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Misreading New York, and Cities

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Misreading New York, and Cities

The whiz kid of urban studies doesn’t understand the first thing about housing and development. September 7, 2017
Cities
New York

The Creative Destruction of New York City: Engineering the City for the Elite, by Alessandro Busà (Oxford University Press, 332 pp., $29.95)

Perhaps you’re among those people who think that life in New York City has improved in recent decades. After all, compared with the early 1980s, crime is lower, public spaces are safe and teeming with pedestrians and shoppers, fewer poor people require public assistance, and waves of new immigrants—both the college-educated and the Third World’s poor—have voted with their feet to come to Gotham.

A German-educated “urban scholar” has arrived to debunk the evidence of your own eyes. “For ordinary people,” writes Alessandro Busà in The Creative Destruction of New York City, “surviving today in New York can be a living hell.” He has in mind not just “broke college students in Astoria” but “starving artists in Bushwick, teachers and firefighters, shoemakers and dry cleaners,” even “graphic designers, copywriters and other professionals,” who are, he asserts, “being priced out of the city.” Chain stores, luxury high rises, and gentrification have transformed the city into little more than “a consumption-based playground” for an “exceptionally affluent population of city consumers.”

Such complaints are common in New York, often heard from poverty advocates or city council members. But Busà, fashioning himself a combination Tocqueville and Marx and Engels, believes that he is being original in identifying the villain: capitalism. “Capitalism,” he writes, “can survive only by subjugating more and more of the urban experience under its rules.” Its goal, he asserts, is the exaltation of private self-interest at public expense. “The incessant restructuring of the built environment is a reflection of capital’s ability to constantly find new avenues to reproduce itself . . . (leading to) a relentless disruption of existing communities, social ties, and cultural identities,” he writes, as epitomized by “rampant gentrification of inner-city districts since the 1980s.” All this Busà calls “creative destruction”—never mind that Joseph Schumpeter, who coined that phrase, meant it as a neutral description of the way capitalism enables invention and reinvention, through new products and services. The dynamic is certainly disruptive—robots replace factory workers, industries seek lower costs and move—and neighborhoods change in response to new trends. Rising housing prices reflect that dynamism, too, and gentrification can uproot people.

For Busà, however, “creative destruction” is only negative. He laments Harlem’s gentrification, apparently longing for the days when the neighborhood was uniformly poor and black. That gentrification may lead to the renovation of derelict buildings and enable minority homeowners to sell for large windfalls does not occur to him. Nor does Busà note that, when all forms of subsidized housing are considered—including public housing and rent-stabilization—New York has more “affordable housing” than any American city.

Part of the problem with this book is that, as Busà admits in his introduction, he doesn’t have much experience of New York City. He lived here briefly on an educational-exchange visa, moving in and out of at least a half-dozen short-term sublets and shares. He lists the various rents he paid—from $700 for a one-bedroom in the West Village to $1,400 for a room in his “beloved Chinatown” to $250 per week for a tiny room in a Bowery flophouse—as though these terms are illustrative of New York’s “inexorable rise in rental prices.” They’re not: they are random data points in a massively complex housing market. Also, most working New Yorkers do not house their families in short-term sublets, rent individual rooms, or depend on what sound like apartment-sitting stints. Busà presents his brief time in New York City to credential himself as an expert on its housing market, but his transient, atypical living situations undercut his claims to authority on the topic.

For a university press book, the volume is replete with sloppy references and unsubstantiated numbers. Busà discusses the actions of New York’s “Department of Housing,” presumably referring to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. No congressional act called the Federal Urban Renewal Program exists; rather, there is Title I of the National Housing Act of 1949. Busà calls former Commissioner of City Planning Amanda Burden “Amanda Bloomberg.” Citing “Moody” (not Moody’s credit-rating service, it turns out, but the name of a left-wing polemicist), he informs us that, during just two years under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the city lost “over 1.3 million affordable (housing) units.” Only 3.4 million residential units exist in the entire city—and more than 1 million of those are rent-stabilized, with another 176,000 owned by the public housing authority. According to the 1999 New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, the number of units under rent stabilization declined by 0.6 percent between 1996 and 1999, representing slightly less than 6,000 apartments, so it is unclear where the 1.3 million figure comes from. Errors of this magnitude in an ostensibly scholarly work are inexcusable.

The book’s biggest problem, however, is its main argument: that capitalism creates a tsunami of destruction at the expense of the poor. Busà identifies the villains of New York City as its real-estate titans, enabled by politicians, who do their bidding. He is not wrong that real-estate development in New York is an insider’s game, one in which campaign contributions may help with property-tax exemptions and rezoning. What he fails to understand is that this kind of sleaze is not capitalism. If it resembles any system, it is German state capitalism—what others might call crony capitalism or corporatism. It is no regime of free markets.

It’s hard to understand how Busà can classify Robert Moses, and his regime of massive, eminent-domain-based subsidized-housing construction, as an agent of capitalism, rather than of well-connected builders in league with big-government progressives. Luxury high-rises such as One57 may be contemporary symbols of wealth, but nothing has harmed the poor, in New York and elsewhere, as much as public housing. Its construction required the demolition of “slums,” with their modest structures that were poor households and businesses’ only assets. Herded into subsidized rentals, the urban poor, especially African-Americans, lost their chance to accumulate wealth through property appreciation—a setback that mattered far more than the current bugaboo about bank redlining. It was this combination of progressivism and cronyism that outraged Jane Jacobs, whom Busà cites, predictably, as a philosophical ally. In reality, Jacobs celebrated the dynamic, changing city—one that turned greenhorn immigrants into middle-class citizens, that fostered product innovation (the seamstress who invented the brassiere, for instance), and that shed its skin time and again, as New York always has. Busà’s confusion on this point runs deep. He seems to believe that if only Michael Bloomberg’s administration had not rezoned vacant waterfront buildings for new residential and commercial purposes, garment factories and longshoremen would have returned to areas that had been derelict for decades, and that if 125th Street had not been rezoned, jazz clubs and soul food restaurants would still be there—despite the decline in jazz’s popularity and the exodus of the black middle-class from Harlem.

What does New York—or London, or other great cities—need in place of the oppressive regime Busà has described here? He offers only vague platitudes: “There must be something better than this. As people wake up and challenge the established consensus around city building there will be a chance for us to see another kind of creative destruction. And hopefully, it will be the creative destruction of established norms, slogans, and political practices that have made this system so disconnected from the needs of the citizens of New York, as well as the citizens of the world.” For evidence of such a system, Busà might look farther back in New York’s history—to a time before zoning and subsidized housing, when builders, free to construct residences as-of-right, built great swaths of brownstones in Brooklyn, apartments on the Grand Concourse, and two-family homes in Queens. That’s a system that responded to the needs of citizens. It’s called capitalism.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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