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Autocrat for the People

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As Bloomberg leaves office, he can accurately be labeled a visionary. He pursued ambitious, difficult objectives, many of which were unpopular and had short-term political consequences. He pushed New York ahead of the curve on issues, drastically reducing crime and the carbon footprint, making the city a canvas for giant artworks, paying kids for good grades. Bloomberg enlarged the notion of what a city can and should do—partly because he’s a citizen of the world, inspecting commuter trains in Hong Kong and discussing ­greenhouse gases in Rio, partly because innovators and potentates seek him out.

What’s remarkable, though, is how little of what will define his legacy originated with Bloomberg. His values were well-defined—socially liberal, fiscally pro-business—and his priorities clear: job creation, education, public health. But unlike most traditional politicians, Bloomberg was determined to hire strong deputies and didn’t much care who got the credit for success.

In crucial ways, Bloomberg was a man from nowhere. “We thought we could run an honorable campaign,” says Kevin Sheekey, who directed the improbably successful 2001 effort and Bloomberg’s 2008 presidential-campaign flirtation. “We didn’t think for a minute about how much we could achieve in terms of government. You knew Mike had incredible intelligence—great macroeconomic thinking. But he’s not a guy who had studied these issues. He’s a guy that said, ‘Jeez, I gotta figure out how to spend my time. I think I can make a difference.’ ”

Beyond that, though, the Bloomberg agenda was mostly a blank slate. He’s a believer in science and progress through experiment, so the city became a giant laboratory. The most significant particulars were filled in by four top lieutenants. Bloomberg’s political independence allowed him to choose aides from outside normal political channels—he didn’t owe favors or jobs. So the mayor picked people who were, in essential ways, reflections of him: They’d already made their reputations and, in some cases, fortunes. They didn’t need the jobs Bloomberg hired them to do.

In the winter of 2001, before he was officially a candidate, Bloomberg walked the dilapidated Williamsburg shore with Amanda Burden as his tour guide. She noticed him studying some notes. “I asked him, ‘What are you looking at?’ ” she remembers. “They were Spanish-English flash cards. And that’s when I realized he was running.” At the time, Burden was a member of the City Planning Commission, reappointed by Mark Green, who was about to run for mayor as a Democrat. But Burden had other qualities that made her attractive to Bloomberg. She was an uptown social X-ray with substance, an heiress to an oil fortune who’d become a rabid student of urban planning. Also, helpfully, Burden was a close friend of Patti Harris, one of Bloomberg’s most trusted aides at his company and now at City Hall. “He was voracious for information,” Burden says. “He just wanted to get ideas. He wanted to know what I thought were important things for the next mayor to do. So I’d been looking at the Brooklyn waterfront. It had become completely nonproductive, and it was cutting off this burgeoning community of young people and people who had been there for a long time. There were two miles of chain-link fence on the water’s edge, so I took him there and around Bed-Stuy and Greenpoint. But Williamsburg really stuck with him.”

Bloomberg installed Burden as director of city planning. She’s stayed the entire run, and her imprint can be felt from the Bronx to Staten Island. Bloomberg initially dismissed the notion of repurposing a rotting elevated section of railroad track—but ­Burden’s passion and her legwork in transferring neighborhood development rights won over the mayor and turned the High Line into the catalyst for a Chelsea boom.

Nearly 40 percent of the city’s landmass will have been rezoned by the end of Bloomberg’s reign—probably his most significant legacy, especially considering the new construction the zoning changes enabled. The particulars vary by neighborhood, but the driving idea has been unvarying: Development equals economic growth. (The corollary proposition: Wealth provides tax revenue.) “He wanted economic development, jobs, housing, in all boroughs,” Burden says. “Maybe because of seeing Williamsburg and the waterfront, he’s wanted to recapture underutilized industrial areas. And he’s seen the water as the tissue connecting the boroughs. People view the city as a waterfront city now, and he made that happen.” There have been setbacks, unfulfilled promises: Condo towers now line Kent Avenue, but Bushwick Inlet Park has been severely delayed. Burden admits to frustration over the inability to acquire the remaining land. “It’s all about money,” she says. “We spent an enormous amount of money purchasing the properties. Listen, part of the esplanade has happened. It looks very good at North Side. I’m very emotionally attached to Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and we don’t have money in this agency. When we propose projects like this, the only thing we can trade on is people trusting us. So to have that trust eroded at all—it’s painful every time I go there.”


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