Calles para la Gente

Every time I hear Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio talk about a tale of two cities, I am transported to the dance floor of Youssou N’Dour’s nightclub in Dakar, Senegal. That’s where, despite my lack of coordination and rhythm and every obstacle but cocktails, Enrique Peñalosa, the former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, tried to teach me to salsa dance.

We were on a trans-Africa speaking tour. He was lecturing to local leaders about “Calles para la gente,” and I was carrying his bags. During the day, he’d tell the assembled crowd, “It is very difficult to achieve income equality. Of course, we should not give up on achieving it, but it is hard, and it takes a long time. What we can achieve more readily, especially as mayors in charge of our own streets, is quality-of-life equality. We can do it by creating streets for people, not just for cars. And we can show that someone on a $30 bicycle is just as important as someone in a $30,000 car.”

I learned a lot on that trip. I still can’t salsa dance, but I do know that Peñalosa was right about a city’s streets. A dedicated mayor can make all the difference in the world. With public plazas, he can give kids in Queens Village a place to play that’s as fun as Prospect Park. With better bus service, he can give a nurse in Flatbush the same kind of commute that a banker on the Upper East Side enjoys. Safe streets and calmed traffic give pedestrians the same sort of security that a chauffeured CEO feels in a limousine. A dedicated mayor can do all of that without asking Albany or Washington, D.C. or anyone else. That’s not the end to our tale of two cities, of course, but it’s a chapter that’s easy to close—far simpler than salsa dancing.


Paul Steely White
Executive Director