Here in Greenwich Village we are moving into the high political season. For some reason, all of our local elections (Mayor, Comptroller, Public Advocate, Borough President, City Council) come up in this odd off-year. Although the final elections are in November, the Republican candidates are almost never competitive except in the race for Mayor, so the real elections for all the other offices, and maybe for Mayor as well, are the primaries on September 10. That's just a few weeks away. So the streets and subway entrances frequently have campaign workers, and sometimes candidates themselves, handing out literature and pitching for votes.
As readers here know, the view of the Manhattan Contrarian is that far and away the most important issue facing New York City voters and politicians is unsustainable overspending in a few key areas, most notably education, Medicaid, and pensions and healthcare for city workers. In the pensions area, most city workers (e.g., teachers, transit) can retire by age 55, and some (e.g., police, fire) by age 45, meaning that as the workers age and retire we are heading for a situation of paying more retired workers than active. And as of now, the city both pays generous guaranteed pensions for retirements of up to 50 years, and also picks up the full healthcare for the workers from retirement to Medicare, and the non-Medicare portion thereafter. The costs are spiraling out of control, and rapidly crowding out any and all other spending priorities, while also putting upward pressure on taxes. Outgoing Mayor Bloomberg rather loudly warned about the problem in a significant speech just a couple of weeks ago.
Despite that, and despite the warning bells loudly ringing in places like Detroit and Chicago, you can scour everything you can find in the websites and campaign literature of the candidates for all offices in the Democratic primaries and find not a mention of these problems. Instead, if as a conscientious downtown citizen you follow the races as presented by the candidates, you will quickly come to the conclusion that far and away the most important issue for Greenwich Village is the closure of our local hospital.
First, some background. Until recently there was a large and well-equipped (but not very well-managed) hospital, St. Vincent's, in the heart of the West Village at Seventh Avenue and West 11th Street. This is just a couple of blocks from where I live. St. Vincent's ran into financial problems after 2000 and proceeded to have two bankruptcies in quick succession. In the Chapter 22 (bankruptcy lawyer jargon for second bankruptcy right after the first) St. Vincent's presented a plan to rescue itself by demolishing the buildings on the main part of its site and building a new state-of-the-art facility on the smaller part of the site across the street. But that plan was stymied by community opposition, led by the actress Susan Sarandon and her then boyfriend Tim Robbins. With its rescue plan stuck, the hospital abruptly closed in 2010 and the main part of the site was sold at auction to a condo developer. Most of the buildings were demolished in 2012, and today there is a big hole in the ground where foundations are in the works for a couple of hundred new high end condos.
For literally all of our local candidates, this is way the most important issue of the moment. In our City Council race to replace Christine Quinn (term limited and running for Mayor), we have Yetta Kurland and Corey Johnson. Kurland seemingly can mention nothing but the hospital, and how she has fought to save it. In Johnson's list of issues, it is well toward the top. In the Manhattan Borough President race, downtown favorite candidate Julie Menin also seems to be all about the hospital. A piece of campaign literature received from her two days ago mentions the hospital as the only issue: "Julie Menin is the only candidate for Borough President who said NO to converting St. Vincent's Hospital into Luxury Condos. . . . When others caved in to big developers, Julie Menin stood up to fight for St. Vincent's Hospital."
On my way to work on Tuesday, passing by the St. Vincent's site, I ran into a rally for mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. The rally was all about saving this and several other hospitals (two in Brooklyn are also in the throes of closure). Daughter Emily was along to take some pictures:
There seemed to be about 100 or so people there. Kurland was one. Here is mayoral candidate de Blasio speaking:
A plurality of participants had signs or tee-shirts with the logos of the SEIU or Nurses Union. Signs read “Save Our Hospitals” or “Hands Off Our Hospitals.”
In that middle picture, check out that back of the head with dyed red hair just in front and to the right of de Blasio. Could it be . . . Susan Sarandon? Yes! She was there, and the New York Post had some fun with the fact that she somehow has gone from lead opponent of all prior realistic plans to save St. Vincent’s to now believing that the most important thing in the universe is using taxpayer money to resurrect St. Vincent’s from the dead.
The actress plans to join mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio and a star-studded cast for a rally today blasting the shuttering of St. Vincent’s Hospital in the West Village. But it seems the liberal leading lady has forgotten how she and then-partner Tim Robbins rallied years ago against the hospital’s expansion several blocks from their home on West 12th Street. Just a few years ago, in 2008, Sarandon blasted the medical center “as a last resort” during a city landmarks hearing on the hospital’s proposed expansion. “I would not want to bring my children there,” she added during the testimony, in which she asked the city “to slow down here and look at what the alternatives are.”
St. Vincent’s, which served a large homeless population and was the city’s third-oldest hospital, closed in 2010 after going broke. A planned expansion that St. Vincent’s administrators hoped would save the hospital failed — in part thanks to vocal opposition from Sarandon and others.
This is just one more illustration of why I cannot understand Manhattan orthodoxy of the Greenwich Village strain. Now don’t get me wrong – it’s pretty good to have a big hospital a couple of blocks from your home. It could be very useful if, for example, you suddenly find yourself having a stroke. But can we be a little realistic here? With St. Vincent’s closed, the next closest hospital is Beth Israel, just about a mile away at Second Avenue and 16th Street. And then there’s Bellevue, a mile and a half away at First Avenue and 27th Street; and NYU, a mile and three-quarters away at First Avenue and 32nd Street; and St. Luke’s/Roosevelt, two and a quarter miles away at Tenth Avenue and 59th Street. And I could continue. An article here on Wikipedia lists 20 currently-operating hospitals on our 23 square mile island. In sparsely populated upstate, there are places that are easily 50 miles from the nearest hospital. A new state-of-the-art hospital in Manhattan could run $1 billion or so. There is no possible way that any responsible state legislature could divert that kind of money from other needs so that people in the very wealthiest neighborhood in the whole state can be spared having to go all of one mile to the nearest hospital. This hospital is not coming back in our lifetime. Can’t any one of our politicians level with us on this?
It’s like a big exercise in sleight-of-hand, where our attention is diverted to things with emotional impact about which nothing can be done, while we completely miss the huge issues that must be addressed and can actually be fixed. I guess a second possibility is that these politicians are themselves completely unaware of the budget issues. Actually, that second possibility is more likely, and more scary.
NOTE: Apologies for having this article up in incomplete form for the past couple of days. For some reason, the Squarespace site has completely refused to accept the pictures, and several hours of effort have failed to fix the problem. I'll keep trying, but meanwhile you'll have to use your imagination.