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Stand Up Guy
Michael Bloomberg practices his architecture humor at the Architectural League of New York
Former mayor Michael Bloomberg was honored with the medal at the recent black-tie Architectural League of New York President’s Medal Dinner at the Metropolitan Club. He gave a spirited acceptance speech, including a few zingers. “The only way to express my gratitude is to tell you the one architect joke I know: Two beavers were swimming in the water below the Hoover Dam. And one beaver turned to the other and asked: ‘Did you build that?’ and the other one said, ‘No, but it’s based on my design.’”
New Yorkers can stop scratching their heads over how outbound Mayor Michael Bloomberg will spend his time once he leaves office in a few weeks. As The New York Times revealed this weekend, the Mayor and over half-a-dozen of his top aides will be taking their show on the road with a roving city-government-for-hire. Dubbed the Bloomberg Associates, this all-star “urban SWAT team,” funded entirely by Bloomberg’s own billion-dollar pockets, will assist and reshape urban areas across the globe by helping local governments tackle troublesome, long-term challenges, entirely free of charge.
Headed by George A. Feritta, the chief executive of NYC tourism agency, the newly formed team plans to work with four to six cities a year to export and adapt strategies developed under the 11-year Bloomberg administration to struggling urban centers. From relatively affordable initiatives like smoking and trans-fat bans, bike lines, and pop-up pedestrian plazas, to larger policy shifts in the realms of environmental sustainability, economic development, security and law enforcement, the charitable consulting agency will tailor Made-in-New-York measures to cities “from Louisville, KY to Mexico City,” according to the Times. With an annual budget reportedly in the tens of millions and nothing to ask for in return from local municipalities, one can be sure their services will be in high demand.
While the organization’s staff will eventually reach around 25 personnel, only a few high-profile deputies have been announced thus far. On board are Amanda M. Burden, Director of City Planning, Janette Sadik-Kahn, Commissioner of Transportation, Kathrin Oliver, Commissioner of Media and Entertainment, and Kate D. Levin, Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, with the possible addition of Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, suggested by the Times.
The organization will work closely with Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Mayor’s colossal charitable foundation, and will be housed side-by-side within a large townhouse around the corner from the Mayor’s Upper East Side home.
“We have heard this huge demand and need from other cities to learn from New York City,” Burden told the Times. “Under this Mayor, New York is the epitome that cities look to of how to get things done.”
This won’t be the first time that Bloomberg will have lent his big-city governing expertise to other mayors and urban administrations. Last year, New Orleans Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu received a $4.2 million Innovation Delivery Team grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to help the city implement new measures to combat its surging murder rate. As a result of this effort, which included a newly created team to address gang activity and a midnight baseball league to occupy trouble-prone young men, the city’s murder rate has fallen 17 percent.
The mission of the Bloomberg Associates formally establishes the Mayor’s long-touted beliefs that investment in cities is becoming ever more crucial as urban populations continue to grow, providing a platform for the businessman-turned-urban-advocate to spread his most successful, if still debated, policies to the cities that need them most.
Now that Michael Bloomberg’s third and final term is about to end journalists and editors are rolling out scores of articles on his legacy and the future of Gotham. There is little question that during his mayoralty New York changed physically more than it had in many years and architects and designers were more influential than anytime since John Lindsay. The degree to which Bloomberg’s department heads like David Burney, Amanda Burden, and Janette Sadik-Khan made design an important aspect of physical growth and change is probably unprecedented in any American city at least since Robert Moses dominated development in New York. A major narrative in most of these articles is the uneven development that occurred during the period as most of these physical changes and improvements were concentrated in affluent Manhattan and the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts—facing Manhattan. It is clear that most of the achievements of the period—like the High Line, the new parklets created on odd bits of left over streetscape along Broadway, designated bike lanes, and even bike sharing—were heavily weighted towards improving Manhattan and gentrified areas of Brooklyn and Queens. If one looks to areas like Brownsville, Crotona, or the Southeast Bronx, it is hard to find the Bloomberg initiatives having made little or any improvements to the streetscapes.
But not mentioned in these articles is the degree to which this administration marginalized (though this began under Rudolph Giuliani) the City Planning Commission, once a major player in development decisions and ensuring equity in planning. This neglect of official planning during the period may explain some of the more obvious blunders of the period, including the mayor’s half-baked, developer-focused 2030 plan; the ill-fated (but happily defeated) West Side Stadium proposal; and the disappointing high-rise development now taking place along the Brooklyn waterfront.
This is not to say that some planning was not undertaken during the Bloomberg era, such as the resiliency efforts highlighted in our feature story “The Nuanced Approach” points out. In fact, park and open space development is probably the most physically obvious transformation that took place in the last 11 1/2 years. The new Brooklyn Bridge and Governors Island Parks and the carefully detailed changes along Newtown Creek in Brooklyn and the Hudson River edge in Manhattan (though mostly financed through a structurally dubious private public partnership model embraced by the mayor) will take their place alongside the great Olmsted and Moses open spaces.
Galen Cranz points out in her writings on urban parks in America that the last time designers were involved in park design, the period she labels “the open space system” of the late 1950s through the 1970s, they primarily created plazas fronting corporate offices and did not always put the public in the foreground. Their spaces had mixed results as we can witness up and down Park Avenue. But in assessing open space design in the period one must also consider not just the security zone created around areas like Wall Street and the World Trade Center, but the reaction of the Bloomberg administration to the occupiers in Zuccotti Park, who were given some latitude to protest but were closely monitored and slowly pushed out of the area until the movement faded. Finally, one must consider The Gramsci Monument created this past summer by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn in the Forest Houses NYCHA project in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. In its collaborative design, Gramsci seemed to use space to fight back against the model of public space as a site for leisure, framing it as one where death and scission is encouraged and allowed to flourish. In the end, this may have been the most important new model of public space created during the Bloomberg era, and its strength was its opposition to the notion of parks as primarily sites of leisure, and its promotion of them as sites for discussion and protest—the kinds of spaces the city desperately needs today.