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What Kind of New Deal?

Photos of WIlliamsburg by Miller Oberlin.
Photos of WIlliamsburg by Miller Oberlin.

Now that the financial crisis looks like something much worse—there is talk of the dreaded “deflationary spiral” (in which falling prices sink the rest of the economy, as in the Great Depression)—a rough consensus seems to be emerging that whatever else President-elect Obama might do, he had better forget the deficit and spend some serious money once he takes office. Given the urgency of the moment, Obama has proposed a stimulus package in the $700 billion range. An urban perspective helps to focus things, and to see through the big talk to actual priorities. What’s more, all the talk about "new" New Deals raises the question of how the contradictory New York legacy of the original one might guide us in the months ahead.

“We are now at a Crash Site”

Urban progressives need to examine closely the main thrust of Obama’s stimulus plan: big spending on infrastructure. Commenting on TomDispatch, Mike Davis reminds us of the “broad ideological respectability” such action has. We tend to remember FDR and his alphabet soup of programs and forget Eisenhower’s Federal Highway Act of 1956, which certainly put people to work, but also prepped the nation for the Cold War, drove suburbanization, and solidified our addiction to the automobile. Yes, Obama has advertised his stimulus program as a jobs program and as a longer-term plan for clean energy. Yet big-wigs in the hi-tech sector—heavy supporters of Obama—like the idea of improved transport too. Much depends, in other words, on this sector’s long-term profitability in a global market. No guarantees there. Many of these new bridges, says Davis, could well become “bridges to nowhere.”

Dreams of sleek bullet trains need to be put on hold. Instead, money should be spent directly in the public sector, on building schools and hiring teachers, propping up emergency rooms, improving public housing, updating the mass transit system we already have. Davis argues that investment in the public sector represents the “best Keynesian stimulus around,” since per dollar spent, more decent paying, often union jobs are created off the bat. Progressives should push Obama to fast track those items on his agenda that would take the pressure off states and cities struggling to make ends meet, especially universal health care. It is not simply a matter of compassion, although big doses of that would surely help. “We are now at a crash site,” says Davis, “and our priority should be to save the victims.”

Sound advice, but difficult to put into action, especially here in New York. And not least because the idea of ever shoring up the public sector is anathema to the city’s ruling class, as it is the caretaker of the pioneering experiment in neoliberal governance that began with the Fiscal Crisis of 1975. (As David Harvey has suggested, two coups kick started the neoliberal era. The first, in 1973, was led by Kissinger, the C.I.A., and Pinochet in Chile, the second by the bankers and allied capitalists who “saved” New York from bankruptcy.) More often than not these days, the public sector is caricatured as a sink hole of corruption and incompetence, an image that has been fortified in the popular mind by “starve-the-beast” balanced budget requirements that have left municipal government in a state of permanent crisis.

If what we need first is federal aid dedicated to the strengthening of public institutions and services, it may take a fight to get it. Fortunately, there is precedent for that sort of thing.

New Deal, New York Style

As Mike Wallace spelled out in his post-9/11 call for A New Deal for New York, FDR’s handiwork had New York all over it. The terms New Dealer and New Yorker were “virtually interchangeable,” and not because of patronage. The arrival in Washington of a strong contingent of New York intellectuals “was more akin to the triumphal occupation of an invading army,” says Wallace. And importantly, it was an army “intent on empowering the vanquished.”

The connections run deeper. New York has solid traditions of collective response to economic and social disaster. When Wall Street crashed in 1857, immigrant laborers gathered outside the Central Park offices of Frederick Law Olmsted and demanded work. They got it, and in the process they turned what had been in many ways a private enterprise into a public works project. In 1909, 20,000 immigrant women garment workers went on a general strike, capturing the city’s imagination and raising compassionate awareness of conditions in the textile trade. After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, New Yorkers were so outraged that Tammany Hall, ever attentive to shifts in public opinion, saw the light. Led by Tammany men Al Smith and Robert Wagner Sr., the New York State Assembly passed legislation that for the first time established baseline workplace standards. Frances Perkins, the New York settlement house worker and later Secretary of Labor under FDR, said that the New Deal really began after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, as word got out that investigators discovered that the doors of the factory had been locked from the outside.

FDR didn’t come to Washington a genteel version of Assemblyman Al Smith, determined to see to the needs of Lower East Siders the country over. He came as a fiscal conservative, and had no big plans to change the way government worked. Even before he was elected, though, the people had begun to force the issue, and continued to do so afterward. Economic “distress,” wrote Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward in their classic work of political sociology, Poor People’s Movements, “was turning to indignation, an indignation strong enough to withstand official scorn or state force.”

And it was effective, say Piven and Cloward. Like Obama, on the hustings FDR incorporated the growing discontent. As conditions worsened between election day and inauguration day, and popular demands for relief in the form of jobs, direct aid, or protection from eviction intensified, he had little choice but to act on that rhetoric. With the formation in 1935 of the Works Progress Administration, the money began to flow, and much of it to New York City. Laguardia, elected as mayor in 1933, served as lobbyist-in-chief, and it didn’t hurt that the WPA was run by Harry Hopkins, a former New York social worker. And then there was Robert Moses, ensconced in LaGuardia’s inner circle, who had a stack of construction plans already in hand.

When New Yorkers contemplate the legacy of the WPA, they tend to think of grand infrastructural works, like the Triborough Bridge, or the Holland and the Lincoln Tunnels. Less prominent reminders are the public parks, beaches, and pools, which were redesigned, refurbished, or built state-of-the-art new in the 1930s. What we really tend to forget, though, is that much of the WPA spending was designed to strengthen the public institutions that served the common welfare—in other words, just what we need now.

As Wallace reminds us, the WPA not only built and repaired New York hospitals, it also opened clinics for adults and infants, and put jobless nurses and physicians to work in them. Other health care professionals manned new dental clinics or performed home services for the old and the infirm. Hundreds of schools were built ground up or brought up to speed, Brooklyn and Lehman Colleges got the spit and shine. Teachers ran adult education programs, taught in jails. WPA money went toward experimenting with a system of public childcare designed to meet the needs of working women. Homeless shelters went up, and, working with the Public Works Administration and the New York City Housing Authority, the WPA constructed public housing in Williamsburg and Harlem. Libraries expanded hours instead of cutting them; firehouses were opened instead of closed.

A Time for Real Planning

Such is a truly inspiring litany, especially compared with the cut and run approach to public services we’re accustomed to. But there were shortcomings. Many WPA projects undercut union wage patterns. They tended to shortchange blacks and the neighborhoods they lived in and shunted women off to traditional “women’s” positions. Furthermore, the massive influx of money that did ultimately go to infrastructural “improvements” engendered an autocratic approach to urban planning and development, personified by the post-WWII work of Robert Moses. While it is still too early to know exactly how Obama’s stimulus money will be spent, we need to be on guard—after all, we have in place a mayor who not only thinks big a la Moses, he is also pretty good at getting his own way.

Yet as Hunter College-based planning activist Tom Angotti says in his new book, New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate, New Yorkers have not only been consistent in the demand for public action in times of economic stress, they have also stood up for their neighborhoods. Thanks in part to the elegiac tones and wide influence of Robert Caro’s Power Broker, we tend to think of the Moses era in terms of the damage done, of the bulldozers, the displacement, and on in time, the traffic and the asthma. Yet the high age of Urban Renewal sparked not only the well documented—and usually unsuccessful—attempts to beat back the bulldozers. It also saw New Yorkers take the next step, which was to articulate their own plans for renewal, based on their own needs.

According to Angotti, community planning got its official start when residents came together to fight a Moses plan to redevelop an 11-block area around Cooper Square on the Lower East Side. The project was typical Moses, says Angotti, more “focused on conveying land to anyone who could put brick and mortar together than [on] dealing with the housing problems facing the people who lived and worked in the neighborhood.” Initial resistance led to further organizing and then a professionally crafted alternative plan for the redevelopment of the area. Over time, the Cooper Square Committee effectively jostled with the City Planning Commission, and managed to create various mechanisms—from cross subsidies to Mutual Housing Associations—that helped prevent the kind of mass displacement that generally characterized urban renewal projects. Angotti suggests that in the end the neighborhood is better off for the effort, although others involved in the struggle against gentrification and displacement on the Lower East Side might disagree. Indeed, by Angotti’s own account, the future of the Cooper Square Renewal Area is uncertain, not least because one of last sites was developed by a Real Estate Investment Trust, entities not known for their concern for long-term affordability.

Nonetheless, the idea that there were alternatives to developer-driven growth, that New Yorkers could plan for themselves, has resonated throughout the city. Sometimes the notion was turned to more conservative, more exclusive ends—such as when communities, generally well-off ones, defend themselves in NIMBY fashion, or rally to protect the architectural integrity of a low-rise neighborhood and little else. Working-class neighborhoods in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, on the other hand, have led the way in coming up with plans to rejuvenate housing stock without sacrificing affordability, or for that matter, environmental “livability.” But as Angotti rightly insists, the Cooper Square Committee—a good example of what he calls “progressive” community planning—had to make compromises, given what it was up against. The same can be said for the others. Furthermore, only ten so-called 197a’s have been adopted since the Charter revision of 1989 first invited the submission of community plans. Promising in theory, progressive community-based planning has tended to produce piecemeal results.

The Right to the City

That said, the community plans that did actually break ground took constant organizing and constant agitation to get as far they did. They proclaim, in their own modest ways, that ordinary people have “a right to the city,” and that, in the present context, is the important thing. Of course we’re a long way from actually securing this right, and the problem is not purely one of mustering, finally, enough strength to convince the mayor and the Department of City Planning that enough is enough. The withdrawal of federal support for urban development over the years created a vacuum that real estate giants like the Related Group and the Vornado Realty Trust have unfortunately filled

Obama has declared his intention to upgrade the federal Community Development Block Grant program. That’s a good place to start, and indeed, he probably should fold such plans into his stimulus package as well. But the Feds need to attach strings. In other words, aid has to be structured around a project for comprehensive planning for the public good, not around the ad hoc policy of incentivizing private sector profits that currently masquerades as planning. The city would then have to once and for all beef up its Uniform Land Review Process. For this to work, existing public institutions like Community Boards would have to be restructured, so that they have real, as opposed to advisory, power to decide what gets built where. They will also need to be staffed up with trained men and women, with real commitment, to work with residents on their plans. This would require more money in the form of targeted grants. Moses had his corps of unemployed architects, who found great satisfaction in their work; this time around, there will be plenty of under- and unemployed B.A.s, M.A.s and, Ph.D.s, well-schooled in the movements for housing reform, labor rights, and environmental justice, who would welcome a similar opportunity.

If there is to be a new New Deal, it must mean the return of copious amounts of federal aid to cities. If it is to be democratic, Obama must commit to a renewal of the public sector. As for the rest of us, we need to mobilize some compassion, and most of all, come up with energy for the kind of fight that makes sure the new president follows through. All these efforts, including the last, have been known to happen in New York.


Richard Wells


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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