The same week that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced his plans to close eight city firehouses, Mike Wallace, John Jay College professor and bard of New York, held a conference on “New York City and the New Deal” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Walking up through Herald Square on that rainy Friday morning in late November, I found that the desperate sparkle of 1930s New York seemed far away from the stagelike shop-window displays of Macy’s and H&M. The Empire State Building–a monument to the jazzy bubble of the 1920s–loomed over the public space of the Graduate Center.
A few years ago, Wallace (with co-author Edwin Burrows) published Gotham, a 1,000-plus-page tome on New York’s history to 1898. His new book, A New Deal for New York, is a diminutive 128 pages, but its subject is, if anything, more important. Wallace was inspired to write about the New Deal by his experience in New York City after 9/11, where he witnessed New Yorkers’ solidarity and compassion for one another in a moment of crisis. It seemed possible to him that the collapse of the twin towers could focus national attention on the city’s longstanding political and economic difficulties. “By making chronic conditions acute,” Wallace writes, the bombing of the towers “helped galvanize the will to confront them.” Wallace hoped that disaster relief might go not only to the families of those who died in the towers but that it would spill over to relieve the daily disaster of poverty in New York. New homes could be built not only for those whose homes were lost; jobs could be created for people who don’t have them, not only those who once worked in lower Manhattan. The New Deal–which started as a response to another kind of Wall Street disaster–could serve as a model of public investment.
At the Graduate Center, historians, urban planners, politicians, city activists, social scientists and labor leaders met to imagine a new New York City. Representative Jerrold Nadler spoke, as did Bruce Raynor, the president of UNITE. Even Bill Clinton had hoped to attend (he didn’t, which seemed to sum up his rocky relationship with the New Deal). Held in the shadow of November’s conservative electoral victories, the policy proposals discussed at the conference–none of which are anywhere on the table–all had a polemical cast.
What would a new New Deal look like? For Wallace, the most important thing is that the New Deal’s creators viewed the alleviation of poverty as an economic good. Improving the lives of the poor and the working class, as they saw it, could make the whole economy grow. In that same spirit, Wallace envisions a massive public investment program that would revitalize the economy while making economic growth more equitable. He hopes for federal investment in affordable housing, high-speed rail, alternative energy sources and the Second Avenue subway. More generally, he wants a greater level of public involvement to preserve and nurture the delicate urban economy–a cocktail of such unlikely allies as Robert Moses, builder of New York’s highways, and Jane Jacobs, of Greenwich Village, who fought their construction. Federal investment in infrastructure would improve the city’s economy while employing people who badly need good jobs, at the same time boosting purchasing power. It is an economist’s New Deal: Wallace wants the federal government to “deploy its resources (that is, our tax dollars) to alleviate suffering and revitalize the economy.”