A City That Worked
The New York of 1945 was the victorious city of the New Deal and World War II, one that can barely be glimpsed today beneath postmodern towers and billboards for dot-com enterprises. New York was a metropolis with a strong manufacturing base that gave it economic muscle and a seaport that gave it a gritty yet cosmopolitan air. Its people were largely immigrants and the children of immigrants. Their sensibility, "savvy, opinionated, democratic," in the words of historian Joshua B. Freeman, "helped set the tone of the nation in the postwar years" through labor leaders such as Michael Quill of the Transport Workers' Union and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
In a lucid, detailed and imaginative analysis, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II, Freeman shows how the city's working class, in alliance with leftists, built an urban social democracy that enriched many lives before it fell to the forces of global economics and domestic politics. Anyone who wants to understand the changing fortunes of working people and the left in the nation's largest city should read this book. In Freeman's view the mortal blow to this city on a hill was not McCarthyism but the fiscal crisis of the seventies, which undermined New York's miniature welfare state.
The fiscal crisis and the new politics that followed ravaged the public institutions that working people depended on, enshrining a lean and mean city government instead of one that helped cushion the inequalities of the market. "Public institutions once attractive to all sorts of New Yorkers," Freeman writes, "became subnormal institutions of last resort." As a result, all New Yorkers--but, most important, working people--live in a metropolis defined by stark inequalities.
The New York of 1945, Freeman argues, was fortified by a red subculture. The Communist Party, legitimated by the Popular Front and wartime antifascism, and represented everywhere from unions to the city council, held substantial power. In the late forties and fifties, this alignment shuddered under the blows of the cold war and McCarthyism. Classroom by classroom, block by block, union by union, Communists were driven to the margins of public life in New York City.
Nevertheless, as Freeman shows, New York's political culture remained open to former Communists. Whatever the disagreements of Communists and liberals on international issues, on domestic questions--national health insurance, civil rights, the need to preserve the New Deal--they shared much common ground. For those who were willing to throw off what Freeman calls "the dead weight of Soviet allegiance," there was room for maneuver and even success.
In his effort to salvage the best of the New York Communists' legacy, Freeman verges on understating the role of non-Communists, liberals and socialists in Gotham's exceptional political culture. And the transition from Communist to post-Communist activism was not always as smooth as he suggests, either. The Communists, Freeman writes, believed in "class rule--or at least in their own rule in the name of the working class--both as a theoretical and practical matter." From the standpoint of democratic socialism, this perspective raised the fear of a party substituting itself for a democratic majority--and worse. Ex-Communists who became independent radicals or staunch liberals often had to confront such inheritances as part of a process of sorting through which ideas were worth keeping from their party days. The process was not easy, and the getting of wisdom after leaving the party could be as valuable as lessons learned in it.
Freeman's larger point stands, however. Thanks to the work of radicals, liberals and unionists, from the late forties into the sixties working-class New Yorkers enjoyed the fruits of a unique urban social democracy in union health plans, government-subsidized housing and superior public institutions such as parks and schools. Working-Class New York is masterly in its analysis of the human, political, legislative and institutional foundations--and contradictions--of this state of affairs.
Beneath surface appearances, though, the apparently stable blocs of power that supported the New York way were beginning to realign. From the 1940s into the 1960s, more than 2 million white New Yorkers left the city, dispersing formerly cohesive working-class communities. Meanwhile, African-Americans and Latinos settled in Gotham in similarly transforming numbers, only to find discrimination and a changing economic order that prevented them from gaining the same political and economic power as their white working-class counterparts. From the fifties to the eighties, New York shifted from a manufacturing to a service economy. The city that emerged offered fewer decent jobs to people who worked with their hands.
Freeman--who is both critical of and affectionate toward the working class--shows how disputes within and between unions undermined efforts to respond to the emerging postindustrial order. Manufacturing unions saw no benefit in urban development that destroyed factories. Building trades unions, on the other hand, thrived on construction (and resisted the racial integration of their membership). In the name of keeping jobs, garment unions moderated wage demands--which ultimately reduced the wages of unskilled workers overall and placed Puerto Rican and African-American workers in a terrible bind as they entered the garment industry. Sometimes initiatives to benefit one group of workers hurt another, as when slum clearance to create public housing drove poor people from their homes without creating alternative housing for them.
Yet the sixties, instead of signaling a departure of working-class people from the city's political stage, were a decade of protest and strikes. Insistently refusing to treat race and class as mutually exclusive phenomena, Freeman shows how African-American newcomers to the city, overwhelmingly working-class in their occupational and economic status, waged a civil rights movement of their own. At the same time, the growing unionization of city workers brought labor militancy to social workers' offices, hospital wards and classrooms--and a dramatic improvement in the wages and living standards of city workers.