What Benjamin Holtzman’s ‘The Long Crisis’ gets wrong — and right — about New York’s revival.
Timing is everything.
I moved to New York City in 1992. I missed the worst of what Mayor Eric Adams has called “the bad old days.” By the time I had arrived, the subway cars were (mostly) free of graffiti. The number of murders had already begun to decline after peaking in 1990. An economic boom was underway. A city that had once been an international symbol of decline and disorder was in the process of turning itself around.
Businesses and nonprofits played a crucial role in New York’s revival. The Citizens Committee for New York City helped spark dozens of block associations to beautify neighborhoods and improve street safety. Fortune 500 companies, philanthropies and business improvement districts brought new resources to the task of cleaning up local parks and commercial thoroughfares. Nonprofit developers like the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation built housing for thousands of low-income New Yorkers. (Full disclosure: I was attracted to New York in part because of the dynamism that I saw happening within the nonprofit sector. My first big job after I moved to the city was working for a public-private partnership called the Midtown Community Court, which sought to remake the response to misdemeanor offending in and around Times Square.)
Holtzman makes a standard academic move, arguing that something that seems on its face enlightened and positive is, in reality, deeply regressive.
”The Long Crisis: New York City and the Path to Neoliberalism” by Benjamin Holtzman tells the story of how business and nonprofit groups, with the active encouragement of local government, helped to transform New York. But instead of a tale of triumph, Holtzman offers up a chronicle of woe.
In doing so, Holtzman, an assistant professor of history at Lehman College, is making a standard academic move, arguing that something that seems on its face enlightened and positive is, in reality, deeply regressive. For Holtzman, the imaginative remedies conjured by government, business and nonprofit actors in New York starting in the 1970s “forged the path toward a greater dependence on the private sector and market to address urban problems.” According to Holtzman, groups like the Central Park Conservancy and the Grand Central Partnership were unwitting (and sometimes witting) handmaidens of “neoliberalism,” expanding the reach of the private sector, with nefarious consequences for the city’s “social democracy.”It is worth noting that the expanding roles played by the private and nonprofit sectors in the years after the fiscal crisis did not lead to a hollowing out of the public sector – the city’s expenditures grew significantly in these years. As Holtzman admits in a “to be sure” aside, “Municipal government endured as a dominant force in city life.”
To his credit, Holtzman shifts the focus away from Mayor Rudy Giuliani, typically the villain in such narratives. Instead of Giuliani, Holtzman points the finger at a number of other culprits, including latent racism (according to Holtzman, the problems of crime and homelessness were associated with Black men in the minds of many New Yorkers), shrinking federal investment (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”), Mayor Ed Koch, and, most of all, the fiscal crisis that enveloped New York starting in the 1970s.
In making his case, however, Holtzman is somehow guilty of simultaneously over- and under-estimating the impact of New York’s fiscal crisis. Oddly for a book that bemoans the influence of private actors on public policy in New York, “The Long Crisis” does not contain a single reference to Felix Rohatyn. While Rohatyn, who passed away in 2019, is no longer a household name, many New Yorkers will remember when the financier played a dominant role in the governance of the city.
As the chairman of the now-defunct Municipal Assistance Corporation, which was created by the state to help oversee New York City’s finances, Rohatyn wielded enormous influence over issues of taxing and spending for more than a decade. Rohatyn’s authority does not absolve officials like Ed Koch of all of their sins, but it does provide an important piece of context that helps to explain why city administrators did not simply add more city resources and more city services in response to problems like homelessness and crime. If you are going to condemn Koch and others for reaching for private funding and “market solutions” whenever and wherever they could, you have to offer a reasonable counterfactual of what they could have done otherwise given the real-world facts (and limited decision-making authority) they had to deal with. “The Long Crisis” fails this test.
The book also fails to appreciate that it was not just the threat of fiscal insolvency that led many decision-makers (and large segments of the voting public) to turn away from championing more government spending and programs in the years he covers.
As Charles R. Morris documents in “The Cost of Good Intentions: New York City and the Liberal Experiment,” the 15 years leading up to the fiscal crisis were marked by an ambitious expansion of the public sector. In the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, government officials in New York spent more money on hospitals, schools, parks, drug treatment and many other things in an effort to remake society on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.
The experience of New York in the 1960s and 1970s suggests that more government spending and programming is not the answer to every social problem.
It soon became clear that their reach had exceeded their grasp. Not only was the city living beyond its means, but many of the initiatives simply failed to yield the desired results. According to Morris, “The programs had a strong tendency to emphasize symbol over content, to value structure and participation over program results.” Perhaps inevitably, over-promising and under-delivering resulted in backlash, helping to fuel public skepticism in government.
The experience of New York in the 1960s and 1970s suggests that more government spending and programming is not the answer to every social problem. Given this reality, I am inclined to look back on the creative ferment of the 1980s and 1990s with more generosity than Holtzman. The government, business and nonprofit leaders of New York were responding to a difficult set of problems. Their options were limited, both in terms of how much money the city had on hand and the kinds of ideas that the public would support. Many of the initiatives that were launched in these years were in fact successful on their own terms, improving the safety and quality of life in New York. Just ask any New Yorker who is old enough to have experienced what our parks and train stations and streets were like in the bad old days.
Urban policymaking is often a game of whac-a-mole — making inroads in one area will typically lead to problems in another.
At the very end of his book, Holtzman offers a more measured assessment of the policy initiatives that helped define New York in the 1980s and 1990s. He writes:
While reducing rent regulations has led to needed improvements to an aging housing stock, it worsened the city’s affordability crisis. Though private coffers renovated major parks, this contributed to a two-tier park system bifurcated by race and class. While wealthy BIDs have “cleaned up” prominent commercial districts, they refashioned public areas to appeal to the affluent and tourists and signal to lower-income people, particularly those of color, that such spaces are not for them. While private security has increased surveillance of public streets, it also contributed to the over-policing of poor people and people of color.
What Holtzman is getting at here is a reality that politicians and pundits rarely acknowledge: there are no solutions, only trade-offs. Urban policymaking is often a game of whac-a-mole — making inroads in one area will typically lead to problems in another. The challenge is to find a reasonable sense of balance, rather than simply yanking the levers of government in the opposite direction every decade or so.
We should keep this insight in mind as we turn our attention to the challenges that Holtzman rightly calls us to address. As “The Long Crisis” reminds us, there is a pressing need to reduce homelessness, shrink inequality, and build more affordable housing in New York.
Instead of excoriating the work that government, business groups and nonprofits performed in the 1980s and 1990s, we should look to these efforts for encouragement. New York’s recent history offers proof of concept that when government, business and nonprofits are all pointed in the same direction, a lot can get done. We need to marshal the same urgency and creativity to address the problems of today.
The Victim Card