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The Last Days of New York

Yet the rows of unwanted office buildings, the ravaged neighborhoods with their abandoned apartments, the empty factories, the shoals of semiliterate dropouts, the bankruptcies are all partly the result of choices that turned out badly. It was not history alone that ordained the destruction of 110 printing companies in lower Manhattan or that destroyed hundreds of other businesses to build the World Trade Center with its floors of vacant offices or that legislated the welfare differentials that helped stimulate the huge migration from the South to the city’s red-lined ghettos or that built expensive apartments on an island in the East River so that the prospective tenants, if in fact there are any, will have to be lofted ashore by aerial tramway to do their shopping. (It costs about five times as much to create a new apartment in such projects as the one in the East River as it would to rehabilitate an apartment in much of the city’s old but still usable housing.)

New York is typical of the many old industrial cities that have lost jobs since World War II, but according to Herbert Bienstock, the New York regional director of the federal bureau of labor statistics, New York should have been less affected by changes in industrial patterns and by the recession than other cities. “The industrial structure of New York City, with relatively smaller concentrations of recessionsensitive, goods-producing industries, would suggest some greater relative strength during periods of general economic contraction,” he said. “Such strength was not in evidence during the recent period of national employment decline and subsequent recovery.” Between 1970 and 1972, for example, the median family income of New Yorkers decline by 3.5 percent in constant dollars.

Since 1969, when employment here was at its highest, New York has lost 500,000 jobs of all kinds, more than the total employment of Cincinnati or Kansas City. Between 1970 and 1973, when the country as a whole gained 7.6 million jobs, New York City should proportionately have gained 466,920. Instead it lost 200,000. That this happened suggests that forces beyond the ordinary vagaries of industrial devolution were at work here.

Amid the practical anarchy that characterized New York’s economy for more than a century no single industry or group of industries achieved the autonomy that the steel and aluminum makers, for example, enjoyed in Pittsburgh or that gave the auto makers absolute power over the fortunes of Detroit. New York, when it flourished, was never at the mercy of an industrial autocracy or the fortunes of a particular product. Even the huge apparel industry was split into so many competing units that its influence over the rest of the city was slight. It was this lack of a controlling center, according to Mr. Bienstock, that should have supplied New York’s resiliency. For Jane Jacobs and her followers it was this same anarchy that had always given New York’s economy its unique strength; that supplied the ferment in which one enterprise in New York bred another in the apparently random way that mutations occur in nature.

Thus New York’s financial industry helped spawn the specialized printing trades which produced its prospectuses; these printers in turn helped generate the skills that supported the city’s graphics and advertising industries, and these supported the complex network of writers and artists and agents and technicians that bred the city’s communications industries. New York’s economy was a demonstration of the principle that where there is enough genetic activity new forms of life are likely to emerge and the more adaptable of them will survive, producing new species and so on endlessly.

Within this wilderness of economic possibility there emerged, however, a dialectical exception. By 1961 New York employed more than 125,000 construction workers, a more numerous and far more highly paid industrial group than almost any other in the city, including the ladies’ garment workers. Moreover, the construction industry was a uniquely cohesive unit, politically and ethnically, dominated by a handful of politically connected contractors and their captive unions. Its links to the city’s financial and political leadership were evident at a hundred Waldorf banquets. The proof of its hegemony was broadcast on thousands of billboards announcing this or that new housing project or highway, usually financed in large part by federal funds and endorsed by the current mayor and his collection of city commissioners. Inevitably there evolved a coalition among the city’s building trades, the mortgage bankers, the investment houses, and the politicians. Nothing short of the city’s impending bankruptcy would inhibit it.

Much of the construction industry’s power over the city and its neighborhoods evolved from the various public authorities that emerged during the depression of the 1930s, particularly the autonomous agencies contrived by Robert Moses which raised huge sums for public works, usually through the sale of bonds guaranteed, as a rule, by the state treasury and marketed by the city’s investment banks. These agencies also brought federal funds into the city and state for the construction of public projects whose appeal to the city’s politicians was even greater than it was to the citizens themselves. Where the public saw a handsome new bridge or highway interchange, the politicians saw a Niagara of public money with which to employ loyal constituencies and at the same time reward themselves and their companions with multitudes of contracts, architectural commissions, condemnation awards, legal fees, and bureaucratic appointments.

At the same time the politicians could assure the taxpayers that these projects would cost the city little. The money came from Washington or from the sale of bonds whose burden would fall on future generations. The construction industry thus became for the city what aerospace was for the West and the South, the region’s major conduit for federal funds and a vehicle for the sale of securities, sponsored by various public treasuries, often in later years without the specific consent of the taxpayers who would eventually have to redeem them.

Within the city’s own political structure, the construction industry and its satellites became what the party clubhouses had been for earlier generations—a mechanism for distributing patronage to party workers and for infusing money throughout the political machine. That the industry also constructed buildings and highways was almost incidental, much as the care of the elderly became incidental in many of the city’s nursing homes under state and federal medical programs. The ghost within the machine was a system of political preferment and control more powerful than anything the city had known before. A century ago, William Marcy Tweed, a mayor whose crookedness was exceeded only by his intelligence, observed of New York that its “population is too hopelessly split up into races and factions to govern it under universal suffrage except by the bribery of patronage and corruption.” In our own time it was mainly the construction complex—the builders, the autonomous agencies, the federal and state bureaucracies, the banks—that generated the patronage, by which the politicians attempted to dominate the city’s “hopelessly split up races and factions.”

When New York first built its subways and its present water supply system, it did so with its own resources and through corporations responsible for their own profits. Though these projects supplied the usual opportunities for patronage, the results were useful public works from which the city still benefits. The wanton construction since the war, on the other hand, has produced public housing that has not only devastated existing neighborhoods but that has itself so deteriorated that much of it is now indistinguishable from the surrounding slums. New public hospitals stand empty while the hospital system as a whole remains 25 percent unused for lack of personnel. Expensive new highways are choked with traffic while mass transit languishes. Yet to criticize the works of New York’s builders was, in the 1960s, to criticize America itself and the imperial notions of progress that it promoted. The construction workers who attacked the antiwar demonstrators on Wall Street in 1970 were acting, as it turned out, not only on orders from Washington; they were supporting an absurd war which was yet another manifestation of the same berserk Keynesianism that was devastating the neighborhoods of their own city. Today the construction industry has shriveled, along with the city itself. Last year the city lost 30,000 construction jobs. Of the 75,000 jobs left in the industry, some 40,000 will probably disappear within the year. Like the ghetto leaders of the 1960s, the construction workers were the temporary and fortuitous beneficiaries of governmental programs that no longer interest the parties in power as much as they once did and for which there is no longer as much public support.

What remains in doubt are the city’s regenerative powers. In the 1920s the city’s Regional Plan Association, a group of high-minded bankers and real estate developers, advised that an expressway be built across lower Manhattan that would link the proposed Holland Tunnel with the Manhattan Bridge and thus supply a connection between New Jersey and Long Island. Nothing came of this scheme at the time. The plan was revived, however, by Robert Moses in the 1950s, but rejected by the Board of Estimate in response to public protests. The expressway which was to have crossed Manhattan at Broome Street would have destroyed what was still a thriving industrial neighborhood north of Canal Street. It would also have uprooted the city’s traditional Italian neighborhood that extends south from the lower reaches of Greenwich Village, and it would have jeopardized Chinatown, south of Canal Street, as well. The threat to the city’s living tissue was incalculable.

Apprehensive residents of the area soon recognized that the federally funded expressway was consistent with schemes to redevelop all of lower Manhattan from Greenwich Village to the Battery. Jane Jacobs, for example, observed that Robert Moses’s proposal for an extension of Fifth Avenue through Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park was probably intended as the northern link to the new expressway, a link that would have destroyed hundreds of sturdy residences and countless businesses in its path.

The expressway’s main sponsor was the Downtown Lower Manhattan Association. Its leader was David Rockefeller, whose Chase Bank had just built a new headquarters in lower Manhattan. Among the other sponsors was the Port of New York Authority, an autonomous bi-state agency which was about to build its World Trade Center in the same area. Harry Van Arsdale, the leader of the city’s trade unionists, was another sponsor, and so was Peter Brennan, the head of the city’s construction workers who later became Nixon’s labor secretary. The American Automobile Association was another sponsor.

Among the expressway’s opponents was John Lindsay, then a Republican congressman who was running for mayor. Once he was elected, however, Lindsay became a supporter of the expressway, presumably in response to Mayor Tweed’s famous rule of city government. The inhabitants of the area were adamant in their opposition. They demonstrated. They protested to the feckless new mayor. They signed petitions and attended hearings, all to no avail. Anticipating the expressway, businesses closed down, factories moved away. Between the late Sixties and the early Seventies the area known as “The Valley,” which extends from 34th Street south to Canal, lost some 85,000 jobs. To quiet the expressway’s opponents the plans for the new road were altered. Instead of a surface highway the project’s sponsors would build a depressed highway and above it they would build a new school. This scheme was probably their undoing. An environmental study showed that students would be asphyxiated in their classrooms by fumes from the traffic below. One environmental study led to another and the expressway was eventually abandoned on the eve of Lindsay’s second campaign for mayor.

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