Hey New York, Michael Bloomerg Is Not Your Daddy

It's primal. We'd all love a powerful daddy to protect us and ward off looming dangers.

That yearning made Michael Bloomberg mayor. A long shot before 9/11, he seemed a cartoon, the Billionaire Who Would Be Mayor, until traumatized New Yorkers turned to him for rescue.

And Mayor Bloomberg has been in many ways a good daddy. He has offered a welcome voice of reason and racial tolerance, in contrast to the choler of Rudy Giuliani. The mayor does what often feels like the right thing: banning cigarettes, transfats and traffic from Times Square. His grand-scale projects promise fun, from new baseball stadiums to an ill-fated attempt to host the 2012 Olympics in New York. (The Games have gone to London.)

Bloomberg's critics sound shrill, their vehemence ill-suited to a good man of good will. What is the problem?

The problem is us, we who defer to Daddy. Father Knows Best government may make for comfort and efficiency, but it eats away at the capacity for self-government, damping even the appetite for information that might spur questions of authority.

If Bloomberg has a predecessor, it's not any previous mayor. It's [urban planner] Robert Moses, the model of benevolent paternalism who rebuilt the city according to his personal vision of the public good. As Moses accumulated power and used it for public works, a grateful New York stood by. For decades, Moses' plans were adopted with little debate or recognition of their downside, the displacement of working-class communities by highways. Will we remember the Bloomberg Era with similar ambivalence and regret?

Like Moses, Bloomberg has set in motion a building boom. By rezoning one-sixth of the city and encouraging real estate development, he has presided over dramatic changes in neighborhoods and street life. Longtime small businesses have seen their rents skyrocket. One illustrative example, Nusraty Afghan Imports, a Village shop of fewer than 900 square feet, was supplanted by the Brooks Brothers subsidiary Black Fleece in August, when the monthly rent shot up sixfold to $45,000.

Affordable housing has been lost to predatory investors. Between 2004 and 2008, 90,000 affordable-housing units were bought by speculators. Ross Perot once described the "giant sucking sound" of American jobs disappearing into a global maw. In Bloomberg's New York, that giant sucking sound is the disappearance of small businesses and affordable housing.

Where Moses gained power by stealth, Bloomberg openly makes use of his fortune to advance his agenda and chill opposition. Rep. Anthony Weiner dropped out of the mayoral race, despairing of substantive debate in the face of the mayor's expected $80 million campaign -- more than 10 times the amount available to a candidate accepting public financing. Wealth and incumbency give the mayor the kind of monopoly advantage antitrust laws were invented to prevent.

Hoping Bloomberg has our best interests at heart, we New Yorkers shy away from scrutinizing his underlying ideology -- a distinctly big-business bent. "We love the rich people," he declares, and indeed, his economic-development program offers a kinder, gentler version of trickle-down economics.

Real estate interests trump even child health, as Bloomberg demonstrated when he vetoed the City Council's lead paint law. His suspicion of the poor spurred him to stop giving homeless families with children priority on federal housing vouchers. This 4-year-old policy has resulted in unprecedented numbers of families with children in city shelters -- recently more than 9,400 families, or more than 28,000 people. Still, Bloomberg defends it as a way to prevent the poor from scamming the system.

Bloomberg has pressed for systemic changes that beg for discussion but draw little attention. In the name of efficiency and economy, he has sought to curtail public participation, eliminating community school boards and threatening to defund local community boards. Instead of respecting the natural crime control that comes from neighborhoods with community-based small businesses, Bloomberg instead places faith in a fleet of thousands of surveillance cameras.

And despite his enthusiasm for the language of accountability and transparency, the mayor's initiatives repeatedly run counter to his rhetoric. Bloomberg's much-touted attempt to take over the cleanup of industrial wastelands, or "brownfields," removes cleanup authority from state environmental experts and puts it in the hands of political appointees potentially beholden to real estate developers. Mayoral control of public education has left the school system unaccountable either to the state or to the city; nonmayoral city agencies have been unable to obtain basic data.

Once-feisty New Yorkers have gone soft, trusting in Daddy to take care of us. This Father's Day, consider how that innocent childhood longing, misdirected at any politician, may put the public interest and democracy at risk.


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