Whatever blend of masochism and megalomania leads someone to seek public office in New York City, I don’t know, but I’ve never felt it. The combination of groveling and grandstanding, private complexities and public simplicities that so characterizes big city politics, requires a particularly robust personality, and despite all the carping and second-guessing, I’m sure that most of us would be reduced to blubbering schizophrenia before we got a single thing done. The elected official’s reward for all this effort, if you believe the pieties, is the opportunity to serve the fine people of New York; those who count themselves savvy think that it’s the allure of power. The real reward for the political personality, however, is something far loftier, something unassailable once achieved — and that is a strong legacy. To win an election takes a good politician; but to win such a legacy takes a great man. With the legacy, all of the pandering, backroom deals, lies and corruption are swept away; only the accomplishments remain. Statues are erected; details get lost. In a final vindication, history sees the politician as he saw himself all along.
We are fortunate in our current moment to witness history on the cusp of a decision. On July 6, the IOC will choose the host city for the 2012 Olympic Games, a choice that will also prove decisive for the legacy of Michael Bloomberg. The conventional wisdom is that Bloomberg captured the mayoralty because the Democrats’ weakness provided an opening which he was inoffensive and wealthy enough to fill. Nevertheless, his administration has been working to change the face of New York more dramatically than any administration since Robert Moses almost loved this city to death. Some of these circumstances have been forced on him, like the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, but the city’s Olympic bid and the West Side stadium are priorities that he, along with his Deputy Mayor, Daniel Doctoroff, chose — and the list grows longer: the Williamsburg/Greenpoint rezoning, Ratner’s Atlantic Yards/Nets arena proposal, the plan to gussy up Coney Island, the High Line, etc. All in all, that’s 62 economic development projects (twice as many as Giuliani attempted) combined with 35 rezoning projects covering 3,000 city blocks.
But history could care less about tweaks to the zoning map, and Bloomberg knows it. Big ideas and big projects make a legacy, and the controversial proposals put forth so far give a clear picture of what that legacy might be. Given Bloomberg’s achievements, his strategy might well prove to be the favored model of future plutocrats.
Consider the four most significant Bloomberg-era developments: WTC, Hudson Yards, the Williamsburg Waterfront, and the Atlantic Yards. In each case, a major private interest (Larry Silverstein, the Jets, a pack of five, Bruce Ratner, respectively) is at the heart of the project. In each case, there is significant opposition. Everyone wants to see development at Ground Zero, but Silverstein, who acquired a 99-year lease on the site months before 9/11, has been adamant about rebuilding the lost office space. The site is therefore necessarily overcrowded to properly serve as a memorial, and when the preliminary proposals for development were released to the public — all of them seeming like huge extensions of the World Financial Center — the public outcry forced an architectural competition. The winner of that staged drama, as everyone knows, was Daniel Liebeskind, whose soaring invocations — issuing from the depths of his turtleneck — inspired so many. But it’s now apparent that Liebeskind has as little to do with the ongoing development of the WTC as you or I. Silverstein, after all this bother, will end up getting his way.