By Kim Phillips-Fein
Metropolitan Books – Henry Holt and Company
People familiar with the thriving New York City of today would be shocked to read about the city it was in the 1970s.
Kim Phillips-Fein documents that chaotic time 40 years ago in her comprehensive work, Fear City.
It was a time of rubble and broken-down buildings filling the Lower East Side, Bushwick was burning, and Williamsburg was an area filled with working-class people fighting to preserve their neighborhood services form budget cuts.
Bankers and politicians seized on the situation as evidence that social liberalism was unworkable. The city would have to drastically cut services, freeze wages, and fire thousands of workers, or face financial disaster.
Phillips-Fein lays out the battles for the soul of New York, with unions and ordinary citizens fighting against the cuts that elites desired. She details all the last-minute machinations and backroom deals that solved the fiscal crisis.
“For the residents who saw their firehouses threatened with closure, their children’s teachers laid off, and their roads going unpaved, the crisis marked a power grab by financiers who wanted to recast New York as a white-collar professional city,” she writes. “For the men who were catapulted by the events of the crisis into positions of unusual decision-making power (and the few women who joined them), the fiscal crisis was a nerve-racking but exciting time of late nights, early breakfasts, and meetings around the clock, an urgent struggle to save the city from bankruptcy against all odds. For lifelong New York politicians, it was a bewildering shift in priorities and expectations, a time when they were blamed for bankrupting the city by trying to protect services and jobs, the very things they formerly had been lauded for providing.”
One thing Fear City does that most other works on New York City in this period do not is show all the investment the city made in the prior four decades on services for their citizens.
“New York City has been at the forefront of social reform every since the early twentieth century,” writes Phillips-Fein. “Progressive reformers had pressed for housing market regulations to ensure that apartments for poor people were not dangerous firetraps. Labor organizers had won laws protecting workers on the job after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. In the early 1930s, following the onset of the Great Depression, the city government had been plagued by fiscal problems; it was saved fro default by bankers who extended a loan and demanded service cuts. But these cuts were rolled back within a few years, when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was able to win funding from Franklin Delano Roosevelt – the former New York State governor occupying the White House – for a vast array of public works and social programs.
“As a result, during the postwar period New York provided a remarkable range of services to its citizens, through an extensive public sector hard to imagine today. At its peak, the city ran a network of twenty-four municipal hospitals, along with dozens of neighborhood primary care and pediatric clinics. Its health department even conducted original research into matters of public health. Over the decades, the city built numerous parks and playgrounds, elementary and secondary schools, public housing, swimming pools, college campuses, piers,highways, bridges, and airports. In the 1960s, it opened day care centers for low-income mothers and treatment centers to help drug addicts. Its sprawling library system included public research libraries that rivaled many private university collections.”
What most people know about New York City’s near-bankruptcy in 1975 can be summed up by a well-known tabloid cover.
Phillips-Fein writes, “On October 30, 1975, the New York Daily News printed the most famous headline in its history: ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead.’
“The previous day, President Gerald Ford had delivered a speech at the National Press Club in Washington on the looming bankruptcy of New York City. Once inconceivable, such a collapse fit with the climate of the time. American politics in the autumn of 1975 had taken on the qualities of a grotesque. The memory of President Nixon’s resignation in the midst of the Watergate scandal was still fresh…
“The prospect of New York City’s collapse seemed a further terrifying lurch. The leading men at the city’s biggest banks – including First National City Bank (the forerunner of Citibank), Morgan Guaranty, and Chase Manhattan had spoken out in favor of federal aid for New York. Executives from around the country had traveled to Washington to testify that if the city went under, the fragile national economy might topple as well…
“But President Ford and his closest advisers – a circle that included his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, and the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Greenspan – strongly opposed federal help for New York. They were convinced that the city had brought its problems on itself through heedless, profligate spending. Backruptcy was thus a just punishment for its sins, a necessary lesson in how the city should change to move forward.”
The cuts imposed shrank New York City’s spending by 20 percent and affected almost every aspect of life in the city. These cuts were greeted by massive protest, as New Yorkers occupied fire stations and college campuses to defend the public services they held in high regard. While the protesters achieved some victories, the budget cuts nevertheless changed New York and today it is one of the most unequal cities in the country.
The thing about New York is that it drives the country, and eventually the world, depending on how it is doing, good and bad.
“The blows hammering New York seemed to be felt throughout the country and around the world, as the hierarchies and faiths that had ordered the postwar era were coming undone,” writes Phillips-Fein. “Only a decade earlier, the United States had seemed to extend a promise of ever-greater prosperity, mobility, and security to its citizens, a promise that their material conditions would constantly improve as time went on. This had never been fully realized, of course the progress left out many, from women to African Americans to poor people untouched by the economic growth of the postwar years. But the promise extended nonetheless. By the mid-1970s, though, it had been broken. The anticipated future of prosperity and confidence could be counted on no longer.
“So it was in New York. The old expectations had started to give way. The simpler aspects of the city’s physical infrastructure – its roads and highways – could no longer be relied on. At any moment, they might buckle, leaving nothing but a steep descent into empty air below.”
One thing that was a symbol of the golden era of public works that decayed as New York entered the ’70s is the West Side Highway.
Phillips-Fein writes of it, “When the West Side Highway first opened in 1930, it seemed to promise a glorious ‘new era of speed in motor transportation,’ in the words of the Manhattan borough president. In a city of subways, the wide elevated road opened up new possibilities for car transportation. Rising on steel archways above the busy streets of the meatpacking district, it appeared sure to last forever.
“By the early 1970s, though, the highway’s asphalt had been worn down by the vast traffic of the postwar years. The surface had eroded under the tons of salt dumped on it each winter; cars and trucks bumped over the uneven metal plates the city had used to patch the gaping spaces. The skeletal supports that held up the elevated portions of the highway were rusting, damaged by decades of rain and melting snow. Mayor John Lindsay planned a major repair for the deteriorating structure, and construction began in the autumn of 1973. As the city’s commissioner of highways put it, ‘You can’t just fill cavities on this highway. You have to put in new teeth.’
“The work had barely started when the disaster the city feared came to pass. In December 1973, the highway simply buckled under the weight of a repair truck carrying asphalt at the intersection of Little West 12th and Gasevoort Streets in the West Village.”
The fiscal crisis of 1975 made possible the rise of Donald Trump, the current President of the United States. Twenty-nine years old at the time, the brash young developer seized on the crisis to make his first big deal in Manhattan: redeveloping the bankrupt Commodore Hotel near Grand Central Terminal with Hyatt. Because the city was in such bad shape, Trump was able to win tax breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars. New York was desperate for revenue and eager to show that it would be friendly to business in the future.
Phillips-Fein feels that the crisis also shaped Trump’s political vision, giving him the sense that businessmen are saviors, that poor and non-white people are the ones who are sucking public resources away, which was a common myth in the crisis years; and that brave leaders ignore public and democratic protests.
The crisis limited the horizons of city politics in ways we’re living with now in cities across the country. As Mayor Bill de Blasio nears the end of his first term, he has been criticized for his “reduced vision,” as the New York Times put it. The focus on real estate development and the challenge of putting forth an ambitious agenda for cities have limited the ability of even progressive mayors to live up to what they promise voters during a campaign.
The interesting thing about the timing of this book is New York is in danger of losing federal funding for various reasons. Could it lead to another fiscal crisis and will it have ripple effect across the country?