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.
There is such a sweaty scrum of bureaucracies (Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the Governor, the Mayor, Port Authority) downtown that it is unfair to blame Bloomberg, but the course of events is instructive. In Brooklyn, the Mayor has been fully behind Bruce Ratner (the aesthete who brought you Metrotech and Atlantic Center), whose proposal for a development centered around an arena in Prospect Heights fits quite nicely into the administration’s vision of the city as a tremendous sports complex. Neighborhood activists don’t like the plan, which includes 17 high-rises (ranging to 53 stories in height), and Ratner and Bloomberg have very cannily countered by proclaiming that 50 percent of the 4,500 apartments in the towers will be set aside for low- and middle-income tenants. Together with the beguiling sound of “the Brooklyn Nets,” such a move makes the development virtually unstoppable. Lefties like me end up sounding like effete Jane Jacobites wringing our hands about eminent domain abuse, violating the neighborhood’s scale, the lack of governmental transparency, and the gifting of tax dollars.
The same pattern of events transpired in Williamsburg. Community activists didn’t like the idea of 28 high rises lining the waterfront (some as high as 40 stories), so the city countered by upping the percentage of affordable housing. The result, however, will be essentially the same: a city best admired from the air or the developer’s balance sheet. As in the other developments, there was much talk of the marriage of private and public — the developers, in exchange for the privilege of building up, must also build public parkland on the waterfront. In Powerpoint speak, this sort of cooperation is called “synergy”; but bind the intractability of the profit motive to the paralyzing deliberation of government, and what you really have is a loping three-legged race that makes for a pathetic spectacle. You’ll get your bit of green when their bottom line is good and ready. And when it finally is built, the buildings will serve as a symbolic wall (visible from space) dividing the neighborhood from the park that supposedly belongs to it.
In other words, the job of transforming New York is messier than it used to be, but things are still proceeding as in the days of urban renewal. Community involvement is limited to demonstrating outside of pivotal meetings; yet the players continually proclaim how great these projects are for the community. Bloomberg even speaks of helping to usher in a Brooklyn “renaissance,” as if yesterday our streets were on fire and whites were running for the suburbs. This grandiosity is generally muted, and it’s easy to ignore the fanfare. Still, you may wonder what the hell happened in five years when you look up and see the fruit of today’s plans.
The only project on which Bloomberg has proved totally uncompromising has been the West Side stadium, and at the time of this writing, that battle remains unresolved. If the stadium doesn’t come through, New York’s already very slim chance of winning the Olympics will disappear, and quite possibly Bloomberg’s legacy along with it. Will Bloomberg’s model of large-scale, subsidized, private development continue to remake the city? Were Bloomberg to bring the Olympics to New York, he would undoubtedly steamroll his way to a second term, and considering how rough he’s played to strengthen the city’s bid for the Games, it’s not hard to imagine the Moses-like bullying he’ll deploy to ready the city for the real thing. Though his persona certainly is not one to regularly provoke awe, it’s quite possible that Bloomberg could loom as large in New York’s history as any other figure.
Ultimately, a politician’s fate is determined by far greater forces than the will of the voting public. There is a certain satisfaction in seeing those forces operate — so as we near July 6, pull up a chair and enjoy the spectacle. Once history decides, she very rarely changes her mind.