MAGDZIK: Booker and the American city

Making Magic

“He’s not even that famous — and ugh, he’s just a mayor of a random city.”

These are the two biggest complaints I’ve heard from my classmates in the past few weeks about 2013 Class Day speaker Cory Booker LAW ’97, mayor of Newark, N.J. While these sentiments don’t quite make my blood boil, they definitely turn on the stove.

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Harvard is getting Oprah, they point out, and Ohio State will have the sitting president of the United States himself, Barack Obama. These two personalities are households names in a way Booker is not, my friends argue — and isn’t the whole point of the affair to brag, anyway? I’ll concede that Obama and Oprah are more famous, though Booker is a rising star in the Democratic Party and Obama pretty much a has-been at this point (kidding, kidding). But the focus of Class Day is absolutely not the speaker, and therefore his or her fame is utterly irrelevant.

In fact, it can be a negative; someone as famous as Oprah or Obama would be distracting, overshadowing the chance to celebrate the accomplishments of the class of 2013 and its admittance to the rights and responsibilities of Yale graduates. In this atmosphere, it is primarily the delivery and message of the speech that matters. Booker is by all accounts a fantastic speaker, and will doubtless present an inspirational oration. But his very selection sends an important message as well — about the nobility, importance, and above all, relative anonymity of good public service.

According to my quick back-of-the-envelope math, only about 34 million people live in the 25 biggest cities in the United States — about 11 percent of all Americans. So while an online comment on the News article announcing Booker as speaker (“Cory Booker named Class Day speaker,” Feb. 12) would have you believe there are “literally hundreds of people who would be more relevant than this mayor of a third-rate city,” the vast majority of Americans, whose experiences are that of life in a midsize or small city, might beg to differ. Few things could be more important or relevant to the future quality of life in our country than the competent management of cities, many of which are indeed, sadly, “third-rate” at the moment.

Where transportation networks are aging, inefficient or nonexistent, economic growth is hobbled due to diminishing labor mobility. Moreover, people are trapped in their neighborhoods or in traffic, reducing the power of collaboration that physical proximity ideally generates. City services like police and fire protection are under pressure because of growing pension and health care outlays, and some municipalities — primarily in California — have been forced to declare bankruptcy. In what is touted as the richest country in the world, people live in dirty, overcrowded and dangerous housing — or worse, on the very streets themselves.

These are not just issues in the most attractive or exciting cities, like Boston, San Francisco, Chicago or New York (Yalies really love New York). These issues are present in almost every city in America, from New Haven to Newark. And they need dedicated, intelligent, creative and passionate leaders to resolve them. This sounds like a job for graduating Yalies. Whether through municipal administration, journalism, entrepreneurship, medicine, law, public policy or any other means, the problems of the 21st century will require innovative responses in these cities, too.

Most importantly, the relative contribution one Yalie can make in a place like Mobile, Ala., or Worcester, Mass., might be far greater than what they would make in a place like New York City. If you don’t take the job as a junior adviser to the well-known nonprofit headquartered there, chances are the next person to come along will have similar competencies.

But what about cities with a dearth of robust civic leadership? Cultivating them and unlocking their potential may be just as important to our nation’s survival and revitalization as any work in the Big Apple.

That’s what Booker stands for, in my mind. Newark has been through some rough times, no doubt. So has New Haven, for that matter. But Booker has persisted in his belief that it isn’t just established cultural centers, financial capitals and technological hubs that can succeed as cities. He’s leveraged his superior academic training — Stanford, Oxford on the Rhodes scholarship, Yale Law — to make serious strides toward making Newark first-rate. So you might not know who he is right now. But that’s fine. You just have to share in his vision — and find a silly hat.

Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at michael.magdzik@yale.edu .

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