From The Archive
Ryan Ruby
No. 18  December 2009

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Michael R. Bloomberg

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If you were a New Yorker, you probably went to sleep on the night of September 10, 2001, thinking that the most important thing you would do the next day would be to head to your local polling place and cast your vote in a mayoral primary. Your task was to choose the Democrat who would face off against political newcomer Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire financial services executive, in the general election.

But, like the City itself, History doesn’t sleep—he stays up and listens to records. And that night, he wanted to hear the Queen of the Blues do her rendition of “What a Difference a Day Makes.” Within the next 24 hours, with the help of 19 terrorists, he would hijack four planes, two of which he would plow into the tallest buildings in the Manhattan skyline, killing almost 3,000 people and upending politics at every level: local, national and global.

In terms of public opinion, no one benefited more from the attacks than the standing mayor Rudy Giuliani. After September 11th, Giuliani’s approval rating shot up more than 25 points; he was made Time’s Man of the Year; he was awarded an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth; and perhaps most important of all, he was christened “America’s Mayor” by Oprah Winfrey.

Giuliani would ultimately parlay his newfound popularity into lucrative book contracts, lecture tours and consulting gigs, as well as a run for the presidency in the 2008 Republican primaries, but at the time his sights were set closer to his home at City Hall. He considered attempting to change the city’s term limits laws, which had been upheld twice by referenda in the past decade, to allow him to seek a third term. But the usually megalomaniacal mayor concluded, after reviewing the situation, that his almost universally admired handling of the worst terrorist attack in history didn’t furnish him with the political capital to do so. Instead, Giuliani settled for the privilege of playing kingmaker. Two months later, Michael Bloomberg would ride his crucial endorsement to a narrow victory over Democratic nominee Mark Green, who, by virtue of his party affiliation and his government expertise, would—ceteris paribus—have probably won that November.

Naturally, Bloomberg praised Giuliani’s decision to abide by the referenda. And, when it came time to lose his veto virginity the following year, he unscrewed his executive pen to nix a bill that would extend term limits for city council members. “At a time of excessive cynicism about so many of our institutions,” he said, “this bill would send an unfortunate message about the impact and importance of their votes and set a perilous precedent for future leaders of this city.”

As it turns out, he was talking about himself. In October 2008, capitalizing on the widespread panic over the global financial crisis, Bloomberg announced that he would run for a third term. Citing his business expertise and executive experience as his qualifications to lead the city through the economic state of emergency, Bloomberg proposed a revision of term limit laws that would allow him, the five borough presidents, and the 51 city council members to seek third terms.

New York’s three major newspapers tripped over each other in their rush to voice support for the mayor and his bill after Bloomberg met privately with their owners to discuss the idea. Rupert Murdoch’s Post and Mort Zuckerman’s Daily News hit upon the same hackneyed headline, “Run, Mike, Run.” A.O. “Pinch” Sulzberger’s Times featured an op-ed by Ronald Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir who had helped bankroll the two earlier referenda, in which he raised the specter of the Seventies—an associative cluster that includes serial killers, blackouts, racial tension, punk rock and the World Series champion Yankees—in his about-face on term limits. “Times Square was not the sort of place you wanted to bring your children in 1975,” he wrote. “I never want to see that happen again.”

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Unsurprisingly, the city’s business community was also excited by the prospect of four more years of their billionaire-in-chief. Speaking on its behalf, Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, echoed Lauder’s sentiments: “New York City and the country face a serious economic crisis and continuity in leadership is crucial at this time.”

The only thing that stood in Bloomberg’s way was the law. Instead of once again putting the issue to voters, the mayor’s bill was backdoored through the Committee on Governmental Operations, chaired by his longtime ally Councilman Simcha Felder. It was then passed 29-22 by the Council, two-thirds of whom were themselves nearing the end of their second term and therefore stood to benefit from the new legislation. An attempt to overturn the law—led by Randy Mastro, a deputy mayor under Giuliani, who made the obvious point that if 9/11 wasn’t a good enough reason for Giuliani, then neither was the Wall Street crisis a valid excuse for Bloomberg—was rejected by a federal judge.

Bloomberg’s political maneuvering angered many, but it didn’t end up costing him re-re-election. During the campaign, he used every ounce of the vast political and financial power at his disposal to ensure victory. He would go on to spend 14 times as much as the Democratic nominee, City Comptroller Bill Thompson, laying out $90 million of his own money, most of which was spent on dispersing his competition with a whiff of advertising grapeshot. On the eve of the election, Bloomberg enjoyed a healthy 54 percent approval rating and an almost insurmountable 15 point lead over Thompson. Whatever else they thought of it, New Yorkers seemed to view Bloomberg’s electoral coup as a fait accompli. In the end, their satisfaction with the incumbent and their electoral fatalism got the better of their anger over term limits; they proved unwilling—or unable—to redress the damage to democracy done by City Council at the ballot box. Thompson made the election closer than anyone had predicted, finishing only four points behind the mayor; but only a million people showed up to vote, resulting in one of the lowest turnouts in city history. On November 3, the man once known as “Mayor Mike” happily acceded to the title bestowed upon him by his critics, “Emperor Bloomberg.”

Bloomberg’s political mythology rests on the kinds of contradictions only a fortune of his size can engender. A self-made plutocrat from Medford, Massachusetts, his personal wealth has quadrupled since becoming mayor—from $4 to $16 billion, and this after the losses he sustained during the financial crisis—making him the 17th richest person in the world. Yet, with publicity stunts such as his $1 annual salary or his daily subway commute, he is sometimes viewed as a man of the people, winning himself the label “Billionaire Populist” in a glowing profile in Rolling Stone, that erstwhile organ of the counterculture. In their endorsements, local newspapers in former working-class districts in the outer boroughs never failed to praise the incorruptibility of a politician who’s just too rich to bribe.

Beholden to no political machine, he changes party affiliation when it suits him: from Democrat to Republican to escape primary competition in his first mayoral election, from Republican to Independent in 2007. For this election, he ran on both the Independence and Republican Party ballot lines. Bloomberg’s ability to finance his electoral campaigns frees him to float above the ideological morass in which contemporary American politics is stuck, allowing him to maintain his reputation as a fiscal conservative while running a nanny state whose public health policies (draconian taxes on cigarettes, a proposed tax on soft drinks, bans on indoor smoking and trans fats) and public safety policies (gun control, surveillance cameras and shows of force such as the preemptive arrest of nearly 2,000 protesters at the 2004 Republican National Convention) must make his libertarian fellow travelers cringe in the privacy of their penthouses.

As a result of his amplification of Giuliani-era policing practices, crime rates have remained low. Unwarranted police stop-and-search operations have increased by several hundred percent under Bloomberg, and an ever-higher proportion of those stopped are black or Latino. The result of this egregious racial profiling, according to the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals, is that New York City’s seven poorest neighborhoods produce more than 80 percent of the state’s prison population. Miraculously, such iron-fisted tactics haven’t exacerbated racial hostility, as those of Giuliani’s NYPD once did, nor, outside the black community, have they tarnished the public’s perception of Bloomberg, as they once did of Giuliani. One need only compare how Giuliani, ever the pugnacious ex-prosecutor, mishandled the police shooting of Amadou Diallo to how his savvy media-mogul successor dodged public outcry after the police shooting of Sean Bell. As with so many aspects of his mayoralty, Bloomberg represents a change in his predecessor’s style rather than in his substance, what you might call Giulianism with a Human Face.

On November 3, the man once known as “Mayor Mike” happily acceded to the title bestowed upon him by his critics, “Emperor Bloomberg.

Finally, when it comes to the culture wars, Bloomberg has the good fortune to be a Big Apple exceptionalist. Since he already shares the majority of his constituents’ “enlightened” positions on gay marriage, abortion rights, health and all-things-green, he is regarded as post-ideological. His primary economic tasks—balancing budgets, minimizing bureaucratic inefficiency, juggling tax rates with government spending—are considered value-neutral; and, insofar as he does well by his constituents, he is deemed a pragmatist. From the beginning, Bloomberg has branded himself as the man who can “run the city like a business,” and New Yorkers have always thought of him not as a politician but as a technocrat, not as City Hall’s executive but as its chief executive officer.

These, however, are pernicious illusions. Democratic societies have always had to negotiate the often porous boundary between the rights of wealth and those of commonwealth. But, wherever this particular combination of illusions has persisted in the mind of their electorates, the result has always been the same: a massive transfer of public resources into private pockets.

Nowhere is this transfer process more in evidence than the Bloomberg administration’s land use and development practices. In the past eight years, more than one-fifth of New York’s total area has been rezoned for new development, more land than under the previous six mayors combined. Much of this rezoning has been spearheaded by Amanda Burden, the director of the Department of City Planning, and Dan Doctoroff, the mayor’s Baron Haussmann, who retired from his position as deputy mayor for economic development to become president of Bloomberg L.P. in 2007. For its part, the developer-pliant City Council has never met a rezoning proposal it didn’t like. Literally. It has approved every single one of the more than 100 such proposals that have come up for review since 2002.

The areas slated for redevelopment are often old industrial zones that have fallen into disuse and disrepair as the city has transformed from a manufacturing- to a service-based economy. Development in many of these areas is necessary if the city is to adapt to changing economic conditions, but just as Hemingway warned that we shouldn’t mistake movement for action, we shouldn’t confuse development with progress. The problem is not development tout court, but rather the way in which, under Bloomberg, it has been used to further the interests of the private few rather than the larger public.

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Take the case of the Atlantic Yards. Though a private development, Bloomberg and Doctoroff have been involved with the project from its inception and remain its steadfast cheerleaders. Currently being developed by Bruce Ratner, CEO of Forrest City Ratner (FCR), Atlantic Yards began as a massive 22-acre development in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn (to put its size in perspective, the new World Trade Center will rest on only 16 acres). The project was to include a Frank Gehry-designed arena to house Ratner’s acquisition, the New Jersey Nets, and 17 high-rise office buildings and residences, but has only resulted in a string of broken promises, sweetheart deals, waste and corruption.

FCR promised that the project would create 15,000 construction jobs and 10,000 office jobs; it also promised to create 2,250 units of affordable housing by 2016. In its Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with a coalition of community organizations, FCR stipulated that at least 35 percent of its construction jobs would go to minorities and 20 percent would be completed by minority-owned firms. The CBA went a long way to win low-income and minority support for the project. However, the CBA is not a legally binding document, and six of the coalition’s community organizations were brought into existence with the CBA itself. One of these organizations, Brooklyn United for Innovative Development, owes its entire budget to FCR; others have received money from the company, including the liberal nonprofit community organization ACORN, which received a $1.5 million loan. With this kind of accountability to the community, it is not surprising that 15,000 construction jobs turned out to mean 1,500 over 10 years; that the estimate for the office jobs was cut by 75 percent; that only 200 units of affordable housing will be available by 2012, and even those units are not guaranteed; and that none of the housing will be affordable to the local residents it will displace.

Meanwhile, the cost of the project has skyrocketed from $2.5 to $4.9 billion. City funding for the arena alone has doubled to $205 million over the past four years, which, according to the Independent Budget Office, means that its cost to the city will vastly outweigh the tax revenue it was projected to generate. Still desperate for additional funds, Ratner has recently attempted to alley-oop the Nets to Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Prokhorov, who, as a beneficiary of Yeltsin’s 1995 “loans-for-shares” scheme, knows a little something about reaping private benefits from public resources. In order to cut expenses, Ratner cut Gehry and turned over the design of the arena to the stadium-building firm Ellerbe Becket, whose initial renderings for the Barclays Center resemble the barns where other clients such as the Pacers and the Celtics play. The renderings are of a piece with nearby Ratner properties like the Atlantic Center Mall and the MetroTech Center, which, with their fortress-like design and chain-store retail offerings, reek of suburbia. Public outcry, led by Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, forced Ratner to hire SHoP Architects to spruce up Ellerbe-Becket’s design. The stadium is now slated to look like a George Forman grill.

FCR bought the development rights to the eight and a half acres above the currently defunct Vanderbilt Rail Yards for $100 million from the Metropolitan Transit Authority—less than half of its market value and $50 million less than another offer on the table. In a subsequent deal, the MTA demanded only $20 million upfront, the rest of which it would allow Ratner to pay over 22 years. The MTA passed on the cost of these unfathomably moronic business decisions to strap hangers, in the form of a fare hike and service cuts—but Bloomberg took care to conceal this awkward arrangement in one blast of his campaign’s direct-mail deluge blaming higher fares and decreased services on “MTA bureaucracy.”

If it is completed, Atlantic Yards will be one of the largest building projects in the city—and it represents the whole of Bloomberg-era development in miniature. (If it’s not completed, it will be due to the efforts of Daniel Goldstein, a property owner turned activist, who found himself within the project’s footprint, and is currently fighting Ratner’s use of eminent domain in court, arguing, quite logically, that his expropriation is unconstitutional because the Atlantic Yards project doesn’t amount to public use). The project combines the same practice of public financing for sports stadiums that saw $500 million in taxpayer dollars flow to the Yankees and Mets to subsidize their new ballparks, with the same abuse of eminent domain that has characterized the Columbia University expansion, with the same disregard for the needs of the community in the Kingsbridge Armory—whose developer, Related Companies, is headed by a former business partner of Doctoroff. FCR, like its fellow development corporations, pays lip service to Jane Jacobs’ call for “mixed-use” development, as it whips up Robert Moses-sized plans for prefabricated neighborhoods, whose essential elements—shopping malls, office towers, condos, hotels—are duplicated ad nauseam in sites throughout the city.

Now, with tax revenues from Wall Street down, a budget crisis looms and the political classes have begun to deploy the standard rhetoric of making sacrifices and tightening belts. But it is not wasteful private developers whose subsidies are on the chopping block; it is 1,400 teachers, 1,000 police officers and 500 social workers, as well as the health care and pensions of city employees. Adding injury to insult, along with these service cuts, Bloomberg has proposed a fare hike of his own in the form of an increase in the sales tax to fill budget gaps, which will disproportionately affect poorer New Yorkers.

Projects like the Atlantic Yards give the lie to the mayor’s pragmatist reputation. They show that if Bloomberg is too wealthy to bribe, this hasn’t eliminated business influence in his government—it has merely obviated the necessity for it. They show that inefficiency isn’t the sole prerogative of public bureaucracies, and that the claim itself is only made to obscure the wastefulness of the private sector. Finally they show that balancing budgets is not a value-neutral matter, that it forces elected officials to choose between those services that will be kept and those that will be cut, and that the choices they end up making reflect distinct political priorities.

But the effects of the Bloomberg administration’s Neo-Haussmannization aren’t only economic; they are also aesthetic, and perhaps most importantly, existential. Development has changed the character of the city, which in many respects has become more homogeneous.

Homogenization is a somewhat misleading term: It suggests a natural process of equilibrium rather than what it really is, namely, the colonization of the culture of one place by another, more powerful one. Under Bloomberg, the ethos of Giuliani’s Times Square redevelopment strategy has metastasized, so that huge swaths of Manhattan are now provinces of Midtown; the largest mall in the world, the island’s once unique districts now offer little more than varieties of consumer experience. With the construction of large—and now largely empty—luxury condominiums, Long Island City and downtown Brooklyn are now indistinguishable from the Financial District. Small, local institutions are in retreat across the city. Working-class dives have been replaced by glitzy cookie-cutter cocktail lounges, a fate that poet Andrei Codrescu rightly blames on the smoking ban. Regressive taxation, along with rising rent and food prices, is leading to the slow death of the neighborhood bodega, whose role in providing food and supplies, especially in lower-income communities, is being supplanted by national chain grocery and drug stores.

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The city has also become more ethnically homogenous during the Bloomberg era. According to the most recent census, the African-American population of the largest black city in America, and one of its primary centers of black culture, has gone into decline for the first time since the Civil War. The city’s high cost of living has prompted many blacks to move back to the South, but dwindling Afro-Caribbean immigration, high incarceration rates and gentrification are also responsible for this stunning demographic change. Meanwhile, the number of Asians in New York has increased, followed by an increase in the white population of the city.

New York has also lost its claim to being the art capital of the world. “For the first time in Manhattan’s history,” observes commentator Adam Gopnik, “it has no bohemian fringe.” Artists have always been the unwitting scouts of New York’s real estate moguls, who have lucratively followed their trail from Greenwich Village to SoHo to the Lower East Side, but in the last eight years, the process has gone into overdrive, with artists moving in and getting priced out of “it neighborhoods” in Brooklyn and Queens every other year. Now they are leaving the city altogether, decamping for cheaper cities like Philadelphia, New Orleans and Portland.

Chelsea, the city’s center for new art galleries, has devolved into a combination highbrow stock exchange and up-market dating scene. CBGB’s, the legendary home of punk, was iconic enough to be featured in a promotional video for the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympics (run by Doctoroff), but was not deemed worthy of preservation with historic landmark status; 315 Bowery is now one of John Varvatos’ eight boutiques. A few blocks away, the corpse of the avant-garde music club Tonic rots in the shadow of a hideous blue luxury condominium. Writers still have a home here, but as the publishing industry contracts, their future is uncertain too. There may soon come a time when the New York novel is considered to be nothing more than a quaint species of regional fiction.

Cynics will argue that the spirit of a place is always in flux and that therefore preservation is a conservative, quixotic enterprise. New York, which embodies the “all that is solid melts into air” spirit better than any city in the country, is no stranger to such logic, but the changes to its character during the Bloomberg era have been regressive rather than progressive; it has followed national trends rather than set them. Frank Sinatra famously said of New York, if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. But as big-box chain stores drive out local businesses, as advertising devours every inch of public space, as high rents force artists to look elsewhere for studios, and as the high cost of living radically alters New York’s racial demographics, its citizens and admirers have watched in horror as the reverse has become true. At the rate things are going, it is worth wondering whether, after four more years of Bloomberg’s stewardship, New York—The City—will even deserve the name.

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