boost to Bush's re-election campaign, allowing him to focus on the war on terror. Unlike many of their compatriots, New Yorkers were not convinced and voted for John Kerry over the president by a 3- to-1 margin.

8. MoMA Returns to Manhattan

After three years in Queens, the Museum of Modern Art returned to Manhattan in November, opening its new home. The building, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi and costing $425 million to renovate, won wide praise for its large spaces displaying the museum's renowned collection. But art lovers on a budget may feel pangs of loss for the old MoMA. When it opened the new building, the museum raised the price of admission from $12 to $20, making it one of the most expensive museums in the nation.

Despite declines in budgets and attendance since 9/11, arts institutions made some major advances in 2004. Other winners on the New York arts scene in 2004 included Jazz at Lincoln Center which moved to its new home in the Time-Warner Center, and the Joyce Theater, which will have a new performance space in Lower Manhattan.

9. Money for Education

In late November, a court-appointed panel of three mediators found that New York City schools need an additional $5.6 billion a year for operating expenses. In a set of recommendations that many said could make students winners but taxpayers losers, the panel said it will take $18.25 billion a year - up from the current $12.6 billion -- to provide the 1.1 million city students with the "sound basic education" they are guaranteed in the state constitution. The three lawyers also called for a five-year $9.2 billion capital plan to build new schools, maintain existing ones and purchase computers and other technology.

The finding was the latest turn in a case brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in 1993 challenging the way Albany funds education in the city. The court ruled for the campaign in 1991, but the state government failed to take steps to comply with the decision. That prompted appointment of the panel. But while the mediators set out dollar amounts, they did not say how much should come from the fiscally strapped city and how much from the state, which is widely considered to be in even worse financial shape. Many said the ruling, if implemented, would make tax hikes inevitable. And so continued political battles and a possible appeal by Pataki could keep the school funding case in the courts at least well into 2005.

But not all city education battles took place in Albany. In January, Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced that they would end so-called "social promotion" -- passing a child to the next grade regardless of academic performance. Now, youngsters will have to score above a certain level on standardized math and reading tests to advance from third to fourth grade.

The proposal set off a furor unlike any since Bloomberg gained control of the schools in 2002. Some people supported tougher promotion standards but argued that third grade was too late to take such action or that a test should not provide the sole basis for making that kind of decision. Others (in pdf format) said that retention can backfire, demoralizing children and making them less likely to do well in school. In his zeal to make the policy a reality, Bloomberg engineered the ouster of three members of the city's Panel For Educational Policy who opposed the proposal.

In the end, the new policy may have made less difference than anticipated - when school opened in September, 2004, less than 5,000 students were repeating third grade, about as many as the previous year and before all the controversy. But the way Bloomberg rammed through his plan, with little advice from professional educators, gave ammunition to an increasing number of critics who charge that Bloomberg and Klein run the school system in an autocratic way, paying little heed to the concerns of parents, teachers or political leaders.

10. The Fall of Bernard Kerik

Like the Yankees, Bernard Kerik turned almost certain victory into humiliating defeat in 2004. The onetime head of the Department of Corrections, who came to national attention as New York City's police commissioner on 9/11, won acclaim from the president of the United States and, on December 3, a nomination as secretary of the federal Department of Homeland Security. A week later, Kerik suddenly withdrew from consideration, citing questions about "the immigration status of a nanny."

But whatever the truth about the nanny - whose identity and nationality remain unknown - it unleashed a spate of stories about Kerik. While a city employee, he accepted expensive gifts from people doing business with the city and did not report them. He had ties to people linked to the mob (though, as Kerik's patron, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani noted, none have been convicted). A New Jersey judge had issued an arrest warrant for him after he failed to pay condo fees. He reaped millions in profits on stock options in a company that makes stun guns - without ever having invested a penny. And to the delight of tabloid readers Kerik enjoyed a complicated love life - while married and living in New Jersey, he had a Manhattan "love nest" frequented by two girlfriends. And then an ex-wife surfaced whom no one knew about.

Despite all this, Kerik had the enthusiastic backing of Giuliani, who named him police commissioner, hired him for Giuliani Partners and lobbied hard for his appointment as homeland security secretary. Beyond the titillation, the Kerik controversy raised concerns about vetting processes in New York and Washington and seemed certain to tarnish Giuliani's reputation. "The real satisfaction of the flameout lies not in Kerik's fall but Rudy's chagrin, " Tina Brown wrote in the Washington Post, adding, "The city has become just a tad cranky about Rudy's naked branding of 9/11 for his own political and pecuniary ends."

In addition to 9/11, Giuliani and Kerik have benefited from the decrease in city crime rates during their time in office here. But recent figures indicate the city can win the war on crime without Giuliani et al. In 2004, reports of serious crimes fell by 4.8 percent, continuing an 11-year decline and making New York the safest of America's 10 largest cities.

 


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