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Shiny, Alluring, Ugly, Visionary, Inspiring, Incomplete

The physical city, remade.

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For two weeks in 2005, Central Park ­fluoresced. Along miles of pathway, bright-orange banners hung from steel frames, a chorus of bunting that flapped in the February wind and brightened the winter-brown landscape. The Gates, by the fabric artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, may have been an overblown exterior decorating project, but at a time of year when dogs and joggers usually have the park to themselves, millions thronged to see it.

The installation cost the city nothing and gushed money, soaking hotels and restaurants and filling museums. Afterward, the frames were dismantled, the banners unwound into thread and shredded into souvenirs. But, for Michael Bloomberg, The Gates was a portal to the urban fantasyland that he was determined to mold.

During the Bloomberg era, the skyline was redrawn, industrial wastelands sprouted parks and towers, old neighborhoods shed historic identities and acquired new ones. A five-borough frenzy of change pushed the creation of a magnetic city. Bloomberg wanted everyone, everywhere, to love New York: plutocrats, busboys, CEOs, Brazilian tourists, ­immigrants, tech wizards, fresh college graduates, day-­tripping suburbanites—anyone who could come for an afternoon or a lifetime, spend money, pay taxes, and tell their friends. He wooed the world so fiercely that Stephen Sondheim’s frenetic vision of new-arrivaldom, circa 1970—“Another hundred people just got off the train”—seems almost sluggish today. More than 52 million visitors streamed into New York last year—nearly 6,000 an hour, pumping billions into the city’s bloodstream.

Those travelers encountered a green and glittering city. Young trees lined the streets. Everyone seemed to live in glass houses, yet hardly anyone threw stones, or spray-painted subways, or even smoked. Those who returned after just a few years’ absence found themselves disoriented. The banks had cleared out of Wall Street; families lived there now. Children cavorted along a waterfront that was once a concrete wilderness. (Wasn’t it?) The East Village had turned deluxe, Bushwick—Bushwick!—was hopping, and the Brooklyn literary world now considered Manhattan an outer borough. It was as if a longtime New Yorker’s mental map had been tossed in the air and ­reassembled all wrong.

Naturally, this taller, greener, safer, denser, more livable, and better-looking city displeased many. People who nurtured gauzy memories of the seventies looked at the early-aughts model and saw only a sterile hellscape. Critics attacked Bloomberg for lavishing attention on tourists and ignoring the less glamorous needs of longtime residents: Glass-walled hotels with High Line views are fine, Mr. Mayor, but what about sending some snowplows to Sheepshead Bay?

After three terms, caricature settles in and nuance gets lost. In the popular imagination, reinforced by the Democrats who hope to succeed him, he is the Lorenzo de Medici of one-percenters’ palazzos, the wizard of a luxury metropolis designed for bankers, hipsters, and locavores. Sure, the past twelve years benefited the rich disproportionately—as most periods do. Yes, affordability and inequality will be the chief moral and civic challenge of the next mayor. Yet New York is no gated community. In pursuit of his urban ideal, Bloomberg always insisted that quality design is not a private luxury; it’s a public good. Even as developers hired marquee architects to coax Russian tycoons into spending tens of millions of dollars for apartments they had no plans to inhabit, the city recruited some of the same names to design firehouses, libraries, schools, and police stations at a fraction of their usual fees. Some of the most appealing private projects (Schermerhorn House, designed by Ennead; the Nehemiah Spring Creek Houses in East New York, by Alexander Gorlin; Grimshaw and Dattner’s Via Verde apartment complex in the Melrose section of the Bronx) were built for low-income residents. Suddenly, great architects were competing to find tight-budget alternatives to dour brick blocks.

The most visible gauges of a vibrant city are its streets, and the Bloomberg administration transformed them, too. Activists and grumps battled over bike lanes, but those green strips were really just a symbol of more sweeping change. Transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan treated the streets the way a yogi treats the body: holistically, with respect for its intricacies. Beneath the surface flow the essential elements of modern life—water, sewage, power, data, and trains. Bikes, trucks, taxis, and cars jostle on the roadbed. Sidewalks are for meandering, running late to a meeting, wheeling hand trucks, passing out flyers, window shopping, panhandling, jogging, waiting for a bus, standing on a corner to finish an argument, and sitting at dinner. For the first time, the city tried to account for this dizzying array of activities and speeds. Wider sidewalks kept foot traffic from spilling into the road; sidewalk cafés provided new audiences for the theater of the streets; asphalt plazas redistributed real estate from cars to pedestrians. These were not elitist prettifications aimed at reminding European tourists of their ancient town centers; they were tools for making the public realm more public.


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