The “Industry Left Us” Lie

I’m fascinated by the history of New York City. We’ve been living in one of the most fascinating times for NY and cities in general. The common understanding is that NY was dying in the 70s and 80s and made a miraculous comeback in the 90s that has brought us the resurgent powerhouse NY of today. The population is back up over 8 million and growing, people feel safe and mass transit works.

It seems like these things were just inevitable, they happened because of complex interrelated ebbs and flows in economics and social desires. People left cities to go to the suburbs taking the middle class tax base with them. Manufacturing left Northeastern cities to chase cheaper labor in the South, Mexico and Asia. “But,” the hopeful say, “it’s all cyclical and they’ll come back.”

Bullshit. Nothing happens in a vacuum. It’s always policies that cause growth or regression.

First, you have to understand that the dynamics of a city change at a glacial pace and have 20-30+ year lag times. If the city was indeed dying in the 70s then that was caused by decisions made in the 30s, 40s and 50s.

Secondly, these declines happened because people made them happen – decisions were made to prioritize the wrong things. The “1929 Regional Plan for New York” was the blueprint for New York’s development over the next 50 years. It planned for the massive expansion of highway capacity. It included highways, bridges and tunnels that were built and others that were fought by community activists and not built (ex: a crosstown highway that was supposed to be built through Greenwich Village and the extension of 5th Avenue through Washington Square Park!). The Plan included mass transportation, but those provisions were ignored. It planned for the clearing of entire neighborhoods for these highways, or for “urban renewal.”

Sometimes the people who made the Plan, or those who implemented it, were well meaning but misguided and made decisions that they thought were prudent decisions for future growth – they were just wrong. Often the decisions were based on individuals own profits, and egos, as well as great misunderstandings about how cities work.

NYC was always an industrial leader with many varied large and small industries and manufacturing. In fact, it still has a great deal of manufacturing under the radar in places like Long Island City. But the industries and manufacturing that left the City were not predominantly driven out by labor issues or environmental regulation.  They were driven out because real estate is king in NY and developers could get a lot more money for a piece of land by cutting it up into smaller parcels or building high rise apartments on it rather than large scale warehouse/manufacturing spaces. Many areas of the city, like Soho for example, were “upzoned” by the City at the request of developers, allowing the owners to evict their industrial tenants and make more money tearing down and building bigger or splitting large warehouse or manufacturing spaces into those famous loft apartments. Companies that owned their own buildings and land also could not resist and sold to developers to increase their bottom lines. Everyone made out except the mom and pop companies who couldn’t afford to relocate and, of course, the employees whose jobs were eliminated or moved.

Often this was done by taking an area like Soho, or Greenwich Village, that were the epitome of what we today call “mixed use” with large and small industry, commercial and residential inhabitants, and declaring it “blighted” or a “slum”. This happened in neighborhoods that were functioning communities, if slightly run down. Clearly, areas like the Village and Soho (eventually named as “Historic Districts” and revitalized instead of the planned clearings) were not “slums”. They may have needed some renovation and some rebuilding, but they were not at all what we think of as “blight” – like the South Bronx of the 70s that was a burned out shell of a neighborhood.  Often these neighborhoods were thriving communities that had developed over decades with both large and small businesses, schools, social hubs, hangouts, parks. Communities on the West Side of Manhattan, the Concourse in the Bronx, Red Hook and Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, were ripped apart in the name of progress and profit. Once an area was declared blighted or a slum, then developers could even get federal money to come in and tear down industrial facilities, tenements, brownstones, buildings that may have needed some renovation and TLC but were perfectly sound, even unique landmarks.

This upzoning and the clearance of entire neighborhoods for highways and urban renewal is estimated to have uprooted nearly 1,000,000 people from the 30s through the 60s, and the displacement of thousands of businesses. This alone would account for the declines in population and manufacturing jobs without factoring in globalization and other supposed causes of deindustrialization. Curiously, in the 80s, as NY continued to shed garment industry jobs, the precise number of jobs lost in NY were gained in Los Angeles.

So the shedding of industrial jobs in NY didn’t just happen, any more than it did in less well diversified, one-industry towns like Pittsburgh and Detroit.

It’s amazing but it’s really only in the last 50 years that anybody sought to actually take on the study of cities and how they develop, what works to create thriving neighborhoods. Before that you had Robert Moses and the meat hatchet approach. He was chiefly in charge of prosecuting the Plan.

Robert Moses was the most powerful man in NY for 40 years and the most influential individual in urban planning all over the country. He never held elected office, but as the head of as many as 12 different public authorities in New York State and City he served 6 governors and 5 mayors. He had the inside deal on federal money coming from D.C. and could make almost any project he wanted happen.

Robert Moses was a racist who loved automobiles, although he never learned to drive himself. He loved highways, parkways, thruways and bridges because they were projects you could point to, you could see them, they were a tangible “improvement.” They took good people (read: white, affluent people) where they wanted to go. He hated mass transit because it was democratic, even poor people could afford it. So when he built his beloved highways and was advised to make provisions for mass transit to run alongside or on the median, for the future, he never did. In fact, on Long Island, the bedroom community of NY that he almost singlehandedly invented, he purposefully made overpasses too low for buses to be able to go under and access the beaches and parks he created. Moses, like almost everyone of his generation, believed stubbornly that if a new road was built and that quickly became congested by traffic, then another road would relieve that traffic. He never wanted to understand the truth that building more roads and parking spaces, more capacity for cars, would consistently be offset by more cars on the road. Each bridge and highway he built was predicted to solve the congestion problem which just got worse.

At the same time he was building all these highways (the Long Island Expressway, Cross-Bronx Expressway, FDR Drive, Harlem River Drive, Henry Hudson Parkway, Interborough Parkway, Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Tri-Borough Bridge, Verrazano Bridge, etc.) through NYC and displacing entire neighborhoods, he was starving the MTA for funds. A meticulously maintained subway, trolley and bus system was purposely starved for funds creating “deferred maintenance” policies. After 20 years of this it started to take a toll. The trolleys were dismantled. Moses’ biographer Robert Caro wrote, “When Robert Moses came to power in 1934 the city’s mass transportation system was the best in the world, When he left power in 1968, it was quite possibly the worst.” In 1981 ridership had declined to the same level as 1917!

The deliberate deterioration of mass transit was another major factor for the exodus of the middle class. And the resurgence of the city can be traced to the massive change in priorities that took place in the 80s after the defeat of Westway, a massive expressway and development project that was supposed to be built along the Hudson River. Community activists fought and defeated the planned 12 lane expressway and landfill development project. Mayor Ed Koch and Governor Hugh Carey were able to trade in that highway money for mass transit money and they began rebuilding the subways and buses of NYC. Since 1985 nearly 200 subway stations have been rebuilt and every car and bus in the fleet has either been rebuilt or replaced along with tracks, switches and other infrastructure.

Cities, and the neighborhoods within them, grow organically so long as there’s judicious interference in their growth and evolution.  Like a plant, or a person, if they get the right balance of things they need to thrive, and a minimum of trauma or infection (that which they can overcome), neighborhoods will find a way to be fruitful places for business and individuals to thrive. When neighborhoods die it’s usually because of an inorganic interference in the form of bad planning – an intervention the neighborhood did not need and could not overcome – like a virus.

The decline of NYC did not just happen, nor has its revival been happenstance. It took a lot of bad decisions to get us to the 70s and a lot of much better ones to get us where we are today.

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