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The Last Days of New York

Fifteen years ago New York was still mainly a manufacturing city; in fact it had more industrial employees than any other city in the world. Nearly half the people here worked full time and nearly a million of them, or more than a quarter of the work force, worked at the production of goods. Eighty-thousand New Yorkers worked in the food trades, baking bread and brewing beer for the city’s nearly eight million citizens. A quarter million worked in the apparel industry. More than 20,000 ground lenses and made scientific instruments. One-hundred twenty-five thousand worked in the printing trades.

But New Yorkers did so many other things too that you could live here for years and never think of New York as a manufacturing city at all. Most of the city’s industry was tucked away in old lofts in odd corners of Manhattan or in small plants in Long Island City or Brooklyn. There were no great steel mills or automobile factories to dominate the city’s economy or its landscape. More than a third of the city’s factories employed fewer than twenty people each. New York’s industry was nondescript and, like much else that supplied the city’s vitality, largely invisible.

It was one of New York’s pleasures then that you could stay pretty much in your own compartment, painting pictures or teaching school or selling whatever you sold while the rest of the city became a kind of backdrop, often colorful, often squalid, usually a blur—something you noticed from the window of a bus or an airplane. You didn’t have to think about it if you didn’t want to, and why would anyone want to? In the outer boroughs there are thousands of New Yorkers who almost never come into what they call the city, by which they mean Manhattan. You can live here for a lifetime and never notice that New York is bounded by one of the world’s great rivers or that it is made up of hundreds of settlements with names like Tottenville, Corona, and Ravenswood or that it has, or once had, dozens of downtowns.

For years the city seemed to run itself by a kind of anarchic common sense. No doubt this was much of its charm for people who came here from smaller, less intimate places. New York lent itself to privacy, to eccentricity, and thus to a kind of freedom unavailable elsewhere. If New York was often a cold city where hardly anyone cared if you lived or died, it was also a city that left you alone to work out your own salvation. The city, for all the socialist talk of its intellectuals and the kaleidoscopic mergers of the alien corporations that had begun to operate here, was still by 1960 or so a kind of living museum of pre-monopoly capitalism: an anachronism as it was to turn out, but still in retrospect the climactic event in the history of those bazaars that arose centuries ago in Venice and Ravenna and moved slowly westward by way of Antwerp, Paris, and London. In New York there was almost nothing that couldn’t be bought or sold or made or put together or created or destroyed, including of course the city itself.

Yet as hermetic and various as life here was in those days, it was by no means uniformly so. For all its diversity and toughness, New York, along with the rest of the world, was being drawn up in spasms of conglomeration, as in some great geological shift. Businesses, neighborhoods, whole cities and towns were abolished or fused together in unlikely new arrangements. Sometimes this happened with the help of government, as when new federal and state highways funnelled the city’s former taxpayers out to the synthetic new suburbs. Sometimes it happened according to the designs of bankers and developers and the brutal logic of balance sheets. But always the cause appeared to be remote, obscure, and autonomous. By the end of the decade, nearly everyone in the city—the landlords, the tenants, the bankers, the welfare clients, even the bureaucrats themselves—complained that something called “they” was running the city and running it badly.

By the middle Sixties you could see the city and its people changing all around you. New construction was going up everywhere, herding the old residents and their businesses into ever narrower enclaves, or driving them out of the city altogether. Meanwhile the expanding ghettos were overflowing with refugees driven here by the mechanization of Southern agriculture and by Southern welfare practices that made Northern cities seem deceptively generous by contrast. In the late Fifties, Southern legislators joked that the meager welfare programs which they diligently enforced provided one-way bus tickets north for their unwanted blacks. Between 1960 and 1970 the proportion of blacks in the city had risen from 14 percent to 21 percent, most of them trapped here by a city that didn’t need their labor and that had, in fact, begun to export its menial and routine work to less costly labor markets, often to the same areas which these new arrivals had recently abandoned.

In the past twenty years the proportion of New Yorkers with incomes beneath the national median has increased from 36 percent to 49 percent. Between 1960 and 1970 a million or more middle-class taxpayers, including 600,000 Jews, had moved out. As the Sixties progressed the city’s remaining bourgeoisie was facing extinction as it struggled and fell in the damp embrace of fresh cement, in the transistorized roar of the ghetto and the rising cost of everything, especially the cost of privacy which once could have been had here almost for the asking but which had now increasingly become the privilege of the very rich, more isolated than ever in their midtown compound.

In 1960, 140 of the country’s 500 largest corporations had their headquarters here. By 1975, forty-four of them had left, including Borden, Texaco, Allied Chemical, and Nabisco. There are now some thirty million square feet of unrented office space in Manhattan. In 1975 permits to build only 4,400 new housing units were issued in the city, a decline of some 70 percent from the year before, which itself showed a decline of 30 percent from the year before that. The city which had lost some 250,000 housing units from 1960 to 1970 was losing them at the rate of more than 30,000 a year in the 1970s. The landlords say that the city’s rent control laws force them to abandon their properties because their arbitrarily restricted rental incomes can’t cover the rising cost of maintaining their buildings. Even so, according to The New York Times, controlled rents in the city have risen three times as fast as tenant incomes over the last five years. Building maintenance costs however have risen still faster.

The result is an impasse. To decontrol the city’s 640,000 controlled apartment will put thousands of needy tenants on the street unless the city itself pays the rent of those who can’t afford the higher rates, as it now pays the rent of its welfare dependents. To maintain controls will only increase the rate at which the landlords abandon their properties. In the last ten years the city’s subway system has lost 20 percent of its riders, the result partly of higher fares, but mostly of unemployment and decayed neighborhoods.

Since 1958 the city has lost more than 400,000 manufacturing jobs, a decline of some 40 percent which represents more than $3.5 billion in lost wages. In the year ending June 30, 1975, the city had lost 115,000 jobs in all categories. Employment was at its lowest level since 1950, the year that the city first kept such figures. Not only was the city itself, in effect, bankrupt; the bankruptcy rate for businesses and individuals in the Eastern District of New York, that is, the boroughs of Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn, as well as Long Island, increased last year by 72.7 percent against a national increase of 34.3 percent. Among the businesses that failed was the Silvercup Bakery, which had once supplied bread for the city schools. The schools now buy bread from bakers in Connecticut and New Jersey.

The city’s printing industry, which produced 18 percent of the nation’s printing output five years ago, now produces 12 percent. Since 1960 employment in the printing trades has fallen by a third. One reason for the drop, according to the city’s economic development administrator, is that in the 1960s an urban renewal project wiped out 110 printing companies in lower Manhattan.

One million one-hundred thousand New Yorkers are now on relief, many of them the grown children of parents who themselves spent their lives on welfare. Another 400,000 New Yorkers now depend upon the city’s $4 billion public payroll to support themselves and their families. Between 1960 and 1974 the number of city employees in New York for every 10,000 citizens increased by 69.9 percent and their average earnings in the same period rose by 129 percent. Of the twenty-four largest American cities only Washington, DC, has a higher proportion of public employees. One reason for the increase in personnel was the additional services required by the welfare immigrants. Another was that the city payroll had itself become a form of welfare for many of the city’s employees. Between 1961 and 1975 the city’s annual contribution to the municipal employee pension funds rose from $168 million to $973 million, by far the highest such increase for any American city.

Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker who contrived the city’s temporary rescue from insolvency last year, warned that “the pain is just beginning. New York will now have to undergo the most brutal kind of financial and fiscal exercise that any community in the country will ever have to face….” That Mr. Rohatyn more or less by himself kept the city from bankruptcy suggests the fragility of the institutional arrangements by which the city temporarily survives. That it took Mr. Rohatyn’s colleagues in the city’s banks until last spring to grasp the city’s plight suggests the obtuseness with which they had managed their affairs and the city’s all along. Not only had the bankers continued to advance expensive credit to their luckless client when even a waterfront loan shark would have called it quits; for years they had joined the city in backing the wrong horses: office towers that nobody wanted, shopping centers that ruined local merchants, housing schemes that are now tottering toward bankruptcy. Meanwhile, in their private councils, the banks drew red lines around the ghettos, agreeing to deny mortgages to those proscribed areas, no matter what the qualifications of individual borrowers. The ghettos soon collapsed, leaving it to the city’s hapless taxpayers to support their miserable inhabitants.

In retrospect history is a record of the inevitable, yet there is little in history that men cannot have done differently. New York’s decline is probably inseparable from a general crisis in capitalism, the same crisis that has affected Detroit, London, and Tokyo. More modestly it is a result of the recession of the early Seventies, and perhaps too of the gradual westward shift of the American population whose center by 1970 had drifted to the southwestern corner of Illinois. Obviously new technologies and cheaper labor markets have hurt New York’s industry. Fifty years ago most of the books published in New York were also printed here. It would be foolish to print them here now.

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