Atlantic Cities

Bloomberg's Blind Spot on Class

Bloomberg's Blind Spot on Class
Reuters

Mention the name Michael Bloomberg to any New Yorker and you'll most certainly get a visceral response. We either love or hate the billionaire mayor. Still, none of us would deny that he has transformed New York City during his tenure. Even in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, New York has moved forward and has a certain vibrancy and kinetic energy that separates it from the rest of the nation. Despite the economic clouds and debates surrounding development and over-building, New York remains a city of big dreams, and behind it all, since he first took office in 2002, there's been Michael Bloomberg, cheering, pushing, and prodding (often, not so gently).

So Bloomberg's New York is a city of overachievers. And yet, we're Americans too, and we seek to be forever middle class. Even struggling freelancers here identify as such. I met a freelance photographer last week who self-identified as middle class, despite making under $40,000 last year. "Ask people around the country, 'Are you middle class?' and the answer is likely to be yes," wrote Amy O'Leary in The New York Times earlier this year. "But ask the same question in Manhattan, and people often pause in confusion, unsure exactly what you mean." We're confused by the question because of the high cost of living in New York City. But too often we think of New York as only Manhattan, forgetting there are four other boroughs. And, as Richard Florida’s analysis of the class divide in New York shows, we are a city that is geographically segregated along class lines as well.

It's little wonder that this imperfect understanding of income and class, and the sheer physical gulf between the classes, permeates how we perceive and evaluate Bloomberg's policies and legacy. But this out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to class might just be Bloomberg's own Achilles heel. 

We could focus on the visible (and many) improvements in the city during the Bloomberg Era: bike lanes, parks, changed traffic patterns for quicker bus service in Manhattan, and public health gains to name only a few. Bloomberg has made the city a much more livable place for many and therefore has attracted recent college graduates and empty nesters, who are moving back to the city from the suburbs. His embrace of the knowledge and information economy might be how historians best remember Bloomberg's legacy. But he suffers from the sense that his policies disproportionately benefit the upper-middle-class.
 
In a press conference this past February when asked about reports of surging homelessness, Bloomberg shot back that "Nobody's sleeping on the streets," essentially denying reality. This was only one of several flubs the mayor has made when it comes to class and poverty. Many in the press saw this as callousness or being out of touch. But I would suggest instead that it be read through the lens of his blind spot on class. Look at how the mayor handled himself during Sandy recovery efforts in the Rockaways. After days without enough food or water, residents vocally complained during Bloomberg's first visit to the devastated beach community. Rather than take a page from Mayor Ed Koch and let the community vent, Bloomberg remained unmoved. One frustrated resident shouted, "Everyone is here and there's not even a bottle of water? Nothing right is going on here.” But the mayor just moved on to do an interview with a reporter. The community still hasn’t forgotten this, and at the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the mayor was roundly booed.
 
Now, many rich politicians, of which Bloomberg is clearly one, have the ability to "feel" the pain, a la Bill Clinton. Others have transcended their class background to truly identify with everyday citizens, especially those in crisis. Even the usually ostentatious New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seemed to have some real human emotions in the wake of Sandy. But Bloomberg hasn’t seemed capable of emoting (or even smiling?), and it just might be the thing that he is most remembered for. He had his chance to connect to the common New Yorker from the outer boroughs and he failed miserably.
 
What is Bloomberg's legacy for working-class New Yorkers? It might be the so-called "nanny state." Take the recent episode of the derailed soda ban. Clearly we have an epidemic of obesity in the city (and nation) and it seems to have specific class dimensions. Yet, the ban on large sugary drinks seemed to anger the city's working-class more than anyone else. Why? It was presented in a patronizing tone, one used since the 19th century by do-gooders who know what's best for the wretched poor. Sometimes do-gooders actually do know best. But the presentation is often as important as the policy. By not recognizing this (or not caring), Bloomberg triggered century-old reflexes that labeled the mayor's efforts as meddling, condescending and elitist. The beverage and food service industry rallied in opposition and inched the masses into this knee jerk reaction. 
 
One wonders what Bloomberg could do, or rather could have done, if he had paid more attention to his tone and messaging in terms of class. In the end, like all mayors of a big city, he could never please all. But his policies have led to investments in New York by tech companies and universities that bring not just excitement and talent, but even, one suspects, actual jobs. His stance on gay marriage, gun control, and support for the arts have given him a national platform. Even his educational policies, which one can fairly say are a mixed bag, have shown improvements for the city's students. Yet, for many New Yorkers struggling to survive in a city that is getting more and more expensive, Bloomberg has come to be defined solely by this tone deafness. One hopes that in his final months as mayor, he might finally recognize this pattern for the sake of the city and his legacy.
 

Richard Greenwald is professor of sociology and history and Dean at St. Joseph’s College in New York. His most recent book is Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America (New Press, 2012). His next book, The Death of 9-to-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works will be published by Bloomsbury Books in 2014. All posts »

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