ON THE LAST FRIDAY in September, two-dozen protesters descended on the co-op 740 Park Avenue, laying crosses, small Stars of David, and Islamic crescents on the grassy median in front of the building, each one symbolizing another thousand of New York’s covid dead. They chose this building, an imposing Art Deco behemoth known in the tabloids as the “Tower of Power,” because it is home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the United States. “Billionaires are experts at social distancing, and they are excluded from the communities that they have an impact on, and so we are bringing our rage and our suffering to them because they are so complicit in what is happening in New York right now,” said Alice Nascimento, one of the protest’s organizers. “They get rich, and we die.”
The protest was one of dozens that had sprung up in the city since June, when a reckoning with racism collided with a global pandemic that had left millions jobless in New York alone. The next day, the Democratic Socialists of America protested in front of Mike Bloomberg’s house a few blocks away from 740 Park, and for weeks before that, there had been a series of loud marches and drum circles on the tonier streets of the Hamptons and in front of Jeff Bezos’s Manhattan apartment. All of this harkened back to the Occupy days, and the days of the recession before that, and the one before that, with protesters calling for more taxes on the rich and more justice for everyone else.
“Well, guess what? Jeff Bezos isn’t even a resident of New York City. He doesn’t even pay taxes here! So what are we talking about, exactly?” Kathy Wylde told me from her Brooklyn apartment this summer in one of the many conversations we’ve had over the course of the pandemic.
Wylde is the president of the Partnership for New York City, which bills itself as “a nonprofit organization whose members are the city’s preeminent business leaders and employers of more than 1.5 million New Yorkers” and which aims to “build bridges between the leaders of global industries and government.” It was founded in 1979 by David Rockefeller and runs a $170 million fund for business development projects. But it is also a group that sees itself as functioning something like a permanent government, guiding city policy through the political vicissitudes of the moment and making sure New York remains welcoming to capital and investment. Since Wylde joined 20 years ago, its membership has grown to include some of the richest people in New York, including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon (net worth: $1.5 billion), hedge-funder John Paulson ($4.2 billion), and Blackstone CEO Stephen A. Schwarzman ($19.7 billion). The Partnership writes reports on how the city and state can best boost their economic prospects, lobbies lawmakers on issues ranging from mayoral control of schools to how to get more biotech businesses to move here, and regularly surveys the city’s CEOs on what they need from local government. Its closed-door breakfasts are essential stops for the city’s political class and anyone hoping to join it. This fall, two top mayoral contenders, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams and former top Obama-administration official Shaun Donovan, both appeared in Zoom meetings with the Partnership’s board. “There is no better champion to help New York City through this moment of crisis,” Donovan said.
Wylde’s affection for the 110 New York City CEOs, white-shoe lawyers, tech entrepreneurs, real-estate magnates, and other Masters of the Universe in the Partnership is obvious: She calls them either “my crowd” or, without a hint of irony, “captains of industry.” And they love Wylde right back. During one of several conversations we have had since the spring over the phone and at her Brooklyn apartment, Wylde was interrupted by a knock on the door that turned out to be a delivery of Omaha Steaks, a thank-you gift from a CEO for whom she had done a favor. (She wouldn’t say which CEO or what the favor was.)
A common refrain in the C-suites of the biggest banks when deciding whether to get involved in a civic cause, one former high-ranking finance official told me, is “We better check with Kathy first.”
Wylde says she didn’t join the Partnership to lobby on behalf of CEOs. “We are not a chamber of commerce,” she says. “I call us the anti-chamber of commerce. We are business working on behalf of the city.” But what it means to work on behalf of the city has meant different things to her at different times. When she arrived in New York from Minnesota in the late 1960s, fresh off her time in Students for a Democratic Society at St. Olaf College, Wylde was a community organizer working to save Brooklyn’s Sunset Park as it was slowly being gutted by disinvestment and white flight. She organized sit-ins, led protest marches in front of the City Planning Commission to prevent displacement, and hounded foundations and federal bureaucracies until they gave her enough money to start rebuilding the neighborhood. The head of the state’s Conservative Party called her a communist.
But she came to believe that government was slow and that power, true power, lived not in City Hall but in penthouses on Fifth Avenue and in the private offices of the city’s biggest banks. By the time Bloomberg took office as mayor, the onetime rabble-rouser for the working class had become a spokeswoman for the interests of Wall Street. There is no example as clear as Wylde— perhaps Mayor de Blasio included—of someone who, once upon a time, could have been plucked from the front lines of protests like those this summer but, over the course of decades, became a part of the Establishment. And it is deeply embedded in Wylde’s belief system by now that the ultrarich are far more important to the health of the city than its liberal citizens acknowledge, employing millions of New Yorkers, underwriting social-welfare programs that government will not, and footing the bill for half of the city’s budget. “I was just telling someone this morning—I probably shouldn’t tell you who, but a legislative leader in Albany— that I am, like, the lone defender of the billionaires at this point,” she told me in July. “To think we are going to get out of this problem by demonizing wealth—it is wrong. It is just the wrong solution.”
Wylde’s perspective on the city’s economic crisis is not just that billionaires and the companies they lead are misguided protest targets. She believes they are our best ticket out of all this. Over the course of her career, the city has weathered a series of calamities— the near-bankruptcy of the 1970s, the overwhelming crime of the 1980s, the fear of the post-9/11 era, the Great Recession—and she has been in the room each time as the New York business elite committed to the city’s future and partnered with elected officials to fund and support recovery plans.
Those relationships were never frictionless, but this time around, she fears they are all but nonexistent. Politicians these days make a show of how they couldn’t care less about what the Partnership’s members think. At the first mayoral forum of the 2021 cycle, for instance, the candidates were asked if they still smoke pot, if they favor defunding the police, and if they approve of decriminalizing all sex work. None was asked what they would do to encourage businesses to move here, or people to remain here, or how they would expand the tax base and keep New York a world-class city. Just as worrisome to Wylde is the possibility that the business elites, surrounded by pitchforks and protests, might no longer feel that they have a stake in the city too. “This city,” she says, “is not going to rebuild by itself.”
Before the pandemic, Wylde had been considering retiring by the end of this year. She no longer thinks that’s wise, given the precarious economic and political environment, and has instead redoubled her efforts at persuading the city’s new class of activists and liberal politicians to be less suspicious of their wealthiest neighbors. Her success in that mission, of course, will depend in large part on how convincingly she can explain her transformation from an outsider like one of them into the city’s ultimate insider.
WYLDE LIVES IN A small two-bedroom apartment at the outer edge of Bay Ridge that overlooks the Belt Parkway and is a block away from a wastewater treatment plant. She shares her home with four cats and three cat towers, and the living room is dominated by a large desk and a flat-screen playing NY1 continuously. The TV is attached to a large, adjustable arm, so Wylde can move it to watch from anywhere in the small space and provide a running commentary on whichever politician has the misfortune of appearing onscreen: “Oh God, poor guy looks like he hasn’t left the house in six months.” When another appears: “This one, one of the worst there is. Always says one thing in public and another in private, tells you he didn’t really mean the thing he said in the papers.”
Wylde grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, as the daughter of an anesthesiologist and a nurse. Her mother was secretary of the state’s Republican Party and an officer of the Ripon Society, the Republican public-policy group. When Kathy was 6, she went door-to-door petitioning for local candidates. Her sister, Jayne Perkins, now a retired music teacher who lives north of Milwaukee, remembers Kathy as restless. By the time she got to St. Olaf in 1964, she had been swept up in the revolts of the era—not unlike the ones of today—and she became the campus co-head of SDS. The undergrads focused on organizing small antiwar protests and diversifying the curriculum. But, lest you think she could have ended up on trial with the Chicago Seven, she says it was a tamer branch. “Keep in mind, the SDS at St. Olaf was not the SDS at Columbia,” Wylde cautioned. “I was a community organizer. Everybody was a community organizer back then.”
When she arrived in Sunset Park for an internship at Lutheran Hospital in the summer of 1966, the neighborhood was already past its days as a middle-class Irish-and Scandinavian enclave underwritten by industrial jobs, and it was teetering into blight. The container port had made the local piers go idle, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge had opened two years before, and the suburbs were beckoning. Within a decade, the factories of American Machine and Foundry, American Can Company, Bethlehem Steel, and Domino Sugar had all shuttered, and Wylde had a front-row seat for the demise of a formerly stable place into a federal poverty zone. New Yorkers whose neighborhoods were being razed in slum clearance were relocated to Sunset Park, but there weren’t jobs for them when they arrived. Wylde figured something was wrong when the hospital started seeing more and more people stumbling in with burns and smoke inhalation; it turned out landlords were setting their own buildings on fire to collect insurance money. In the summer of 1966, there were riots, subway derailments, and massive blackouts. Wylde decided she didn’t want to go back to the staid Midwest.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
Torrey Peters Goes There
The author’s debut novel, Detransition, Baby, wades into two of the most vulnerable questions for trans women.
The System: Zak Cheney-Rice
The Never-ending Coup Against Black America - Historically, “recovery” tends to look a lot like betrayal.
The Group Portrait: A Beleaguered White House Press Corps
Four years of history, day after day after day.
With a huge Netflix deal and the power to green-light just about anything, Ryan Murphy has become the ultimate insider. And his work is suffering.
Schlock to Remember
If you can’t wait to relive last year, Netflix has a special for you.
Leave the World Behind
Shacked up in the suburbs of Kansas City, indie singer-songwriters Katie Crutchfield and Kevin Morby are making some of their best work.
Extremely Online: Craig Jenkins
Clubhouse Is Close to Becoming Our New Internet Wasteland - If you love mess, you won’t be disappointed.
A 1915 Crown Heights House That's Only On Its Third Owners
After living all over the world, Thomas Gensemer and Gabe Brotman settled down in a Brooklyn place with “a bit of an English feel to it.”
220 minutes with … Sarah McBride
Strolling Wilmington with Delaware’s history-making new state senator.
A bumper crop of albums made for contemplating mortality.