the city politic

A New Mayor, a New Beginning

Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Shutterstock

Eric Adams will be sworn in as New York’s 110th mayor tonight in the place he has long wanted to be: at the center of the action with all eyes on him, far from his Queens roots and his Brooklyn base, bigger than the city lights down in Times Square. Later, at noon, he is scheduled to deliver an address from City Hall.

Strictly speaking, Adams doesn’t have to hold an inauguration ceremony at all. The barebones requirements of city law specify that every new mayor must sign a formal oath of office; enter a second signature in an official register maintained by the City Clerk; and pay a nominal fee (formerly 15 cents, bumped up to a whopping $9 in 2001).

But along with these quaint formalities, nearly all mayors over the last century have held grand, formal swearing-in ceremonies on the plaza in front of City Hall, using the occasion as an opportunity to announce the new administration’s priorities — and also speak some essential truths about their highest hopes and the soul of our city.

“We are all foot soldiers on the march to freedom, here and everywhere. We all belong to the America that Lincoln called ‘the last, best hope of earth,’” David Dinkins said at his 1990 inauguration. “Ours will be a civic forum, an open democracy that hears diverse views and voices before it decides, a democracy that holds out hope for the hopeless and assuages the fears of the fearful, a democracy that appeals to what is best in us and strives to bring us together.”

A generation later, Bill de Blasio sounded a different tone in his unmistakably combative 2014 inauguration speech.

“We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love. And so today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York,” de Blasio said. “Let me be clear. When I said we would take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities, I meant it. And we will do it.”

In January 2002, Mike Bloomberg, who’d been sworn in by Rudy Giuliani after the Times Square ball drop, delivered a hopeful but somber speech at City Hall hours later, in the literal shadow of the 9/11 attack that had wrecked the World Trade Center, the city’s economy — and, some believed, the future of New York itself.

“New York is safe, strong, open for business and ready to lead the world in the 21st century,” said Bloomberg, before giving the bad news. “We will not be able to afford all that we want. We will not even be able to afford everything we currently have,” he said. “Let me say once more, though, we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. We cannot drive people and business out of New York. We cannot raise taxes. We will find another way.”

Location matters for these moments. City Hall is one of the very few public spaces that belong to — and also symbolize — the whole five boroughs. Other iconic locations, such as Lincoln Center, Coney Island, Flushing Meadows Corona Park — or even Times Square itself — are either specific to a borough or have an unmistakably commercial pulse that speaks of private pursuits rather than the public good.

That’s why it’s a good thing that Adams aborted a plan to hold his ceremony at the Kings Theater in Flatbush. Kings, one of a handful of lavish “wonder theaters” built by the Loew’s entertainment company in the 1920s, is — since it’s 2015 reopening — a grand and lovely space, but it’s also utterly devoid of civic meaning. Adams’s canceled ceremony would, at best, have underscored (in case anybody needed a reminder) that all three of New York’s citywide elected leaders — Adams, Comptroller Brad Lander, and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams — hail from Brooklyn.

Instead, we’ll have a toned-down repeat of the way Bloomberg took office: a swearing in as part of the glitzy spectacle at Times Square, followed by a midday speech at City Hall. It’s also reminiscent of the launch of the administration of Fiorello LaGuardia, one of the only mayors to skip a City Hall ceremony.

Elected during the Great Depression on a promise to clean up the corruption of the Tammany Hall machine, LaGuardia’s midnight 1934 swearing in took place at the home of a noted civic reformer, Samuel Seabury.  Later that morning, he headed to City Hall, swore in a new police commissioner and promptly started work. “New York City was restored to the people this morning at one minute after midnight,” LaGuardia announced in a radio address.

What can we expect from Eric Adams?

When the clock strikes noon, my guess is that Adams will have a businesslike, “let’s get to work” tone and simply announce a new day in the city the way LaGuardia did. A weary city, slogging through another wave of the pandemic, is fighting against rising crime, a looming eviction crisis, and an economy that leaves too many families sinking and shut out.

Adams has vowed to address these ills not by declaring war on the city’s elites, like de Blasio, or by stirring us with the soaring eloquence of a David Dinkins. He will surely give us a sober warning about tough times ahead like Bloomberg did.

But he’s going to have some fun along the way. The confident, cocky smile Adams often flashed on the campaign trail is, in part, a governing tool. Part of steering New York forward is convincing 8 million people that we’re going to get through this difficult, perilous moment together, and that we elected government leaders who are smart, tough, competent, and ethical — and prepared to deliver for a city anxious to discover what comes next.

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A New Mayor, a New Beginning