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Shiny, Alluring, Ugly, Visionary, Inspiring, Incomplete

From a plane en route to La Guardia, New York looks desirable and iridescent. It’s getting hard to remember how fragile the city seemed when Bloomberg took office in January 2002. A charred stench still lingered over ground zero. Battery Park City was vacant, its residents dispersed, and the most prominent new street furniture was the concrete Jersey barrier. Some New Yorkers began to wonder if the star they lived on was imploding, and if the only way to live there was in a constant state of fear.

Bloomberg dispelled the glumness with a mixture of data-driven realism and a utopian vision of urban life. Belief in New York is not an abstraction; it gets expressed in real estate. And so, rather than rally the citizenry, the mayor showered it with proposals. A free-market entrepreneur with faith in the beneficent powers of government, he expressed his confidence in the form of new skyscrapers, growing campuses, hotels, stadiums, parks, piers, malls, and museums. In 2008, the economy seized up, and New York became the dead center of a financial black hole. Construction sites went quiet. Fortunes vanished overnight.

Resilience was not foreordained; it was born of urgency. Bloomberg, who had made billions delivering information in fractions of a second, seemed constantly in a hurry. He believed that a city could either grow or wither, but it could not stand still. In his quest for the magnetic city, he invoked the specter of a dysfunctional one—Detroit, or New York in 1977—so often that it seemed his energy was fueled by fear. He pursued growth by declaring it would come. His demographers say that New York’s population, once in free fall, will add another million people by 2030. That’s not a huge number—Karachi acquires that many every year or so—but it gave Bloomberg the data point he needed to shape policy around.

One of the gloomy prognostications that rained down after 9/11 was the claim that the American skyscraper era had ended. China and the Middle East were still on a tall-building spree, but what New Yorker would want to invest in a vulnerable steel beanstalk? Well, Bloomberg, for one. When he came into office, the corporation he founded was about to erect its new headquarters. With its textured, twinkling hide and bands of glinting steel, its curving plaza and starship-chic offices, the sumptuous Bloomberg Tower on Lexington Avenue at 58th Street, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, announced his belief in midtown as the eternal epicenter of corporate life.

As mayor, he couldn’t just keep ordering up skyscrapers, but he came close. He bullied and cajoled developers, steered Liberty Bonds their way, and pushed through rezonings they wanted. Today, each new skyline summit gets superseded by another. The race to the clouds is reminiscent of 1930, when the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street tried to bound past each other for the title of world’s tallest—only to have their rivalry mooted a year later by the Empire State Building.

A sense of preening righteousness pervaded the Bloomberg administration’s efforts. Two of his most visible appointees, planning chief Amanda Burden and her friend Janette Sadik-Khan, turned their bureaucracies into celebrity platforms. Previous city governments had labored to rescue New York from the forces of chaos; Bloomberg and his acolytes presented it as a model of civilized urban life. They collected innovations from around the world, then codified them into manuals for less enlightened cities. They saw Manhattan-style density not as an unnatural concentration of gasping throngs but as the way to salvation for a threatened planet. The message was: If everyone in the world lives the way we do, the future will work out just fine.

The present, however, hasn’t always gone so smoothly. For an irresistible city, New York can be awfully ugly. Ghastly glass towers have laid waste to entire neighborhoods, and sharklike chain stores have swallowed small businesses. The once-derelict industrial zone along the Greenpoint-­Williamsburg waterfront metamorphosed into a new, high-density neighborhood, which would’ve been great, except that the change resulted in a phalanx of big ungainly buildings with a paltry, broken strip of greenery out front. The permissive rezoning of Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue, too, produced buildings of such slipshod “luxury” that the Wall Street Journal columnist Robbie Whelan called it a “canyon of mediocrity.”

Why did so much terrible stuff get built? The answer is that bad, overpriced buildings are the price of civic ambition. In lean times, most architecture is crap because only what is cheap gets built; in better times, most architecture is crap because developers can’t wait to start cashing in. Bloomberg made New York safe for high-quality design—and at the same time triggered a plague of prosperous awfulness. As long as the city remains attractive, there will always be money in ruining it.