My old friend Robert Fitch, a brilliant and prolific radical journalist and troublemaker, died on March 4 at the age of 72. Sadly, too few people know what a loss that is.
I met Bob in the late 1980s—can’t remember exactly when. He was just resurfacing after several years underground. A major publisher had given him a big advance to write a book about New York City, and he found it impossible to deliver. Bob delisted his phone number, gave up writing for union organizing, and tried to keep the collection agents at bay. After several years on the lam, he was resurfacing at the Village Voice, and half of the Nation’s current London office, Don Guttenplan, introduced me to him.
On Don’s recommendation, I’d just read Bob’s fantastic essay “Planning New York,” in a now out-of-print anthology on the urban crisis of the 1970s. It was about the 1929 plan for New York City drawn up by the Regional Plan Association. It laid out the outline for an auto-centered metropolitan region, including the highway system that would later be attributed to Robert Moses. What impressed me about the piece was that it detailed just how precisely planned by elites over the very long term the physical and social evolution of New York City has been. One’s casual impression of the city is that it’s unplanned and chaotic, but it’s long been anything but that.
After our meeting at the Voice’s delightfully shabby old offices on Broadway, Bob and I became good friends. Much of the friendship was conducted on the phone. We talked three or four times a week, often for an hour or more. I learned a lot from him.
Although I’d been living in New York for a decade when we met, I really didn’t understand how the city worked politically. Talking with Bob made it all pretty clear. We talked endlessly about the role of Wall Street and the real estate elite in planning the city (themes he would put between covers in The Assassination of New York, published by Verso in 1996). So many of the things that were attributed to anonymous global forces, like the deindustrialization of the city and its transformation into the prototype of the globally oriented post-industrial metropolis, were consciously guided by bankers, developers, and their hired hands. They used all the instruments of state power—subsidies, zoning laws, eminent domain—to get their way.
The landscape of the city—the propinquity of skyscrapers and slums, of the very rich and the very poor—reflected the kind of hollowed-out society that a FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate)-dominated economy created. Neighborhoods that once housed factories and their workers were either emptied out or gentrified. If you were employed in the FIRE sector, you could do very nicely. If you were employed in one of the elite service industries—advertising, consulting, and the like—that populated those skyscrapers, you could do pretty nicely. Not as nicely as a bond trader or a dealmaker, for sure—but a lot better than the messengers, busboys, and bootblacks that did the scut work for the service aristocracy.