The economy of New York City still reels from the attack on September 11, to which has been added the economic effect of global recession and Wall Street’s sharp decline. Official estimates of what the World Trade Center attack alone may have cost the city economy run as high as $100 billion. For many New Yorkers, however, the attack on the World Trade Center was a new wound at exactly the spot where an old wound, going back nearly half a century, had not yet healed. They felt again their grief for the bustling, gritty harbor culture of the old Lower West Side that planning for the World Trade Center, completed in 1974, had bulldozed under. They mourned the century-old redbrick Washington Market, Radio Row with its hundreds of small businesses, and the throbbing West Side docks, which were moved to New Jersey. They missed the hundreds of ships that crowded the harbor and the swarms of blue-collar workers and shopkeepers that had animated the streets of lower Manhattan, along with the bankers and traders of Wall Street. They wondered how New York City could recapture all the jobs it had lost, going back fifty years.
Now, in A New Deal for New York, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Mike Wallace, co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, gives us a high-spirited, old-style broadside, published just a year after the September 11 attack and chock-full of ideas and inspiration for reinvigorating New York City. By making New York’s chronic economic conditions acute, Wallace says, the tragedy helped us galvanize the will to confront them. In fewer than 100 pages, Wallace stirringly argues for his vision of a renewed New York City. He takes dozens of post-September 11 think-tank briefs, website proposals, government reports, all cited together nowhere else, and melds them into a larger perspective.
Moving from lower Manhattan outward, Wallace first discusses rebuilding. Next, in the book’s key section, he argues that in our concern to rebuild lower Manhattan, the rest of the city is getting lost in the shuffle. He suggests ways to stimulate New York’s economy. Finally, he invokes the New Deal period, when New York City, with massive government help, at first suffered and then conquered economic disaster. Emphasizing that the New Deal is not a perfect template for today, Wallace nonetheless concludes his book with a mesmerizing litany of its accomplishments in New York, a veritable hymn to the New Deal’s heroic scale of government achievement, a moving inspiration to civic action.
Let us look first at the book’s vigorous central section, Wallace’s proposal for reviving the city’s troubled economy, and single out some key suggestions. New York, he points out, is cripplingly dependent on the fragile Wall Street monoculture, which has accounted for 5 percent of the city’s total employment, but provided 19 percent of New York’s wages and salaries and, between 1992 and 1999, some 50 percent of the growth in gross state product.
Wallace argues that the city must diversify and, in particular, protect and foster manufacturing, now an invaluable but neglected corner of our economic garden. Making shrewd use of data from the seminal report “Making It in New York,” by the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development and the Municipal Art Society, Wallace argues a brilliant brief.
Fifty years ago, New York was the leading manufacturing city in the United States. Garment manufacturing and printing, among other industries, were centered in the city. Since World War II, however, New York has lost some 750,000 industrial jobs. Wallace argues that this happened mainly because of wrong ideas. “Many civic and corporate leaders,” he says, “actively dismissed the production of things as a grungy leftover from the archaic old days.” “Free-marketeers chimed in with claims that the plummeting number of industrial positions…represented nought but the inevitable (and inevitably benign) consequences of globalization.” Those theories did not account for the fact that New York lost manufacturing jobs at six times the national rate. Thus unmourned, half a million jobs slid into oblivion.