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Column: A year after Sandy, New York's inequality grows

By David Rohde

When Hurricane Sandy engulfed New York a year ago, David Del Valle helped me instead of his mother. Del Valle's choice was not voluntary.

For the last 10 years, the 48-year-old New Yorker has worked as a doorman at the hotel where my wife, daughter and I stayed after being ordered to evacuate our apartment in lower Manhattan. Eager to hold on to his job, Del Valle stayed at work but worried about his mother — who lives on the city's Lower East Side, which lost electricity and flooded.

His mother was fine and soon after the storm, I wrote about how Sandy exposed the city's vast economic inequality. While the better off moved to hotels or simply fled, Del Valle was one of the city's army of doormen, cooks, maintenance workers and maids who stayed on the job during the storm and had to leave their loved ones to fend for themselves.

"Divides between the rich and the poor are nothing new in New York," I wrote last year, "but the storm brought them vividly to the surface. There were residents like me who could invest all of their time and energy into protecting their families. And there were New Yorkers who could not."

In a small sign of how deeply the issue of inequality resonated among Americans, that column went viral and was the most popular piece I wrote last year. In a far larger and more important sign, New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio — who has made easing the city's inequality the core message of his campaign — is expected to be elected in a landslide next week, potentially by the largest margin in decades.

When I went back to the hotel this week and asked Del Valle if he thought inequality had eased, or de Blasio could help, he shrugged.

"For the average Joe Shmoe it probably is the same," he said, referring to inequality. "But I'm so busy trying to take care of my things that I don't know."

He told me a few stories about last year. Cutting in front of other guests waiting for taxis, one guest had paid a driver $200 to take her from the hotel to her home on the Upper East Side. A family from overseas paid another driver $800 to take them to Boston.

A doorman, who asked not to be named, blamed the finance industry for the city's excesses, but predicted de Blasio would be powerless to change them.

"Wall Street is the problem," the doorman said.

A hugely unscientific and myopic poll of working-class New Yorkers — a half dozen hotel workers who helped my family a year ago — produced similar responses. They all expressed deep cynicism about the possibility for change, and an even deeper cynicism about American politicians — including de Blasio and his fellow Democrats.

"I don't believe in nobody, I don't care about politics," said one garage attendant, who had slept in a car the night of the hurricane as his sister weathered the storm in New Jersey. "I have to work because I want to eat. That's all I believe."

His experience over the last year fuels his cynicism. Since Sandy, the corporate owners of the garage where he works increased the price of a monthly parking space from $375 to $575. The "early bird special" rose from $25 to $32 a day. His salary, however, went up only 25 cents an hour — from $8.50 to $8.75. This was his first raise in two years. Tips help, of course, but he and a co-worker said they must routinely work 60 hours a week to get by.

"It's just insane," said the co-worker, "the only reason we keep working here is the overtime."

George Pedraza, a 20-year-old from Queens who had contacted me after reading the article last year, was just as cynical. During Sandy, Pedraza's father had stayed at his job as a maintenance worker at a midtown office building, leaving Pedraza and his older sister to fend for themselves in Corona. Pedraza's mother had died of cancer in 2005.

A year after the storm, Pedraza works three jobs while attending Queens College. He said he believes it will be impossible for de Blasio to ease New York's inequality. Vested interests in the city and the Democratic Party block him.

"I don't think de Blasio is going to come with a cape on and be like superman," Pedraza told me this week. He said he felt alienated from politics as well.

"I'm a young man of color when it comes to politics in the city," he said. "I'm either taken for granted by the Democrats or completely ignored by the Republicans."

Pedraza said he was supporting Adolfo Carrion Jr., the independent candidate for mayor. He said Democrats tend to give charity to the poor while Republicans largely ignore them. Giving the poor the skills, contacts and confidence to take advantage of opportunities, he said, was the best way to ease inequality. He cited the All Stars Project, an education non-profit where he works, as an example.

"Poor people don't need charity, they need growth," he said. Pedraza called for a paradigm shift "so the conversation would be more developmental." "How do you grow communities? How do you grow people?"

The deep disconnect between de Blasio's laudable goal and the New Yorkers who might benefit from it is harrowing. As mayor, his ability to single-handedly ease inequality is limited. State and national reforms that would create better-paying jobs, improve education and eliminate tax loopholes are needed.

Public cynicism about our political system, meanwhile, is rising. A Pew poll conducted in early October found that 19 percent of Americans expressed trust in government — the second-lowest figure recorded since 1958.

We suffer not only from income inequality — but an inequality of political engagement, activism and hope.

(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own.)

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