De Blasio's impossible task: Fix Bloomberg's New York

Time to focus on the New York that didn't come out of the Bloomberg era better off

Published January 6, 2014 12:44PM (EST)

  (AP/Bebeto Matthews)
(AP/Bebeto Matthews)

The first snowstorm of Bill de Blasio's first term as mayor of New York came and went last week, largely without incident. It's instructive to contrast his handling of the storm (and the press) with the way his predecessor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, handled the Christmas blizzard of 2010. De Blasio, last week, was photographed shoveling. In 2010, as the snow fell, Bloomberg was at his other home in Bermuda. De Blasio's shoveling was a photo op, but the new mayor has probably shoveled his own walk (or made the kids do it) a lot more often than Mr. Bloomberg did over the last dozen years.

The 2010 snowstorm was much more severe than last week's minor storm, yes, but the criticism Bloomberg received in 2010 was justified. The mayor's physical absence created a tabloid news vacuum, quickly filled by malicious rumor-mongering by unscrupulous pols like Queens councilman Daniel J. Halloran, who asserted, falsely, that Sanitation Department employees intentionally engaged in a work slowdown, leading to post-snowstorm deaths. It doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that a mayor without a vacation home to escape to might better understand how to help a city dig itself out of a major snowfall. There was one other small but important difference in how the two mayors dealt with the snow emergency: De Blasio eased shelter restrictions for homeless families with children. That's not a photo op, or a purely symbolic difference. That's exactly what differentiates de Blasio from his predecessor.

For years, Mayor Bloomberg had people believing that he "took the subway to work," thanks to a few photo ops. In reality, a mini-motorcade of two black SUVs whisked him from his door to an express stop a mile away. This happened twice a week, as of 2007, and probably less often afterward. This was a minor deception -- he'd never quite claimed to be a real commuter, just encouraged us all to believe he was -- but, like his absence during the blizzard, it was illustrative of the entire Bloomberg deal: The guy lived in a different universe from the rest of us, and after 12 years in office, that universe seemed to be doing a lot better than the one everyone else inhabits. (To be fair to Mayor Mike, he was a strong advocate for public transit, and his replacement, Mayor Bill, is more of a driver.)

"Do people really think New York has gotten worse under Bloomberg?" a quite liberal person asked, on Twitter, not long ago, when de Blasio's campaign was first noticed to be surging. That's a complicated question! Life obviously hadn't gotten worse for this fellow, who has a very good job in the journalism industry.

It also hasn't gotten worse for me -- I make good money, and I have a lovely apartment in a neighborhood I quite like, though I also can't afford to live in the last neighborhood I lived in, or most of the other neighborhoods I have lived and crashed in since arriving here. Besides getting priced out, Bloomberg's New York has worked out pretty well for me. (Though I do still miss lighting up at certain dive bars that decidedly do not smell better smoke-free.)

So I'll praise Bloomberg: I like his bike lanes and pedestrian street plazas. He planted millions of trees. The High Line is nice, though I hate it as a model of park planning and funding. 311 is a good idea implemented perfectly. Two of my favorite bars, Ruby's in Coney Island and Mona's on Avenue B, managed to survive the smoking ban and various real estate development manias. Like I said, things worked out OK for me. But to borrow a cliché from the new mayor, there were two very different Bloomberg New Yorks. The one you experienced depended on income, location -- we can say that the "better" Bloomberg's New York encompasses much of Manhattan and pockets of Brooklyn, most of Staten Island and the whiter portions of Queens -- and color.

Bloomberg's allies are always trying to tell you how wrong you are about Mayor Mike. There is a strange insistence that everyone like him. The argument is not so much that he's a good mayor, but that he's secretly exactly the type of mayor you love. Bloomberg is "the real progressive," according to Kevin Sheekey. No. He wasn't. He did some admirable things, but he was unquestionably a mayor who served the interests of his own class. All of his attempts to address the needs of Others were paternalistic or punitive or counterproductive.

Now that the Bloomberg era is (finally, almost unbelievably) over, and the de Blasio era has begun, it's time to face facts: New York is broken, for millions of New Yorkers, and now Bill de Blasio has to clean up the mess Bloomberg left him.

* * *

Here's a memory from Bloomberg's New York. It was during the 2004 Republican National Convention, an intrusion largely unwanted by the residents of one of the most liberal cities in the country. I was standing in Lower Manhattan's Collect Pond Park in early September 2004, waiting for a few hundred protesters to be released from central booking.

The city's intention was to arrest as many protesters as possible early on -- 500 arrested the Friday before the convention, 1,200 more arrested on Aug. 31, two days before Bush's speech -- and then to keep the protesters locked up for the duration of the convention. Nearly 1,500 people were detained in an unused (and disgusting) bus depot on flimsy or nonexistent charges. The fact that it is illegal in New York to detain arrested people for longer than 24 hours without formally charging them didn't seem to bother the NYPD that much, though eventually a judge fined the city $1,000 for every illegally detained person.

"Given that we arrested four times the normal number on one day, I think that we have done a pretty good job," Mayor Bloomberg said. The city has paid $2.1 million settling 112 claims related to the convention, spent another $16 million in legal fees, and will soon spend another "several million dollars" settling the remaining lawsuits. (Mayor Bloomberg's allies recently bragged that he saved the city $2.7 million by not taking a salary.) Bloomberg's NYPD set a record for arrests during a political convention, and inspired St. Paul, Minn., to have the 2008 Republican National Convention take out an insurance policy protecting the city from costs related to illegal arrests of protesters.

The detained protesters, though, were victimized under special circumstances. Generally, the city saved that sort of treatment for people who didn't get quite so much press attention. New Yorkers of color were routinely detained for longer than 24 hours in Bloomberg's New York:

According to data recently obtained by the NYCLU, on 42 days of a recent 45-day period in the Bronx, over 50% of individuals arrested by the police were held for more than 24 hours before being arraigned. On 25 of those days, more than 75% of those arrested were held for longer than 24 hours. As the Bronx data show, thousands of New Yorkers – especially New Yorkers of color – are held for as long as 40 or 50 hours, often for minor offenses for which they ultimately receive no jail time.

By 2011, budget cuts had only exacerbated that particular injustice. Again, this was not the side of Bloomberg's New York that his supporters had much experience with.

This is one more reason I can't sign off on the widespread praise Bloomberg has received for "keeping New York safe." His implementation of his mandate to keep the city safe involved racist, deeply unjust methods at every level of the criminal justice system. There's no public safety benefit to holding people arrested for minor, nonviolent crimes in lockup for entire weekends. There's no evidence to support a claim that stop-and-frisk was any more "effective" at keeping crime rates low than other methods of policing would've been during a period in which crime fell in nearly all American cities. The high-profile civil rights abuses committed by the NYPD during the 2004 convention and again during Occupy Wall Street were simply the routine abuses and humiliations the NYPD specialized in during this era carried out on a slightly larger scale and simulcast on the Web.

* * *

The fact that he was so goddamn rich that he never had to listen to anyone is frequently offered as Bloomberg's best quality as an elected official. A certain kind of high-minded liberalish Bloomberg supporter considers "politics" to be grubby, uncouth and possibly corrupt. But the fact that Bloomberg never had to listen to anyone meant that he never had to listen to the people his police department was detaining for three days for misdemeanors, or the people navigating his broken homeless shelter system, or parents of special-needs students attending "failing" schools in facilities shared with better-funded, privately operated charter schools.

De Blasio's inauguration was met with plenty of concern trolling. The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney compares de Blasio to the radicals behind Reconstruction (which, in his telling, seems to have been a bad thing, as it was too mean to white Southerners), and worried that de Blasio's progressivism would hurt "little guys," by which he literally means employers, pro-life "crisis pregnancy" centers, and the super-rich people who donate millions in tax-deductible money to Central Park.

The Washington Post editorial board, for example, also questions whether de Blasio is "progressive," in this editorial that places scare quotes around the word except when it's used to refer to "education reform." Their argument is that de Blasio isn't a progressive, or "progressive," because he will reverse some of Mayor Bloomberg's corporate education reform proposals. They say, "of all the political forces that propelled Mr. de Blasio into office, none is less truly progressive than the backlash against school reform."

This is doublespeak. "Education reform" is and always has been a neoliberal project, begun by the right and embraced by the wealthiest members of the Democratic coalition. This model of "reform" makes public school children the guinea pigs of experiments in shoveling public funds into private hands. One particularly obnoxious trait among corporate education reformers is their use of the language of technocracy, insisting, as Bloomberg always did, that their ideological agenda was driven by "data." There's actually very little "hard data" proving that any of the education reform agenda actually improves public education. The end result of years of Bloomberg, "the Education Mayor," controlling the schools? "New York City ranked second to last among 10 large, urban districts in NAEP test score gains from 2003 to 2011 (averaged across fourth and eighth grade reading and math). New York City students gained 4.3 points, half the urban district average gain of 8.8 points." The racial "achievement gap" barely budged. Again, the results are in, but the lack of any sort of actual measurable accomplishment won't deter Bloomberg and his allies from insisting on the objective superiority of their ideological crusades.

That's the essence of the Bloomberg way: To mask ideological projects in the language of objective data. It's precisely the same trick his police department played with CompStat, a program designed to apply statistical precision to neighborhood policing, and that instead encouraged the manipulation of data, excessive punishment of minor infractions and a surge in the practice of "downgrading" major crimes to less serious ones, to make the data look better. Cops, it turned out, reacted to Bloombergian incentives the same way public school teachers and administrators do.

No discussion of Bloomberg's legacy should omit his appalling neglect of the homeless. Bloomberg didn't just neglect the problem as the numbers of homeless New Yorkers soared, he clearly came to resent the homeless and blame them for their situation. Once his technocratic approach failed, Bloomberg decided that the homeless remained homeless merely to spite him, and he and his administration began speaking about the problem in a shockingly reactionary and Randian tone. By his third term, his administration was practically refusing to aid the homeless at all.

In the end, the single most savage critique of Bloomberg's technocratic scam came when Mayor Mike Bloomberg named Cathie Black, a wealthy publishing executive (and friend of the mayor's) with absolutely no education experience, his next education commissioner. Had this not been a case of a rich person hiring a rich friend because rich people naturally assume that their class is inherently superior, this would've been called "corruption."

* * *

American cities are inherently unequal. They've always contained uneasy blends of the nation's richest grandees and poorest strivers (the grandees need people to care for their children, clean their offices and shuck their oysters). But after three terms of Michael Bloomberg, New York is the least equal of all American cities, significantly worse than the only other two of even remotely comparable size, Chicago and Los Angeles. The city has, in many respects, become more segregated. Here's a telling statistic: Manhattan's population went from 45.7 percent non-Hispanic white in 2000 to 57.5 percent in 2010. The Manhattan rental market came completely uncoupled from national economic trends as Bloomberg ended his mayoralty. The rest of the boroughs lagged a bit but are quickly catching up.

At the end of the Bloomberg era, no one in New York, with a few incredibly wealthy exceptions, can afford to live where they'd like to live anymore. This has become a problem not just for the middle class, but also for the moderately wealthy -- another reason de Blasio's message resonated even with actual members of the 1 percent, if not the 0.1 percent. The idea that all growth and all development are good is a common enough one, and not specific to Bloomberg or New York, but that quasi-religious belief had more of an impact in New York under Bloomberg than anywhere else in the country besides perhaps San Francisco during one of its tech booms. Economists insist that more building of any type means more affordable housing. New York has been running something close to a natural experiment over the last dozen years, and so far the results suggest that more luxury housing simply means more luxury housing. (Even Bloomberg's director of city planning eventually realized this -- he did make a few good hires.)

It's fair to argue that mayors have limited control over national economic trends, but Bloomberg actively encouraged economic stratification. Here's something Bloomberg, the very rich man who lives in New York, inexplicably did not understand: Finance continues to remain primarily in New York, despite all the socialism and taxes, because financiers want to live and work in New York. Higher taxes won't make people who consider themselves masters of the universe suddenly prefer to live and work in Houston. The city decidedly did not need to hand Goldman Sachs "$1.6 billion in low-cost, tax-exempt bonds" to build its new headquarters. But his administration rarely missed an opportunity to throw money at rich people to build things that would make them richer -- Goldman Sachs, the New York Yankees, Bruce Ratner -- while utterly ignoring middle-class residents priced out of areas they'd lived in for decades, to say nothing of the working poor, struggling to find any places to live at all.

* * *

The most common tone of the Bloomberg era, especially as it came to its sour close, was contempt. Mr. Bloomberg wasn't a lovable curmudgeon, he was a mean-spirited misanthrope. He blamed his school reform failures on "parents" who "never had a formal education" and "don't understand the value of education." He said the NYPD ought to stop more minorities. He compared a living wage bill to Soviet Russia. This, more than almost anything else, is what a de Blasio administration promises to do differently. It's going to be nearly impossible for a mayor to fix contemporary American capitalism, to reverse the financialization of our economy and totally reform the racist criminal justice system. But just because he has to listen to people, because he can't count on his fuck-you money and the entitlement that brings, he'll be a better mayor. It's nice to have a mayor who shovels.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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