Citizen Bloomberg

How our mayor has given us the business

"Bloomberg's data-driven shtick," said one source voicing a sentiment repeated by several others, "means no one will tell him anything's failed."

As the city's "CEO," Bloomberg has managed only to track the ups and downs of Wall Street and the national economy. It's a strictly replacement-level performance.

New York went through its rainy-day reserves this year and, with the federal stimulus money spent, now faces $5 billion budget holes in each of the next three fiscal years. The coming budget crunch, says Manhattan Institute fellow Sol Stern, stems in large part from the mayor's penchant for awarding generous contracts to teachers and other public-sector workers that also add to the pension bills the mayor has at times written off as "fixed costs."

Jesse Lenz
Bloomberg LP's headquarters, the Bloomberg Tower. Nicknamed "the Death Star" by fans and foes alike, the huge screens displaying data, the glass walls, and the open floor space in place of private offices or even cubicles are all meant to symbolize "transparency"—one of the many buzzwords from his business that Citizen Bloomberg brought with him to City Hall.
Celeste Sloman
Bloomberg LP's headquarters, the Bloomberg Tower. Nicknamed "the Death Star" by fans and foes alike, the huge screens displaying data, the glass walls, and the open floor space in place of private offices or even cubicles are all meant to symbolize "transparency"—one of the many buzzwords from his business that Citizen Bloomberg brought with him to City Hall.

Pushing the idea that the city, like a corporation, has a bottom line, Bloomberg diverts attention from the fundamental issue every mayor faces: what the city ought to be doing.

So what kind of New York has Bloomberg tried to produce?

The "buck-a-year mayor" offered his business success and vast wealth as his main credentials for running New York. In office, he has envisioned a big-business-friendly city supporting a New Deal welfare state.

To make that work, he's promoted "knowledge workers" as New York's distinguishing resource, the way that waterways, rail lines, and manufacturing facilities were for industrial cities.

The mayor has often described that group (which, not coincidentally, matches the profile of Bloomberg terminal subscribers) as "the best and brightest," with no irony intended. The city now acts as its own advertisement to draw in members of the so-called "creative class" who are as likely to work in ICE (Ideas, Culture, Entertainment) as in the city's traditional FIRE (Finance, Real Estate, Insurance) base. In his typical salesman's formulation, Bloomberg often suggests that the only alternative to courting that crowd and their wealthy employers would be a cost-cutting race to the bottom.

How else to pay for the array of services the city provides if not by building a safe and beckoning environment for elites and their Ivy-educated service class to live and work in, unmolested by an untidy big city?

That promised environment is the vastly expanded and uninterrupted Midtown Central Business District, a coveted goal of the business and real estate communities for nearly a century—if one viewed with suspicion farther south on Wall Street, where Bloomberg effectively ceded control of Ground Zero to a succession of bumbling governors, a major reason that it's taken a decade for the Trade Center site to even begin rising back up.

Bloomberg has used a series of mega-plans including his Olympics bid, historic citywide rezoning changes, and pushing the sale of Stuyvesant Town to cut down what remained of working- and middle-class Manhattan. Gone, going, or forcibly shrinking are the Flower District, the Fur District, the Garment District, the Meatpacking District, and the Fulton Fish Market. Even the Diamond District is being nudged out of its 47th Street storefronts and into a city-subsidized new office tower.

"If New York is a business," the mayor said in 2003, "it isn't Walmart—it isn't trying to be the lowest-priced product in the market. It's a high-end product, maybe even a luxury product. New York offers tremendous value, but only for those companies able to capitalize on it."

(Perhaps oddly, the mayor is a big booster of Walmart's push to open stores in the city. Earlier this month, he defended the big-box store's $4 million donation to a city summer job program, snapping at a Times reporter, "You're telling me that your company's philanthropy doesn't look to see what is good for your company?" Asked how Walmart fits into the mayor's vision, Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson told me on Twitter that it "fits into the strategy of creating jobs and capturing tax $$ here that are currently going to NJ and LI.")

But even as Wall Street has revived, ordinary New Yorkers haven't benefited from the promised trickle-down.

Middle-class incomes in New York have been stagnant for a decade, while prices have soared, with purchasing power dropping dramatically. Never mind Manhattan—Queens taken as its own city would be the fifth most expensive one in America. While unemployment in the city has dropped below 9 percent, through June the city had replaced only about half of the 146,000 jobs lost during the recession—and the new jobs have mostly been in low-paying retail, hospitality, and food services positions, according to the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. Poorly paid health care and social-service jobs, often subsidized by the city, make up 17.4 percent of all private-sector jobs as of 2007, a nearly one-third increase since 1990. Only 3 percent of the private-sector jobs in New York are in relatively high-paying manufacturing positions as of 2007, a figure that's in the low double digits in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. And the jobs expected to appear over the next decade are also clustered at the bottom of the pay scale.

A Marist Poll this year showed a striking 36 percent of New Yorkers under 35 intending to leave in the next five years, with 61 percent of that group citing the high cost of living. New York State already leads the nation in domestic out-migration—and New York City has had more than twice the exit rate of struggling upstate locations like Buffalo and Ithaca. More New Yorkers left the city in every year between 2002 and 2006 than in 1993, when the city was in far worse shape, with sky-high crime rates and an economy on the verge of collapse.

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