Book Review: The Long Depression: New York and the Path to Neoliberalism by Benjamin Holtzman


In The Long Crisis: New York and the Path to Neoliberalism, Benjamin Holtzman does an in-depth examination of the 50-year shift to neoliberal governance in America’s largest city. Glyn Robbins writes that the book’s detailed and balanced discussion of how the city came to embrace private sector solutions to public policy problems is still relevant today and for many cities around the world.

The Long Crisis: New York and the Path to Neoliberalism. Benjamin Holtzman, New York, Oxford University Press. 2021.

At a time when all cities are struggling to adapt to a new reality, The Long Crisis: New York and the Path to Neoliberalism, Ben Holtzman provides an important and timely analysis of how one of them was transformed by a concerted socio-economic project. New York City’s current crisis may be shaped by COVID-19, but as Holtzman shows, it is defined by a long-term shift toward urban governance based on the neoliberal deification of the market, driving the dismantling public services and the redefinition of public space .

In a compelling passage, Holtzman recounts how a 21st A New Yorker of the century could live in a market-rate condominium that was previously a rent-regulated apartment, enter the subway through a private “public” atrium, walk down a street guarded by private security guards and managed by local businesses, then play basketball in a “public” private park. In many other places, people will recognize this hegemonic grip of private business interests on daily city life.

In The long crisis, Ben Holtzman, assistant professor of history at Lehman College of the City University of New York (CUNY) who studies the social and political history of cities, traces the advent of market town planning to the socio-economic crisis of the 1970s when New York City was virtually bankrupt. As the waste and anxiety piled up, politicians, policymakers and lobbyists raced to find solutions. Some, inspired by corporations like the RAND Corporation, have advocated a “planned downsizing” of working-class communities of color like the South Bronx, alongside severe cuts to essential public services.

A wave of arson and abandonment by private landlords has rendered swathes of housing in the city uninhabitable. About 700,000 people were displaced during this “decade of firebut others have become involved in self-help projects to reoccupy and restore abandoned apartment buildings. This “urban ownership” revived a quintessentially American rejection of big-project bureaucracies and won bipartisan political support, reflected in significant government funding. Thousands of New Yorkers still live in homes from this period, provided by Community Development Corporations (CDCs), analogous to Britain’s Housing Associations (HAs).

But as Holtzman points out, such agencies can legitimize and accelerate the neoliberal agenda to undermine — and ultimately replace — public services. Critics on the left accuse the CDC of shifting “the responsibility of providing low-income housing to the poor themselves (instead of) forcing the government to take over, own and maintain more housing, under the control of tenants ” – a particularly relevant point with the huge number of empty houses creating new urban wastelands in cities like New York, where speculative real estate development has gone crazy. Although touted as an alternative to market excess, Holtzman suggests that advocates of the “not-for-profit” model “helped ease the New York market’s turn – even when such a drastic transformation was not their intent”.

In this way, New York City of the 1970s foreshadowed the Third Way urbanism of the post-1997 British New Labor government and similar administrations in many other countries, when politicians associated with the social left- democrat/liberal have become enamored with private sector solutions to public policy. problems. This craze for so-called “public-private partnerships” has continued virtually uninterrupted, despite ample evidence that it does not work.

These questions are very relevant today, in New York and beyond. The pandemic has accentuated a pre-existing urban crisis with similarities to that of 50 years ago. I lived in the Bronx for six months last year and saw a lot of things that Holtzman described in the 1970s, including trash-strewn streets, crumbling roads, creaky public transit, decrepit public parks and a strong sense of abandonment by municipal authorities. With a housing emergency acute, the battle to defend what remains of affordable housing for working-class New Yorkers continues with ever-increasing intensity.

But history is also repeating itself in the government response. Establishment politicians like newly elected New York City Mayor Eric Adams or New York State Governor Kathy Hochul still cling to the belief that there are market to market-induced social problems, while making nebulous calls for civic participation in urban recovery. . Unfortunately, elements of the not-for-profit sector that grew out of this broken system are increasingly integrated into it. As Holtzman suggests, this results from a policy deliberately designed to convert “advocacy groups into administrators of city programs, preventing their agitation for broader economic and political transformation.”

It’s a book for what Joe Biden has described as the “inflection point” of capitalism. It is very detailed and balanced, without hesitating to some difficult questions about the ability of charities, voluntary and non-governmental organizations to fundamentally tackle social inequalities. As the Biden administration’s efforts to mitigate system failures remain stalled, The long crisis describes how such moderate reforms half a century ago enabled neoliberal capitalism to emerge “from economic calamity stronger and more grounded in urban life.” To repeat this cycle, with ever greater threats to public health and the environment, would be a recipe for disaster.

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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Examiner

Glyn RobbinsLSE Department of Sociology
Glyn Robbins was born in London and has worked in housing since 1991, when he was a student of Professor Anne Power on the LSE’s Masters in Housing course. In 2013, he completed a doctorate in urban planning and policies. Since 2017 he has helped support students in the Cities program at LSE and became a Visiting Scholar at LSE in 2019 and a Fulbright Scholar in 2020/21. He also runs a consultancy estate in North London. Glyn’s writings on housing and urban policy have been widely published and he has been frequently interviewed by the media on the subject. In addition to his professional and academic involvement, Glyn is a longtime housing activist.


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