Bill de Blasio shot to the front of the mayoral race this summer when he pointed to an obvious truth: New York City has become a playground for a privileged minority while most city residents live paycheck to paycheck struggling to make ends meet. To help make sense of the origins of New York’s vast inequalities and what the prospects are for changing them, I spoke with Miriam Greenberg, author of Branding New York: How a City in Crisis was Sold to the World (Routledge, 2008). Shedding light on the intersection of popular culture and political economy, Branding New York was published to rave reviews five years ago. During this campaign season, Greenberg’s work has seemed timelier than ever.
John Tarleton: During this year’s mayoral campaign, there’s been a lot of talk about New York’s “Tale of Two Cities.” How did the decisions taken in response to the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s help to shape the city we see today?
Miriam Greenberg: There was a shift that was experienced throughout the Western world at that time toward a post-industrial economy that saw a shedding of good, well-paid union jobs. These trends didn’t cause the fiscal crisis but they did exacerbate conditions on the ground.
In terms of policy, there was a shift — often termed “neoliberal — that entailed the imposition of austerity and a cutback in public spending in certain areas —especially for redistributive purposes on things such as housing, social services, health, public assistance as well as education — alongside increased spending by the government on efforts to attract and retain businesses as well as more affluent residents and tourists. Cuts to police, firefighters, sanitation and parks were less severe, and were supplemented by public-private partnerships, particularly in wealthier parts of the city.
New York was not unique in making this shift. But, its turn to neoliberalism was certainly seen as a model. Previously, it was a kind of poster child for the nation’s urban crisis in the 1970s, and the fact that it came back from the brink with a much more conservative approach led it to be famously embraced by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s as a model for how the nation should go in this new era.
That shift away from New Deal civic liberalism to conservative free-market policies, combined with the broader economic shift, exacerbated inequality and laid the groundwork for the current “Tale of Two Cities” that de Blasio is talking about.
JT: What has been the value of the City’s efforts to market and brand itself? How does it shape New York today?
MG: The “I Love New York” campaign of the late 1970s tapped into the fear that what people loved about city life in general and New York in particular was going to be lost. It really resonated with people. There was a desire, a “love,” for the grittiness, urbanity and openness that could only be found in cities like New York — a kind of urban utopia. This was epitomized by New York’s cultural vitality, represented by Broadway musicals like A Chorus Line and CATS featured in I Love NY commercials.
In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a similar appeal to New York’s cultural vitality, now alongside safety and sustainability. They again hired a new generation of creatives, with backgrounds in the arts, to design these campaigns.
However, there was a contradiction between the utopian desires stirred by these marketing campaigns and the passage of economic policies that had everything to do with incentivizing business and high-end real estate development. So, the question became, for whom is this a sustainable and culturally vibrant city? I think that issue of who the City is being recreated for is felt today as it was in the aftermath of the crisis in the 1970s.
JT: Shortly after Bill de Blasio’s victory in the Democratic primary, the New York Post ran a guest editorial whose author called on de Blasio’s Republican opponent to pander to fears of New York sliding back into the crime and chaos of the 1970s. Why are New York City elites so quick to burnish that imagery when they’re facing even the mildest of liberal reformers?
MG: (Laughs) I think it’s a perspective that continues to haunt elites in the political and business class. Law and order was upheld most strenuously by Giuliani. Bloomberg, while saying he wasn’t interested in continuing the adversarial Giuliani legacy, nonetheless appealed to a lot of those same concerns. I think he did it in more subtle ways than Giuliani. The center of the city felt suburban, became a kind of police-free zone. You feel the presence of police when you’re in the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan, in poor and working-class, non-white areas.
With de Blasio calling that into question, it challenges not only stop-and-frisk but also the primacy of a Manhattan-centric policing policy and the inequality that underlies that. For elites, this raises the specter of there being less of a division, spatially and socially, between segments of New York.
JT: Speaking of the fear of ungovernability, the NYPD continues to be busy cracking down on everyone from Occupy protesters to aging Vietnam vets recently arrested while protesting at their own memorial to presently engaging in a manhunt for Banksy, the legendary street artist who has been on a creative tear recently.
MG: What is considered criminal has everything to do with the effort to maintain a certain image of order, control and profitability in a city. In the 1970s graffiti was seen as this overwhelming threat because New York’s leaders were striving to restore public perception of the city as creditworthy, business-friendly and as a tourist destination once again. It was feared that graffiti would confirm fears that the City was out of control and being run by teenagers — something the graffiti writers themselves played with.
The glorification of graffiti that Banksy is engaging in is stoking these fears, and making a sly joke of them. The challenge posed by Occupy Wall Street is obviously much more profound because it is directly calling for a change in the political and economic structure of the city and more broadly.
JT: What will de Blasio be up against if he tries to break with the neoliberal model of development?
MG: It’s fair to say that this market-oriented approach to city governance, now epitomized by Bloomberg, has become the status quo, the common sense. De Blasio, at least in his rhetoric, is challenging that common sense. He is referencing an era prior to the 1970s as his model. Meanwhile, he is not simply talking about going back in time, but how an approach that is more equitable and democratic would be viable in and relevant for the current era.
When de Blasio goes to Albany to try to change tax law, he is going to meet strong opposition from centrist state Democrats, as well as from Wall Street and real estate interests that are behind powerful civic organizations like the New York City Partnership and the Association for a Better New York. These groups are not only economically powerful, but over the last 40 years they have really strengthened their political networks. These networks are not always activated, depending on the historical situation. But under conditions of duress and crisis they become very engaged. So it will be interesting to see how that relates to his mayoralty.