Nicole Gelinas joins Brian Anderson to discuss New York City’s plan to replace the correctional complex on Rikers Island, how the city’s transit system has fared amid the pandemic, the 2021 mayoral race, Governor Cuomo’s problems, and more.

City Journal’s latest special issue, New York City: Reborn, is now available on the website.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is a colleague and frequent guest on the show, Nicole Gelinas. Nicole is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and a columnist at the New York Post. She's one of the most regular contributors on our website and in the magazine. But she's here today to talk about a couple of lengthy essays she's written about recently on New York City and its future. One is on Rikers Island and the other is on the public transit system. So, we'll get her thoughts on the mayoral race, Governor Cuomo's problems, and more, in addition to those two other topics.

As I've mentioned in the previous episode, a few weeks ago, the City Journal team has put the finish finishing touches on a new special issue of the magazine called New York City: Reborn. It has a lovely cover design. So, I encourage you to check out the article line up on the website, take a look at the cover art, and we'll post it on social media sometime soon. Nicole, thanks very much for joining us.

Nicole Gelinas: Good afternoon, Brian. It's nice to talk with you.

Brian Anderson: Yes. So, to start for our winter issue, you wrote about the plan to replace Rikers Island as the main correctional complex in New York City. More than a year ago, New York approved a bill to build four smaller high-rise facilities dispersed across the different boroughs of the city. The plan was slated to cost something like, I don't know, $9 billion, and it's already years behind schedule. Now, you note it's undeniable the conditions at Rikers are abysmal, in your words, but you believe that improvements can be made in that prison complex, and the city's plan is impractical. Could you elaborate a little bit for listeners on your views on this issue?

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, there's no question that we need to build new, modern jails on Rikers Island. Just like much of the city's infrastructure, the existing jail buildings are decades old. Many of them were built to be temporary buildings. They have people working and doing hospital work and other work out of trailers, for example. So, no one is saying we should condemn people who have not been convicted of a crime yet to unlivable, inhumane conditions. But, unfortunately, this overly ambitious project is delaying a rebuilding on Rikers Island and an evolution to more humane conditions for the inmates there who are awaiting trial or serving very short sentences. This project was supposed to be done by 2026. It is now been delayed to at least 2028. And yes, as you said, it will cost $9 billion to close Rikers Island and build high-rise jails in four different boroughs, so Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.

A lot of problems with building high-rise jails in four different boroughs, first of all, there are no examples of successful high-rise jails anywhere in the West. I mean, when the de Blasio team went out to Europe and looked at successful jail projects, the jails that they visited are all campus-style jails, which means they're spread out on multiple acres. American jails that have been rebuilt over the past decade, also campus-style jails, where, yes, people-

Brian Anderson: So, that's like Rikers, in other words, right?

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah. I mean, you want multiple, multiple acres, Rikers is 400 acres, so that you can have outdoor space. You can have exercise space. You can have urban gardening and farming, raising animals, doing all kinds of outdoor therapy, natural light. It's very difficult to do those things in a high-rise environment.

I mean, even if you think about people who live in luxury, high-rise buildings, there's not a lot of outdoor space. There's a lot of issues with people waiting in line for elevators, inadequate common space. And imagine trying to do those things in a jail environment where there are also all sorts of security considerations. How many elevator banks can you put in a high-rise when you have certain inmates that can't go near other certain inmates and they may not even know each other, just different gang affiliations? Your elevators take up a lot of room if you have to build in redundancy because you need five different elevator banks to bring people down and up for court cases. You're taking out a lot of your space in your high-rise. How do you get natural light into a high-rise jail when you're wedging them into four very dense neighborhoods?

I mean, one of them would be built on the outskirts of Chinatown. This is already a very dense neighborhood. So, the problems that are on Rikers, no question, again, that there are very real problems. Another problem is the transportation. But it's just like getting to the airport. It's far away, yes. But with better transportation connections, it would be much easier to bring family members, to bring lawyers to the Island. You could have ferry service. You could have more frequent bus service. I mean, the bus only comes an hour and a half during non-COVID times when you can have visitors. So, just have much more frequent bus service. Things like long, long waits for family members to go through security to go visit their relatives. You can add staffing, have more efficient staffing and have a much shorter week. So, all of the problems that people say, "Well, this means we need to close Rikers," you're going to have those problems wherever the jails are located. If you treat Rikers as an open campus, you could really do a lot with it that you cannot do in a dense urban environment.

Brian Anderson: And there is, of course, community opposition in the boroughs where these new high-rise jails were supposed to go up, right?

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, it's striking that you have four very different neighborhoods, but all four neighborhoods rejected the new jails at their community board meetings two years ago. So, a middle-class neighborhood like Kew Gardens, Queens rejects the jail because they don't want to see destabilization of a middle-class neighborhood. But a poor neighborhood, you look at Mott Haven in the South Bronx. This is a poor neighborhood, almost entirely black and Hispanic, but the community board there, they see it as very insulting that the government is saying, "Well, there's no future for your young people, except for that a lot of them are going to end up in jail. So, we want to locate the jail in your neighborhood so it's convenient for their relatives to visit them in jail." I mean, what kind of symbol does that send to young people? And also, people say if when in the case of this is obviously, yes, it is a high crime neighborhood, unfortunately, but the vast majority of people are not engaged in crime.

When they have problems with young people engaged in gang violence, gun violence, drug sales, most of the people in the neighborhood, they want the small criminal elements, they don't want them in the neighborhood. They want them taken to jail and taken out of the neighborhood. People are saying if the jail is put in Mott Haven, people are going to solve their problems on the street outside of the jail. So, you want to remove crime from the neighborhood, not build infrastructure to keep the crime in the neighborhood.

Brian Anderson: Your piece in the special issue, which is forthcoming, New York City: Reborn is the name of the issue, the essay is called How to Save Gotham Transit. And it's about the MTA and the city's transportation system. It's obviously been a very tough year for New York City and you live in the city, and you've seen what's been going on directly. Ridership on the subways, I think is still 30% to 40% down from where it was pre-pandemic. Now that's rising a little bit, but for the most part, office workers, commuters, there hasn't been a flood back into the city yet. What's your take on the city's transit system, its finances, and what it needs to do to help New York rebound from this very bad year?

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, if you look at ridership, there is a little bit of good news. We've had our first couple of days where we've almost reached 2 million daily riders. For a time, it was only in the hundreds of thousands. So, on a normal pre-pandemic day, you would have five and a half million people riding the subways every day. So, getting back to 2 million, certainly a good sign, but yes, the ridership remains very, very low at 30 to 35% of normal ridership. So, we're not going to rebuild and recover New York City unless we get people back onto transit. I mean, a very dense high-rise city does not work with everyone in their own individual private car.

So, one of the main things New York has to do to convince people to go back into offices, hopefully, come back to entertainments and other leisure activities once those things start to open up is make them feel comfortable on transit. Only so much they can do until people are vaccinated, until people feel comfortable. I think people, gradually, they will want to do something. Doing nothing will necessitate them going on transit. And so, they'll come back, they'll get used to it, and we'll rebuild the transit ridership from there.

But one of the sticking points now is high crime. I mean, we've had eight murders on the subway system in the course of a year, since last March. Normally, you would have one or two murders on the subway system every year. So, this is something that the city, which the city, rather than the state, is in charge of crime on the subway, the city has to make this a much secure feeling, both in perception and reality, to convince people to come back, especially if people have not been on the transit system for a year. So, they're reading all of these stories and they're understandably nervous about venturing back.

Brian Anderson: Sure. Mayor Bill de Blasio is wrapping up his final year in office, as you know. And you've had the opportunity to moderate some virtual discussions with some of the mayoral candidates. You've been following the race pretty closely. I wonder if you could share with listeners your view of the race as it currently stands?

Nicole Gelinas: Well, I think the good news and, yeah, the democratic primary is in three months. So, this race is coming up. We almost certainly will have a new mayor decided by late June. So, it's important that people who can vote are paying attention. But I think the good news is that there is a full spectrum of choice. There's kind of a myth that all of the candidates running are far left-wing candidates. They all are pushing the same policies, but that's not really the case. I mean, yes, there are some candidates who fit that mold. But, for example, someone like Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, she said that yes, if people are using drugs on the open street, then yes, we do have to use the criminal justice system as a deterrent, that people have to be arrested if they are engaged in that behavior. She said people don't have a right to live on the subway system, and that we also can't put up with homeless encampments on the street.

And then of course, on the other side of the spectrum, you have a candidate like Maya Wiley, also from the de Blasio administration, really pushing a non-policing approach to dealing with crime. So, and then in the middle of there, there's a lot of different candidates. Ray McGuire, former city group executive, business experience. But on the other hand, he says, yes, he does want to raise taxes. He wants the wealthy to pay a little bit more. And then Andrew Yang, tech nonprofit executive before he joined the race, he is really leaning against tax increases. So, there's a lot there, and a lot for people to choose from.

Brian Anderson: Turning to the state level, Governor Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo has been under, obviously, an enormous amount of pressure lately, accused of inappropriate behavior by a number of women. Democrats and Republicans across the state have called for him to step down. There's even rumors of an impeachment push. Now, all of this, of course, comes after it was revealed that his administration knowingly misled the public on the number of nursing home deaths during the height of the pandemic. So, one question that comes to mind is if Cuomo were to be removed from office or step down, what comes next? Democrats hold a majority currently in both parts of the state legislature. So, it's entirely conceivable that the next governor could be more of a problem than Andrew Cuomo, at least for people on the right side of the spectrum.

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, Brian, I mean, there's two ways of thinking about it, right? I mean, one way would be if the assembly and the Senate, if there are enough legislative votes to actually convict him in an impeachment, then he shouldn't bring it upon the voters of New York to have to go through this long process if it is a foregone conclusion and have the negotiations over the budget, and all sorts of other pressing issues stretched out for weeks and weeks while they go through this investigation. So, Cuomo knows how to count votes. He can obviously see whether that's the case and this is a foregone conclusion or not. But on the other hand, we have to think about the precedent that this is setting. Yes, he is accused of some very serious allegations, and one individual, for example, saying, frankly, that he groped her which would basically be a sexual assault, and, of course, these should be investigated and taken very seriously.

But on the other hand, so are elected officials saying that in all cases if they are ever accused of any kind of wrongdoing from now on that they will just step down and what is the threshold for that wrongdoing? Does it have to be illegal? Does it have to go against your workplace guidelines? Are we talking about corruption allegations? They are setting a different threshold. So, I think we should think about the precedent that that sets.

But what comes after Cuomo? I mean, you're absolutely right. We have a much further, further left-wing state legislature. And the legislature is pushing right now a tax hike package, where even though we've just gotten this record federal relief money, New York State right now has more money than it knows what to do with, but they want to raise taxes and raise the top income tax rate by a full third. Not even because it's an emergency and because they need the money, just as an ideological point of victory in saying that they raise taxes. So, I do think this is not the best time for chaos in state governments. Cuomo, he has also not ruled out tax hikes, but I think he would be a little bit of a pushback against that sort of far left advance.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Nicole. Don't forget to check out Nicole Gelinas's work at City Journal. We'll link to some of the recent essays we've just discussed in the episode description. She also has a column, as I mentioned at the top, a weekly column in the New York Post, and you can follow her on Twitter, @NicoleGelinas. If you haven't already, make sure to follow us on Twitter, @CityJournal, and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. As always, if you liked what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Thanks very much again, Nicole, and good to talk with you as always.

Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Brian. Nice to speak with you as well.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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