Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio has emerged victorious in New York City’s mayoral election, and the Michael Bloomberg era will come to an end. In Bloomberg’s 12 years in office, his personal fortune increased sevenfold, from $4.5 to $32 billion, while 46 percent of the city’s residents now live in or near poverty. If Manhattan were an independent nation, its income inequality would rank with South Africa’s and Namibia’s.
Bloomberg has a reputation as a “moderate” or even in some circles “liberal,” but it would be far more accurate to describe his politics as Mitt Romney with a sex life.
Last winter, when he broke a strike by city school-bus drivers and aides — they’d walked out after he abrogated a contract provision that said when the city hires new bus companies, they have to employ the same workers at the same wages — he crowed that “in the city’s entire history, the special interests have never had less power than they do today.” Yes, women who get up at 4:30 in the morning to help autistic and disabled kids get to school, who give their cell-phone numbers to parents, are a pernicious “special interest” when they want to make $14 an hour instead of minimum wage with no security or benefits.
A record 50,000 people now pack city homeless shelters, the most since the Depression. Bloomberg claimed that was because he made the shelters “much more pleasurable.”
The multibillionaire mayor is often hailed as a visionary, and he was one. His vision was of New York as a “luxury brand,” a city catering to the global rich, with skyscrapers, high-end housing and upscale entertainment maximizing the value of every inch of real estate–like a Dubai on the Hudson, only more environmentally friendly and pro-Israel. In his ideology, the purpose of government was to facilitate this. The Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn was rezoned and packed with luxury high-rises, and the administration is preparing to evict scores of mostly immigrant-owned auto-repair businesses in Queens near the Mets’ new stadium to make room for a massive mall, hotel, and luxury-housing complex.
To see this vision encapsulated–hey babe, take a walk on the High Line. A former elevated freight railroad on Manhattan’s west side, it’s been converted to an aboveground park. It’s a fabulous city-of-the-future tableau, overlooking the streets and the Hudson River, lined with grass and art installations, wending between gleaming new high-rises. The underside is that most of those buildings were erected by politically connected developers and tax-subsidized in exchange for a token amount of non-luxury housing. And you have to look pretty hard to see black people or Latinos who aren’t security guards.
That was the problem with Bloomberg’s agenda: It excluded most of the people who actually live here. In Dubai, after all, service jobs are done by underpaid immigrants vulnerable to deportation who live jammed into overcrowded rooms.
In Bloomberg’s New York, more than 60 percent of the 3 million people who make less than $35,000 a year spend more than half their income on rent. Even among residents whose rents are controlled by the much-maligned rent-stabilization law, more than half pay more than a third of their income. Bloomberg claims that he has “created or preserved” 165,000 units of “affordable housing,” but he has undercut whatever he’s preserved by making the city rent board a rubber stamp for increases and financing the campaigns of Republican state legislators who prevent the city from strengthening its rent controls.
His claim also stretches the definition of “affordable” to the point of fraud. His New Housing Marketplace program built more apartments for people who make more than $100,000 a year than for people who make less than $30,000. It defines as “affordable” a one-room apartment in Harlem that costs almost $1,500 a month–more than Yankees superstar Reggie Jackson paid for a Fifth Avenue penthouse 35 years ago.
Bloomberg was not as racially pugnacious as Rudolph Giuliani, but his policing policies relied on a racist statistical fallacy–that because most crime suspects are black and Latino men, that justifies treating all black and Latino men as potential criminals. Of the 685,000 people a year questioned under the stop-and-frisk policy and the 50,000-odd busted for marijuana possession, around 85 percent were black or Latino. State Sen. Eric Adams, a former police officer, testified last April that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had told him the stop-and-frisk policy focused on blacks and Latinos “to instill fear in them that every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police.” Kelly denied saying this, but it was only an impoliticly explicit version of the administration’s standard defense–that crime will return to crack-era levels unless you keep certain demographic groups clamped down. Earlier this year, the mayor urged that public-housing residents be fingerprinted.
On civil liberties, Bloomberg was arguably worse than Giuliani, who once shut off subway service to central Harlem to impede a small black-nationalist rally. As he took office after 9/11, he could use “terrorism” as an excuse to suppress protests, such when he refused to permit a demonstration against the impending Iraq war in United Nations Plaza in 2003. During the Republican Convention in 2004, more than 1,800 protesters (and a few bystanders) were arrested, many trapped in orange plastic nets, and jailed until the end of the convention. Police had prepared a disused bus garage as a detention center–but didn’t bother to clean the toxic sludge off the floor.
When the Occupy Wall Street encampment was evicted in November 2011, police closed subway stops in the area, defied a court order to let the protesters return, arrested reporters trying to cover it, and bloodied the head of City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who was trying to bear witness.
Yes, Bloomberg supports same-sex marriage and gun control, but his contempt for those who were economically worse off matches that of 47-Percent Mitt — and money was the heart of his agenda.
Wishnia is a New York-based journalist specializing in housing, labor, and drug issues. He is the author of the novel When the Drumming Stops (Manic D Press) and coedited the forthcoming Imagine: Living in a Socialist U.S.A. (HarperCollins). He also played bass in the 1980s punk band False Prophets and artist Mac McGill’s multimedia show. You can see more of his work at his website StevenWishnia.com.