After 12 years as mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg will see his final day in office on 31 December this year. And, he will undoubtedly cast a long shadow: under his watch, 40,000 new buildings have been added to the city, and New York now has nearly 1,000km of bike lanes. Crime is down, tourism has soared – impressive accomplishments that are difficult ones to beat, or even maintain.
Bloomberg is a mayor like few others. His extreme wealth has meant that getting into office hasn’t meant trading many favours and that has translated into what is most easily read as arrogance. But his has been an ideas, not ideals, led administration – one of vision not ideology. For Bloomberg, the city's projects are his passion. Whether it has been improvements to public spaces, a $4.7bn (€3.4bn) water tunnel, or – controversially – creating himself a previously unheard-of third term in office.
He is not a mayor, in the end, but a CEO. Famously, he even works from the centre of a trading-floor style open-plan office, surrounded by dozens of his staff mimicking the corporate environment of his media empire.
From many angles, New York is a much better, more liveable city than it was in 2001. It is safer, there is more public space (such as the much-lauded High Line park), and iconic new buildings are redefining the city’s skyline.
From the cafés that are now allowed seating outside, to the many billionaires that have moved into vast apartments on the umpteenth floor of glistening new towers – on every scale there is new life in the city. And, having taken the reigns of City Hall almost straight after September 11th, he helped to give New York back its optimism.
Though the credit is not all Bloomberg’s. An important success has been his appointment of a strong set of deputies and letting them rule their own domains – people such as transport commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan or city planning head Amanda Burden. The Bloomberg administration, says journalist Andrew Meier, is a cult without a guru. Its creativity comes from those with vocational expertise in their respective departments.
The next mayor, who will be elected this Monday, will undoubtedly take a different approach to governance. City Hall will be more populist (there are few ways that it couldn’t be) and while Bloomberg’s successor will have to make a name for himself in the wake of 12 years of strong leadership, there will also be battles left to fight.
For many, New York has become two cities: one for the wealthy, who have been able to enjoy the successes of the Bloomberg years, and another for the poor, who have been priced out of their neighbourhoods. The city has done perhaps too good a job at cleaning itself up: gentrification is a word on the lips of the citizens in all five boroughs. Bridging that divide must be at the top of the new mayor’s agenda, as pricey real estate projects commissioned under Bloomberg continue to rise.
But for all of the controversies of his administration, Bloomberg has helped to redefine how a mayor can act and what a mayor can do, if he or she has the luxury of choice.
David Michon is managing editor for Monocle.