How New York City Turned Into Michael Bloomberg's Test Tube

What will he leave behind when it becomes someone else’s laboratory?


In one month, New York City voters will pick a new mayor. On the left, Bill de Blasio has campaigned as the anti-Bloomberg, promising to change current policies on schools and policing. On the right, Joe Lhota has alternately praised and criticized the current mayor, expressing support of certain policies while at the same time trying to distance himself from the current administration's middling approval rates. No matter who gets elected, New York’s next mayor will run a city that has changed a lot in the last 12 years. While Michael Bloomberg’s successor might be able to rewrite certain policies, many of the mayor’s efforts will have a lasting effect on the city.

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But there are higher stakes for Bloomberg’s legacy beyond the five boroughs. Looking ahead to CityLab, The Atlantic’s summit on local-level innovation to be held in New York City from October 6-8, it seems important to ask whether this is even possible: Can one city’s experiments affect the way cities are run across the world?* A growing number of scholars and theorists seem to think so.

In fact, Bloomberg's effort to expand the power of cities may be his most lasting legacy. He has used his influence and billions to promote the idea that cities are the best places to get things done. As he said during an event at MIT in 2011, "The difference between my level of government and other levels of government is that action takes place at the city level. The cities and mayors are where you deal with crime, you deal with real immigration problems, you deal with health problems, you deal with picking up the garbage." Though he was once considered a potential presidential candidate, Bloomberg publicly declared that City Hall can make more of a difference than the White House — not a small thing for a billionaire with a national reputation.

And Bloomberg has personally spent millions amplifying that influence. U.S. mayors have been trading ideas since at least 1932, when the United States Conference of Mayors was chartered. But Bloomberg has personally sponsored major collaboration efforts, including a "mayors challenge" that rewarded Providence, Rhode Island, with $5 million to work on closing the literacy gap among its preschoolers. Four other cities — Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Santa Monica — each won a million dollars. And in 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies spent $24 million creating "innovation delivery teams" in Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Memphis, and New Orleans; over the next three years, these consultants will work on issues like homelessness and handgun violence.

When he wasn't bankrolling innovation efforts in other cities, Bloomberg focused on making New York the "first city to do X," breaking new ground on everything from technology and sustainability to crime-fighting and counter-terrorism. In his 2008 "state of the city" address, he announced PlaNYC, framing it as a "strategy for creating the world's first truly sustainable city." In the same speech, he boasted about New York's information technology, promising that the city would begin creating a "comprehensive database of firearms evidence — something no other city in the country has done." And "in a first for any municipal government," he crowed, "we will link the computer systems at more than a dozen City agencies."

This kind of language isn't just a mayor's brag about the greatness of his city (though it is that, too). Bloomberg has tried to improve every aspect of New York City's operations, not just for the city itself, but in an effort to provide an example for cities across the world. He sought to expand the limits of city government, using his personnel and his personal resources to solve mundane problems like slow city services and aging databases.

Of course, by expanding the limits of mayoral power, Bloomberg earned himself more than a few critics, especially over policing tactics that many have found problematic. "I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world," he said during his speech at MIT.

In form and function, the NYPD does look more like an international crime-fighting operation than a hometown police department. As New York Magazine reported:

There are now New York City police officers stationed in London working with New Scotland Yard; in Lyons at the headquarters of Interpol; and in Hamburg, Tel Aviv, and Toronto. There are also two cops on assignment at FBI headquarters in Washington, and New York detectives have traveled to Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, and the military's prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba to conduct interrogations.

In 2012, The Associated Press reported that the department had been spying on Muslims and mosques spanning from the Connecticut suburbs to Newark and Philadelphia, even though none of the surveillance targets had been linked to terrorism in documents or public announcements. Police commissioner Ray Kelly told "60 Minutes" that the NYPD could shoot down a plane if needed, and the department also owns underwater drones that it can operate in New York Harbor. It even has its own submarine.

Bloomberg's most controversial policing policy has been stop-and-frisk, a tactic used by officers to question, and sometimes search, anyone who looks as though he or she may be carrying illegal weapons or drugs or committing other crimes. In August, a U.S. District Court judge ruled this practice unconstitutional, calling it a "policy of indirect racial profiling." Last year, a poll showed that 45 percent of New Yorkers considered the tactic "excessive," and 77 percent of black respondents believed the police used it to single out people of color.

In the coming months, the Internet undoubtedly will be flooded with Bloomberg retrospectives, offering different verdicts on the legacy he will leave behind. But when the mayors of Santiago and San Diego and Salzburg reflect on their New York neighbor, they probably won’t be thinking of the Big Apple — they’ll be thinking of themselves.

*Note: Bloomberg Philanthropies is partnering with The Atlantic to host CityLab.