When I say I am an old New Yorker you can take that literally. I was born under Mayor Jimmy Walker in 1932, the year Walker fled the investigators of his corruption, and I grew up under the great Fiorello LaGuardia, who saw us through the Depression with a gruff but warm and winning cunning/courage. I actually heard him read the funnies during the newspaper strike. And I have for the past eight years lived uneasily under Michael Bloomberg: competent, cold, and just a little bit creepy by this New Yorker's standards.
Yes, I heard all the rhetoric about the schools improving under Bloomberg. Maybe. I acknowledge what he has done for public health. Cheers. All the limitations on smoking that make the city air more breathable are good for my bronchitis and my grandchildren's lungs. And I think his eye shattering salmon pink cashmere sweater worn during his campaigning sent a message of welcome to a gay community, a group he supports. I also don't buy for a moment that he is a Republican. That was a convenience for the ballot, not a factor in his liberal political outlook. Yet I could not bring myself to vote for him. Although his instincts are often decent, I find his acts too often destructive. Nobody has wrecked the nature of New York as a habitable city for the middle class as much as Bloomberg has in the past eight years. I have known a few rich folks in my life, many of whom started in modest circumstances like Bloomberg -- but I have known few who have so little idea of how ordinary people live in a city and what makes a city work for them. Try standing in the cold waiting for any city bus for a half hour and see them arrive like a herd of elephants as your toes are stricken by frostbite.
A few of you who have read my past blogs know I am an architectural buff; not an expert, just a fan of living neighborhoods. Under Michael Bloomberg I watched a city explode with high-rise, high-cost housing, built in a helter skelter, East Berlin redux, destroying entire neighborhoods such as Yorkville and creeping into Harlem. The entire village became an adjunct of NYU and Columbia University has been embracing its surrounding neighborhood with its octopus crush. Newspaper stores became Gaps, and when the Gaps closed they became Bank of America branches, as neighborhoods turned into cash machines to pay for the expensive new restaurants. And when the cash machines fold -- and they will -- what then? More empty store-fronts? It seemed to me that the Bloomberg years began with a billionaire's money and ended as a game of monopoly with the Mayor owning hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk and the rest of us with mortgaged houses on Baltic and Mediterranean. Thank God for the Korean grocers where you could pick up a newspaper, a bunch of carnations, and a container of milk and remind yourself that you still lived in a neighborhood. I don't know what four more years of Bloomberg will do to the city -- the recession having put a check on the sound stage set of Metropolis into which he has helped convert my city.
Low-rise, human scale neighborhoods go unprotected, as old housing developments for the middle class are bought up by speculators. Others are waiting for the falling crane and the wrecking ball in what Bloomberg views as progress and I view as desecration. What often passes for slum clearance is a barbarian invasion by steel and glass and speculators: dangerous unchecked construction. The Mayor may not have total control over the construction of new buildings, but the new glass tower that is being built by the space-greedy, slavering art monger MOMA will surely destroy the human scale of the West Fifties, placed as it is on a side street. Bloomberg looks at this and smiles his Cheshire cat smile at what he sees as progress. Others, like me, weep (metaphorically) for the old city which respected size, scale, and the need for human beings to live in a human sized environment, recognizing that our neighborhoods were small cities within the larger city. Bloomberg may claim to be an environmentalist by banning cigarettes in public spaces, but he has allowed his builder friends to shut out the sky in too many neighborhoods and force out the struggling middle class. This is an environmentalism that hurts too many in the name of progress. And it forces more than a few, like me, who appreciate much of what he stands for -- good education -- civil rights -- safe streets -- to vote for his bland but competent opponent.