July 12, 2021


Long Crises

An interview with Benjamin Holtzman

With the victory of Eric Adams in the Democratic mayoral primary, New York City stands at a crossroads. How will the city negotiate the changes brought about by Covid-19? What will be the lasting legacy of Black Lives Matter? How will the metropolis—and other American cities—evolve in the years to come?

As New Yorkers grapple with an uncertain future, the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and its aftermath are often invoked by the press and politicians. Today, “New York in the 1970s” is shorthand for a city facing poverty and crime, running out of money, and suddenly confronting the end of one social order and the rocky emergence of another.

Given these dynamics at play, the publication of Benjamin Holtzman’s The Long Crisis: New York City and the Path to Neoliberalism could not have come at a more opportune time. The book tells the story of New York City in the years that preceded and then followed the fiscal crisis and near-bankruptcy of the city in the 1970s. Holtzman reveals how—with the absence of effective government responses—ordinary political wisdom changed to favor private, market-based solutions, whereas earlier generations might have looked to the city government or collective institutions such as unions. He shows that New York City’s history during this time went beyond austerity, constituting a whole new approach to government. This shift to the right was not just a matter of ideology, nor was it driven entirely by elite actors. Rather, it was built by many different political participants and communities on the ground, ranging from park volunteers, to business groups, to neighborhood patrols and beyond. Raising key questions about the city’s history, The Long Crisis is a critical work for understanding the origins of contemporary New York City—and thinking about where we go from here.

—Kim Phillips-Fein

An interview with Benjamin Holtzman

Kim Phillips-Fein: This is a book about New York City in the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Why did you want to write about New York City in this era?

Benjamin Holtzman: The project came out of my dissertation. When I initially got to graduate school, I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to write about a crowded field like New York City, and I was also pretty sure that I didn’t want to write about a period I had been alive during, which meant not writing about the 1980s. But when it came time to really get into the details of a dissertation project, I found myself returning on a personal level to the transformation of New York City that I’d seen when I was young. I kind of remember the city of the 1980s, the transformations that really became much more visible over the 1990s, and I found myself thinking through how those changes came to be. From an intellectual standpoint, many of the books written about New York City during this particular period were by Marxist geographers, David Harvey most prominent among them. I admire and have gained a lot from that work, but something in those stories—which tell a much more structural history of the period—made me curious about the reactions of people on the ground.

Many of the works that influenced me also explored the idea of the urban crisis. But there were fewer historians writing about the aftermath, which for a lot of cities was a period of economic “rejuvenation” in the late-twentieth century. So I landed at this project thinking about the political aspects of this transformation.

KPF: Very frequently, if you talk to people about New York City in the late-twentieth century, there is a notion that the city is so much better off now than it was then. Certainly you see this in the recent mayoral race—nobody wants to go back to the bad old days. But your book is called The Long Crisis. How do you contend with the success narrative that’s been written of the late-twentieth century in New York City?

BH: I’m trying to do two things with the title. One is drawing attention to the period of great economic trouble in New York City’s history—the transformative events of the fiscal crisis in 1975. But also I want us to think of the crisis as something that started years earlier, with ramifications that continue long afterwards.

The starting point for the book is really in the late 1960s, when New York City was facing various sorts of economic troubles. This came to a head when the effects of urbanization, capital flight, federal disinvestment from urban areas, and a national recession constrained municipal resources in New York City. How did people respond to those dynamics in the years prior to the fiscal crisis? The consequences of these changes linger past the 1970s. Even within this latter period of economic “rejuvenation” after the 1975 crisis, many issues remain.

KPF: Your book has a broader view that actually captures both ends of the crisis point of the mid-1970s, showing the deep roots of the fiscal crisis in things that were happening well before, and then also showing the dynamics that it helps to galvanize long afterward. You argue that while the power and resources of local government remained enormous in the early 2000s, they were increasingly deployed to facilitate the role of the private sector and the market in urban life. I want to read one of my favorite passages from the introduction.

Unlike decades before, a New Yorker on a Sunday stroll at the turn of the century may very well have found herself walking out of a condominium that was formerly a rent-regulated apartment, accessing the subway through a privately-owned “public” atrium, walking down a street policed by private security guards and managed by local businesses, and playing basketball in a privately-run “public” park.

The passage illustrates the theme of private sector-driven solutions to what we might normally think of as being in the realm of the state or public resources. You use the term “popular marketization” to describe the late-twentieth century rather than more familiar terms such as neoliberalism or austerity. Can you describe what you mean by “popular marketization”?

BH: Marketization is a term I use to simplify the multiple processes that reflect the growth of the private sector and the market in city life during this period. It’s not just something like privatization—the move from a state-controlled system to one controlled by the private sector. There are certainly lots of examples of privatization in the book. There are also examples of deregulation and the growth of market-based systems. But I was trying to uncover a broader range of processes by using a term like “marketization.”

The “popular” part is meant to refer to the ways that, in the face of constrained municipal resources and services, people throughout the city looked to different kinds of solutions to retain cherished aspects of city life. This could be about their local neighborhood park or a concern about the growth of crime. Some of these were experiments—like launching a community volunteer project to improve a local park. But they weren’t condemning the government or adopting an ideological orientation that favored market solutions—they were just looking for ways to solve problems in their neighborhoods in a situation of constrained municipal resources. And these alternative solutions expanded over time in ways that ultimately transformed the city by increasing the role of the private sector and the market across city life.

KPF: What are some examples of how people sought to respond? In a way, you show that people continue to believe in and expect that the city should provide parks, libraries, and safe and reasonably clean streets. It was almost like holding onto the hope of a certain kind of common civic life, but meeting increasing frustration about the ability of the government to deliver that.

BH: Parks are certainly an example. At the municipal government level, there’s a decline in the conditions of parks not only in lower-income neighborhoods, but throughout the city. What I found was that across the city, people started to come together to launch neighborhood fundraising initiatives to pay for improvements, seedings, and cleanups, along with volunteering in their local park.

They begin over time to receive support for these efforts from park advocates, and to some extent, from the city. And again, they’re not undertaking these efforts because they really believe that the city shouldn’t be responsible for parks. They’re trying to respond to a problem.

I also look at the example of homesteading. There’s an extraordinary problem of building abandonment in the city during this period: thousands of units that landlords essentially walk away from. In response, lower-income and especially Latinx and African American residents in the areas where abandonment is at its worst—the South Bronx, Harlem, Central Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side—begin to reclaim these buildings. The people involved in these reclamations never denounce government support per se, but they do frame their responses as being led from outside of government.

The residents are the ones serving their neighborhoods. But I also chart how, over time, the reclamations and homesteading opened these communities to political officials being able to restrict government resources, and simultaneously orient this stock of abandoned buildings towards the private market. These solutions by city officials looked quite different than what the homesteaders wanted.

KPF: One thing that’s really remarkable about the book is the range of different actors and characters. There are the Renegades: the homesteading group, a group of low-income people of color who are reclaiming buildings in their own neighborhoods. And then there are park volunteers and the friends of the parks groups. But on the other hand, you write about Madison Square Park business owners who get together in a very self-conscious way to reclaim that park. The processes they are engaged in are similar, but they’re not in dialogue with these other groups. They’re not just concerned about making the park a more livable space, but the impact of the park on their businesses and the value of their properties. A similar dynamic occurs in the chapter on private policing and private guards: on the one hand, neighborhood and local patrols, on the other, the corporate security dimension.

BH: I think that it’s a really important clarification. The point of the book is not to argue that neoliberalism and marketization are simply grassroots processes, but it’s rather to shine a light on the important role that people on the ground in their communities had as part of these processes. Powerful interests and officials are of course crucial as well, and I spend a lot of the book focusing on them. I’m trying to show how these different—and in some cases opposing—interests and groups of people come together in ways that facilitate this transition towards relying more on private citizens, the private sector, and the market.

In the case of the parks, community-led volunteer responses promote the idea that the city can no longer maintain these spaces. That helps open the door for more powerful actors.

What follows is the strange coming together of Richard Gilder, a prominent conservative philanthropist, and George Soros, who create private elite donor support around improving conditions in Central Park. Grassroots efforts meet elite-led efforts that proliferate a different kind of image for how parks are going to be saved. They turn to private associations that tend to be overwhelmingly influenced by residents and businesses, not just to play a role in improving these parks, but to actually manage them. The result is that even though the city has a role, private organizations are taking the lead.

KPF: The founder of the Guardian Angels, Curtis Sliwa, is back in the news in New York City as a candidate in the Republican primary for mayor. The Guardian Angels is one of the most high profile forms of citizen patrol, which comes from this sense that, well, the cops aren’t doing it anymore, and we have to keep ourselves safe, so we’re going to the subways on our own. Some people think of the Guardian Angels as the sole instance of this phenomenon, but you show a different story.

BH: The Guardian Angels came onto the scene in the 1980s and were late to the game. The growth of private security that I look at in the book begins with greater concerns about crime in the 1960s. It was similar to volunteer initiatives around parks. People spanning various neighborhoods and boroughs gathered to form resident crime patrols in areas throughout the city. Alongside this turn to privatized policing, we begin to see more middle- and upper-income neighborhoods turn to private guards as well. There was an explosive growth of private security in the 1960s and 1970s. Before that point, private security had been limited to private land, patrolling businesses, the grounds of the factory, and so on. It was far less common to see private security in public spaces. That transformation takes place in the 1970s, when elite business initiatives began to come together to create private solutions for crime in public spaces.

For example, the Morningside Area Alliance in Morningside Heights brought together private security forces that were operating on campuses and in hospitals onto public streets. A similar kind of initiative took place among real estate owners in Midtown during this period. All these efforts were supported by an understanding that crime is not something that the city alone can address. Today, we’re constantly surrounded by private security in public spaces. That was not true before the 1980s.

KPF: Much of the story you tell is focused on either grassroots neighborhood actors or local business actors. But you also have a chapter on tax incentives which, by contrast, focuses much more on City Hall and how public officials, including Ed Koch and Abraham Beame, changed the role of business in the city. These dynamics got a great deal of attention in New York a couple of years ago in the debate about bringing Amazon to Queens, and there was widespread public dissatisfaction with the subsidy package that Amazon was receiving. This in turn resulted in Amazon saying, “We don’t want to be in a place that doesn’t want us.” Your chapter shows a much deeper history about the turn towards tax incentives as a question of public policy in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Why would a city that was coming under increased fiscal pressure, or running out of the money that it needed to fund services, turn towards these types of incentive programs? How do they change over the time period? I’m thinking especially of 421A and J51.1

BH: I look at a couple of these tax exemptions, abatement programs, and tax incentive programs, which really proliferate during this period. Although the ones that I look at are oriented more around housing, they are part of an economic development strategy. The impetus for creating new solutions is, of course, coming out of the economic crisis. Officials feel that they don’t have the resources to spend city money to spur economic development, so the only thing that they have to offer is giving up the revenue associated with taxes, at least in the short term. 421A changes over time, but in short, it provides an enormous benefit for developing housing for middle- and especially upper-income residents.

J51, which was more about converting existing buildings into middle- and upper-income housing, fueled much of the conversion of single-room occupancy hotels, which housed a lot of the city’s houseless and poor populations in the Upper West Side and Brooklyn Heights. These incentives began to be used in all sorts of other ways during this period, playing a role in the conversion of SoHo lofts and in some cases turning office buildings into middle- and upper-income housing. This moment is really when the city embraces the use of these kinds of tax incentives, which have now become widespread. They have also proliferated various other tax incentive strategies to promote housing and business—these tax giveaways at the city level are a principal urban development strategy today.

The original aim of a 421A was to create moderate-income housing, but as soon as it was implemented and put to widespread use under John Lindsay, it created affluent housing. City officials were quick to say, “Oh, well, that’s good too, just forget about the more moderate-income aims.” J51 aimed to make improvements on less expensive forms of housing to make them more livable for the moderate-income population. Before, the city had tax abatement programs around urban renewal programs, like the Mitchell-Lama housing program, which were much more oriented towards low, moderate, and middle-income populations. We see this complete change to tax incentives being used to subsidize upper-income housing. Incentives for luxury housing are used to attract people from outside the city, instead of supporting those who are in desperate need of housing within the city.

KPF: Your book joins a growing literature on liberalism in the twentieth century—I’m thinking of Amy Offner’s Sorting Out the Mixed Economy, Lily Geismer’s Don’t Blame Us, and Paul Sabin’s Public Citizens, all of which document how liberalism changed during this time. Do you see your book as being more in dialogue with that literature, or with books on other cities undergoing a kind of post-industrial shift, like Gabe Winant’s recent work on Pittsburgh?

BH: I definitely see the book as building on the work you suggested. I was thinking about a transformation that we see in the Democratic Party and liberalism in terms of aggressively seeking out policy solutions that engage the private sector or market. During this era, the liberalism that included bigger government solutions, if not quite over, was at least severely battered in many ways.

You can see this process take place over the period of three mayoral administrations. John Lindsay who became mayor in 1966 was a Republican, but very much a liberal. By his second term, he certainly hadn’t lost his faith in government solutions. But as the city faced greater economic turmoil in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he became far more open and actually reversed course on a number of issues. By the late 1960s, he became much more receptive to things like citizen involvement in parks and volunteerism, taking on rent controls and rent regulations—things that reduced the “burden” on city government. He became much more willing to encourage private sector and market-based solutions to address New York’s problems.

This trend really grew under Abraham Beame and was embraced by Ed Koch in the late 1970s and 1980s. Koch believed the city needed to turn towards the private sector and market in order to function at all, and he denounced the role of government and a generous welfare state. He ushered in greater municipal support for a variety of initiatives that looked to private sources. But he was only able to do that because these initiatives had been in the works for over a decade.

KPF: We’re obviously at the end of a particular moment of crisis, coinciding with the mayoral election in New York City. Where do you see the vision that you chart in this book today? Do you think it is possible to recreate a vision of the city that is less dependent on private actors, more encompassing of both city government and other kinds of collective institutions, and less easily turned towards the interests of people who have more private resources to devote?

BH: We’re still very much in this moment. Business improvement districts, park conservancies, private security—all of these things have proliferated and remain a fundamental part of city life. The rise of charter schools and the undue influence of the PTA on public schools remain powerful examples.

However, I think even those who are suspicious of the trajectory of the Democratic Party have been surprised by what we’ve seen at the federal level under the Biden administration. In terms of reviving state solutions, orienting around social welfare, and using the state to alleviate rather than exacerbate inequities—these efforts, however limited, have been notable. It’s hard to say where we’re headed in New York City, particularly in this mayoral election where Eric Adams, the leading candidate, is not progressive.

It is interesting to see that in the midst of what remains a strong, vibrant, progressive sentiment within the city, we have a very moderate candidate leading the pack. I think this speaks to how in periods of crisis, people often look for security, and that has benefited the moderate candidates in this campaign. This is an important lesson of the book. We need to look at how people are responding on the ground—I really believe people are smart and making rational decisions, and we need to understand what they turn to when they’re not presented with what they see as viable alternatives. Those less compelled by a vision of city life that enhances the power of the private sector and market need to work alongside people, showing that there are different solutions out there. That work is certainly being done, especially at the grassroots level across the city, and we would do well to support it.

  1. 421A is a tax abatement that reduces property taxes owed due to renovations on multi-unit residential buildings. Similarly, J51 is a property tax exemption and abatement for renovations and improvements on residential apartment buildings.

Kim Phillips-Fein is an associate professor of history at New York University and the author of the books "Invisible Hands: the Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal" and "Fear City:…

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