The Bloomberg Era, Part One

The Bloomberg Era, Part One:
What Has Been Lost
December 31st, 2009 - At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, this multi-part photoessay examines how New York City's built environment has changed over the past 10 years, and what the future of New York's skyline might be. Part two of this essay can be seen here.

In the last decade, the skyline and landscape of New York City have been completely transformed. During a 7-year-long real estate boom, which collapsed in 2008, thousands of demolition permits were issued, thousands of new buildings were constructed, and thousands of businesses opened and closed. No neighborhood was left untouched by this boom and its subsequent bust. One man oversaw most of these changes: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who came to power in 2002. Not since Robert Moses has a single individual presided over such a large-scale transformation of New York City's built environment.

The changes truly began on September 11th, 2001, with the destruction of the iconic Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. This unexpected and traumatizing blow to the New York skyline was followed one month later by the election of Michael Bloomberg. On January 2nd, 2002 Mayor Bloomberg was sworn into office, with the NY Times declaring "The Bloomberg Era begins... times will be tough and sacrifices will need to be made." Few would guess, during this post-9/11 period of mourning, that an era of prosperity and construction unlike many others in New York history would follow. In 2008, the NY Times would describe it as "seven years of nonstop construction, skyrocketing rents and sales prices, and a seemingly endless appetite for luxury housing that transformed gritty and glamorous neighborhoods alike."

The Bloomberg Era

The Bloomberg administration focused on transforming the city's landscape from its very first days in office. As the NY Times wrote in 2009, "the administration’s economic development policies started with a simple concept: New York must grow to compete with other cities. Development became the means toward that end." Bloomberg's pro-development policies created "a historic re-envisioning of New York City, one that loosened the reins on development across the boroughs and pushed more than 100 rezoning measures through a City Council that stamped them all into law... across the city, residential construction doubled under Mr. Bloomberg, to more than 30,000 units a year from 2004 through 2008... Construction spending has also doubled since he took office, reaching a high of $32 billion in 2008"

This construction boom created an equal boom in demolitions. According to The Real Deal, "during the recent building boom, the number of demolition permits rose from 3,386 in 2002 to a high of 6,480 in 2006. The number fell in 2007 to 5,582..." Among the thousands of structures lost over the last decade were many familiar landmarks in the New York skyline, particularly along the edges of New York City. All along the waterfront, from the South Bronx to the Far Rockaways, neighborhoods were affected by the development gold-rush.

As documented by this website, many historic structures were demolished along the industrial waterfront to make way for developers. Neighborhood icons vanished, like the smokestacks of the Long Island City Powerhouse, erased from the skyline in 2005 by luxury condominiums. In Brooklyn, the rapid pace of development claimed so many historic structures that by 2007, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Brooklyn's entire industrial waterfront at the top of their list of "America's 11 Most Endangered Places," stating "historic dockyards and factories are being demolished by developers anxious to cash in on the area's newly hip status." Some of the industrial structures lost included the Greenpoint Terminal Market - a potential landmark which was partially burned to the ground in 2006; the Todd Shipyard - a working shipyard demolished in 2006 by Ikea; the Revere Sugar Refinery - a neighborhood icon which guided ships into the Eerie Basin until being demolished in 2007, and the Kent Avenue Powerhouse - a grand structure completely demolished by 2009. Many of the industrial buildings destroyed throughout the decade were functional, stable, useful structures that could have been redeveloped and given a second life.

The Todd Shipyard Drydock (2006)

The Kent Avenue Powerhouse (2008)

The Greenpoint Terminal Market (2007)

The Revere Sugar Refinery (2006)

In a previous era, New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was formed to help defend grand spaces such as these from developers. While some important structures were landmarked in the last decade, including parts of the historic Domino Sugar Refinery, the LPC failed to take a leading role during the development boom. In a 2008 editorial, the NY Times slammed the LPC, saying "the Landmarks Preservation Commission should be a vital part of the planning process in New York City. Instead, it has become a bureaucratic black hole... the landmarking process is routinely outflanked by developers." Additionally, it was shown that landmark status offered no true guarantee of protection, as the LPC reversed its protection of certain designated landmarks, like St. Vincent's Hospital in 2008, or in other cases allowed designated landmarks to slowly collapse, as on the grounds of Bayley-Seton Hospital in Staten Island.

Into the void left by the Landmarks Preservation Commission stepped a small army of concerned citizens. Numerous websites were launched mid-decade to report on what neighborhoods were losing to developers, including Gowanus Lounge, EV Grieve and Lost City. Local historians like Kevin Walsh of Forgotten New York continued to document the obscure, endangered corners of the city. Groups like the Municipal Art Society, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance and the Society for Industrial Archeology launched campaigns to save many potential landmarks.

Domino Sugar Refinery (2007)

Bayley-Seton Hospital (2008)

East Village Grief

New York's once colorful commercial landscape was also transformed by the development boom. As property values rose, landlords began "imposing double-digit rent increases," according to the NY Times, squeezing older mom and pop stores out of many neighborhoods. In 2004 alone, according to City Limits, "the city lost 10,000 small businesses." By 2009, New York's streetscape had completely changed, as captured in James and Karla Murray's haunting photography book "Storefront." According to the Murray's, "we included over 225 stores in the book but have photographed hundreds more since we started photographing the mom and pops over 10 years ago. More than half of the businesses in the book are now closed."

Donuts Coffee Shop (Closed 2007)

With the loss of small businesses, the commercial landscape of New York re-oriented towards chain stores - with cookie-cutter exteriors - that could afford to pay exorbitant rents. By mid-decade, New York's commercial streetscape had become dominated by redundancy. A multitude of sterile bank branches opened, while chains like Duane Reade and Starbucks placed multiple store locations within a few blocks of each other, to monopolize neighborhoods. For the first time, big-box-stores were allowed to enter the city, like Home Depot in 2004 and Ikea in 2008, further endangering small businesses. Virginie-Alvine Perrette's award-winning documentary "Twilight Becomes Night" (2008) perfectly encapsulated the loss of small businesses in New York, stating that "large chains, public policy and high rents" were putting NYC's "locally owned stores... on a consistent path towards extinction."

Ikea Rising (2006)

By October of 2008, the NY Times had declared "the credit crisis and the turmoil on Wall Street are bringing New York’s real estate boom to an end.... The real estate boom has been fueled by a robust economy, a steady demand for housing and an abundance of foreign and domestic investors willing to spend tens of billions of dollars on New York real estate... but that ended with the subprime mortgage crisis..." In November of 2008, according to The Real Deal, "The number of demolition permits in New York City fell sharply... indicating a continued construction slowdown in the five boroughs."

Today on the streets of New York, the losses inflicted by the development boom and bust are readily apparent. Like a modern day gold-rush ghost town, empty holes dominate the landscape. Nicknamed "Bloomblight," these holes consist of hundreds of stalled construction projects throughout the five boroughs. On the commercial streetscape, block after block of "prime real estate" sits empty throughout the city. Vacant storefronts dominate once vital commercial strips, especially with the 2009 failure of chain stores like Circuit City and Virgin Megastore. In July 2009, the NY Times reported that "the storefront vacancy rate in Manhattan is now at its highest point since the early 1990s — an estimated 6.5 percent — and is expected to exceed 10 percent by the middle of next year."

In January 2010, Michael Bloomberg will be sworn into power for his third term as the Mayor of New York. As the new decade begins, the future of New York's urban landscape remains unclear.


  1. Really great, Nathan.
    Thanks for both the rundown and the links.

  2. God Bless You for telling it like it is!

  3. This is a free country and capitalist. If you make a succesful business, and can afford it, you can move wherever you want. And Duane Reade IS local.

  4. Terrific and very comprehensive photo essay. Brilliant.

  5. I'm not sure you can ascribe the demise of mom and pops to development though - I would posit it had more to do with rising rents due to competition for space. While corporate tenants had a hand in that process by gobbling up spaces (here's looking at you Chase bank)I watched as many mom and pops were forced out by mom and pop landlords looked for someone to pay (usually a lot) more. Also, hard to blame the terminal market fire on bloomberg, and there are vacant new development sites all over the u.s. so that's not really specific to new york either.

    Other than those nitpicking things I very much agree...

  6. For eight years, the Bloomberg administration expedited the development of luxury buildings for high-income, high-net worth individuals. This hyper-expansion should be viewed for what it is -- a mechanical operation of filtration, which separates you and your pipe dreams, (an inferior residual cake) from contaminating the rich. Working through a small cadre of developers, city council members are acutely aware of what it takes to keep Manhattan real estate prices astronomically high and out of reach, so that you remain the incompatible element removed from the process.

    The first decade of the new millennium is over. Wall Street is stealing everything that isn’t nailed down. The Porsche Panamera is voted Bloomberg’s Car of the Year. What this means is your chances of making it in New York today are about as good as walking on the moon with Sting.

    The rumor among Manhattan’s realty elite is that Sting’s $26 Million dollar apartment is “relatively small” when compared to Stephen Schwarzman’s $37 million dollar, thirty-five-room Park Avenue co-op. Sting's neighbors include such organized crime figures as the former Citigroup Chairman Sanford Weill, who paid $42 million for his apartment while driving Citigroup stock from a high of $55.12 in 2007 to about $1 last spring. After a $45 billion dollar US taxpayer bailout, Citi stock is trading at $3. Another neighbor is Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein, who paid $30 Million dollars for his apartment, in cash and who recently told reporters he is “doing God’s work,” owns more than $500 Million dollars of Goldman stock. This is a network of neighborhood talent you and your Shih Tzu will never get to know.

    The ultimate enchanter in a long line of financial wizards cast a spell on you. Bloomberg told you not to quit, to believe in yourself, that you could afford to live your dream in NYC. He hypnotized you into the brooding, pill-popping, tormented sleepwalker you are today, so you pulled out your credit cards and lived on borrowed money.

    Jason Riley in the Oct. 16, 2008 Wall Street Journal, reported:

    “Since 1990, debt per person in New York is up by 185%, exceeding inflation by 118 percentage points and exceeding tax revenue growth by 27 percentage points. By most measures, New York has higher per-capita debt (about $7,000) than any other city in the nation.”

    One friend only turns the lights on when she cannot see her hands in front of her face. A fellow advertising executive, now unemployed, had to sell his rare Rolex to pay medical expenses when lack of Cobra coverage nearly stopped him dead.

    Another friend, an unemployed clothing designer, recently sold the wedding band from her first marriage for food money. Her extortionate rent forces her to go on dates each week just so she can eat decently.

    These debt-laden marks played Bloomberg’s Three-Card Monte game year after year, refusing to leave the city out of pride and that unattainable pipe dream that Bloomberg, in a cruel joke, keeps telling them is here.

    Over the past two years, while our debtor nation imploded like a dying star collapsing under its own gravity, Bloomberg’s personal fortune grew $4.6 Billion dollars, the world's largest increase in wealth, according to Forbes. This accumulation of cash during a depression gave our confidence trickster every reason to assuage your doubts and fears, to swab your throat, to hold your trembling hand and comfort you with his uninterrupted message:

    “Don’t worry that your 401k has been decimated by the greediest thieves in the history of crime, the market will come back. Don’t worry about the recession. You’ve got to be tough to make it in this town; you’ve got to be the best. And you are the best. You deserve to be here. You’re a New Yorker!”

    So, whom are you trying to fool? You know you can’t stay here. You’re burnt out. You’re baked. You’re done. And I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’ve lost your looks.

  7. hi Nathan,

    Great overview. I've come and gone from New York so much over the last seven years it's been hard to take proper stock of the changes. Certainly, the greatest change in the feel of the city that I noticed was two or three years ago - when I imagine that the developments you outlined hit critical mass . . .

    It's worth noting that these changes have taken place in almost every big city. London, for example, has seen almost the same changes - perhaps more so - over the last ten years. To what end, I often wondered? Surely, making big (and not so big) cities homogenous enclaves of the rich would kill them in the long run . . .

    What next? Very hard to say. New York has an endless capacity to re-invent itself. I'm very curious to see what direction it will head in over the next few years . . .


  8. Thank you so much for this in depth article. I have such a hard time explaining to friends and family just WHY it is that I do not admire nor support our illustrious mayor. Now I can just forward a link! NB