Now that Michael Bloomberg’s third and final term is about to end journalists and editors are rolling out scores of articles on his legacy and the future of Gotham. There is little question that during his mayoralty New York changed physically more than it had in many years and architects and designers were more influential than anytime since John Lindsay. The degree to which Bloomberg’s department heads like David Burney, Amanda Burden, and Janette Sadik-Khan made design an important aspect of physical growth and change is probably unprecedented in any American city at least since Robert Moses dominated development in New York. A major narrative in most of these articles is the uneven development that occurred during the period as most of these physical changes and improvements were concentrated in affluent Manhattan and the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts—facing Manhattan. It is clear that most of the achievements of the period—like the High Line, the new parklets created on odd bits of left over streetscape along Broadway, designated bike lanes, and even bike sharing—were heavily weighted towards improving Manhattan and gentrified areas of Brooklyn and Queens. If one looks to areas like Brownsville, Crotona, or the Southeast Bronx, it is hard to find the Bloomberg initiatives having made little or any improvements to the streetscapes.
But not mentioned in these articles is the degree to which this administration marginalized (though this began under Rudolph Giuliani) the City Planning Commission, once a major player in development decisions and ensuring equity in planning. This neglect of official planning during the period may explain some of the more obvious blunders of the period, including the mayor’s half-baked, developer-focused 2030 plan; the ill-fated (but happily defeated) West Side Stadium proposal; and the disappointing high-rise development now taking place along the Brooklyn waterfront.
This is not to say that some planning was not undertaken during the Bloomberg era, such as the resiliency efforts highlighted in our feature story “The Nuanced Approach” points out. In fact, park and open space development is probably the most physically obvious transformation that took place in the last 11 1/2 years. The new Brooklyn Bridge and Governors Island Parks and the carefully detailed changes along Newtown Creek in Brooklyn and the Hudson River edge in Manhattan (though mostly financed through a structurally dubious private public partnership model embraced by the mayor) will take their place alongside the great Olmsted and Moses open spaces.
Galen Cranz points out in her writings on urban parks in America that the last time designers were involved in park design, the period she labels “the open space system” of the late 1950s through the 1970s, they primarily created plazas fronting corporate offices and did not always put the public in the foreground. Their spaces had mixed results as we can witness up and down Park Avenue. But in assessing open space design in the period one must also consider not just the security zone created around areas like Wall Street and the World Trade Center, but the reaction of the Bloomberg administration to the occupiers in Zuccotti Park, who were given some latitude to protest but were closely monitored and slowly pushed out of the area until the movement faded. Finally, one must consider The Gramsci Monument created this past summer by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn in the Forest Houses NYCHA project in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. In its collaborative design, Gramsci seemed to use space to fight back against the model of public space as a site for leisure, framing it as one where death and scission is encouraged and allowed to flourish. In the end, this may have been the most important new model of public space created during the Bloomberg era, and its strength was its opposition to the notion of parks as primarily sites of leisure, and its promotion of them as sites for discussion and protest—the kinds of spaces the city desperately needs today.