Sunday, April 22, 2007

Meeting with some colleagues the other day, I repeated a remark I've made many times over the past five years or so: the Bloomberg mayoralty is likely to be remembered as a kind of golden age for policy wonks. Mike Bloomberg himself has done a lot to make this so: his administration has been about as bereft of partisanship or ideologically driven policymaking as possible, and his personal wealth and lack of evident concern over a future in politics--the still-quixotic dream of a Bloomberg '08 presidential campaign notwithstanding--have freed him, and his administration, from any incentive to pander either to powerbrokers or even the voters. What he's done with this freedom of action hasn't always been what I'd want to see--the (defeated) West Side stadium, and the worrisome Atlantic Yards project, were and are unnecessary and potentially damaging, maybe devastating, to communities--but I've never doubted his motivations. Considering the political norms of our time, that's pretty amazing... and, given the absolute contrast it presents to the current presidential administration, inspiring too.

Today, Bloomberg made a speech that I think will stand as a challenge to his successors, whoever they turn out to be, to follow a similar course. It kicked off the "PlaNYC" initiative, a set of ten goals to dramatically improve the natural and built environment of New York City by 2030. While the first wave of media coverage has focused on the mayor's proposal to charge "congestion pricing" for drivers in Manhattan during weekday work hours, the big stuff--enormous infrastructure changes and environmental cleanup, among other things--might pass below the radar.

Maybe for reasons of personal outlook, maybe because of political realities, I am not especially optimistic that this audacious vision will be realized. All the institutional forces that have a stake in the status quo, largely relegated to the sidelines (or bought off in various ways) during the Bloomberg years, presumably will reassert themselves through the power of the purse in the next campaign, and the ones to follow. The price of their support will be what it always is: "compromise" on matters of principle, and an official willingness to at least somewhat privilege special interests over common interests.

Additionally, this plan, admirable as it is, speaks to the physical well being of the future city rather than the socioeconomic well being of those who will live in it. I anticipate doing some work around this question for one or more of my freelance clients, so I won't go into detail here--but a "PlaNYC" that doesn't make some provision for preserving and growing a middle class, risks saving the body of New York City while doing nothing to save its soul.

Still, I feel a deep pride in this place, and a great admiration for the mayor and his leadership here. A golden age, indeed.

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