When Henry Stern writes of public service, as he did recently in New York Civic’s column, the rest of us should read attentively. Stern, as our Parks Commissioner, left behind a record of enthusiastic devotion to the corpus of our great city – to the people, the buildings, the streets, the bridges, the concerts, and of course, to the parks and several thousand trees, to which he was a tender mid-wife.
So although Henry Stern was really writing about good people, commissioners and deputy commissioners, leaving City employ as the end of an administration approaches, he felt that in the process he had to pay respect to the current Mayor, who had hired those good people.
“History will judge Mayor Bloomberg as one of the best Mayors,” he wrote.
Oh, dear. I am forced to demur. Being a good Mayor is more than hiring good people. It’s also setting a tone of leadership for the city. I can’t let the praise go unchallenged.
Of the Mayors who served in City Hall since I arrived in New York in 1957, only one seemed to be not really up to the job, and he had been dealt a bad hand. Abraham Beame was a good and decent man, but he was overwhelmed by the City’s incipient bankruptcy of the mid 1970s. Governor Hugh Carey had to step in and put the City into a kind of receivership, with the State backing up City borrowing to get us out of the pickle.
Two Mayors were not as good as we had hoped. Robert Wagner seemed unable to cope with the times that were “a’changing,” in the 1960s, despite his long life of public service. David Dinkins rode a pro-integration wave into Gracie Mansion, but seemed perhaps too content with that accomplishment, and was unable to muster the revolutionary fire that many of his followers had anticipated.
Revolution stimulates reaction in politics. Then the excesses of the reaction stimulate more revolution, and so on and on. But if the initial revolution fizzles, as it did in the Dinkins Administration, that reciprocal process never takes place.
One Mayor had a shining moment of brilliance, following the 9/11 attack – Rudolph Giuliani. But it was set amid eight years of pointless turmoil and mean spiritedness. Two excellent Education Chancellors were forced out of office. A vicious war against City University was launched by City Hall. Dubious characters hung out at City Hall, while honest citizens were excluded. Mayor Giuliani did an excellent job of organizing the city’s recovery from the attack on the World Trade Center, but that latter day spurt of competence did not make him a good mayor.
Two were great Mayors: John Lindsay and Ed Koch.
John Lindsay kept this city from bursting asunder during one of the most difficult transformational periods of our country’s history. At the end of his two four-year terms, the city was better defined and rising, whereas many cities in the United States were bewildered and strewn with rubble.
Lindsay opened up the parks, established 911 calls and created a city that people wanted to live in. He was the leader of a WASP counter-revolution in New York City, taking the city back from the ethnic tribes that had ruled it for a hundred years.
Ed Koch understood the city better than any of its recent Mayors, and if he was too tolerant of its lesser angels (and I was his adversary on many matters), he was also encouraging to the city’s better instincts.
He welcomed immigrants as human beings, and didn’t fuss about their documents or lack thereof. He supported freedom of artistic expression in the theatre and in museums, bravely resisting those who would censor art. He was unafraid to hire top aides who were brighter, often, than he. He used their brilliance and defended their controversial actions with his rhetorical acumen.
So where does all that leave the current Mayor, Michael Bloomberg?
When the English were in charge of governing Ireland, they dispatched “Resident Magistrates” to handle the day-to-day affairs of the chuckle-headed Irish subjects, on John Bull’s other island. The “Irish RMs” were English, make no mistake, although some did try to incorporate the strange and humorous folkways of the locals into their policies. Nevertheless, when decisions had to be made, it was the duty of the RM to make decisions that suited the English, and it was the duty of the Irish to obey and, if possible, to learn.
Michael Bloomberg is a Resident Magistrate here in New York. He is not exactly from England, but he’s from someplace. Not here. You wouldn’t describe him as “naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty,” as you would Forty Second Street. He seems to come here to instruct us on how to run our lives without really getting involved in our lives. Like his use of Spanish in Hispanic areas, there is a hint of noblesse oblige to what he does, but he is not really getting down. The accent is not very good. He goes to ball games when he has to, not because he wants to. He flies out to Bermuda in his private plane when he wants to have fun.
He is scrupulously honest, of course. He never takes a dime. But while he does good, he has many powerful and rich friends who do well under City policies. He uses his wealth with no more caution than Julius Caesar used his armies. He gets done what needs to get done, using money. When it was necessary to have “popular” support for his term-limits repeal in 2009, the word was passed to certain churches that receive Michael Bloomberg’s personal philanthropy, and their parishioners showed up at City Hall to support the arcane law change.
Michael Bloomberg seems to consider the United States Bill of Rights as an unwanted intrusion upon his power. The First Amendment right to assemble, and the Fourth Amendment right to be secure in one’s possessions are annoyances to him, not jewels in our crown of freedom. The relationship between the New York Police Department and many parts of our population is going downhill fast.
Bloomberg’s leadership of the New York public schools has been a disaster. The details of the chaos will need a whole column, or maybe a book. But suffice to say that the Mayor who once boasted loudly of how he was going to straighten out the city’s schools is now urging parents to take their children out of the very schools that he himself runs and put them in charter schools. Is that not abject surrender? Is it anything else?
His creation of the “High Line” park, his street closings, his promotion of bicycles, his anti-smoking measures all have the tone of a modern day reformer. But they are really distractions from the city’s real problems – crime, injustice, class polarization, lack of low-income housing, rock bound poverty, etc. These all go on, yet there seems to be no relief from his good advice.
I had an unmarried Great Aunt Diddie, when I was a child, my mother’s mother’s sister, who used to visit around the greater family households from time to time, spreading good advice. She spent most of the time at our place telling us children how to behave better and telling my mother how she could keep the house better. “You’re getting behind in your sock darning,” Aunt Diddie would tell my mother, and my father would laugh and laugh. My mother never had any intention of darning socks. My mother preferred to read.
When Aunt Diddie would leave after a few days, my mother was always glad to see her go. I wonder if the city will breathe a sigh of relief when Michael Bloomberg finishes his third term. I hope the new Mayor, elected in 2013, will not try and continue the good advice barrage, but will try to tackle the real problems.