Everything about Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is extreme: zero smoking in restaurants, 200 miles of new bike lanes, a million new trees, a hundred million bucks to get re-elected, a 180-degree turnaround on term limits, a 50-state gun control agenda, sharp reductions in parental control over 1,600 schools…. The list goes on and on.
But if you think about it, you’ll realize that Bloomberg’s predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, also was a man of extremes, albeit less creative, more abrasive, and — we think — less convinced of his own omniscience. But he, too, did things in a big way. Rudy spent taxpayer dollars to build minor league ballparks in Brooklyn and Staten Island, he closed the Fulton Fish Market, he set up a command center across the street from the Twin Towers, he routinely defied freedom of information law requests from newspapers, and he provoked lawsuit after lawsuit from the City Council. You may not have liked him, but you couldn’t ignore him.
Is there a pattern here? Since David Dinkins, have New Yorkers become eager to have a strong father figure in City Hall? Are we now so preoccupied with paying our bills that we welcome it when someone tells us where to walk, how to educate our children, what foods we should eat, and which economic strategy makes the most sense for New York? Or has something else changed in the last two decades: something that makes it easier for a mayor to take extreme positions?
CityPragmatist believes the answer is “all of the above.” Yes, life has become more complex. Not only do we have to deal with more rules and regulations than ever, but we spend more time on basic quotidian activities: commuting, managing a budget, and earning a living. We multitask to fit it all in. We listen to music or talk on our cell phone while we exercise, we tweet while we talk while we blog, we study to advance our careers while we commute. Whatever hours are left, we devote to self-improvement or self-expression.
It’s not surprising that fewer of us today are able to spend time discussing civic affairs at parents associations, community boards, or political clubs. But, even for those of us who have the time, does our involvement still matter? Have we become more cynical because elected officials like Giuliani and Bloomberg pay less attention to us than their predecessors did? Do we have choices, or are we handcuffed by events that have made it harder for us to participate in government decision-making?
CityPragmatist believes that one event, the 1989 NYC charter revision, critically handicapped civic participation in New York City. The ‘89 charter hobbled the borough presidents, weakened neighborhoods and community boards, gave considerably more power to the mayor, and created a City Hall subsequently scarred by impasse, intimidation, and imbroglio. Now, in 2010, Mayor Bloomberg is expected to convene a new charter revision commission, which may seek to complete the consolidation of mayoral power begun two decades earlier.
If it does, CityPragmatist will be watching. We will look at the 2010 charter revision process through the hazy lens of 1989 and the clear lens of civic participation. If we do our job well, we will help you understand how a new charter revision, driven by a centralist mayor, could undermine your ability to understand and affect municipal decisions that may determine your quality of life over the next decade.