His Honor, My Neighbor

Before Bill de Blasio was the 109th Mayor of New York City, he was the tall dude who lived down the street from me.

A decade ago, my wife and I rented an apartment near his now-famous Park Slope home. That house on 11th Street has served as a counterpoint to Mayor Bloomberg’s mansions, and a backdrop to countless snow shoveling photographs and a symbol of anything and everything a fine home on an average Brooklyn street can be made to signify by a press corps eager for inspiration. Back then, though, there weren’t a lot of conclusions to draw.

He was just a guy who lived on my street with a wife and two kids. Over the years, I got to know him in the way every New Yorker gets to know her neighbors; through a series of nods and tiny encounters that leave a little mark and eventually add up to a portrait. We’ve all got hundreds of them: the dog lady, the smiling guy, Hassan, Julia, Big Gary from the deli. It just so happens that the tall dude from down the street recently moved to Gracie Mansion, so let me tell you about my sense of him as a neighbor.

He knows how to play stoopball. I know because he taught me. I was new to the neighborhood, and brought a shiny, bouncy, pink spaldeen to our local block party, along with a rudimentary knowledge of the legendary street game that was played all over the city until the car took over. I was goofing around with a few local kids, bouncing the spaldeen off the best stoop on our block, when Bill walked over and boomed, “Stoopball!”

Then, it was on. After a quick tutorial, Bill started throwing heat. Two or three tosses in, he landed a pointer (where the ball catches a corner of the stoop) that shot up over his head and into the hands of a kid who proudly stepped up to take his turn. Bill laughed a big belly laugh, shouted a few words of encouragement, and then, to the cheers of an amassed crowd, loped back to the middle of the street to take his turn in the field.

That wasn’t the first time I played in the street with Bill. Back when I was a T.A. volunteer and he was a brand new Council member, there was a Halloween protest for a car-free Prospect Park. The idea was simple: a bunch of us would dress up as vampires, mummies, Frankensteins and enormous SUVs, then we’d run around and try to scare folks out of the park. Amazingly, people, including our new Council member, showed up in support (and also, probably, to laugh at us, and maybe because it was a beautiful Saturday). Bill addressed the crowd. He spoke in favor of a car-free Prospect Park and then took some time to shake hands and get to know the strange cast of wig-wearing, face-painted, fanged ghouls who’d put together such a ridiculous event.

Truth be told, my mental portrait of Bill is mostly made of more mundane stuff: working out at the YMCA, waiting for a chair at the barber shop, eating slices of pizza with a fork and just walking around the neighborhood. He was always talking to people, always smiling, always hunching down to listen and nod, even if he didn’t always agree.

Mayor Bill de Blasio (at right) after
a rousing game of stoopball.

Image courtesy of Paul Steely White

I know that because Bill and I haven’t always seen eye to eye. In the heat of the mayoral campaign, he was asked about his position on bike lanes and other livable streets improvements, and he equivocated. He said that he would rather take a more “incremental” approach than Mayor Bloomberg. A lot of advocates, myself included, heard that as a shot across the bow, so I reached out to him. First, I sent him an email expressing my displeasure, then I called his office and left a message that was, well, heated.

I explained to him that there should be nothing incremental about saving lives. I emphasized the fact that bike lanes and pedestrian refuges were wildly popular. I—OK, I’ll be honest—I yelled and screamed about how wrong he was. And to my surprise, he actually called me back.

He calmly explained that he was talking about the significance of community input and insisted his position was better than some of the other candidates.

I replied that I was holding him to a higher standard because “The Bill de Blasio I know is better than that.”

And he is. And he’s proved it. And he’s made street safety a top priority.

So far the Bill de Blasio who lives in Gracie Mansion is every bit of the man who was my neighbor. He’s been fighting for a better city and listening to his neighbors, and he’s been busy and smiling and eating pizza with a fork.

I’m thankful for all of that. And I’m thankful that when we don’t agree—because just like neighbors, advocates and the powers that be don’t always get along—he’ll still listen. Maybe he won’t call me back—he has a lot on his plate—but if he’s half as good a mayor as he was a neighbor, I know he’ll take the time to hear everyone—kids in the street, activists in vampire costumes, screaming critics, and even the idealists who know they’re right.


Paul Steely White
Executive Director