Measure of a Mayor: Bloomberg and his non-tech legacy

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on January 8, 2014

From The News Desk

We are right now in a time of hyper-Bloomberg retrospection. The man has just left office, and his legacy is under heavy construction. Those who look at his track record as the mayor exemplar are probably highlighting his work in the private sector and tech. But there are other considerations, too.

Cushioned between the Freedom Tower and the Empire State Building lies Manhattan’s famed Greenwich Village. It’s home to Washington Square Park, the beginning of New York's High Line, as well as New York University's Skirball Auditorium -- a venue that hosts the monthly New York Tech Meetup. Last night, braving the elements of the mythical Polar Vortex, I trekked from the West 4th train stop to the theater. I sat down at the auditorium and warmed myself up as the host greeted the crowd, noting tonight as the organization's tenth anniversary: a perfect talking point for the Bloomberg New York legacy.

Bill de Blasio has been in office for eight days now, and we, as a city, are at once in the midst of sizing him up and winding down the Bloomberg mythos. The former mayor's proponents are scrambling to come up with good statistics by which to propel his legacy. And many of these proponents can be found at places like the Meetup, waxing philosophic about the economic improvements Bloomberg has brought to this city, specifically in tech.

Just a sampling of these pro-Bloomberg statements include the jobs has he created, the initiatives has he spearheaded, the many businesses has he helped to maintain, the neighborhoods has he revitalized. But there are other metrics that tell a different narrative.

Take, for instance, the blog Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, an all-around depressing look into the city's historic small businesses that have been lost since 2001. Obviously businesses close and people move, which is a sad fact about any city. But this site looks specifically at the small businesses that suffered losses due to (what the author would consider) 'Bloomberg after-effects.'

Each shuttered shop is listed with the amount of years it was in business along with the cause of its closure. In all, the website tallies 6,926 years of New York City history that have disappeared in the last 12 years. Some 836 of these years were lost in 2013 alone.

Many closures can be attributed to rent and lease predicaments -- rent increases being one of the leading villains in the blog’s narrative. The site offers evidence that gentrification has harmed New York, which needs "strong protections for the city's small businesses."

Each lost business in Jeremiah’s list is meant to be an illustrations of a failed mayoral term. Other examples include the New York Times longform story about the homeless Brooklyn 11-year-old who resided in the most abhorrent of conditions. Or even Bloomberg’s failed attempt to regulate soda consumption, which many regarded as steps toward a Nanny State. And, perhaps most importantly, his massive overhaul of the city's public school system, which yielded mixed, if not negative, results.

At last night's Meetup, I couldn't help but think of the Vanishing New York blog while watching fresh young startups pitch their ideas. The man next to me was an older man in his late 60s, who claimed to have been a member of New York's tech scene since before I could even remember (and I believe him). I asked him his thoughts on the Bloomberg's tenure. This man told me that Bloomberg was a great mayor, other than his policies on “stop and frisk,” housing, civil liberties, and poverty. You know, minor issues.

But this conversation perfectly encapsulates how many New Yorkers conceptualize the man. He must have been great, right? Otherwise, why would people be making such a fuss. And of course, he did do some great things. His dark streak, however, ran just as deep, and New Yorkers know this. It's a divisive issue for those who live here. Some turn a blind eye and others, like Jeremiah, are outraged.

The numbers speak to this confusion.

In one respect, he was the leading tech invigorator, who helped increase private sector employment by 4 percent from 2007 to 2012. This amounted to 262,000 new tech jobs. His general employment numbers add credence to this, with an all-time employment high since 1969.

On the flipside, he was a man with a blatantly plutocratic agenda, which included cutting funding to numerous health agencies. Additionally, his questionable policies toward poverty has caused ire among many (right now 46 percent of New Yorkers are considered “poor” or “nearly poor”). And then, of course, there’s stop and frisk, a divisive anti-crime tactic he implemented that appears to have yielded few results.

In essence, we’re shown the legacy of a politician whose tenure was a major boon was for the private sector. But is that enough for this city?

The man next to me recounted a Meetup at which Bloomberg gave the opening remarks. Bloomberg talked about his love for tech, the flourishing scene he saw in the city, and his tireless work toward immigration reform. He left the stage to booming applause. Following that were presenters representing the Occupy movement, who were also met with the same euphoric response. But how is this possible?

While Bloomberg’s accomplishments in tech cannot be overlooked, there is still more to the five boroughs than Silicon Alley. And for our tech scene to flourish, we must not brush these other issues aside. Sites like Jeremiah’s are a needed reminder of this.

I rode the A train home last night thinking about our Mayors of past, present, and future. In front of me was a couple, in the most cinematically New York way possible, weeping while sitting beneath an ad for an online money-sharing tech company, which wrote in large letters "Lucas uses Venmo." I'm guessing this couple's woes had little to do with a startup.

[Image via Wikimedia]