If they can make it there, why can't they make it here? What can English cities learn from New York
Updated: Jan 17
This week I took my daughter to college in New York City.
Surrounded by over-stuffed luggage, we sat on our checked and carry-on bags and waited to check-in for our super-budget flight to the Big Apple from our tiny provincial airport at the beach.
Whiling away the time, I checked my social feeds and was soon dragged into the narrative surrounding the local government escapades engulfing Liverpool.
The Liverpool Echo gave us the news that a Whitehall-trusted interim CEO was travelling north to fill the void left by the previous head of the authority, that more Whitehall appointed commissioners were also on their way to the Empire’s second city to begin to address the issues identified by the previous Whitehall commissioners sent to the city following the release of the damning Whitehall commissioned Caller Report into the running of the city and some of its business dealings and transactions.
From afar, it is easy to roll your eyes, sigh and put the whole thing down to some combination of misguided ‘Liverpool exceptionalism’, the idea that Whitehall has it in for Liverpool, and the shortcomings from being an administration of an overly political city.
Link upon link expressed views and outrage with the goings on, the LiverpoolPost and Liverpolitan news feeds eloquently questioned the whole situation and threw plenty of shade at the protagonists of this tale.
But few answers to the dilemma were proposed. Which made me think.
Often, tenuous connections between NYC and Liverpool are made: The transatlantic shipping and passenger lines, the five boroughs of New York match those of Liverpool City Region – is Wirral Liverpool’s Brooklyn? – the music and art scene, and of course Liverpool’s architectural similarity to Gotham for all those big budget movie shoots.
The connections and comparisons are ones Merseysiders clearly enjoy even if their New York counterparts remain relatively unmoved by the ties to a blustery port on Europe’s northwest fringe.
Having dropped Darling Daughter 2 and her multiple bags and packages at her college dorm in Manhattan, my services were duly dispensed of.
With time to kill, and the Liverpool Question alive in my head, I called a New York friend who is intimate with the levers of power in both cities to get his view on the matter. We met in a bar in New York’s version of the Baltic Triangle, the Lower East Side, and answered the question:
How does NYC operate so successfully. What could Liverpool learn from New York?
First, New York looks outward.
New York celebrates diversity. It is home to 8.4 million people who between then speak a combined 200 languages. It welcomes 52 million visitors every year to its parks, galleries, shopping and cultural sites and more than 24,000 restaurants feed this hungry mass of humanity. New York is a big, proud global city. It knows its future is being not just America’s biggest city but being the World’s favourite.
Second, New York carefully curates and powerfully manages its own narrative.
For a city which is a backdrop to all those cliched Hollywood movies and streamed TV shows about its gangs, mafia hits, and troubled past, New York has shoved that aside to tell stories which touch and engage the people who make up modern New York.
New York proudly tells the world it is the centre of culture, the centre of commerce, the centre of everything. Its story isn’t about endless navel gazing, replaying the past or parochial infighting or factionalism. Any disputes – of which there are still many – are shielded from the eyes of visitors, investors, or businesses.
New York’s billboards, subway trains, airport signage and media output all proclaim positive, uplifting messages – ‘were open for business’, ‘open for world class, theatre, sports and entertainment’ and most enticingly – ‘were open for you to be a New Yorker”.
New York genuinely wants you to be there.
Third, New York has a grown-up relationship with important stakeholders, even when it doesn’t always agree with them. Like Liverpool they have endured difficult relationships with central government. How they have responded is quite different though.
Since the infamous New York Daily News headline of 1975 ‘Ford To City: Drop Dead’, New York has harnessed its run in with federal government, turning its version of ‘us against the world’ into something positive and powerful. It has positioning itself as the home of free thinking, a refuge for protestors and poets, a welcoming destination for not just the tired, poor, hungry masses but also reaching out and beckoning the creative, the liberal and the innovators who are shaping her future.
In contrast, Liverpool’s 40-year-old run in with the Thatcher administration and the ‘Managed Decline’ debacle continues to hang over it, still dominating the ‘us and them’ thinking, hindering the relationship building with the powerful institutions they now rely on: it feels like a snarling score still waiting to be settled.
Finally, look at the structures of leadership.
Both metropolises are led by an elected-Mayor, although Liverpool’s politicians have, without consultation with the people, decided to do away with the role. I think they are missing a moment to reset the fortunes of their city and could learn from New York’s example.
While the politicians may feel threatened by the role of Mayor, it is broadly welcomed by citizens and businesses as a way to break through the endless party political bickering.
New York Mayor is arguably one of the most highly visible political offices in the whole nation. When the Mayor speaks people listen, other cities engage, national leaders pay attention. Having a powerful figurehead rather than a politburo goes a long way to re-inforce the city’s stature as #1.
There is no party-political bloc, veto or agenda. The Mayor is the city’s CEO. They are responsible for setting the agenda, overseeing the finances, and appointing Deputy Mayors and heads of agencies to deliver the policies and services
The Mayor leads the city with the support of a Council of 51 members who in turn employ 300,000 city employees including police officers, firefighters, educators, doctors, nurses, artists, and engineers to ensure the city promotes public safety, public health and opportunity.
So who is the Mayor?
Eric L. Adams is the 110th Mayor of New York. Adams is a Black man, one of six children, born in the violent Brownsville neighborhood and raised by a single mom who cleaned houses. He joined the NYPD and became one of its most outspoken officers pushing for major reforms. He then entered politics and built winning coalitions to advance New York City values, helping to push through measures to protect tenants and workers, combat gun violence and supporting marriage equality before being elected Brooklyn’s first Black Borough President in 2013.
This is no career politician who has sat quietly in the background and waited his turn. His credentials are there for all to see. He has ruffled feathers, led campaigns, and undoubtedly bloodied a nose or two along the way.
But also look at the people he has appointed and surrounds himself with.
He has put an arm around Borough Presidents, engaged leaders of religious and minority communities, asked the CEO of United Way New York to leads his transition team. He is credited with shuffling the team and even bringing in political opponents to, as he says, ‘get stuff done’.
Liverpool’s woes are largely about how it has managed development, regeneration and property.
New York’s inward investment and growth engine, New York’s Economic Development Corporation, is run by Andrew Kimball. Prior to this position Kimball held numerous private sector and public/private partnership positions. He was CEO of the redevelopment of Brooklyn’s Navy Yards and the Sunset Park Industry City regeneration organisations and has a stellar record of attracting investment and jobs to the city.
Adams has also built bridges with the State Governor’s office, where incumbent Kathy Hochul is an important ally for funding programs, infrastructure and supporting social freedoms which all make New York City the place it is.
So, what is our considered bar-room advice for the new Whitehall commissioners?
If you want to bring about real change, don’t accept the decision to drop the Mayor position unless the citizens vote it out. Use it to find new ways to run a city like Liverpool.
Congratulations on the plan to bring Manchester’s Howard Bernstein and Leeds’ Judith Blake to advise on the rebuild of the authority but add a hard-hitting group of local and national senior business and public sector experts who aren’t swayed by the politics of the day and any individual’s re-election campaign.
But, perhaps most importantly, mobilise the city’s story tellers.
Don’t wait for the reorganisation, the publication of more findings or recommendations on structures and processes before starting to build back the reputation of the city.
The best time to have planted a tree may have been a hundred years ago, but the second best is today.
Start telling the story of New Liverpool today.