The era of big mayors for big cities is drawing to a close. Chicago already lost its second Daley. Los Angeles lost its playboy star, Antonio Villaraigosa. Boston is saying goodbye to Tom Merino after two decades, and New York is about to replace Michael Bloomberg with someone who will not only be poorer, but also have less grand vision. With this changeover also comes an end to at least a decade of urban-planning dreams.
It was not all the mayors' doing. All across the country, gentrification and the transformation of urban cores into "command and control culture" centers—concentrating on central governmental and cultural institutions, places for the elite to work and live, and entertainment sites, leaving normal activities and people to the sprawling edges—have made cities more beautiful and more uniform. They have also endowed them with major new attractions such as Millennium Park in Chicago and the High Line in New York. Bike lanes thread through recently fixed-up neighborhoods. The transformation of train yards and harbors into hipster incubators, tree-planting, and the renewal and expansion of public transportation have all made central cities better places to live, work and play—for those who can afford to do so.
In New York, the candidates who are vying to replace Bloomberg in Tuesday's primary display none of the current officer holder's vision or ambition. When asked what they would do about parks or bicycle lanes, they hem and haw, pleading the need to be specific and obtain community buy-in. Only no-chance candidate John Catsimatidis's proposal for a monorail out to the Long Island suburbs presents anything new and unusual.
Some projects will keep going despite the departure of the big mayors. The Second Avenue Subway is slowly boring its way to realization. Chicago will get its own version of the High Line, the Bloomingdale Trail. Skyscrapers will continue to be built, lofts renovated, restaurants opened. Even South Boston is becoming gentrified, no doubt to the despair of filmmakers who thrived on the lore of its gangster culture. At least half the music I listen to will continue to be made in Brooklyn or Queens.
Under Daley, Chicago planted hundreds of thousands of trees. Bloomberg wanted to leave New York with a plan to withstand rising water levels and the next "hundred-year event" storm. You hear little about such plans from current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel or the mayoral candidates in either Beantown or the Big Apple. The fight is now about clean government, pensions, and police behavior. These are worthy and important topics. They are vital if these cities are going to survive and thrive. Their prominence also points to the inexorable transformation of all of our cities into places in which the "haves" really take center stage.
Our next generation of mayors will have to confront these realities. They will have to make some big plans, because both human (economic) and natural forces of a vast scale are threatening the notion of the good city that is open and available to all. I can understand that they do not want to do so in the manner of predecessors who often ran roughshod over opponents, neighborhoods and classes of people. Nobody wants a return of Robert Moses–style planning, let alone the endemic corruption that seems to have plagued Chicago.
What we need is a vision to rival developers' glossy renderings for privatized Xanadus. What we need are tactical incursions that open up seams of many colors and varieties in an urban scene that is becoming more and more monolithic, both visually and economically. What we need is a plan so that each city can confront the effects of global warming and economic stratification.
We need good mayors to make a good city. I hope the New York City candidates are up to the task—so far, none are giving any hint that they are.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.