It was difficult not to think about the nature of civic leadership last week, what with New York mayor Mike Bloomberg serving as the face of a metropolis enduring a calamity of unprecedented proportion. Politicians in those situations are always surrounded by their top officials. But they are nonetheless called upon to lead the response, make tough calls (e.g., cancelling the N.Y. Marathon), and reassure the public in circumstances that can be exceedingly challenging.
It is impossible to imagine Mayor Rob Ford — who spent last week torching the few remaining crumbs of his populist brand — rising to such an occasion; we can only hope he will never have to do what Bloomberg did this week. Yet the calamity serves a reminder that mayors, at times, are expected to do far more than cut taxes, search for rounding-error waste, and coach football teams.
How much more? Have a look at the terrific interview with Bloomberg published in this month’s Atlantic. In many ways, he is just the sort of entrepreneur the brothers Ford profess to admire: sidelined at Salomon Bros. early in his career, he invented an electronic information service for traders. As Bloomberg terminals become ubiquitous on Wall Street and elsewhere, his company revolutionized both the stock market and business journalism. He made a fortune (over $25 billion) and could have retired to the Hamptons for a cosseted life of yachts and golf.
Yet Bloomberg decided to pay it forward, and turned his attention to the city that he loves without reservation, first through philanthropy and then via politics. In Bloomberg, writes The Atlantic’s James Bennet, one sees “a guy…who thinks for himself, but not only of himself” — “think” being the operative word here.
Bloomberg is the anti-Ford. Both his style and his record, to my mind, set the standard for what Torontonians must demand from their next mayor (more on this in a moment). After the reality show of the Ford mayoralty, nothing less will suffice.
First, style: As he did on Wall Street, Bloomberg has sought maximum transparency, sitting at a desk without walls in the middle of an open space full of his officials. He rides the subway. He talks to the media constantly. Though he is not a glad-hander, he unreservedly embraces his city’s diversity. And he speaks his mind. After the Denver massacre, he alone called for tougher gun laws, a career-limiting move for a sort-of Republican. After last week’s hurricane, he endorsed President Barack Obama because of his position on climate change, of all things.
His record in office is extensive and bold, and includes dramatic changes in public space and environmental policies, as well as controversial moves to restrict salt, fat and sugar in New York restaurants. Indeed, Bloomberg has poured tens of millions of dollars into public health initiatives and research; I think it would be reasonable to conclude that he doesn’t regard the NYC’s public health department as a warren of socialist entitlement led by over-paid bureaucrats.
But from where I sit, Bloomberg’s most singular achievement is the Applied Sciences Initiative by New York’s Economic Development Corp. The Big Apple has long lacked a world-class engineering and technical university, so Bloomberg two years ago launched a fascinating experiment to not only fill the void but also kick-start the city’s tech sector on a grand scale. Bloomberg’s plan was to offer $100 million and city land (Roosevelt Island and two other sites) to universities or consortia of research institutions prepared to invest big bucks in a top-notch campus/incubator capable of challenging Stanford/Silicon Valley and MIT/Boston.
The competition attracted 18 international bidding groups, and NYEDC unveiled the winner last spring: a $2 billion proposal from Cornell, in partnership with Israel’s Technion, renowned for technology commercialization. But the city also decided to back a second project for Brooklyn, proposed by a group that includes NYU, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Toronto. The Centre for Urban Science and Progress has a mandate to investigate the “science of cities” and develop technologies designed to sustainably accommodate the world’s increasingly urbanized population. According to Bloomberg’s economic development officials, “new research and technologies developed at the Center are expected to generate $5.5 billion in overall economic impact and 7,700 jobs over the next three decades.”
Now contrast this to the Ford administration’s flagship economic development scheme: a casino multiplex, likely to be located either on the Metro Toronto Convention Centre lands or at the CNE. As a staff report coming to today’s Executive Committee session claims, the project could create somewhere between 2,700 to 5,600 new ongoing jobs and additional revenues of $76 to $195 million.
There it is, writ large: thinking very big, and thinking very small.
If you’re a croupier or an addiction counselor, the city’s future looks bright. Talented scientists and entrepreneurs, however, should probably look elsewhere.
In a recent Toronto Life essay on the need for renewed urban leadership for the city, Richard Florida unsparingly sets out the long-term risks of pursuing Ford’s “anti-urban” agenda. But he told me last week his warnings have fallen on deaf ears, with barely a peep by way of response from Bay Street and the corporate elites.
“Many Torontonians including our business leadership claim to want Toronto to be a great global city like London or New York,” Florida said in an email. “But they say nothing about the casino, nothing about the mayor. They just want it to somehow `happen.’ I cannot understand the failure of the business community to speak out. The mayor is ruinous to them – he and his policies hinder and hamper their ability to attract talent. How do they not see this? Why don’t they speak out? Why do they acquiesce?”
Maybe they, too, missed the bus.
photo courtesy of the Prime Minister’s Office Flickr