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Empire State of Crisis

Photo by jesse williams on Unsplash

The Long Crisis: New York City and the Path to Neoliberalism, by Benjamin Holtzman (Oxford University Press, 331 pp., $34.95)

New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation, by Thomas Dyja (Simon & Schuster, 523 pp., $30)

New York’s four-decade success story is showing its age. Even before COVID-19 bared the city’s lack of resilience—a death rate of 400 per 100,000, more than twice as high as that of the nation as a whole, a murder tally that shot up by nearly 50% the moment people were left to fend for themselves, and a job-loss total that remains nearly four times as high as the country’s—thinkers were reconsidering Gotham’s self-forged millennial re-origin story. That is, that after the crisis of the 1970s, the city mended its profligate ways, cut crime, and saw a historic resurgence that benefitted everyone, from Park Avenue billionaires to just-arrived immigrants from the poorest countries in the world.

Two new books—Benjamin Holtzman’s The Long Crisis and Thomas Dyja’s New York, New York, New York—ditch the clichés, old and new, and use two starkly different styles of research and writing to arrive at the same conclusion, one that’s no less accurate for being yet another cliché. Ideologically, culturally, economically, whatever-ally, New York City is impossible to categorize.

Four years ago, NYU’s Kim Phillips-Fein pioneered the field of rethinking the new New York. In her book, Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, the city’s near-bankruptcy in 1975 was the start not of a recovery, but of a decades-long downfall. The private-sector wise men who cobbled together the state and federal bailout packages for the broke city didn’t help mend New York.

Rather, they used the city’s vulnerability as an excuse to slash the public safety net and foist upon Gothamites a free-market utopia—or dystopia, depending on your point of view. New York “would no longer … concern itself with social inequality,” Phillips-Fein wrote, or “try to use its resources to aid the poor.” She echoed what every city booster has said since the late Seventies: that the city, today, is far more fiscally responsible than before. They argued that belt-tightening was a good thing; her twist was to argue that it was a bad thing.

The problem with arguing the merits of four decades of austerity is that the premise itself is false. Save for the first half-decade after the fiscal crisis, when the city laid off tens of thousands of front-line workers, New York has not been austere. City spending, adjusted for inflation, exceeded 1975 levels by the late Eighties. Topping out at over $100 billion this year, spending is more than twice what it was in 1975. New York City (and state) have spent more than $140 billion rebuilding the mass-transit system over the past four decades, and spend more than $30,000 per public school student. It’s hard to accuse Albany or City Hall of being stingy.

Phillips-Fein was partly right, though. Starting in the Seventies, New York did turn more to market-based solutions to their problems. But city residents didn’t do so because the bankers made them, or because they were reading Hayek by candlelight during the 1977 blackout. Instead, New Yorkers tried a different approach because of their own government’s shortcomings across multiple mayoral administrations. Despite the doubling of city spending between 1965 and 1975, which Phillips-Fein ably reported, government wasn’t working.

As Benjamin Holtzman, a historian at CUNY, chronicles in his new book, The Long Crisis, “market-based initiatives were not merely imposed from above by conservative ideologues; neither were they the handiwork of a single elected official. … Rather, the economic and political circumstances from the 1960s onward led to re-evaluation of existing municipal practices.” Neither “the business sector,” nor “economists, libertarians, or conservative activists” imposed market strategies on New Yorkers. Instead, “local actors steered these processes,” as city dwellers “transformed the political economy from the ground up.”

It began as residents seized some measure of control over their own living conditions. Starting in the Seventies, landlords abandoned 10,000 apartment buildings with 150,000 homes, mostly in the South Bronx, Central Harlem, and north-central Brooklyn. As middle-class tenants fled to the suburbs, too many remaining residents, poorer or unemployed, couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the rent, and property owners couldn’t keep up with their expenses. Tenants tried the usual tactics, such as rent strikes, but these moves only accelerated the abandonment.

So tenants, and their neighbors, took matters into their own hands. A group of South Bronxites, self-dubbed the People’s Development Corporation, began “homesteading” and rehabbed an old tenement building. Others followed suit. The Phoenix Cooperative in Central Harlem took over a 47-unit building in 1971, with tenants paying a common charge of $65 a month. The Renigades[sic] of East Harlem took over abandoned buildings, secured them from drug dealers and sex traffickers, and renovated them for new tenants. These groups, many peopled by unemployed or underemployed young men, organized locals to engage in “sweat equity,” rebuilding properties in return for apartments. They did so because, during the mayoralty of John Lindsay, from 1966 to 1973, “a growing number of New Yorkers began to believe that government was failing in its duties as a provider and protector of civic services.”

Holtzman doesn’t overstate his case. Such initiatives were small-scale, totaling hundreds of buildings, not tens of thousands. And, over time, as the city’s finances improved, they relied on government help, such as low-interest loans. As the Seventies turned into the Eighties, grassroots groups began to secure government contracts to manage what were now subsidized apartment buildings. Former upstarts grew more like “a typical landlord’s agent,” as one group said, and became enmeshed in government bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, groups like the People’s Development Corporation and the Renigades proved, years before private investors showed any interest, that neighborhoods in the South Bronx and Harlem were still viable—that people were committed to them, and wanted to live there. Their leaders also quickly adopted language not just to channel left-wing, anti-landlord sentiment, but to appeal to conservatives: the projects were “seen not as a handout, but as a bootstrap initiative.”

In wealthier neighborhoods, the problem wasn’t mass-scale abandonment, but inflation: double-digit price increases each year outpaced the rent landlords could charge under the city’s rent-control regime, leaving property owners further behind each month. The solution: allow well-to-do New Yorkers to buy out their landlords and convert rental apartments into co-ops.

When landlords first proposed such tenant buyouts, in the Seventies, tenants were suspicious. The deals “asked tenants to make the biggest financial decision of their lives with the person they often trusted least: their landlord.” With the city’s population in decline, there was no guarantee that tenants-turned-owners would benefit from the deals; they might instead be stuck paying the escalating maintenance costs their landlords previously shouldered.

By the Eighties, though, as the city’s population exodus halted and reversed, buying your rental apartment became a good deal; many former rent-regulated tenants embraced free-market precarity. The lure of profits from homeownership easily eclipsed neighborliness; some tenants who lacked the savings for a down payment found little sympathy within their buildings. “Solidarity among tenants … was not easy to build or sustain,” Holtzman writes. One tenant leader who initially “denounced” a conversion plan soon purchased his apartment. As property prices soared, middle-class buyers became wealthy asset owners.

It was not only private residences that New Yorkers proved dispassionately pragmatic about. As the city slashed the number of parks department workers in the Seventies, nonprofit groups such as the Parks Council and the Citizens Committee for New York City trained volunteers and supplied them with equipment to maintain small neighborhood parks.

Larger parks, such as Central Park, with its 843 acres, needed larger-scale support. With support from philanthropist Brooke Astor and financiers Richard Gilder and George Soros, the donor-supported Central Park Conservancy took over most responsibility for the park. Midtown’s Bryant Park, plagued with drug dealers and users and unsafe for office workers by the Eighties, soon followed the same model of private funding and private management.

By the Eighties, Holtzman writes, “New York was marked by a growing embrace of private-sector governance over public space”—particularly in that core government function: public safety. As murders tripled, from 390 killings in 1960 to 1,117 by 1970, and robberies rose from 6,579 to 74,102, a million New Yorkers fled town. But seven million stayed and took over responsibility for their own streets. Starting in the Seventies, residents of at least 10,000 blocks formed “block associations,” driven largely by a need for organized security. Volunteer patrol groups weren’t white vigilantes (although there was some of that). In Harlem, the Upper Park Avenue Baptist Church organized 200 volunteers to escort women and to deter drug peddlers; the Black Citizens Patrol also patrolled Harlem streets with machetes. Wealthier blocks pooled together donations to hire professional security guards.

Holtzman is a thoughtful, careful, even-handed writer, and makes a compelling case that New Yorkers, whether poor people living in abandoned Bronx tenements or CEOs worried about their employees’ safety in Bryant Park, turned to their own market-based experimentation not out of top-down ideology, but out of bottom-up desperation. His book is worth reading, but it won’t keep you up at night eagerly turning the pages.

For that, turn to Thomas Dyja, a novelist and author of a Chicago history trying his hand at a sprawling non-fiction chronicle of New York City. New York, New York, New York—the title comes from urban sociologist Holly Whyte’s cataloguing of his three favorite cities—is a sloppy, dizzying romp through four decades of New York history, more Bonfire of the Vanities than Gotham. All the usual characters are there, from Donald Trump to Tina Brown, from Jay-Z and Beyonce to Jean-Michel Basquiat, from Andy Warhol to Anna Wintour, from Ed Koch to Mike Bloomberg. Ripping through New York, New York, New York is like sitting with an increasingly drunk “long-time New Yorker” at a bar and listening for a few hours about the good old days and the bad old days.

Dyja takes us through four eras—retrenchment (the Seventies fiscal crisis), renaissance (Eighties-era Ed Koch), reformation (Dinkins and Giuliani, and 1990s progress on crime), and reimagination (21st-century Bloomberg, and redevelopment after 9/11)—in an attempt “to sort through the facts of those years […] and get to the bottom of this slimy feeling I had that while so much had gone right in New York, way too much had gone wrong.”

New York, New York, New York offers the usual hosannas and laments. About the edgy emerging art in the Village and SoHo, circa early-1980s, Dyja writes, “‘What is art for? Who is it for? How do cultures interact ….?’ … aesthetic ‘universals’ could no longer be defined exclusively by ideals and assumptions set by European males.” But this cool new stuff got old; the artists sell out. Madonna stops being a club kid and starts being a major star. In another section: “By 1993, vinyl was dead.” Of “pax Bloombergus,” Dyja has the usual complaints. By the pre-pandemic era, he wonders, “what was real about New York, and what wasn’t? … SoHo was almost a mall.” The High Line—a nice park in the air, but one surrounded by luxury apartments—is an emblem of “conflicted feelings many had about Reimagined New York.” It’s nice, but you can’t afford it, and there’s no place to have a cigarette.

Dyja is nothing if not conflicted in his feelings. A good Upper West Sider, he doesn’t like broken-windows policing, for instance. Of enforcing laws against nuisance crimes such as panhandling and public urination, he says, “‘quality of life’ took a step away from creating a shared life in the city toward enshrining Lifestyle over speech.” But then, maybe broken-windows policing worked, after all: he cites a study showing a correlation between the number of boarded-up windows falling in a neighborhood in tandem with lower crime. His problem with enforcement against “squeegee men” harassing drivers stuck at red lights is apparently that Dinkins, not Giuliani, started it, but doesn’t get the credit for it.

Yet Dyja notes that sometime in the Nineties, “more and more people throughout all five boroughs had the same odd experience. Out walking late at night, they suddenly realized they weren’t thinking about getting mugged. Or they got onto the subway, sat down, read a little of their book, and then got off at their stop without ever squeezing themselves into an unnoticeable ball of humanity.” Dyja’s conscientious enough to acknowledge that the city didn’t accomplish these gains through mass incarceration, but rather through preventing crime, someway or somehow; state and local prison and jail numbers dropped in the same precipitous high double digits as crime did.

Despite his unselfconscious contradictions, Dyja’s racing prose eventually gets him to Holtzman’s conclusion. As New York moved through the past four decades, “the system was working in various crucial ways,” with “independent advocacy groups such as the Parks Council and the Straphangers Campaign,” a nonprofit advocacy group for subway riders, “stepping up to perform the roles that City Hall, the City Council, and the Board of Estimate had abdicated.”

Overall, then, Dyja longwindedly decides, New York itself is conflicted. Referring to high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, he says, “New Yorkers take that walk every day, maintaining our balance between Order and Disorder, inside and out, public and private, trees and steel, construction and destruction, rich and poor, we and me, here today, gone tomorrow.”

True, if not earthshattering. New York has long been a balancing act. It’s hard to look at us and call us free-market fundamentalists, as Phillips-Fein tried to do. We are a high-tax, big-government city. It’s hard to call us bleeding-heart, big-government liberals, though, as AOC might like. As both Holtzman and Dyja demonstrate, New Yorkers just as often as not take matters into their own hands when the government won’t or can’t act.

Despite all this mayhem, things are all right.

Or, they were all right—before the pandemic. New York may have no governing ideology, but what it had before 2020 was lots of money: money for both a heavily funded school system and a heavily funded police department, jobs for hedge funders and for dishwashers.

In the wake of the 1970s fiscal crisis, public-sector money helped poor Bronx residents rebuild their homes with their own hands, after they got a running start. Private-sector money helped middle-class renters become wealthy co-op owners, after they scraped together their down payments. Private donations built Central Park and Bryant Park, even as donors’ individual and corporate taxes went toward less high-profile public spaces. A reequipped NYPD eventually deterred crime once private citizens had banded together to secure the streets.

With less than a quarter of office workers back at their desks, the value of commercial real estate plummeting, and the specter of lockdown around the latest COVID variant, the question isn’t whether New York is liberal or conservative, or tough on crime or lenient, but what happens if the money runs out?

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Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.

@nicolegelinas