The Last Days of Bloomberg

The once and future Hudson Yards - West Side

The site of the once and future Hudson Yards – West Side

“Hey there, where to?”

“30 St. between 1 and 2 Ave.’s”

“Sure thing. How’d your day go?”

“Long.”

“Usually is for most people when they get out at this hour.”

So I made my way crosstown through the occupational centers of the Mad Men and the money shufflers, before whizzing down 2 Ave, engaging in a conversation with my lively passenger. Eventually, the topic of the inauguration after the New Year came up as I made the turn, proceeded to park, and stopped the meter:

“Are you ready for the new Mayor to take office next week?”

“Not really. I”m going to miss Mike.”

“Me too. There were a few things I don’t like about him but I think he’s not being judged fairly and only time will prove that he did a good job running this place for the last 12 years.”

“What don’t you like about him?”

“Well, here he is – running one of the largest and arguably the most important city in the world. He has power, lots of it too and what does of focus on? Trans Fats. Soda. Cigarettes. Bike Lanes. Now me, I don’t smoke, always buckle up and I don’t eat a lot of foods that are bad for me. You’ll never catch me doing that but if someone were to, I don’t think that it’s the job of the government to look over my shoulder and tell me what I can and can’t do. It’s the nanny state at its worst and a waste of time that could be spent on much more important things, like economic competitiveness, quality of life issues, and of course, housing.”

“I see your point but let me put it this way. Bloomberg realizes that all of those issues are negative drains on this city in terms of lives and capital. Take care of them now and they’re not issues down the road. Spiraling healthcare costs are something that could be averted ahead of time, saving billions from future budgets and allowing people to live longer as well. He’s doing his best to take care of those who have proven that they could be more capable of taking care of themselves.”

“Fair point.”

Three weeks ago, a ceremony as frosty as the weather that descended over Gotham this January took place in Lower Manhattan. Bill de Blasio was sworn in as 109th Mayor of the City of New York. What people remembered more was not the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another, but the overall tone of the day. Ex-President Bill Clinton was there to swear in the former Public Advocate into his new position and singer Harry Belafonte gave a speech comparing New York is to a plantation. Making the spectacle that much more uncomfortable was that the outgoing Mayor was present throughout the whole ordeal, as other officials and dignitaries joined in in the proverbial trashing of his administration and its policies.

For someone that rose up at Solomon Brothers to the point of running its trading floor, to the founding of the media and financial information company that still bears his name to this day, to the running of North America’s most influential City on a self-financed campaign, the proverbial ending of his political career could not have been any more demeaning. Had anyone not noticed the relatively clean streets, low crime rate, return of cranes to the skyline, and the record 50 million tourists that came to New York last year, they would have possibly believed that the first decade of this Century had been a mistake, once the rubble at Ground Zero was cleared away in March of ’02.

So was New York really better off than it was 12 years ago?

There was no doubt that the resolve of New York had never been tested as much as it was on 9/11. A nation that was pulling out of the recession of the dot-com era was threatened with another economic downturn as the World Trade Center was leveled in a matter of hours, in what turned out to be the first shots of the War on Terror. The Mayoral Primary that was scheduled to be held that day was pushed back by a few weeks as emergency crews rushed down to Lower Manhattan and the rest of the nation came to a standstill. What looked like something catastrophic turned out to be awkward pause in the city’s recovery from the bankruptcy and municipal malfeasance that nearly drove New York into oblivion in the 70’s. Narrowly beating out former Public Advocate Mark Green that November, Mike Bloomberg was the choice of New Yorkers to continue the recovery both from the days of malaise and the mess that covered 16 acres in Lower Manhattan.

Bloomberg was unlike anyone that ever ran for the position of the second-most powerful person in the United States (apologies to the Vice President). Rich, centrist, and self-financed, Bloomberg stated that if elected, would serve the city for the salary of $1 per year. Given that New York hadn’t elected a true Republican to the office of Mayor in generations, he only switched affiliations to get on the ballot and to stand out from his Democratic challengers. New Yorkers did not know what they were getting with him since he didn’t have a track record and when he left office 12 years later, many were still unsure as to what his legacy would be for the overall metropolis at large.

Critics would say that he ignored the outer Boroughs at the expense of Manhattan and it’s monied elites while spending too much time worrying about trivialities like landing the 2012 Olympic games or redesigning streets for bikes and hastily-designed pedestrian plazas that were demarcated by spaced-out planters and concrete blocks and balls. Proponents pointed to the economic health of the City, low crime rate, and a majority of New Yorkers stating that they approved of his policies on the day when he left office. As is the case with anyone in a position of power, time will ultimately prove whether these claims have any real validity, but the early cues point to tenure that left New York in better shape than it was before he entered office.

Arguably, the two biggest gaffes during his tenure turned out to be blessings in disguise. One was the failed attempt to land the 2012 Olympics in the Big Apple, under the pretense that it would show the World how New York had bounced back from the attacks of 9/11. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton got on board and was shown on TV as being quite disappointed the day the IOC chose London as the host site. Many New Yorkers were quite vocal in their opposition to the staging of the games in the Big Apple, for several reasons. First was traffic, as the West Side of Manhattan would have been the site of the Olympic Stadium. It lacked any nearby Subway access and those would have gone to the events via ferry would have had to trek around the still-awkward Javits Center, which was never fully integrated into the surrounds upon its completion in 1985. Most locals didn’t want the Jets to call the stadium him once the games were over, as would have been the case had New York landed the games. Housing would also have been a tough sell, as the proposed Olympic village in Queens would had to have been built from scratch, on the East River waterfront. Schools, parks, expanded mass transit, and affordable housing was what the West Side and the surrounds needed, not another monstrosity that would have sat unused much of the time.

The other big mistake that Bloomberg made was thinking that he could change the City Charter and easily be re-elected for a third term. For the record, it was indeed changed but not after a prolonged and nasty exchange, instigated by many New Yorkers who viewed it as a sign of hubris and arrogance by Hizzoner. Many of those displeased by the proposed alteration of the rules had a chance to voice their disapproval in a public hearing but in the end, it was Bloomberg who looked better for it. Both the City Council Speaker who silently went along with the other party’s figurehead and the opponent who ran against him in the Mayoral Election in ’09 ultimately ended up being harmed by the third thought that he eventually sought out and won.

Of course, they wouldn’t realize it until they ran for that same position four years later and lost to the person that was sworn in three weeks ago.

Bloomberg might not have known what to do when it came to issues but he put the right people into place that helped him craft the legacy that will define his years in office. Without a doubt,  the most important was Dan Doctoroff, who will be remembered for generations as the person who took the failed bid for the Olympics and reworked into the Hudson Yards proposal that’s finally starting to come into fruition. The parks, schools, open space, housing, new Class A office space, and Mass Transit extension that New Yorkers were clamoring for could all be found on the West Side, over a platform that would place the railyards there out of sight. It was being done on a smaller scale in Brooklyn at the Atlantic Yards side and since so many were enamored with the Barclay’s Center, they could only look uptown in greater anticipation at what would ultimately rise in the former wasteland between the Chelsea and Clinton neighborhoods.

It wasn’t all rosy for Bloomberg during his time in office, though. It took forever to get anything rising out of the ground at the World Trade Center site, although that was also the fault of the Port Authority, Governor of New York, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the insurance companies that were sued, and a host of other agencies and corporations that had a stake in what would emerge from the ashes of 9/11. Housing and office space continued to skyrocket in cost around the city as the number of affordable units that were built were nowhere near enough to keep up with rising demand, and whole sections of Brooklyn and Western Queens became unaffordable to all but the uber-wealthy. Streets in the Outer Boroughs took forever to get plowed in major storms and even someone as powerful as him was unable to have a transit strike averted in the waning days of ’05, as Ed Koch and John Lindsay also found out during their helms of the World’s Greatest City.

Bloomberg also found out that being one of the 100 richest people in the United States doesn’t allow you to stand stoic as the tide of history threatens to wash over everything in front of it. As this cabdriver learned the hard way, Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy were two events that no one was unable to stop in their tracks. Both left New York radically different in their aftermath and had many questioning whether Gotham would be prepared for similar events that seemed inevitably on their way to striking. It was with that gusto, as well as the premise of change that elected a Senator from Illinois to become America’s Commander-in-Chief 5 years prior, that finally saw a Public Advocate become the person that New Yorkers trusted to lead them in the post-Bloomberg era.

Immediately into her new term, that leadership has already been called upon as a rash of pedestrian deaths via vehicles, a crippling snowstorm, and even the promotion of Hizzoner’s wife to a paid government position have drawn harsh lines in the proverbial sand. Is 30 M.P.H. too high a speed limit for traffic? Was the Upper East Side plowed properly for the evening rush hour? Did New Yorkers elect de Blasio’s family to serve the public-at-large? These answers remain to be seen, but before housing, inequality, taxation, universal Pre-K, and better representation of the Outer Boroughs could be addressed, this was what would have to be dealt with during the key “first 100 days”.

It’s way too early to tell whether New Yorkers pulled the lever voted for the right person last November but it’s pretty sure that they did the right thing during the previous three elections. For all the complaining that my fellow cabdrivers made about how overbearing the NYPD was on them (and I have to agree with my fellow drivers on this one), Bloomberg did his best to ensure that City would be left in better shape than how he found it. Leaving de Blasio with a balanced budget was the ultimate sign that whatever pitfalls faced in future could not be laid at his feet, even if the $35 billion budget that he submitted in ’02 was nominally half of that of the final one that he presided over years later.

Once the life expectancy of New Yorkers levels off or neighborhoods stagnate years after Hudson Yards is completed, the legacy that Bloomberg had a hand in creating will be fully visible for all to witness, and ultimately judge him by. His billions will continue to be donated to worthy causes and hopefully, his expertise in running a major city can be handed down to those entrusted to handle the challenge of the repopulating America’s urban centers in an increasingly technological and greening world. Those who wish to make cities relevant into the 22 Century and beyond would be wise to learn from the person who was able to successfully bridge the World’s premier metropolis from the 20 into the 21 Century, as it went through and emerged from its darkest hour.

You are here - Times Square

You are here – Times Square

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A Tale of Two Cities

Dawn

Dawn

“Hey there, where to?”

“Battery Park City – North End Ave. just off of Chambers.”

“Sure thing.”

“How’s your day going?”

“Oh, I’m tired. How about you?”

“Not bad for a guy who turned another year older today.”

“Well, Happy Birthday!’

“Thank you.”

“How old are you?”

“Thirtysomethingorother…”

Well, you don’t look it *passenger laughs*.

“Thank you. I would have voted today had I lived in the 5 Boroughs. Did you get a chance to go to the polls?”

“Nope, too busy at work.”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and in my case, it was the times that I was in the midst of. My birthday came and went without much of a hoot but the real issue that day was the Mayoral Primary in the city where my vocation called home. Much was written about over the long, hot summer about who would represent the democratic side as the City’s first Lesbian, pervert, Asian, repeat African-American candidate, and 6’5″ candidates duked it out for the right to represent the donkeys in the November mayoral election.

What was more surprising than the broad crop of candidates who largely repeated the same drivel in debates over the course of the middle of the year was the lack of ideas that they had. There was a broad consensus that the Big Apple had become too impersonal, Manhattan-centric, and excessively catered to tourists and those who had returned form the suburbs during the city’s revival over the last 10+ years. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in politics from reading about it, it’s that the pendulum will swing back the other way if it moves too far in one direction.

And that’s exactly what the signs were pointing at for the vote in November.

For all the hype and hoopla, the Primary race was such a hot-button issue because it was nearly a given that whoever emerged as the victor in September would also be the victor two months later. Sound bites aside, New Yorkers were concerned about solutions to long-term problems. Where would new jobs be concentrated, and in what fields? Could people who moved to Gotham afford an apartment or a down payment on a condo? Was stop-and-frisk racially motivated or a real crime deterrent? Would Unions finally be given retroactive pay raises and if so, who would pay for them? Would the Subway fare go up every two years and if not, who would fund the MTA? These were pretty serious questions that demanded answers that were more just rhetoric.

Enter Bill de Blasio. The former Public Advocate was under the radar for most of the race, as Christine Quinn held the early lead due to name recognition, only to cede the lead to Anthony Weiner. Of course, his last name held true to form as another sexting scandal and the questionable reaction by his wife ultimately did his bid in, leaving both Bills do fight it out for the right to have their name on the Democratic Party Line.

Eventually, de Blasio won over the hearts and minds of New Yorkers en masse. The ads featuring his African-American wife and racially mixed son struck a chord with New Yorkers looking for a shining example of multiculturalism in the most racially mixed city on the planet. When the votes were tabulated, Bill Thompson fell just short of the 40% needed to force a runoff, ensuring that de Blasio would be the heavy favorite two months later.

As many New Yorkers were well aware of, the centerpiece of de Blasio’s campaign was not only on affordable housing, jobs, a rollback of Police powers, or even on Municipal Unions , but on an idea that has reared its head in American politics once ever generation:

Class warfare.

In this case, it was summed up by the simplest of quotes that anyone could relate and latch on to.

“A tale of two cities.”

The premise was simple. Under Michael Bloomberg, the City as a whole had prospered. Business was up, so was tourism, and cranes were once again dotting the sky. The aftermath of 9/11 and the financial collapse of ’08 were a memory and new York was becoming a greener, more diverse, and more racially integrated City than it was when Rudolph Giuliani left office in early ’02.

But not everyone had reaped the rewards equally.

As a Taxi driver, I spent a vast majority of my time in Manhattan since that’s were the business and ultimately, the money is. No New Yorker would ever doubt that New York County was the economic heart of the Big Apple, with the outer boroughs supplying the vocational lifeblood that kept it going during working hours. What New Yorkers *did* doubt however was whether the 12 years that Bloomy spent in office favored growth and gentrification at the expense of the forgotten areas of the City, which was exacerbated during and after Hurricane Sandy a year ago. Manhattan was quick to get back up into it’s feet but the south shore communities on Long and Staten Islands were much slower to recover, as many properties were still in a state of limbo at the time of this writing.

The weather ultimately served as a metaphor, for what was going on over the last decade and change. There wasn’t a corner of Manhattan that remained unchanged by development, gentrification, and preservation, as was evidenced by all-time highs in housing prices and willingness of national retail chains to move in and be a part of the action. While this was great for the City’s economy, it made those left on the outside looking in wondering when they too, would see more of the action that was rejuvenating the Big Apple.

Many would argue that a rising tide would lift all boats, but that only holds true if you have one and aren’t drowning in the water. Taxes remained stubbornly high, wagers held stagnant, and the silent killer of inflation was evident in the rigor mortis of the water, electric, and transportation utilities. Meager gains in pay were quickly offset in rising prices for basic staples such as gas, food, essential services and of course, taxes.

Was this the City that we wanted New York to become? Would a postindustrial society have a land of the very rich and very poor as it’s centerpiece for the tourists of the world to see? Was all of this inevitable given the way things were currently progressing?

Not according to de Blasio.

Although the election in November is almost a month away, it’s nearly a given that he will defeat Joe Lhota and hold the most powerful position in the Big Apple until 2017. No matter the agenda that eventually becomes enacted, it will mark a radical departure from what New Yorkers have become accustomed to over the last 20 years. Drops in crime, Charter Schools, rezoning, and a shift away from Great Society-era social programs will cease to become hot-button issues in exchange for a platform that will more than likely include the disenfranchised minorities and lower-income earners that will have helped de Blasio win the office of the mayor of New York.

Is this all justified, however?

Many New Yorkers were outraged when Bloomberg stated last month that billionaires needed to move to the Big Apple to help the financial health of the City. They saw it as a continuation of the worst aspect of his time in office, which was the nanny state telling the citizenry what was good for them. Cigarettes? Bad. Trans fats? Don’t eat ’em. Sodas? Forget about them! While I don’t indulge in any of those habits, I never believed that it was the governments role to tell people what they could and couldn’t do with their own money and free time. It changes nothing and only breeds contempt and consternation. Was there any wonder that people were fed up with misguided paternalism?

That attitude became fully exposed for all in my industry to see this week when the Taxi of Tomorrow hit yet another setback. Years of planning, design, and integration with the Outer Boro (a.k.a. “Apple Green”) Taxis went up in smoke when a court ruled that medallion owners should not be forced to buy one model of Taxi as the older ones were cycled out. It’s a huge blow for the City as it appeared unlikely that not only would the October 28t launch date of these new rides would be pushed back, but might never happen at all given that both mayoral candidates have stated their opposition to the plan. No one that I’ve spoken to in my garage, behind the wheel, or on the street knows what’s next, except that a plethora of models will be bought and integrated into the city fleet as the Crown Vic’s continue to rapidly dwindle as they hit the end of their lifespan as New York Taxis.

Regardless of what vehicle would be my office as I made my way around Gotham on a nightly basis, it was obvious that change blowing in, long before the current President wholeheartedly endorsed de Blasio to be the 109th Major of New York. As David Byrne eloquently and passionately wrote in The Guardian earlier this week, New York needs room for those who will serve the cultural, artistic, and creative innovators of tomorrow. While they may not make money directly, they could be the next Steve Jobs or Philip Johnson of tomorrow, leading a movement that sets the current conventional wisdom on it’s head. Even Byrne (who several of my passengers have seen riding around on his bike on the Lower West Side) admits that he is now part of the 1% and far way from his humble musical beginnings, he realizes that he had a chance to move to New York and chart his own course in the process, ultimately helping to redefine music by means of the punk and indie movements.

Under the trajectory taken during the Bloomberg administration, a story like that would be almost impossible to envision now. Lots of people may tell the penniless and hungry members of tomorrow’s creative class to “move to Brooklyn” but that is no longer becoming an option. The real challenge for de Blasio will be making this a reality while maintaining the gains that the City has made over the last 20 years. As much as I hate hauling the rich finance douchebags from work to their new apartments to their black card-required nightspots, they pump a disproportionate amount of money into the city’s economy. Trickle-down economics may be easy to criticize but it’s hard to ignore in a place with a $70 billion budget that serves well over 8 million people a year. New apartments for the uber-wealthy may be empty for a sizable chunk of the year but those that are fully occupied could be vacated for greener pastures should the tax rate shoot up in the coming years. The Shutdown in Washington will come and go but something like that could affect an entire generation.

Which was the case post-WWII.

While the Great Society will never fully return, a move back in that direction would halt the momentum that has led to the growth in New York that remade so much of the physical and social fabric of the City that I love. While I have never called it home, I’ve watched the changes over the years in the same way that I see the world go by during my shifts:

From afar.

Yes, a car is in the environment in which it travels but being inside of it is just the same as watching a narrative unfold from the view of the third person, just as being a spectator at a play or sporting event. I don’t think that I will ever call New York home but I know that no matter where I go in life once I hand up the keys and put my hack license away, I will always love and care for the place that has served as my oz off to the distant east. Anyone that wishes to be at the control behind the curtain would be well versed to remember that new York is, and always will be, the place that has gained the most from the sum of its inhabitants. Nowhere else on Earth could take 8 million people, run them for less than $100 billion a year, and come up with the contributions that New York bestows to all corners of the world, all with only 600 murders a year and an overall crime rate that most U.S. cities would envy. Certainly, is a formula like that worth dividing in order to sustain a campaign long on rhetoric but short on a new way to raise the tide for the betterment of all?

“Hey there, where to?”

“Silver Towers.”

“End of 42 St, I go there all the time.”

“Great.”

“Did you vote today?”

“There was an election?”

Is there any wonder that we ultimately get the Government that we deserve?

Dusk

Dusk