I grew up with Michael Bloomberg as my grandparents grew up with Franklin Roosevelt. He took office when I was seven years old, a few months after 9/11. And like FDR, he stayed on for an extra term. His name was ubiquitous—the signature on a proclamation, a line on the top of a school announcement, a synonym for power and wealth, an imprecation. To be raised in Bloomberg’s New York meant to define yourself in terms of the man, and reminiscence is inescapable as he prepares to leave office at the end of the year.
I hated him, and most people in Rockaway, Queens felt the same. We lived on the edge of the outer boroughs, 40 minutes into Lower Manhattan by car and an hour-and-a-half away by subway. Bloomberg was always booed at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. My father thought the mayor only cared about people who lived in “the city.” My mother remarked that municipal services had been better under Rudy Giuliani. Bloomberg was no Giuliani, and nothing like Ed Koch, that irascible, ideal-type Jew Yorker who had endeared himself to white ethnics with straight talk and a hard line on riots.
A socialist of the rural idiot variety, I called Bloomy a neoliberal, a plutocrat, “used to issuing orders on high and ruling by imperial diktat from City Hall.” FDR’s speech before the 1936 Democratic National Convention, with its colorful denunciations of “economic royalism,” resonated with me. “Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right. The small measure of their gains was decreed by men in distant cities...And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.”
As I matured in Bloomberg’s city, the populist rage subsided. My neighbors were right. Congestion pricing was a regressive tax on outer borough residents. There were perhaps too many bike lanes and road closures, too little understanding of what white ethnics in Brooklyn and Queens valued.
Now I had my own stuff to grouse about, though. Bloomberg and Joel Klein, the longtime chancellor of city schools, were destroying public education, opening charters, and trying to bust the teachers’ union, which I defended for reasons of culture and ideology. I was also repulsed by the heavy-handed tactics employed by the NYPD during the occupation of Zuccotti Park and its still-more-troubling stop-and-frisk policy.
Critical as I still am, there have been times I have been proud to call Michael Bloomberg my mayor. After Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Newtown, he strongly advocated anti-gun violence measures, bankrolling an effort that might have succeeded absent the cravenness of a few senators. New York became a leader in public health under his tenure, banning trans fats and smoking in bars and restaurants, a legislative push supplemented by a campaign to encourage exercise and expand access to nutritional food. Bloomberg recognized early on the threat of climate change, developing a plan for the city’s future in a world of rising tides, a decision that seems especially wise after Hurricane Sandy.
Last month, Democratic primary voters rebuked Bloomberg, handing Bill de Blasio the Democratic mayoral nomination. Characterizing the Bloomberg years as a time of widening economic inequality, de Blasio is an avowed social democrat, promising affordable housing starts, cooperation with labor, an end to stop-and-frisk, and a fresh look at education reform.
Even as de Blasio embraces different priorities, he would do well to emulate Bloomberg’s managerial style, a technocratic, results-oriented approach whose success is hard to deny. Usually stingy with their praise, most people I have talked to back in Rockaway have applauded the city’s response to Sandy, which has gotten residents back in their homes.
Left-wingers are justified in their hue and cry against the wealth gap that has opened ever wider in the past 12 years. Yet I think it a mistake to ascribe too much agency to the mayor. New York does not set the rules of the global marketplace, and it is limited in what it can do to redistribute the income accrued by neoliberal elites in a cosmopolitan city. While Bloomberg had no interest in altering the trends of the past three decades, I doubt he would have made consierable progress had he tried.
The political decline and geographical shrinkage of white ethnics is similarly hard to reverse, the product of Jewish assimilation, Italian and Irish movement to the suburbs, and the erosion of the city's manufacturing base.
My grandparents' old Brooklyn neighborhoods, Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill, are now hipster and yuppie hotspots. New York is vitality, and vitality is change. Come January, Bloomy will learn of his own impermanence.
Daniel Solomon ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @danieljsolomon.