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Mayor Bloomberg took a bit of New York’s soul

By Teresa Wiltz, The Guardian
Tuesday, December 31, 2013 0:18 EDT
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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Photo: AFP.
 
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The billionaire mayor is a series of pluses and minuses that never quite add up. Let’s hope some of the city’s funky grit returns now

It’s the eve of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s exodus from New York City’s top office after three terms, and I have such mixed feelings about him. For me, the billionaire mayor is a series of pluses and minuses that never add up to a cohesive whole.

On the one hand, he’s the man behind one of the few news outlets that’s still pumping money into journalism. On the other hand, he seems to delight in dodging reporters’ questions – or insulting them. I’m happy he snuffed out indoor smoking in the city, and as a health nut, I have to admit that I agree with him when it comes to trans fats and supersized sodas. I really appreciate Bloomberg’s work lobbying for gun control, but I really, really loathe his unflagging endorsement of the stop-and-frisk police policy.

Sure, he built bike paths, erected shiny new skyscrapers and rocked out the High Line park on a refurbished railway track. Crime is down. Tourism is thriving. Small business got a boost from some of his initiatives.

But at the same time, close to half of New Yorkers are living at or below the poverty line. During Bloomberg’s tenure, the homeless rates skyrocketed, creating what the New York Times has called “the most unequal metropolis in America“. There are over 22,000 homeless children in the city, the highest number since the Great Depression. Walk through the city’s Union Square early on a Sunday morning, and you have to tiptoe over rows upon rows of sleeping bodies.

I’m an on-again, off again New Yorker. I spent a good chunk of my childhood in Staten Island, came back to the city for a stretch in college and lived through the worst of New York’s crack era when I was in my 20s, eventually leaving for grad school. Over the years, I’ve come back again and again, on business trips, to see family, to hang out, to work. I can’t quit New York.

Members of my extended family, teachers and principals and union vets, rail against Bloomberg and what they see as his “tone-deaf” attitude towards schools and parents, particularly parents of color. My cousin, Peter Goodman, a veteran educator, put it this way:

He managed to alienate everybody. He seemed to take pleasure in denigrating anyone who disagreed with him.

Parachuting into New York as I now do, I’m encountering a radically changed city. Back in the day, I remember getting off the subway at 125th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem and literally having to step over a fresh corpse – a man had just been shot. Now, Harlem is high-priced and fancy, with chichi cafes and high-end beauty chains.

Don’t get me wrong, no one wants to return to those days of crack and crime. And I love a good restaurant and am no stranger to beauty chains like Sephora. But I can’t help but feel like something’s missing from the city that I love. It’s gone from gritty to gourmet with no stop in between. Harlem was famously the home of a fabulous renaissance in African-American literature, but could today’s Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston or Claude McKay or WEB DuBois afford to live there now?

As a young dancer, I gobbled up everything that the city’s cultural life had to offer: Broadway, off-Broadway, Mikhail Baryshnikov with American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey concerts at City Center, weird post-post-modern dance performances in rickety lofts, outdoor concerts. Art was available and accessible to everyone. Now, not so much.

I’ve lived all over Manhattan, from the East Side to the Upper West Side to Harlem to Washington Heights. Sure, it helped to be rich if you were living in Manhattan. But I also saw that middle and lower class families could raise their children, too, social workers and classical musicians and teachers and dockworkers. There was room for everybody. Today? I’m not so sure. Manhattan has become a playground for the rich – a sterile playground – and Brooklyn’s not far behind.

I’m heartened to hear Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio talk about how New York has become a “tale of two cities” with an ever-widening gap between those who have and those who don’t. Let’s hope he can bring back some of New York’s funky grit. After a decade plus of the Bloombergian years, it’s time for a change.

As my friend Tracey Mendelsohn, a lifelong New Yorker put it, “I’m not even mad, I just want him to go. He took a bit of New York’s soul.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013

 
 
 
 
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