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After the Urban Crisis: New York and the Rise of Inequality. Special Issue of the Journal of Urban History.

Edited by Themis Chronopoulos and Jonathan Soffer

Long term structural inequalities based on race and class, combined with the changes in the world system of political economy after the 1970s, accelerated income and wealth inequality, and tore the social and physical fabric of New York. The progenitors of austerity in the 1970s and 1980s arguably sacrificed thousands of lives for the good of New York's bondholders, establishing what amounted a temporary dictatorship of the city's bourgeoisie, albeit with union workers' money and participation. The four essays in this section of the Journal of Urban History demonstrate that the political and ideological victory of finance capital was, however, far from complete. Each author illustrates the complexity of citizen and governmental resistances and adaptations to neoliberalism. Those movements were as often conservative as progressive. They represent a sampling of ordinary New Yorkers' successes and failures in renegotiating the social contract in a period of increasing inequality.

Table of Contents

Introduction. After the Urban Crisis: New York and the Rise of Inequality

By Themis Chronopoulos and Jonathan Soffer

The introduction to this special section argues that the deconstruction of the city’s municipal social democracy was overdetermined by shifts in the global political economy toward increased income inequality and the depoliticization of national economic management. The city’s creditors forced it into an ideologically-motivated program of market discipline that cut its operating budget as the city’s economy financialized, defined by Greta Krippner as “the tendency for profit making in the economy to occur increasingly through financial channels rather than through productive activities.” The city’s leaders believed that their program would revive thecity for the middle class. But financialization exacerbated income inequality. In 1970, the top 0.01 percent of earners made fifty times the average income; by 1998, that figure had increased to 250 times the average income. In 2013 Mayor Michael Bloomberg commented that: “If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend that would create a much bigger income gap,” which, he argued, was good for the whole city, because it would raise its tax base. The four articles of this section are part of a new and growing body of historical works about New York City since the 1970s that challenge the linear narratives of concepts such as neoliberalism, gentrification, public space, law and order, and resistance by reviewing how ordinary New Yorkers coped with declining infrastructure, services, standards of living, and increasing inequality.

"I am Not Co-Op!" The Struggle over Middle-Class Housing in 1970s New York

By Benjamin Holtzman

In 1970s New York, landlords and major real estate associations argued that New York could stem the exodus of middle-income residents by creating greater opportunities for homeownership in a city that had long been dominated overwhelmingly by renters. They proposed converting middle-income rental housing into cooperatives, a process that would also enable former landlords to profit handsomely. Tenants, however, widely rejected apartment ownership, preferring the security of rent-regulated housing. This article traces the ensuing struggles between tenants, the real estate industry, and city officials over the nature of moderate- and middle-income housing in New York. The eventual success of the real estate industry enabled cooperative conversions to expand dramatically in the 1980s, but only by bargaining with tenants and activists, offering tenants noneviction plans, and discounting prices. This process helped to transform the city by underwriting a momentous turnaround in the real estate market, while signaling a larger embrace of market deregulation.

"A Shelter Can Tip the Scales Sometimes": Disinvestment, Gentrification, and the Neighborhood Politics of Homelessness in 1980s New York City

By Ariel Eisenberg

In the 1980s, visible homelessness became one of the most pressing problems in New York City. While most New Yorkers expressed sympathy for the homeless, many of them also resisted efforts to site shelters and service facilities in their neighborhoods. But far from being simply a case of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) sentiment, protests over the placement of these facilities arose in the context of decades-long neighborhood movements against urban disinvestment, and the beginning of gentrification in some New York City neighborhoods. I argue that understanding this history is crucial to parsing the complex politics of anti-homeless facility protests in the 1980s, and to understanding the rise of "quality of life" policies that would govern many neoliberal urban spaces by the 1990s.

The Guardian Angels: Law and Order and Citizen Policing in New York City

By Reiko Hillyer

This article explores the rise of the Guardian Angels, a community patrol organization founded in 1979 in New York City by Curtis Sliwa and composed mainly of black and Latino youths. The group emerged in an era of economic restructuring coupled with a rising fear of crime. The Guardian Angels merit attention because of their peculiar relationship to the rise of law and order politics. They demonstrate that the fear of crime was neither the monopoly of the white middle class nor merely a construction of politicians. Black and Latino Guardian Angels were agents of community crime control who drew on existing customs of self-determination and distrust of the police. Ultimately, however, the activities and the rhetoric of the Guardian Angels contributed to the rise of a conservative discourse that justified the strengthening of the police state, anxiety about crime, and the gentrification of neighborhoods.

The Rebuilding of the South Bronx after the Fiscal Crisis

By Themis Chronopoulos

This article explores the rebuilding of the South Bronx since 1977. This rebuilding represents an important public policy accomplishment, since the South Bronx was one of the most physically devastated areas in the United States. In terms of economic policy, the rebuilding of the South Bronx defies linear narratives. One the one hand, public–private partnerships, which represent some of the most important features of urban neoliberalism, were used heavily in the revitalization of the South Bronx. Community organizations that had been rebuilding areas in the South Bronx in the 1970s and the 1980s were required to conform to the requirements of the market, if they were to continue participating in urban development. On the other hand, the building of housing for low- and moderate-income people is not exactly a neoliberal economic policy, since these housing units were built with public subsidies and regulated by government agencies. In its insistence to rebuild the South Bronx as well as other physically devastated areas, the city government of New York became involved in creative financing by incorporating nongovernment organizations that were ran by accomplished businesspeople but remained nonprofit. And whatever the original intentions of city administrations in building and preserving affordable housing in the South Bronx may have been, the accommodation of so many low-income people performing low-paying but essential jobs has contributed to the making of a more vibrant urban economy, even if these same people are not necessarily the ones benefitting from New York's economic dynamism.


Themis Chronopoulos is associate professor and director of American Studies at Swansea University in Wales, United Kingdom. He is the author of Spatial Regulation in New York City: From Urban Renewal to Zero Tolerance (New York: Routledge, 2011) and the coeditor with Christopher Agee of Urban America and the Police Since World War II forthcoming as a special section of the Journal of Urban History. His current research and writing examine topics such as race and ethnicity, social inequality, housing and urban development, and neighborhood change.

Jonathan Soffer is professor of History and Chair of the Department of Technology, Culture, and Society at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. He is the author of Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) and currently coordinating The City Record Project, which is digitizing the New York City Record, a database of the gazette of NYC government from 1873-present.

Ariel Eisenberg is assistant professor of history at Rhodes College, where they teach the history of women, gender, and sexuality, and urban history. They are currently writing a book titled "Save Our Streets and Shelter Our Homeless": The Homeless Crisis in Urban America in the 1980s.

Reiko Hillyer is an assistant professor of history at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Her first book, Designing Dixie: Tourism, Memory, and Urban Space in the New South, concerns the uses of public memory and tourism in fostering sectional reconciliation and economic development in the American South in the decades following the Civil War.

Benjamin Holtzman is a historian trained in the intersections of political, social, and economic histories of the twentieth century, with particular focus on politics, capitalism, cities and suburbs, social movements, and race. His research has appeared in Space and Culture, Radical Society, and several edited collections. He received his Ph.D. in the Department of History at Brown University and is currently a Lecturing Fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University. His book, Crisis and Confidence: New York City and the Market Turn in the Late Twentieth Century, is under contract with Oxford University Press.

Themis Chronopoulos
Associate Professor of American Studies
Department of Political and Cultural Studies
Swansea University
Swansea SA2 8PP