Last month, the New York City Board of Health approved Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces at restaurants and concession stands. Since its proposal in May, the restriction has been met with a PR campaign and a lawsuit by the American Beverage Association, head-shaking by a skeptical citizenry, and mocking glee by newspaper headline writers and Jon Stewart, who on his show said, “I think people look at this and say, ‘Well, that’s just silly.’ ”
Silly or not, the Board of Health voted 8-0 for the limited ban. The lone abstention, Dr. Sixto Caro, told the Associated Press he believes that to fight obesity the plan “is not comprehensive enough.”
Caro is wrong. The soda plan is perfectly incomprehensive. It’s so incomprehensive, it just might work. The array of similarly modest measures stitched together by Bloomberg over the last decade may represent the first new and effective government strategy of pursuing social justice in a generation.
For much of the 20th century, mayors ruled New York through audacious, sweeping measures. In the long wake of the New Deal, every mayor following Fiorello La Guardia inherited a mantle of urban renewal, the mandate to lift the poor and harmonize society’s economic and racial factions through immense infrastructure projects and dramatic growth in city services. La Guardia midwifed the radical idea that the city was responsible for its neediest citizens, and his successors, one by one, all stood for it and, because the dream was too big, ultimately failed.
No failure was more disappointing than that of John Lindsay, who entered office as a warm-hearted savior with matinee-idol looks. “New York is ill beyond belief,” Norman Mailer wrote in his endorsement of Lindsay in 1965. “I think he’s a great guy, and it would be a miracle [if] this town had a man for mayor who was okay.” Yet Lindsay’s two terms would be marked by nearly ceaseless strife: major transit and sanitation strikes, increased racial tension, looming deficits. The conflict between families trying to make their own way and a system intent to carry everyone into a world of tomorrow had sharpened to a dangerous point. The city was rapidly losing its taste for grand ambition.
The darkest of New York’s days came once Lindsay left office, in the four-year pit presided over by the hapless Abe Beame, when the city came within mere hours of bankruptcy, and looting and arson in the ’77 blackout burned parts of Brooklyn nearly off the map.
The only way to go, in hindsight, was up—thanks in large part to the rise of Wall Street, which paid, directly and indirectly, for much of the city’s resurgence. Ed Koch, David Dinkins, and Rudy Giuliani finished out the 20th century as the first caretaker mayors of a post-industrial New York, each attempting to build a city hall independent of party machines, power brokers, and ceaseless patronage (with varying success). That they proved the city was even capable of being managed—hardly a credible idea for decades—cemented their place in history. No surprise that social programs were de-emphasized in these years; there were more pressing things to worry about. At least Koch worked to functionalize and clean up existing anti-poverty programs. Under Giuliani, welfare caseloads declined more than 50 percent and food-stamp enrollment dropped off precipitously. La Guardia’s New York was by now little more than a faint memory.
No one would have blinked in 2002 if the city and its new mayor had continued this steady sloughing of the social safety net. Indeed, Bloomberg retained many of Giuliani’s work-requirement welfare reforms. He could also have done nothing, resting on his first-term laurels as a master of the budget, having headed off a post-Sept. 11 deficit crisis. But what the Bloomberg administration did instead was formulate, within the constraints of its era, a new way to address the effects of unequal living—and in terms of the most pressing issue of today: health care.