Does Michael Bloomberg ever wish he could go back in time? Back before his high-profile, third-term setbacks: the Cathie Black fiasco, the unpaved streets in last winter’s blizzard, his surprisingly lackluster showing in the last election. Back to October 2009, perhaps, when New York Magazine ran its regular feature on the city’s power brokers and concluded that in 21st century New York City, “there is a one-man Establishment: Michael Bloomberg.”
How the mayor managed to tower over the varied cast of business, cultural, and civic leaders who traditionally influence the city’s affairs, and the priorities of this unusually powerful administration, are the subjects of Julian Brash’s recent book Bloomberg’s New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City.
The term “luxury city” refers to a speech Bloomberg gave at an economic conference in 2003, in which he declared: “If New York City is a business, it isn’t Wal-Mart–it isn’t trying to be the lowest-priced product in the market. It’s a high-end product, maybe even a luxury product.” This, Brash argues, was Bloomberg’s signature approach to running New York: define himself as CEO and the city as a product to be branded. In his first term, Bloomberg created the position of Chief Marketing Advisor to burnish the city’s image, and dispatched top economic development staff to London, Seoul, and Davos to pitch the New York brand to global businesses.
But the luxury city strategy did not end with public relations. The administration also used zoning and incentives to encourage the development of new condominiums and public amenities like the High Line to attract and retain the highly-educated, highly-skilled people that elite businesses employ. The effects of this strategy are visible in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, but also in Harlem and Williamsburg, Flushing and Long Island City. “This is all about class,” Brash states. “It’s really a city for the well-off.”
I spoke with Brash about Bloomberg’s New York, and the specific tools and strategies that people can use if they want to influence neighborhood change.
Could you start by talking about what are the specific strategies that help create Bloomberg’s version of the “luxury city?” How is it different from what his predecessors were doing?
If you walk down the High Line, it runs through the Standard Hotel, which is emblematic of the luxury city. But it also provides this great public space. These two things together—high-end development and public amenities—are what makes the luxury strategy work.
The rhetoric coming out of New York’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s was that you had to cut, cut, cut; austerity was the new rule. Bloomberg directly challenged that by saying that the problem in the `70s wasn’t just the large social welfare state or overgenerous urban liberalism but cutting services. The city can’t operate as a place to do business if there aren’t cops and firefighters, the subways aren’t running on time, clean streets, and all the rest of it. That came from his perspective as a businessman: the kind of services that the city provides were a benefit to the kind of businesses he ran.
Bloomberg’s rhetoric of entrepreneurial governance, running government like businesses, attracting well-off, creative class people—none of this is particularly new. Other cities do it. But I think having someone who could legitimately say, “I am a businessman, I have built a brand before” made a big difference.
You say in your book that Bloomberg pursued the strategy of developing amenities and high-end condos for a new class of residents almost to the exclusion of other economic development strategies. To what extent are other options not being pursued because of this overriding goal to create the luxury city?
In terms of social welfare, within the confines of his corporate approach, Bloomberg did take anti-poverty policy somewhat seriously. He did try to incentivize good behavior—which is paternalistic and hasn’t really worked. But compared with Giuliani, he wasn’t just demonizing the poor and seeing them as a scourge. He said a great city like New York has to take care of everybody. I think there’s also a more hard-headed calculus in his administration that poverty is not a good thing to have overwhelming your city if you’re trying to attract global business people.
Bloomberg also was very clear that many businesses have to be located in New York—the New York Stock Exchange is not going to move to New Jersey. That means there’s a lot of more that could be extracted from these businesses to do things like address poverty, build affordable housing, create effective jobs programs. People should realize that you can tax, you can extract benefits from developers. At the very least we could spread the benefits of economic development more broadly. Because there’s so much money being made.
You mention affordable housing. Bloomberg did launch a plan to create 165,000 units of low- and middle-income housing units, in parallel with his strategy to build luxury housing.
The administration was pushed to include affordable housing in a bunch of different development plans, like Hudson Yards and Atlantic Yards. I think they realized after a few years that throwing a bone in that direction would circumvent a lot of political headaches. But I think affordable housing just runs at cross-purposes with the luxury city approach.
The city’s affordable housing policy right now is gentrification. People who don’t make a lot of money—people who are middle class or upper-working class—they can move into gentrifying neighborhoods like Sunset Park or Flatbush. That’s how people get affordable housing. And those people are conflicted and full of self-loathing because they know they’re gentrifiers. That’s been the case for twenty or thirty years.
This is the way our society works right now: middle class, professional people, and working class people are sort of set at each other’s throats. I always think about when you get on a plane, everyone’s fighting to stick their bag in the overhead bin, the flight attendants are all trying to make this go smoothly and they’re not paid well. Meanwhile the shareholders and CEOs are saying “Oh, we’re cost-cutting. We’re doing great.” Gentrification is parallel to that.
It seems like there are two main narratives about gentrification. One is about mourning a lost New York, or a New York that’s in the process of disappearing. The other is—as you say—about the angst of the gentrifier, which is in a way very self-indulgent. It seems like what’s missing is a discussion about tools that people have, that they city has, to address gentrification: really unsexy, wonky things like commercial rent control. Whether or not it’s a good idea, who knows, but it’s never in the conversation.
New York for a long time was a center of progressive urban policy, so it’s not like there aren’t people or tools here, they’ve just fallen out of favor. In the early 70s, there was a lot of innovation about how housing could become de-commodified. Not in terms of squatting or anything radically outside the normal realm of policy. For a long time there was the Tenant Interim Lease program, TIL, which was very effective. Poor people could buy buildings: they’d get an equity stake, they couldn’t make money off selling it, they couldn’t speculate. They’d get trained on how to run a building, and they’d get some city support. And there were programs like that that could be used to protect certain buildings from speculation and warehousing. There are a lot of different tools: community land trusts, rolling back the attacks on rent control, and so on.
To take another example: my parents live in Park Slope, they got a tax write-off to redo their roof. This is a neighborhood with million dollar apartments. You could shift the subsidies from established neighborhoods towards preserving affordable housing in neighborhoods that are gentrifying.
You write about how effective Bloomberg has been at marginalizing people who oppose his policies. Can you talk more about that?
Bloomberg embodies this interesting combination of a corporate, ostensibly anti-political approach with an old-fashioned urban politics. His use of money and philanthropy to get people on his side is really savvy. His people learned from the controversy over [the proposed west-side] Jets stadium. They realized they had to go after specific constituencies like the unions and leaders of minority communities and say “What do you want?” That’s old-fashioned, but it was couched as a different form of politics.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about this shift to what people call “post-politics.” There’s a progressive, technocratic version—someone like Obama. There’s an environmental version that says that we all have to come together and figure out how to save the earth, but not recognizing that there’s fundamental conflict over the use of resources.
The problem with post-politics is: it denies the fact that society is constituted around conflicts of different interests. Bloomberg represents a specific class interest. Early on, he was able to claim that he represents the city as a whole; even though his administration really represents an upper-class movement, there was a sense that they were doing the right thing for the city. Now it looks more like arrogant entitlement, and being out of touch—his maneuvering for the third term, and the whole Cathie Black thing.
Over the course of many years, you’ve studied different neighborhoods that are changing quickly. For groups that are organizing people around issues of gentrification today, what’s the political climate like now compared to when you were studying Harlem many years ago?
The problem is that real estate money is really the lifeblood of politics in New York. Even very progressive politicians are developer-friendly. The woman who was the head of the land use committee for the City Council—at hearings she would make a big deal about affordable housing and then she was singing the national anthem with Steven Spinola [from the Real Estate Board of New York] at their annual dinner. I saw politicians who would rail against some development then they’d run to the back and find Spinola and be like “was that OK?” That’s a problem.
I think a lot of people are realizing that gentrification is not just about their neighborhood, it’s a citywide thing. The problem with anti-gentrification politics has always been how do you connect with broader, citywide strategies. People are struggling towards that. The fact that Bloomberg made high-end development a citywide strategy has allowed people to connect the dots. In that sense, there’s more potential now.