The Political Life of Michael Bloomberg

It’s always tedious when a political figure’s time in office expires and chatter then turns to a legacy. Michael Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor of New York City is no exception- three terms that is because Bloomberg, in the wake of the financial crisis and with the support of practically the entire New York media, was able to parlay his reputation as a managerial savant, into repealing the city’s two term limit, previously put in place by a voter referendum. This in itself would have to be scored an accomplishment something not even Rudy Giuliani, basking in his fraudulent post-9/11 glory was able to achieve, an effort that Bloomberg back then labeled as “disgusting”. He would in fact go on to break his own personal campaign spending record on that very election.

On one hand, it’s fair to see Bloomberg’s legacy as a simple continuation of Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani, a steady process of turning Manhattan into Dubai, where a large population of mostly low paid migrants in the service sector tend to wealthy white barons, while housing and rental prices skyrocket everywhere. Manhattan is the most expensive urban area in the U.S. to live in, Brooklyn is second. A worker earning minimum wage would need 3.1 such jobs to pay the median rent in the city without spending more than 30% of their income.

Bloomberg’s urban planning ran the gauntlet of all the predictable strategies from sports stadiums to universities, to the infamous “creative class”, all backed by the hammer of eminent domain. Bloomberg was blocked by the State’s Assembly of realizing his vision of a stadium for the New York Jets on Manhattan’s west side, and he missed on his bid for the ultimate urban boondoggle, the Olympics, but his tenure did see new stadiums for the Mets (Citifield) and Yankees (Yankee Stadium), as well as an arena in Brooklyn for the Nets. The Citifield and Yankee Stadium deals, while perhaps not as blatant fleeces as other cities have been subjected to, will cost the city $138 million and $362 million respectively (other estimates have the tab higher). Eminent domain featured prominently in the building of the Barclay’s Center, some resisting locals. The same dynamic is in play in the recently approved project at Willets Point, the area adjacent to Citifield, which aims to transform a long neglected manufacturing neighborhood into the familiar mix of hotels, stores, movie theaters, and housing (apparently a small percentage of which will be set aside for people of more modest income), to be built by the Queens Development Group- a partnership Sterling Equities, the chairmen of which is conveniently the principal owner of the Mets, and Related Companies, the largest owner of luxury rentals in the city. Around 225 private, mostly industrial businesses and 1300 workers will be forced out.

Colombia University also has eminent domain on its side for a $6.3 billion expansion plan. The area in question was declared “blighted” over the objection of the owners of four warehouses and two gas stations. After losing a lower court ruling, Columbia was successful in the Court of Appeals. NYU continues to rise up the ranks of city’s land owners (already one of the two or three largest) through a combination of public subsidies and student debt. Cornell University has unveiled plans to build a graduate school for technology on Roosevelt Island complete with a hotel, cafes, and co-locations for tech companies like Google and Facebook, which when completed in 2037 (2017 is targeted for the opening phase) is pictured as a rival to Stanford.

As for provisions for luring the creative class, Bloomberg took a few pages from Richard Florida’s playbook: bike lanes galore (double from 2006), car free zones with seating areas in the middle of Manhattan, bits of beautification everywhere.

On the other hand Bloomberg probably can be credited with taking state paternalism to new and at times surreal heights. His no smoking policy in restaurants and bars has become almost a world wide standard. The same could be said for his banning of trans fat. Just last week the FDA announced it would phase them out of foodstuffs nationwide. Calorie counts for restaurant chain menus are another Bloomberg first that has since been enacted in California. Bloomberg made many an enemy south of the Mason-Dixon line with his gun control efforts, including sending an undercover film crew to a gun show in Phoenix. For the time being his nanny state efforts seems to have overshot, with great ridicule, with the banning of super-sized sodas (over 16 oz). The state’s high court has agreed to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that invalidated the ban and new mayor elect Bill De Blasio says he plans to continue Bloomberg’s plan.

Still by sheer volume it’s appropriate to place Bloomberg more in the great American tradition, especially one befitting a man of his position and wealth. When confronted with the largest homeless population in the city since the depression (the Coalition for the Homeless estimates that the number of homeless families during Bloomberg’s tenure rose by seventy-three percent), Bloomberg, a man who has given away hundreds of millions in philanthropy, suggested that the city’s shelters had grown too comfy and attractive to people from out of town. In the grand scheme of things almost one in five New Yorkers experience of “food insecurity”.

It was Bloomberg, an ardent champion of gay rights, who in 2005 characterized striking public transit workers as “thuggish” when they battled benefit cuts. Fast forward to 2012 and there was another strike, this one of 8800 school bus drivers fighting for protection for their $35,000 a year jobs as the city plans to open its bus contract to competitive bidding. That strike ended without a resolution, the fight again is left to the incoming mayor. For all the glamour of Bloomberg’s New York the city’s poverty rate sits at 20%, the same has it’s been for decades.

Then there is the stop-and-frisk policy, defended by Bloomberg to the end. At its peak in 2011 there were 685,724 stops, only 11% were based on a description of a violent crime suspect. Overall 90% of stops ended with neither arrest nor even ticketing. The racist nature of the program was explicit from day one as blacks and Latinos have made up almost 90% of stops. In 2011 the number of stops of young black men (between the ages of 14-24) actually exceeded the city’s entire young black population. As inefficient as a true crime stopper, guns have been found in only about 0.2% of stops, stop-and-frisk would seem have the desired effect of reminding the poor masses of their place in the Big Apple.

For Bloomberg it adds up to pretty dull mix of big money liberal paternalism that rushes into conservative reaction when challenged from below, all while posing as non-ideological problem solving. Such a politics has had long roots that stretch out before Bloomberg and seem to have an endless shelf. Therein lays his banal legacy.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).