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A Review of
The Creative Destruction of New York City: Engineering the City For the Elite
Hardcover: Oxford UP, 2017
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Reviewed by Thomas V. Bona
When I last visited my native New York City in 2013, I made sure to walk on the High Line. I was stunned at how well the vaunted 1.45-mile greenway on an abandoned rail line on the west side of Manhattan lived up to the hype. Lush vegetation – and did I hear birdsong? – stood out over oceans of urban pavement. A literal park in the sky, it had food, drinks, art installations, and excellent people watching. I never would have explored this part of the city when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was mostly aging industrial buildings, garages, and night clubs. Now it was teeming with life, as were a lot of other neighborhoods. With the “back to the city” trend and the strength of New York’s economy, decades of urban decay and disinvestment were beaten back. There were record numbers of residents, jobs, and tourists. What’s not to like?
Well, urban scholar Alessandro Busà has a list. In his first book, The Creative Destruction of New York, Busà details the rising income inequality, unaffordable housing, and “hyper-gentrification” of the city. He pins it directly on the efforts of city leaders under the administrations of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and current Mayor Bill de Blasio to attract the wealthy by rezoning, beautifying, and commercializing older, poorer, and underdeveloped neighborhoods. Busà details significant transitions in Harlem, Coney Island, East New York, and the areas along the High Line that, he argues, push the poor farther away to make room for luxury developments and tourist-friendly attractions. “For those other few with the means to enjoy it, New York is, more than any global city, a glamorous haven of work, leisure, luxury shopping, and world-class entertainment. … For ordinary people, however, living in the city has become more and more of a challenge, and for those at the lower end of the social and economic ladder, surviving in today’s New York can be a living hell” (xvii).
The book is thoroughly researched (girded with a 34-page bibliography), but written with a storyteller’s deftness. Busà tracks historical events with just the amount of detail needed. He succinctly analyzes and quotes data-heavy reports and planning documents (you’ll learn what floor-area ratio and upzoning mean, and why they matter). He incorporates interviews with residents, as well as arguments of advocacy groups and fellow academics, to come to his own emphatic and empathetic conclusions. Busà weaves these together particularly expertly in his tour of Harlem, where luxury condos rise while lifelong residents say, “But we, the average people, we are stuck in a box. We see our shops close. They buy them out. We are not supposed to live here any longer.” (4) Even though I am a native New Yorker with a fair knowledge of its history and of current urban planning issues, I learned much.
That said, I’m not sure Busà’s conclusions are as solid as his writing. Busà interprets every piece of information as an indictment on recent city leadership, even if the evidence muddies or contradicts his point. His thorough research of specific neighborhoods and migration patterns, as well as the overall fiscal and social conditions of the city going back decades, depict a much more complex web of causes of current inequality. While lamenting the recent transformation of Coney Island from an egalitarian hodgepodge of public beaches and old amusement parks to a glitzier tourist haven, he admits its “history of decline began in 1938” (144). The new developments have indeed raised surrounding property values and made it tougher for long-time poor residents. But those neighborhoods had it bad long before Bloomberg showed up. In the 1950s, “after the urban renewal plans took place and old middle-class houses were replaced with towered public housing projects, local crime rates soared, giving rise to episodes of gang violence and racial conflicts that culminated in the 1960s and 1970s” (145). Far-flung or otherwise undervalued parts of the city, especially waterfronts and old industrial areas, have long been the place the poor ended up. Investing in those areas and cleaning up blight is not inherently a bad thing.
Perhaps Busà’s biggest weakness is that he waxes too nostalgically of the “gritty” past of New York City, with one too many loving references to auto shops, locksmiths, and meatpacking facilities. He assumes the city could have recovered from the population loss and near bankruptcy of the 1960s and 1970s while fundamentally not changing. And since he is a transplant who has only known the city in the Bloomberg and de Blasio eras, Busà doesn’t seem to realize that the city has always fundamentally changed, that the neighborhoods he pines for now had displaced or replaced those who lived there previously.
People like Busà, and, well, me as a tourist, are part of the problem of affordability. We are the millions of people who visit or move to the city, driving demand for housing and stores and attractions where there’s a finite supply of available land. New York has long been expensive, and unfortunately has always been difficult for the poor. The income gaps Busà shares show not a worsening of paychecks for the poor, but a marked increase in wealth returning to the city. The challenge, then, is how to successfully use that influx of wealth to benefit all residents. Busà does correctly show how certain policies haven’t helped the situation: Bloomberg’s toothless affordable housing incentives were ignored by developers who made more money on market-rate projects; widespread rezoning of neighborhoods without a citywide comprehensive plan may have hidden the big picture from residents; and there were only half-hearted efforts to not only solicit but actively use public input to drive decision-making.
I found myself going through several cycles of agreeing, then disagreeing, then agreeing, then disagreeing with Busà. The book was an aggravating read at times, and had he reined in his focus he may have made a much more solid argument. But, then he may not have written such a fascinating book and I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much, nor wrestled with changes to the city I thought were all positive.
The Creative Destruction of New York is recommended for readers regardless of their interest in New York City, because it highlights how historic actions by both the public and private sector can affect minority and low-income communities. Readers from elsewhere may be inspired, like I was, to learn more about the history of their cities and how past government policy and/or market forces contributed to inequality and segregation, and then turn a critical eye toward whether the same is happening today.
Thomas Bona, a native of The Bronx, New York, is Research and Information Director for Region 1 Planning Council in Rockford, Illinois. He studies and analyzes the region’s economic, workforce, and community development efforts, and assists government and private-sector partners with strategies to improve the area. He also tweets about music, beer, New York sports, and even books, at @tvbona.