All of the self-induced euphoria over Mike Bloomberg's national aspirational noblesse oblige tour glosses over so many of the-so often airbrushed by local media toadies-flaws in the mayor's resume. One of the major ones, in our view, is Bloomberg's promiscuous use of eminent domain to take property from the hands of small land owners and hand it over to well-heeled real estate venturers. Put simply, if you're not worth billions, your property is fair game in NYC-and the new Bloomberg motto is "Su casa es mi casa."
One of the most egregious misuse of eminent domain is the city's collusion with Columbia University to take away Nick Sprayregen's West Harlem properties. The US Supreme Court will debate the application that Nick's lawyer Norman Siegel has made for the justices to review this abuse-and, at the same time, rethink the Kelo decision and its unintended consequences. Should the court take this up, and eventually rule in Sprayregen's favor, it would have a tremendous impact throughout the country-but none so great as what it would for those Willets Point owners who are fighting NYC's effort to remove them.
On the eve of this court deliberation, Sprayregen pens the following for HuffPo-likening Columbia's actions, and the city's collusion with them, to highway robbery:
"On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to decide whether to accept my appeal and help me stop the theft of my family's property. Although you have undoubtedly never heard of me, my legal challenge has the potential to impact the lives of ordinary Americans more than most cases seeking U.S. Supreme Court consideration. After more than six years of fighting for what is rightfully mine, this is my last chance.
I am asking the court to take specific action and stop the taking through eminent domain of my property by an unelected agency of the state of New York merely to give it to a politically powerful private entity. If I am unsuccessful, the fate of my family business could be the fate of your home, your family business or any other property you and your family own."
The kernel of the Sprayregen argument revolves around the distinction between public use and public benefit-and how Kelo legitimized almost any property that a locality declares to be slated for use as a public benefit to be ripe for the taking: "As envisioned in our constitution, eminent domain is supposed to be for public uses -- projects the public will own and use -- such as a road or a post office. Eminent domain is not for private institutions like Columbia to expand their profit-making efforts beyond what the free market would allow. I believe that what Columbia has been trying to do is illegal, and I hope our highest court will agree."
The corollary to the use/benefit dichotomy, is the definition of blight. Here the NY State courts have legitimized the permissive use of the term blight-essentially transforming the concept into a might makes blight category: "Incredibly, the rationale that the state used to condemn our properties was that the area was blighted. But this designation was fueled by the fact that once Columbia had purchased the vast majority of the land they systematically moved all occupants out and allowed the buildings to decay and deteriorate. Then, to ensure that they got the desired result -- an independent neighborhood study declaring the area blighted -- the state, in collusion with Columbia, hired Columbia's hired gun, who was already lobbying the state to invoke its condemnation powers, to perform the study."
The might in Nick's case is represented by the mayor-and someone who has lorded over the city's small business community in a mind over matter fashion-he doesn't mind, and the little guys don't matter. So, not only is Mike Bloomberg's economic development miracle a figment of his well resourced Imagination Team, but his claim to be a job generator is tainted by the way in which he has helped to drive out smaller entrepreneurs with a tax and spend regime reminiscent of John Lindsay.
The linchpin of this little guys be damned approach is Bloomberg's embrace of eminent domain-and Nick Sprayregen struggle, is as he says, a fight for all of us who believe that property rights are still an essential feature of our Constitution-something that the mayor may well believe exists only for the priviledged wealthy cohort that he himself belongs to.