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Activist Scholars Take on Big Developers

Derek Ludovici May 10

Issue 246

Hudson Yards, New York City’s newest neighborhood, costing the city 5.6 billion taxpayer dollars, opened March 15. Who asked for an elite, gated high-rise community on the last significant open space in Manhattan? Who pulled the pursestrings, who stands to benefit?

Two recent books, Brooklyn Tides: The Fall and Rise of a Global Borough by Benjamin Shepard and Mark J. Noonan and Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State by Samuel Stein, offer two ways of thinking through questions of how the city is changing and for whom.  Activist scholars are behind both books.

If Brooklyn Tides is about the rise of a global borough, Capital City is about the global dynamics of the real estate market underpinning that rise.

Written by two CUNY professors, Brooklyn Tides is a complex social and political history of Kings County focusing on how Brooklyn has and continues to be affected by global forces. In particular, Shepard and Noonan are concerned with agency and the spaces activists have been able to promote as alternatives to the rising tides of gentrification and racialized police brutality that plague the borough, as well as the literal tide that swallowed parts of Brooklyn during Superstorm Sandy — an early harbinger of global warming’s threat.

The authors take a multi-disciplinary approach, incorporating literature and their personal histories of taking part in social movements. The first half of the book provides a history of Brooklyn. Beginning with its indigenous past, it describes the settler-colonial project that displaced natives, imported slaves and eventually industrialized Brooklyn. Throughout the first four chapters, this history is coupled with literature, providing a glimpse of how writers were attempting to think through the socio-political issues of their day.

The authors draw on works like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, in which a young girl relates the stench of the heavily-industrialized Newtown Creek as “the worst stink in the world,” yet accepts the smell because it signaled a waterway connecting Williamsburg to a larger world.  For another view, they take a look at Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, set when demand for shipping jobs was outpacing supply, only a decade before the Navy Yard would be closed permanently in 1964.

The second half of the book takes a participant-observation approach, with Shepard sharing his experiences marching with Black Lives Matter, agitating for transportation alternatives and taking a direct action approaches to hurricane recovery and community gardens.

All in all, this book does what it sets out to do — highlight the agency of everyday activists residing in the borough. Shepard recounts the initial days after Sandy destroyed homes and infrastructure along Brooklyn’s coastal neighborhoods. He underscores the “mutual-aid” approach that activists took to distributing aid, delivering supplies by bicycle in the absence of the local and federal government’s response to the emergency.

One of the many strengths of the book is telling the story of so many social movements — not just the goals and outcomes, but the experience of fighting against injustice. The book includes the voices of multiple activists and moves across the geographical space of the borough. At times this coverage feels thin, but this is a qualm that could be raised with any study that attempts to take on such a large project.

Capital City on the other hand, attempts to understand the history and ideas of a different set of actors in New York: its urban planners.  Stein, a PhD candidate in geography and a planner himself, writes a book meant to explain both the behind-the-scenes apparatuses that lead to gentrification and how we can fight for alternatives.

If Brooklyn Tide is about the rise of a global borough, Capital City is about the global dynamics of the real estate market underpinning that rise. The book begins with the astronomical figure of $217 trillion. This is the value of real estate globally with $1 trillion sitting within NYC. Stein poses the question, if real estate constitutes so much capital, are city planners really wealth managers?

Stein’s main category is what he terms the “real estate state,” “a political formation in which real estate capital has inordinate influence over the shape of our cities, the parameters of our politics, and the lives we lead.”  Stein traces the real-estate state’s genesis to the 1975 economic crisis that hit hardest in cities already reeling from white flight and the abandonment of manufacturing. To boost their ailing tax base, cities transitioned to finance and real estate as their main generators of wealth, requiring a continual growth of land values.

In this cogent and clear work, Stein is able to explain the jargon-laden discipline of urban planning to the non-wonk. He demonstrates how tax schemes, zoning and the prioritization of increasing land values in order to increase the city’s tax base leads to uneven investment, resulting in gentrification and displacement in some neighborhoods and disinvestment in others. The book is a challenge to the bipartisan consensus that for-profit real-estate development is the solution to all that ails the city: underfunded schools, overcrowded or under-serving public transit, segregation.

An entire chapter of Capital City is dedicated to how our developer-turned-president fits with the rise of the real-estate state. Although Stein is careful to say Donald Trump’s ascent is not solely connected to land markets — economic decline, bigotry, misogyny and the failures of liberalism are also cited — he points out that Trump, his father, Fred, and Trump’s grandfather all enriched themselves through the help of city planners. Each were able to take advantage of changing approaches to urban development, such as Fred Trump’s construction of segregated housing developments like Beach Haven in Brighton Beach, which were in step with the Federal Housing Administration redlining policies of the day.

Stein ends his book with a call for alternative approaches to urban planning.  Some of the current tools in the planner’s arsenal could actually be used for a more equitable city. If inclusionary zoning policies, which result in mixed-income housing, were only used in wealthy white enclaves, rather than working-class neighborhoods of color, it would force some integration, Stein writes.

Ultimately, Stein lays blame on the contradictions of capitalist planning. He goes on to highlight radical alternatives to current planning models, drawing inspiration from groups like Take Back the Bronx and activist networks such as New York Not for Sale. While the future is uncertain and the city will undoubtedly change, Stein argues that activists should fight to dismantle the real-estate state and democratize planning so that residents rather than capital decide how the city grows.

Urban struggle is precisely where Capital City and Brooklyn Tides intersect. Stein concludes the book with a vision of planning that is messy, where coalitions merge to represent diverse constituencies and where marginalized voices are expressed in a way that neat and simple top-down planning models cannot accommodate. Shepard and Noonan highlight the diversity of struggles occurring in, but not unique to, Brooklyn — efforts to swim against toxic waves of racist policing, eviction and climate catastrophe in order to reach a just, inclusive and ecologically sound future.

Brooklyn Tides: The Fall and Rise of a Global Borough
By Benjamin Shepard & Mark J. Noonan
Columbia University Press, 2019

Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State
Samuel Stein
Verso, 2019


Illustration by Naomi Ushiyama.