Anyone walking around New York City, visitor or resident, might think the place had been laid out by the chaotic mind of the market. In fact, the place has been planned over the last century by monied interests, first among them the real estate developers who build and own the results of the plans, in tight alliance with local government.
If you’re not clued in to those plans, you’d have little idea of the forces behind the transformation of downtown Brooklyn over the last several years. You might be surprised by the recent arrival of an Armani Exchange on the Fulton Mall, a very busy retail strip hitherto known for selling basics to the borough’s working class. Look behind the A|X and you’ll see a rising forest of “luxury” high-rises in a neighborhood hitherto known for low-rise buildings of modest economic aspiration. Anyone wondering how these came to be would probably answer with the all-purpose response for our time: “market forces.”
Yes, markets are forceful, but they often get a lot of assistance from the state and elite nonprofit groups. I’d lived in the city for ten years before I got a good sense of how all this works. That’s when I first read “Planning New York,” an essay by Robert Fitch, part of a collection on the 1970s urban crisis most intensely symbolized by New York’s brush with bankruptcy in 1975. Fitch’s piece is a close reading of the 1929 plan devised by the Regional Plan Association for the city and its surrounding suburbs. While barely known to the general public, the RPA is one of those elite bodies—boards heavy with financiers, developers, lawyers, upscale philanthropists and politicians—that shape the world we live in. They have a reputation for public-spiritedness, which they cultivate. But there’s no question about whose interests they primarily serve.
As Fitch put it, the essence of the 1929 plan was the division of the region into Slab City—the high-rises of Manhattan—and Spread City, the suburbs that surround the city center. This was enabled by the building of a set of highways that made it possible to travel to and from the city, or comfortably around it if you were traveling elsewhere. The guiding idea was to concentrate high-end activities in the city center—finance and other fancy service businesses that could afford high rents—and move the noxious stuff out to Jersey.
The city would be reconfigured in line with this rough hierarchy: (1) financial business, (2) fancy retail, (3) fancy residential, (4) inferior retail, (5) wholesalers and, at the bottom of the list, (6) industry and working-class housing. The ultimate goal was to turn the city into one of the peaks at the commanding heights of global economic activity: finance, senior management and media.
As Fitch would later argue in The Assassination of New York, the deindustrialization of the city—more than 700,000 manufacturing jobs, two-thirds of the total, disappeared between 1950 and 1990, a period when national factory employment rose by more than a third—wasn’t merely the product of “outside forces” like globalization and technological change. It was planned, via the influence of the RPA and other entities like the Real Estate Board of New York on the city planning apparatus. Instead of protecting manufacturing as a valuable resource using zoning and tax breaks, exactly the opposite tack was taken: zoning changes and tax breaks designed to squeeze the little factories out and replace them in accordance with the six-part hierarchy listed above.