Muckraker Jarrett Murphy on NYC's worst job & micro apartments
Jarrett Murphy, 36, is editor-in-chief of CityLimits.org, which publishes in-depth reporting and analysis about civic affairs, and BKbureau.org, a new offshoot devoted to similar coverage of Brooklyn. He lives in the Norwood section of the Bronx with his wife, the journalist Eileen Markey, and their sons Hugh, 20 months and Owen, who is eight and a half.
What would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?
Of all the problems, I'd have to say helping the youth in NYC who are so disconnected. If you don't have a lot of money, you don't leave your neighborhood. The job market is terrible and they can't get employed: A college degree is now the equivalent of a high school diploma. Maybe the MTA could be made free to everyone under 18 so they could go to museums instead of just hanging out. Maybe for every two banks and a drugstore we allow to go into a block we could build a movie theater so they'd have some where to go. Or maybe the city could build youth centers, just like we have senior centers. We really need to get them engaged and they need to feel they have some sort of value. Today's teens are tomorrow's potential moms and dads -- and some of them are already parents.
You dish the dirt on all the city agencies. Is there anyone out there doing a good job?
Lot of people! Even if you take an agency of which we've been very critical, such as the NYPD for its stop and frisk policy, it's done a completely amazing job bringing down crime. In the 1990s, we had 2,200 murders a year. Last year it was under 530 -- less than a quarter of what it was. Yes, that's due to demographics, emergency rooms being able to save more people and lots of other factors, but you have to give them their due. NYCHA houses enough people to fill the city of Boston and for the most part in decent conditions and contributes to affordable housing in the city despite enormous resource disadvantages. We're journalists, so we're inclined to whine and look for things that are wrong, but we also believe that government is capable of doing an amazing job.
And who is doing the worst job?
I'm personally disappointed that what I thought was an ambitious goal by the mayor to decrease the homeless population has failed. It's just a shame. The rules they tried to make (to not house single people) reflect a system that is trying simply not to explode. They're bumping up against the capacity to accommodate all the people who need it. They mayor has an 11-year plan to build or preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing, but it just can't keep up with the demand. With all this luxury housing, we need to be really careful with zoning and figure out a way to tamp down rents. There are 40,000 people in shelters now and the numbers just keep climbing.
What do you think about the Mayor's proposal for 300-square-feet apartments?
I'm not out of the box critical. We have to be open to new ways of structuring our living spaces. It could be made to work for some family types, but if you build those, the importance of having high quality public spaces is elevated because people need places to go. When my wife and I were in London, our first apartment was about 240 square feet -- but we had lots of parks to go to and when we wanted a beer, we went to a local pub.
Who has the worst job in the city?
ACS Commissioner Ronald Richter. If someone asked me to be the Fire Commissioner, I'd jump at it, but I wouldn't want to be the head of the Administration for Children's Services. It's so daunting. You just know something bad is going to happen. I wouldn't want to be in his shoes.
Is it easier or more difficult to cover the city these days?
(Mayor Michael) Bloomberg is better about putting stuff on line than (Rudolph) Giuliani, but he changed the Mayor's Management Report in a way that wasn't helpful -- a lot of the supplemental information that me and probably 40 other people really pay attention to is no longer in there. The FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) performance by Bloomberg can be very poor, but it varies by agency. HPD is pretty good. City Planning makes FOILING pretty unnecessary because they put almost everything on line and you just have to be walked through it. The NYPD is very difficult to deal with on FOILs and very difficult to get information out of. We get mixed results from the Department of Education. Usually when you have an agency like that, they get a lot of FOILs and this reflects a decision not to put many resources into answering them.
But isn't it nuts that you have to file a legal document to obtain basic information about the city you live in and cover?
That's a really good point. The FOIL has become a mixed blessing. It's become pro forma for agencies to ask for one. It lets them measure the productivity of the people processing these things while slowing down the flow of information. They put in this mechanism to help you get things but it also makes things harder. If the agency wants to cooperate, that's great, but if they don't, we're going to go ahead and write the story any way. We don't let their refusal to cooperate become a veto.
Print journalism for profit has taken such a pounding. Do you feel you were ahead of the pack in getting funding to do social service journalism?
We printed our last issue in May. We had some hard decisions to make. Did we want to spend all that money on printing or spend it on what is most important -- journalism and photography? We have a noble mission, but we had to be ruthless about the means. We've syndicated ourselves to Detroit, Oakland, New Orleans, and created partnerships and do radio appearances. Nonprofit journalism has really surged in the past couple years as for-profit journalism has died. We've always been a nonprofit, but we're a hybrid. We're underwritten by the Community Service Society -- they don't interfere with us at all editorially -- and we pursue grants constantly. But we also earn about one-third of our income from our job ads for social workers, program managers, grant writers and nurses. Grants can really be a crazy crapshoot, so those job ads have become a very important part of our budget.
So what's been the blowback from pulling the plug on print?
We're waiting to see the reaction from our readers, but we have 70,000 unique visitors a month and about 500,000 a year. When ever I go to conferences, people talk to us like we're on the cutting edge of this and want to know how to do it.
So from the handle you have on NYC, what is its future?
NYC is a force. It will always be here and always be captivating, but I worry about it becoming so polarized around income that only one class will get to enjoy the city and all it has to offer. We really have to keep the middle class here and keep the great parts accessible.
Like what -- what do you enjoy most?
Orchard Beach -- the Bronx Riviera. You have to keep the mass transportation so you can get to the place where you can smell the bar-b-ques, see all the Dominican and Puerto Rican guys playing the congas while Albanian kids are leaping into the water. All that ethnic richness is just seeping out of NY's pores at Orchard Beach: It's middle class paradise!
So how do we keep the middle class here?
By keeping the jobs that have middle class salaries and encouraging the industries that do that. When we bring in bio tech companies, we have to make sure they have good jobs for people who don't have PhDs. If all we have is high finance on one end and bio tech on the other, it will be hard. Personally, I think we should keep manufacturing in NYC. I know that a lot of companies are moving out, but when you look at all the environmental complexity involved in transportation and the rising cost of fossil fuels, why couldn't we have a locally grown movement for manufacturing?
So who is your money on as the next mayor of NYC?
I really don't know! A lot can happen in a contest that's a year away, but unless a really big (Republican) name enters, I would think it would be who ever wins the Democratic primary.