There are fewer than 60 days left in Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor of New York and he appears determined to make every one count. Each week he is a blur of events: inaugurating a historic water tunnel, announcing a plan to switch all of the city’s streetlights to energy-efficient alternatives, visiting projects to protect New York from the next megastorm.
But that race against time is about to end. After 12 years, New York is confronting a future without Mr. Bloomberg. On Tuesday, voters will pick his successor, a campaign that was not so much a contest between adversaries as a race against his legacy.
By many metrics, the city is a far better place than when he started: safer, healthier, larger, greener, more prosperous. Those results are even more remarkable considering that Mr. Bloomberg took office months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a time when some questioned whether New York could ever thrive again.
While many New Yorkers give credit to Mr. Bloomberg, 71, for being an exceptional mayor, there are also complicated feelings about his time at city hall: a period of rising inequality presided over by a man whose high-handed style can rankle.
Some of the qualities that made Mr. Bloomberg successful in his first two terms – the crusading zeal to improve city life, the imperviousness to criticism – became less appealing during his third term. New Yorkers appear poised to elect Bill de Blasio as mayor, a Democrat who has run a single-minded campaign criticizing Mr. Bloomberg for increasing the gap between rich and poor.
The incumbent has brushed off such attacks. “Our problems here now are all problems of success,” Mr. Bloomberg recently told Forbes magazine. In another interview in August, he accused Mr. de Blasio of engaging in divisive rhetoric. “This city is not two groups,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “And if to some extent it is, it’s one group paying for services for the other.”
Such pronouncements did not endear him to average New Yorkers. “I do believe that it would be fair to say that at the end of 12 years, Bloomberg is the best mayor I ever covered,” said Wayne Barrett, who wrote about city politics for more than four decades at the Village Voice. Still, by the end of his third term, he became “much more of a rich man’s mayor, at least rhetorically.”
It’s unlikely that New York will see a mayor like Mr. Bloomberg again. A self-made billionaire thanks to his eponymous data-and-media giant, he was not beholden to donors or lobbyists. But he had strong views about how a city ought to be run and how its residents should behave.
To wit: he prevented New Yorkers from smoking in bars, restaurants and parks. He banned trans fat from the city’s eateries, obliged fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts and mounted a campaign against excess salt. His most recent move to combat obesity – a crackdown on large sizes of sugary drinks – was blocked by a judge.
Public health professionals consider Mr. Bloomberg “a hero,” said Linda Fried, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. His tenure has been “visionary and transformational,” she said, contributing to an increase of nearly three years in the life expectancy of New Yorkers.
His moves to transform New York’s physical fabric were more dramatic, even if they grabbed fewer headlines. During his tenure, nearly 40 per cent of the city has been rezoned, allowing for an unprecedented amount of new construction.
Former rail yards have made way for commercial complexes and stadiums. Luxury apartment buildings have sprouted in areas previously considered undesirable, from South Williamsburg in Brooklyn to the Bowery in Manhattan. The frenzy of redevelopment reached its apogee in midtown, where a cluster of ultra-tall, ultra-expensive buildings dubbed “Billionaires Row” has risen.
But John Liu, the city comptroller and an outspoken critic, said that while the pace of real estate development surged and job creation improved, the gap between the rich and the poor has grown under Mr. Bloomberg. “A reasonable conclusion is that much of the increased economic activity has benefited those who needed it the least,” he said.
Between 2000 and 2010, the eight highest-income neighbourhoods in New York saw their median family income, adjusted for inflation, rise 55 per cent, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute. Overall, however, median family income in the city remained basically flat.
“While the city as a whole has prospered, the average New Yorker is finding it more difficult to afford to live here,” said Kathryn Wylde, the chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, an influential group of business leaders. Mr. Bloomberg’s “success has brought with it real pressure on working-class and middle-income households.”
Mr. Bloomberg has argued he has done more to help less fortunate New Yorkers than any of his predecessors, pointing to the jobs his administration created in areas likes tourism and the thousands of units of affordable housing it has either built or preserved. A mayoral spokesman declined to comment on specific questions.
For a mayor in his third term, Mr. Bloomberg’s approval ratings remain respectable, with 46 per cent of New Yorkers approving of his performance, according to a September survey by Quinnipiac University.
But there’s also a desire to, as one urban-affairs expert put it, “change the Bloomberg channel.” In that same poll, 61 per cent of voters said the city needs to move in a new direction from the course set by Mr. Bloomberg.
As for the soon-to-be former mayor, he expects to attend his successor’s inauguration and then take a vacation. But first, there are still 59 days left of work to do.
RATING THE MAYOR
When he took office, the former World Trade Center was an ashy ruin. The surrounding neighbourhood now is thriving . There is a stunning memorial at Ground Zero, an initiative he spearheaded, and a new 104-storey tower opening to tenants next year.
When he banned smoking from bars and restaurants in 2003, business owners were furious. Ten years later, the ban is second nature and more than 500 U.S. cities have followed New York’s example.
New York’s crime rate was already falling when he came to City Hall, but on his watch it decreased further. New York is now the safest large metropolis in the country.
He explored and abandoned the idea of running for president in his second term. But to stay on as mayor for a third term, he pushed through a change to the city’s term-limits law, and many have never forgiven him.
His drive to fight crime included the controversial “stop-and-frisk,” the practice of stopping individuals deemed suspicious. A federal judge this year ruled it was unconstitutional.
In 2010, he appointed a friend, Cathie Black, to the critical post of overseeing the city’s troubled public school system, despite her lack of experience in education. Following a hailstorm of criticism, Ms. Black resigned after three months.