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.
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.
He also sometimes nudged the depredations along. Bloomberg let developers get away with crimes against urban planning—not, as his critics have fulminated, to help his friends get rich, but because he relied on them to pay for things that government couldn’t. He added 800 acres to the park system, but threw up his hands at Flushing Meadows–Corona Park and its soggy decrepitude. When a fellow billionaire from Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, offered to build a privately owned soccer stadium in the middle of the park and prettify its surroundings, Bloomberg responded like a puppy eyeing a pork chop.
The surprise, after a dozen years of this, is how much remains unchanged. This is deliberate. City Planning turned over vast areas to be filled with fresh concrete and steel. But the same department also downzoned dozens of neighborhoods, protecting one-family houses in Queens and Staten Island. Even as industrial neighborhoods were being transformed into luxury enclaves, the Landmarks Preservation Commission froze hundreds of blocks by expanding historic districts into areas like Sunnyside Gardens and Bedford-Stuyvesant. While many New Yorkers howled that their city was evolving frantically and beyond recognition, others complained that it was being embalmed. The real-estate world argued that overzealous preservation was slowing development, choking off the housing supply, and driving up rents. Others pointed out that for all of Bloomberg’s frenzy, the big-ticket to-do list hasn’t budged in years. Penn Station is as dismal as ever, and getting to the airport is still a slog. In a city where it can take decades to build a mile of subway, even a three-term mayor can seem like a guy passing through. Bloomberg’s accomplishments shone a high-powered beam on everything that remains undone.
In a way, the go-slow camp and the get-moving contingent were both right. New York is an elderly city, constantly trying to prevent its subways, bridges, brownstones, and monuments from crumbling even as it erects shiny new toys. Compared to Paris, say, New York has been stripping itself of history; compared to Shanghai, it’s Miss Havisham.
We’ll be living with the city that Mike built for a long time to come. Construction has barely begun on a whole slate of megaprojects, and even as the countdown clock at City Hall clicks toward zero, the administration is still churning out proposals so quickly that it takes a spreadsheet to track them. There’s Seaport City, a high-rise neighborhood that would be built on landfill just south of the Brooklyn Bridge; a shopping mall and the world’s largest Ferris wheel on the north shore of Staten Island; the world’s largest indoor ice rink in the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx. That’s not even close to an exhaustive list. The Bloombergification of New York isn’t complete yet, and won’t be for a generation.