New York (AFP) – Brash billionaire Michael Bloomberg on Tuesday concludes 12 years as New York’s mayor, an era marked by major changes in America’s biggest city but also criticism of the growing gap between rich and poor.
His Democratic successor Bill de Blasio, who defeated a Republican rival in a landslide in November, has pledged to narrow that divide.
Bloomberg gave his final weekly radio address on Sunday — number 601 — thanking New Yorkers for their support of “a relative unknown, an entrepreneur with no government experience who asked for your trust.”
He said he had done everything he could to improve life for the more than eight million people in the city he loves.
“Every day over the past 12 years, I’ve awakened thinking about how to make our city stronger and safer, healthier and greener, freer and fairer, more just and compassionate, more innovative and forward-looking, with more opportunity for all,” he said.
“On Wednesday morning, I will wake up and smile, knowing that we did everything we could to achieve those goals,” Bloomberg added.
In his final days in office, the 71-year-old mayor toured the city’s five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island) to have a look at the achievements he says he has chalked up since taking office January 1, 2002, replacing Rudy Giuliani.
As part of the departure ceremonies, a portrait of Bloomberg painted by Jon Friedman was hung outside the Blue Room at City Hall, alongside those of the other 107 people who have served as the Big Apple’s mayor.
Bloomberg, a Republican who became an independent and backs Democrats on many issues, loves statistics.
He says he fulfilled 89 percent of the 611 promises he made during the election campaigns he won in 2001, 2005 and 2009.
He also says he made New York the safest of the major U.S. cities, with the lowest homicide rate in 50 years, dropping from 649 in 2001 to 332 in 2013, according to figures running up to December 27.
Tourism burgeoned to a record 54.3 million visitors in 2013, life expectancy has risen by two and a half years since 2002 and hundreds of acres of land have been recovered and turned into green areas for people to enjoy.
Bloomberg took office just months after the national trauma of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that felled the twin towers of the World Trade Center and stayed busy right up to the end of his term.
On December 19, the city approved a bill to ban tobacco-free electronic cigarettes in public places like bars, restaurants, parks and beaches, in line with the Bloomberg-backed ban on cigarettes and other tobacco products in what became one of his most fervent personal crusades.
While these measures made New York a trail-blazing city as far as public health is concerned, critics labeled Bloomberg a heavy-handed authoritarian. They cited for instance his attempt to ban jumbo size sugary soft drinks. The measure was taken to court and defeated.
He also drew fire for the police policy known as “stop and frisk,” criticized as discriminatory against Hispanics and blacks.
But more than anything, most New Yorkers lament that the gap between rich and poor has widened during Bloomberg’s years in office.
According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of people without a place to call home had risen as of June this year to a record 52,400, including 22,100 children.
The number of New Yorkers frequenting soup kitchens now total around 1.4 million. That is one out of every six people in this city of 8.33 million people, according to the New York City Coalition against Hunger.
Bloomberg rejects all of the criticism.
He insists he has made New York a city of more opportunity. He notes the nearly four million jobs the city boasted as of the end of this year, which marks a record and an increase of 13 percent compared to 2001.
Love him or hate him, what cannot be denied is that his face has become synonymous with New York at every level and in the collective subconscious.
The local band called LCD Soundsystem said “your mild billionaire mayor’s now convinced he’s a king.” This was part of a song called “New York I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.”
The workaholic Bloomberg has said he will attend the swearing-in Wednesday of de Blasio, to be led by former president Bill Clinton.
A day later, Bloomberg will go to Hawaii and then New Zealand. That’s a first for a guy who says he has not taken a single day of vacation since he took over the job.
He says he will later focus a bit on Bloomberg, the financial news service he founded in the 1980s, some philanthropy and an organization that brings together 63 cities working to save the environment, as well as initiatives that favor immigration reform and stricter controls on guns.