New York — Spend a day touring the headquarters of Bloomberg L.P., the media empire built by the city’s current mayor, and you’ll be impressed. However, at about the one week mark, things start to get a little creepy.
The seven massive floors, housed at 499 Park Avenue, initially come across as a high-tech funhouse. The place is rife with color and irreverent design, a workspace more likely to house anti-establishment dot.com kids than Wall Street veterans. Flat screen TVs are built into the floors, the ceilings, the bathroom walls, all tuned to Bloomberg TV, all the time. The elevator stops at one floor only — the high-traffic middle floor — and to get from there to anywhere else requires a sherpa-like knowledge of the building’s floor plan.
Every other floor offers a kiosk brimming with free food, from fresh-brewed coffee to boxes of Honeysmacks. The place pulsates with young energy and hurried conversation. Most everyone has a humble cubicle, and the few offices are small, translucent glass boxes. Security is tight; even Bloomberg himself wore an I.D. tag before he moved from Park Avenue to City Hall.
It’s all very impressive — and very intentional. The free food keeps employees from staying home for breakfast or leaving for lunch. The single elevator forces everyone to come and go through the same doors — no sneaking out the back when the boss leaves early. The cubicles foster an illusion of equality among employees, while keeping everyone in sight of the boss. Far from a haven of spontaneity, Bloomberg created a tightly ordered productivity machine. Seven days after I started interning for a Bloomberg subsidiary, I had the uncomfortable feeling of being watched, monitored, and controlled in some sort of maximum security toy store.
This brand of studied control made Bloomberg a billionaire, so it isn’t hard to understand his motivation as he takes on a city infamous for disorder. To date, Bloomberg’s most publicized act has been to banish smoking from the city’s bars.
“I think anyone who smokes is crazy,” he is widely quoted as saying, and there will be no craziness in Bloomberg’s New York, at least not in places where the city can legislate it out of existence. In Albany, a bill is currently being considered that would restrict lighting up in the car. If passed, the new regulations would make New York, by Bloomberg’s standards, the least crazy metropolis in the country.
Like his predecessor, Bloomberg has put quality of life issues at the forefront of his agenda. But when Rudy Giuliani decided that eradicating sex shops from Times Square was high on the to-do list, he did so in a pre-9/11 atmosphere. Before New York incurred a staggering deficit and businesses began fleeing a scarred downtown, New Yorkers could blow off the mayor’s invasive initiatives. Bloomberg, by contrast, looks irresponsible when he invests energy in programs like “Operation Silent Night,” which targets loud neighborhoods, in a city billions of dollars in the hole.
Bloomberg may or may not be trying to turn New York into a sprawling version of 499 Park Avenue, but he certainly wants more power to monitor the activities of New Yorkers than any recent predecessor. Under Bloomberg, laws restricting the New York Police Department’s right to spy on citizens have been eased considerably. As a result, the nation’s largest police force no longer has to establish criminal activity before surveilling its constituents. The Surveillance Camera Players, a surveillance watchdog group, claims that by 2002 the city was monitoring the public with twice as many surveillance cameras than in 2000.
It would be a mistake to characterize Bloomberg as a power-hungry tyrant or a weak-willed panderer. His desire for control is firmly rooted in child-like zeal for positive reform and the genuine belief that he can make the city a better place to raise a family. The best way to help his constituents, he assumes, is to watch them closely, to obtain ever-more control over their school system, and to keep the streets quiet at night. But his reforms demonstrate a profound lack of understanding about a city rooted in chaos. New York is a city where freaks blend in, sex shops abound, and people do crazy things simply because they can. The city that never sleeps isn’t supposed to have silent nights. That’s what the suburbs are for.
I rooted for Bloomberg because he wasn’t beholden to anybody, including the city’s powerful unions and the massive municipal workforce. But once elected Bloomberg became almost fanatically attached to something nearly as bad — his own personal vision of perfect order, realized in miniature at 499 Park Avenue.