Michael Bloomberg's contested legacy as New York mayor

  • 23 December 2013
  • From the section US & Canada
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Michael Bloomberg has overseen the transformation of New York City during his 12 years as mayor. But as he prepares to leave office the billionaire businessman's political legacy is contested.

In a city that favours large and flamboyant personalities, Michael Bloomberg is hardly the sort to light up a room. He is a data-driven technocrat, an entrepreneur with vast personal wealth but lacking comparable charisma.

At a valedictory appearance at a school in Harlem earlier this month the departing mayor revealed his strengths and weaknesses.

Delivering an update on a major snowstorm about to hit New York, the 71-year-old appeared to be going through the mayoral motions: performing one of the basic, but essential, functions that seem almost to bore him.

However, when he talked about the subject at hand, the provision of free wi-fi internet in what has traditionally been one of New York's most rundown neighbourhoods, he was animated and engaged.

The project, he claimed, would reduce the digital divide, provide a much-needed economic boost, and make Harlem more liveable.

New York used to be assailed for its dysfunction, high crime rates and ungovernability. It could have suffered decades of decline like Detroit. But during his 12 years in charge Mike Bloomberg has tried to turn the city into a laboratory for civic renewal and reform.

Coming to office shortly after the attacks of 9/11, which ripped the heart out of the Lower Manhattan, he was fearful of an urban exodus that would starve New York of tax revenues and dull its vibrant character. The early emphasis was on recovery. During his second and third terms, it has been on transformation.

Empire builder: Bloomberg transformed New York City during his three terms as mayor

Globally, he is best known for his smoking ban in restaurants, bars and parks, a policy mimicked around the world. Calorie counts are now mandatory on menus at restaurant chains, so that customers are equipped to make healthier choices about what they eat. He has banned trans-fat food additives, which are known to clog the arteries.

Partly as a result of Bloomberg's public health initiatives, life expectancy is now at a record high in New York. A child born today can expect to live 80.9 years, which is 2.2 years above the national average.

New York has changed in other ways, too, whether it is in the proliferation of bike lanes, the introduction of a bike sharing scheme, or the redevelopment of large swathes of the city. Some 40,000 new buildings have been constructed since he took office. A third of the city has been "re-zoned," easing the path for developers.

Bloomberg looks upon New York's once neglected waterways as the city's "sixth borough," and the shoreline of Brooklyn is unrecognisable from when he took office. Stylishly landscaped parkland has replaced semi-derelict wastelands.

Landmarks like The Highline, where a disused raised railway line has been turned into an elegant greenway, has become popular with New Yorkers and tourists alike. Small wonder. It is stunning. Though Bloomberg does not deserve all the credit, he helped make it happen.

Former aides, like Bill Cunningham, who served as Bloomberg's communications chief, says that he brought the skills of a successful CEO to the mayor's office.

"Mike believed you hire people and then you give them the authority to run their agencies. 'Here's your budget. You know the issues. I've hired you. I'm gonna back you up. Now go do a good job.'"

"And generally, the last words he would say to somebody after he swore them in was: 'Now don't mess it up.' But he didn't say 'mess'."

Rather than being overbearing and autocratic, says Cunningham, Bloomberg delegated a lot of authority.

The courts overturned the mayor's effort to ban sales of super-sized sodas

Others, however, bemoan what they claim is an imperious approach. Ronna Texidor became a community activist because of Bloomberg's support for a redevelopment in Greenwich Village where she lives. She can't wait to see the back of him. "He just makes pronouncements. Edicts!" she exclaims.

There have also been notable setbacks. Bloomberg was unable to bring in a congestion charge, his preferred solution to the problem of rush-hour gridlock. His battle to ban over-sized fizzy drinks, a key part of his public health drive, was deemed unlawful.

Then, there are the areas where his legacy is bitterly contested.

Tough policing policies, known as stop-and-frisk, may have contributed to a fall in homicide rates. Murders are down 65% since he came to office. Shootings are down 53%.

However, civil liberties groups have campaigned against stop-and-frisk, complaining that the policy unfairly discriminates against minorities. A US district court judge deemed the policy, which allows the police to stop and search anyone if they believe a crime is about to occur or to have occurred, to be unconstitutional.

Waterfront neighbourhoods, like the hipster haven of Williamsburg, have become ridiculously fashionable, but long-time residents complain they have also become ridiculously expensive.

The broader criticism is that the business-friendly mayor has presided over a city where the divide between the super-rich and the rest has becoming a gaping chasm.

The recent mayoral election demonstrated how polarised the city has become.

The conventional wisdom going into the campaign was that a Bloomberg-lite candidate - a politician who would carry on his reform agenda with mild modifications - would emerge victorious.

Instead, the winner, the Democrat Bill de Blasio, cast himself as the anti-Bloomberg. De Blasio's tale of two cities - of how the rich had benefited under the billionaire mayor, but the middle class and poor had been left behind - had resonated powerfully.

Attack from the left: Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio is seen as the 'un-Bloomberg'

Even admirers, like Professor Steven Cohen, the Executive Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, think Bloomberg probably overstayed his welcome. After serving two terms, he successfully lobbied the City Council to amend its charter so that he could seek a third.

"I think people are going to look back on his administration very positively. I think he will be ranked among the great mayors of the city along with [Fiorello] La Guardia. But I think you know that by year 10,11,12 it's just, a lot of exposure and people were tired of him and so they were looking for the un-Bloomberg."

So what does a former mayor think?

David Dinkins, who served between 1990 and 1993, was the first and so far only African-American to occupy the office. Overall, he's been a fan of Bloomberg.

"I think that he accomplished a lot and his motivation is, I think, a good one, a positive one. Some of us seek to be involved in government and politics because we want to see our names in lights, but I don't think that's the case with respect to Mike Bloomberg."

"How did he change New York?" I ask. "For the better," replies David Dinkins. "Period."

Because the mayor has set in motion so many long-term projects, his successors will be performing ribbon-cutting duties for decades to come. But the argument over his contribution to New York life is sure to outlive the man himself.