New Yorkers are going bananas about their new mayor. Bill de Blasio is the first Democrat to take over at City Hall for 20-odd years and the signs are that he’ll be a real political visionary. He pledges to levy a super-tax on those earning half a million a year, and reform the “stop and frisk” policy so enthusiastically pursued by NY cops. (It’s an issue close to his heart. His children are mixed-race.)
Marvellous things are expected of him. As they were expected of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, the technology mogul who for 12 years ran the city like a big company and turned its post-2008 budget deficit of £3.7bn into a surplus of £1.8bn. As he prepares to step down, how will he be remembered? According to a recent poll, half the city think he did a good-to-excellent job. And half thought he was rubbish.
How does that happen? What does a mayor have to do to please several million people who live in the same city as him? There aren’t, it seems, any actual rules for being a mayoral success, nor any actuarial tables about who was best or worst mayor of Maine or Montreal. To children, the job has a nice folkloric ring, a Dick Whittington dream quality. Being mayor sounds like a job for the top chap around – like being king, only more debonair and streetwise. He should be the city’s boss man – a public servant, but one who decide what games we play, and what’s for lunch when we stop. He should be a rich person who’s not above helping the poor on his own initiative, rather than passing welfare bills. And he must be capable of handling political pressures from all sides while not acting like an actual politician.
So why wasn’t Bloomberg popular? I think we can identify five reasons, based on my intensive studies of mayor-land:
1. Because, although he lowered crime figures, he was a shocking nanny – bringing in the smoking ban (as did most Western capital cities) and trying to limit the size of fizzy drinks people could buy. The latter initiative was overruled by the courts. He also tried to bring in a congestion charge, and that too went down like a lead balloon. Citizens don’t like nannying. Ken Livingstone lost his mayorship after he tried to impose sanctions on owners of cars with carbon emission levels of which he disapproved.
2. Also Bloomberg failed to become a brand. The best mayors turn themselves into brand names or catchphrases. People who didn’t like Ken Livingstone’s politics were beguiled by his love for newts. Ed Koch, New York’s best-loved mayor, was known to all as “Hizzonner”, as if his elevation to the top job was a joke shared by mayor and subjects; his catchphrase “How’m I doin’?” suggested a further collusion. Sam “Golden Rule” Jones of Toledo was a genuine reformer around 1900, who instituted a “Golden Rule” in all factories, insisting on higher pay and more leisure time for workers so they could enjoy “Golden Rule” jazz bands in his “Golden Rule” parks.
3. Also Bloomberg did nothing with bicycles. All mayors know that bicycles are crucial to city policy. After all this time, few Londoners can point to any concrete achievement by Boris Johnson except letting in the Barclays bikes. Ed Koch put a bicycle lane up Sixth Avenue and down Seventh to encourage people not to drive cars all the time – then took them down when bikers weren’t using them enough. And after 12 years in power, the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, is still known best for starting off the whole bike-rent scheme – and for his fake summer beaches along the river.
4. Sadly, Michael B never got the importance of non-favouritism. Everyone in a city suspects the mayor of being corrupt, paying backhanders to his friends, giving his home turf special treatment. City commentators accused Bloomberg of giving too much of his attention to Manhattan. Had he looked up the career of Mayor John Lindsay, he’d have learned something. After a crippling snowstorm, the rescue operation over which he presided seemed to favour Manhattan and ignore poorer areas such as Queens. His opponents said it was clear he was indifferent to the misery of the city’s middle class and poor. It became known as “the Lindsay Snowstorm” and did for him. Oh, and last week, the Mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, was harangued outside a restaurant by a writer called Bernardo Botkay and accused of favouring property-speculator mates with his plans for the World Cup. The mayor punched him in the face, and had to apologise.
5. Lastly, Bloomberg forgot to be seen as a nice guy. The most successful mayors act as shepherds to their flock in times of crisis. Rudy Giuliani, Bloomberg’s predecessor, was by all accounts a nasty piece of work. But when 9/11 hit, he took to the streets and shepherded New Yorkers like no president, not even Reagan, had shepherded the nation. And don’t forget that the most popular mayor of New York ever, Fiorello La Guardia, who ran the city during the Prohibition and Depression years. He’s still best known for reading bedtime stories to the city’s children over the airwaves during a newspaper strike.
Being mayor sounds like a job for the top chap around – like being king, only more debonair.
We could do without the burger-burka
What’s the newest thing in Japanese eating out? No, not yet another ramen restaurant, nor a fully automated schoolgirl waitress, nor a variant of that sushi-on-a-carousel nonsense. This one’s a reminder of how formal and traditional Japanese culture remains, beneath its glossy veneer of edginess.
It’s a mask. Well, not a mask exactly, more a napkin that ladies hold over the lower half of their faces while eating anything that requires a large bite. No, honest. Japanese social etiquette dictates that a small mouth (“Ochobo”) nibbling sashimi is attractive, whereas a big gob opened wide is awful.
The Freshness Burger fast-food chain, concerned at the lack of “Classic Burger” sales to women, recently introduced the Freedom Wrapper, bearing a picture of a modestly smiling lady. Behind it, hungry dames can scoff a quarter-pounder to their hearts’ content. Sales at Freshness Burger have zoomed up 215 per cent, and everyone is happy.
I can’t see this catching on over here. Ever since the film of Tom Jones opened in the 1960s, with its lusty scene of seduction-by-dinner, British ladies of my acquaintance haven’t cared two hoots how much chicken thigh and drumstick they cram between their hungry jaws, nor how immodestly wide they open them for purposes of sustenance. We’ll have to acknowledge that the burger-burka is a cultural step too far.