Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Michael Bloomberg: How New York City Can Bounce Back, Again

The future of New York City is being called into question. Neighborhoods have lost residents to the suburbs. Businesses have closed. People are on edge about public safety. And families are mourning the loss of loved ones.

This was the situation in the fall of 2001, after hijackers destroyed the World Trade Center and brought the city to its knees. And it’s the same situation today, with a pandemic raging and millions of people once again wondering if this city’s best days are behind it.

Unemployment remains in double digits, retail and office vacancies have soared, and the tourism industry is in dire straits, with the economic pain falling hardest on low-income families. Yet we have good reason to be hopeful, because what was done once can be done again — and better, by heeding the lessons of the past.

Over the past eight years, I have been careful to stick to my pledge not to comment on my successor’s administration. Mayors don’t need their predecessors chiming in from the sidelines, and I don’t intend to start now. But I do believe New York City’s success in rebuilding Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11 and revitalizing all five boroughs can help the next mayor as he takes office in January and confronts the same two overarching challenges we faced 20 years ago.

The first is urgent: improving vital services New Yorkers rely on every day, including policing, transportation, sanitation and education. In the months after Sept. 11, we were acutely aware the public needed confidence that we would not allow the city to enter a downward spiral, as it did in the 1970s, so we immediately focused on improving quality of life by making neighborhoods safer and cleaner, turning around public schools, and reducing street homelessness.

To keep residents and businesses in the city, the next administration must come out of the gate with programs and policies to bolster those same essential services. Funding will be tight, but manageable; the revenue shortfall we faced was more than three times as large, as a percentage of the budget, as the one the next mayor is projected to inherit.

The second broad challenge is more difficult, and inevitably in tension with the first: focusing on the city’s future years from now. Ultimately, the mayor will be judged not by the next day’s newspapers, but by the next generation. It’s his job to look beyond the light at the end of the tunnel and start building more tracks, even when it’s unpopular to do so.

Two examples from Lower Manhattan come to mind.

Not long after being sworn in, I canceled a planned subsidy for a new headquarters for the New York Stock Exchange, even though it was threatening to move out of the city. I didn’t think it was a smart use of scarce resources, but the prospect of the exchange leaving Wall Street raised fears that other large financial institutions might go, too, especially with much of Lower Manhattan in ruins.

The easy and politically safe thing to do would have been to leave the subsidy in place. But for decades, the city had been overly reliant on the banking and financial services industry. When Wall Street caught a cold, the saying went, the city got sick. So instead of bribing large firms to stay in Manhattan, we invested in projects in all the boroughs that would attract new businesses in different industries, including bioscience, tech, and film and television. Years later, those and other industries — and the jobs and revenue they created — helped us weather the Great Recession far better than most cities did.

The next administration may face similar demands for subsidies from companies that threaten to leave the city. But there are better ways to retain and create jobs than giveaways, especially by investing in critical infrastructure, starting with the subway.

In partnership with the state, the mayor can work to get trains on a full schedule again, which would help employers in every industry bring back their workers. It would help thousands of small businesses and their employees reclaim their customers. And it would provide confidence to those who may be thinking about opening a business of their own.

Whatever policies the next mayor pursues, the crucial idea is that putting a city back on its feet economically requires more than aiding existing businesses. It requires creating the conditions for new ones to open and expand, further diversifying the economy.

The second example from Lower Manhattan concerns housing. In the wake of the attacks, many people wanted to turn the entire World Trade Center into a memorial — or simply to rebuild what was there. I thought both would be a mistake, and I was pilloried for suggesting that housing be constructed at the site. But our administration wanted to transform Lower Manhattan from a 9-to-5 business district into a diverse, 24/7 neighborhood.

City leaders had been trying to do that since the 1950s, but their focus had been primarily on developing buildings, including the original World Trade Center, rather than attracting people. We flipped the script by encouraging new housing development and creating the things all residents want: parks, schools and cultural opportunities, including a performing arts center at the World Trade Center that is now nearing completion.

As our vision took shape, more families and young people moved downtown, more businesses opened, more jobs were created, and more visitors arrived. The last development site of the World Trade Center will be a tower that includes more than a thousand units of housing.

The next administration will have its own opportunities not only to recover from the pandemic, but to reimagine areas of the city. Of course, it’s never easy to take on vocal and powerful groups that say, “Not in my backyard.” But across New York, there are parking lots, warehouses, rail yards and other properties that offer the next mayor opportunities to create housing for all incomes and jobs for all skill levels.

Such projects require ambition and political courage. As a candidate, Eric Adams has shown both. That’s why I’m supporting him in the mayoral election this fall. His pragmatism and willingness to take on tough issues — and his experience as a police officer who understands the importance of public safety — will serve him well in City Hall. And I hope that Bloomberg Philanthropies will have a chance to support his administration, because this is an all-hands-on-deck moment.

In government, collaboration is as important as competence, and the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site — including the construction of the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum — showed how crucial strong partnerships are to achieving a vision. Working with nine different governors of New York and New Jersey, we built the memorial and museum to serve as a powerful tribute to those we lost, and to teach future generations about the extraordinary heroism and sacrifices that inspired and united the world.

There were tensions and obstacles, of course. But a healthy working relationship between the mayor and governor is crucial to the success of major projects.

Now, even before he takes office, Mr. Adams has a chance to begin building a close relationship with the state’s new governor, Kathy Hochul. They will not always see eye-to-eye, but we need them to work hand-in-hand.

As the sun set on Sept. 11, 2001, it was hard to imagine the city could rebound as quickly and strongly as it did. But by pulling together, thinking creatively, planning ambitiously, and working toward a clear vision of the future — one that is true to the values of our city, including our welcoming embrace of immigrants and refugees — we began a period of rebirth and renewal unlike any in history.

Now, we can do it again. If we heed the lessons of the past, I know we will.

Michael R. Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) was the mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013. He has been chair of the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum since 2006.

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