Bloomberg killed New York City’s soul

Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg
a katz/Shutterstock

Bloomberg killed New York City’s soul

The mogul’s corporate ideology gutted the city and would do the same to the country.
November 7, 2018

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to run for president in 2020, so he said he will drop 0.19 percent of his net worth ($100 million out of $51.8 billion) on helping Democratic House and Senate candidates in the midterm elections. He also registered as a Democrat for the first time since 2001. His recent moves warm the hearts of centrist pundits who believe his orderliness, love of data and great wealth are “antidotes” to Donald Trump.

If his billions could win the primary and the general election, how would a theoretical President Bloomberg guide our nation? Perhaps we should review how his three terms as mayor shaped New York City as it exists today.

According to reports, New York City is under siege, vanishing, empty or already dead as a result of the “Bloomberg Way” – the concept of the mayor as CEO, businesses as clients, citizens as consumers, and the city as a product that’s branded and marketed. Bloomberg’s corporate worldview drained the color out of New York City – a sterile, relentless kind of destruction that dehumanized its victims with the logic of the market. When he imagined what the city could be, his mind settled on a high-end mall filled with expensive accessories – and that, increasingly, is what it has become. “If New York City is a business, it isn’t Walmart – it isn’t trying to be the lowest-priced product in the market,” he explained at an economic conference in 2003. “It’s a high-end product, maybe even a luxury product.” If you couldn’t afford the product, the Bloomberg Way was to push you out.

Bloomberg invited global investors to knock down old brick buildings and erect glassy, lifeless towers of secrecy that housed the wealth of foreign oligarchs and kleptocrats – but not many actual people who live in New York, pick up their dry cleaning and buy coffee at the local bodega. Not only did the absent owners fail to contribute to the local economy, but their property taxes were also wildly discounted – for example, by 95 percent at One57, an ultraluxury tower in midtown Manhattan.

The billionaires were a “godsend,” according to Bloomberg, and the “bigger income gap” in the city was fine because everyone’s income was going up. For someone who purportedly loved data and math, numbers failed him here, because when median household income for all renting families goes up by 16 percent while median contract rents rise by 25 percent or more (as they did from 2005 to 2010), that’s a net loss for families – especially when the cost of food, child care and transportation is also rising twice as fast as incomes.

In 2014, just after the end of Bloomberg’s tenure, New York University’s Furman Center estimated that more than half of renting households paid more than 30 percent of their income in rent and utilities. Rents increased more in lower-income neighborhoods than in areas with household incomes above the citywide median.

Small-business owners faced similarly daunting math: From 2004 to 2014, rents skyrocketed 89.1 percent in 16 Manhattan retail corridors while total retail sales grew by only 31.9 percent. The investment firm CBRE Group called it “an unsustainable situation.”

A surprising new phenomenon – high-rent blight – featured boarded-up windows where beloved local shops used to serve the community. With rent hikes that, in some cases, went from $4,000 to $40,000 per month, landlords might hold out for a global chain store or a bank. (Chase will pay $3 million a year in rent when it takes over the space occupied by Coffee Shop on Union Square.)

In a city accustomed to dizzying change, this sort of “change” was different. Where immigrants had once gotten a toehold in the city to build their dreams, global corporations now monopolized even the lowest-barrier entry points. With Bloomberg’s encouragement, they turned the owners of newsstands into renters, and imposed a steel and frosted glass uniformity onto them. A new sort of existential precarity took hold of everyone trying to make it – as Bloomberg sought to clamp down on every rogue ice cream truck in town.

With the immigrants’ small businesses and long-standing family-owned shops and restaurants dying out, a sense of cultural transience permeated everything – from hypergentrifying neighborhoods to vapid corporate pop-up shops. Nothing felt solid or permanent.

Bloomberg seemed totally fine with that. He offered hundreds of homeless people one-way tickets out of town, even while his policies allowed people to be pushed out of their homes. By the end of his three terms, the crisis of homelessness was setting new records, with the number of homeless families rising 83 percent during his mayoralty.

The CEO mayor, rumored to be a competent manager of complex problems, failed at every level of decision-making when tackling the problem. He took a relatively successful program that, under four previous New York City mayors, had helped more than 53,000 families move to long-term, permanent housing using Section 8 federal housing vouchers – and disrupted it with his signature Advantage program. In 2010, he abandoned the program and left families with no assistance whatsoever to move into permanent housing.

And how did all this innovation impact the city’s bottom line – supposedly the No. 1 metric for a CEO mayor? By expanding the temporary shelter system, expenditures rose nearly 80 percent to $1 billion. Even while the data showed that Housing First models provide an impressive return on investment, Bloomberg doubled down on harassing and ejecting people out of the shelters, relying on the art of bureaucratic stonewalling to discourage people from seeking help, based on the ridiculous premise that anyone – even someone who just landed in New York on a private jet – would choose a shelter when they have an alternative.

In Bloomberg’s imagination, the theoretical jet-setter is the only person who actually exists in his luxury city, and so every scenario – even homeless shelters – are considered in light of the global elite. It’s a distorted, deeply ideological worldview very much at odds with the claim that Bloomberg governs “based on the facts.”

Similarly, Bloomberg’s ideology leaves large gaps in basic economic logic. According to Bloomberg, homeless people should get jobs so they won’t rely on the city’s shelters. But it would be one of the “most misguided things we can do” to raise the minimum wage – even if a full-time minimum wage job can’t cover the cost of a New York City apartment.

In 2012, Bloomberg vetoed a living wage bill for workers employed on projects that received more than $1 million in public subsidies. It would have raised the pay of approximately 500 working-class New Yorkers to $11.50 per hour or $10 plus benefits.

To review: Bloomberg was willing to pay over $6,000 to fly a homeless family out of town, but unwilling to pay housing-insecure workers a few more dollars per hour while they built the “luxury product” that Bloomberg was subsidizing with their tax dollars.

Conversely, generous handouts to corporations with no accountability are a cornerstone of the Bloomberg Way. In fiscal year 2009 alone, he gave away more than $300 million in public subsidies to 576 projects with the expectation that the payouts would create jobs. Over a decade, a city audit found that the city was owed 45,000 jobs from businesses and banks that had taken public money and failed to create jobs.

The bottom line in Bloomberg’s New York was that your value was determined by what was in your bank account. If you were wealthy enough, you could consume the luxury product he was designing for you. If you couldn’t afford it – even if you were a teacher or a nurse or someone else who built the product – you were in the way. You deserved to be stopped and frisked, your dignity, security and freedom constantly at risk – data be damned – in order to protect the brand.

So, based on his record as mayor, would a Bloomberg presidency provide welcome relief from the reign of Trump?

The signature move of the Trump administration has been taking the New York real estate con, where lying is a business model, and scaling it up to the national level. In the really grand scheme of New York real estate politics, however, Donald Trump is actually a bit player – almost anachronistic, a throwback to a time of wealthy, eccentric characters who made New York “colorful.”

As mayor, Michael Bloomberg wasn’t just a bit player in the real estate con. He orchestrated the whole real estate game in a way that turned most of us – renters, small-business owners, wage earners, innovators and artists without trust funds – into losers.

We’re left yearning to enjoy the bike lanes and waterfront parks that he built from the periphery, or in exile. As more of us are pushed out, we can begin to grasp the implications of a Bloomberg Nation. Let’s hope our democracy is still strong enough to resist the coming onslaught of his billions.

Kate Albright-Hanna
is a former presidential campaign staffer for Barack Obama and a documentary filmmaker.
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