Confronting the Void: New York after 9/11

Susan Opotow and Zachary Baron Shemtob, editors, New York after 9/11. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018.

For anyone in New York that day, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 remain very much in the present. But memory and raw emotions fade. Young men and women joining the armed forces today were not even born when the war they will be fighting in began. They have no memory of 9/11, but they have grown up in a world transformed by that history.

In New York after 9/11, Susan Opotow, a social psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and attorney Zachary Baron Shemtob consider this moment “when memory [was] becoming history.” The essays in their anthology address the rebuilding of the city, the memorial and museum, the physical and mental health of New Yorkers, and security and surveillance.

At times, the tone of the collection is critical of the city’s response to the attacks. Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s public health and security measures are critiqued, and always lurking in the background is the specter of anti-Muslim bigotry. But given the magnitude of the act, the city responded with remarkable civility and tolerance.

Ground Zero under construction, New York City
Ground Zero under construction, New York, New York, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, May 20, 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In their opening essay, Opotow, Shemtob, and Patrick Sweeny examine how a city recovers from a disaster. They base their analysis on response to natural disasters, not an act of war. What Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans was certainly a disaster. The attack on Pearl Harbor may have been a disaster for the Navy, but the nation experienced that as an attack. The distinction between a natural disaster and an act of war is left unexplored. Labeling what happened on 9/11 a disaster may make sense in understanding the city’s response, but it diminishes the political context of the event.

Next, Hirofumi Minami and Brian R. Davis ask whether there is a parallel between Hiroshima and Ground Zero. Employing a “Psychoanalysis of Cities” approach, they try “to provide a common psychoanalytic framework for considering the traumas” and examine how both cities “have rethought recovery within their urban landscapes.” Their discussion of collective trauma and memory in a comparative framework offers provoking insights, but they are dismayed that New Yorkers think comparing New York and Hiroshima is “somehow inappropriate,” and the authors do not entertain any possible reasons to reject such an uncomfortable linkage. Further, they offer a gratuitous insertion of presentist political piety. In their telling, the early phases of recovery were “marked by a collective solidarity around an immigrant experience representative of what the city [stood] for,” but was “gradually co-opted by the symbolic deployment of an aggressive ‘America first’ jingoism.” This is simply off the mark. To the contrary: what characterized New York, and America, after 9/11 was a very public rejection of nativism and bigotry.

Especially welcome are “Memory Foundations” by Daniel Libeskind on his master plan for Ground Zero and Michael Arad’s “Building the 9/11 Memorial.” Libeskind began with the certainty that “nothing should be built where the tragedy took place,” but the realities of Manhattan real estate were unavoidable. “The site of the World Trade Center is not a business-as-usual site, though it must also work as business as usual.” Just as the resulting design differed from the World Trade Center, so did the process reject the “top-down” approach which resulted in the Twin Towers. This ushered in “an era of public participation. … People are the core of the city, and people should make decisions.” While insight into Libeskind’s thinking is helpful, he might have discussed the extent to which the final plans deviated from his original submission.

9-11-01, New York City, print by Andrea Arroyo, 2001, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Explaining the concept behind “Reflecting Absence,” his winning submission in the design competition, Michael Arad writes, “The moment of coming up to the site would be a moment of comprehension, from seeing the scale of the towers’ footprints being echoed in the memorial, seeing the size of the void in the middle of the city, an seeing the multitude of names that would surround each footprint.” The waterfalls express both individual and collective loss, the separate strands forming a single curtain halfway down.

The concluding essay, by Opotow and Karyna Pryiomka details the complexities inherent in a place-based commemoration of loss. Davis Brody Bond, the architectural firm commissioned to design the museum, began by confronting the space itself: the void, the largest, most vital historical artifact and “a metaphor for the enormities of loss experienced after 9/11.” Anyone visiting the museum would surely agree that the architects and curators successfully navigated a rather treacherous terrain to create an extraordinarily respectful experience.

Rements form a cross from the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster.
Remnants form a cross from the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster, New York, New York, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, July 25, 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How 9/11 affected New Yorkers in terms of public health and security is a less triumphant story. Norman Groner concludes that tall buildings are generally safer, but adopting the new codes took over a decade, and even then “the more stringent requirements apply only to new construction.” While we might have assumed that all parties pulled together from the beginning to identify and mitigate the health impacts, a transcript of a discussion among doctors, labor unionists, and community activists reveals just how much unfounded and sometimes intentionally misleading information came out of government agencies. Surprisingly, for example, Ground Zero was not designated a hazardous waste site.

Questions regarding counterterrorism remain controversial. Charles R. Jennings states in “Urban Security in New York City After 9/11: Risks and Realities” that the city will remain a prime terror target, but “the reality of securing New York City from terrorists is somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible.” Nonetheless, law enforcement had to plan and deploy forces as best they could.

Dream state, 10:05 a.m., 9/11/01, part of Exit Gallery Art Reactions, 2001, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

After 9/11, the NYPD formed a “Demographic Unit” within the Intelligence Bureau, deploying informants and undercover officers to monitor Muslim New Yorkers. Dial Shamas, a human rights and civil liberties attorney, condemns NYPD surveillance and asserts that Muslim youth “bore the brunt of the backlash” after 9/11. She contends that “surveillance chilled constitutionally protected rights” and stigmatized entire communities as suspect. Her evidence consists of statements by Muslim youth describing their feelings, not incidents of actual harm. This is not to dismiss the danger of police targeting “suspect communities,” but she does not acknowledge that law enforcement was wrestling with a new kind of threat to public safety. Her primary example of intrusive police activity is a female undercover officer operating at Brooklyn College. That officer’s identity became known after the arrest of two Muslim women, one a convert, for conspiring to plant bombs. What might have happened had she not been present?

The editors have compiled a compelling volume, bringing together the many strands of the city’s recovery and reinvention after 9/11, and the social and cultural problems the city wrestled with in the process. Among New York after 9/11’s many triumphs is a complex analysis of the interplay of memory and history, and how both play out in public policy and discourse. As 9/11 evolves from memory into history, what is irretrievably fading is the immediacy of the event as eyewitnesses experienced it. That aspect of history may be preserved, but it cannot be recovered.

Jeffrey A. Kroessler is an Associate Professor in the Lloyd Sealy Library, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Featured image (at top): Ground Zero under construction, New York, New York, November 6, 2009, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Inequality of Nashville Skylines: A Review of Ansley T. Erickson’s Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and its Limits

Ansley T. Erickson, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). 390 pp. notes, index. ISBN 978 0 226 02525 4.

Reviewed by Walter C. Stern

For decades the relationship between the value of housing and the desirability of schools has been practically inescapable. Realtors hype or pooh-pooh the purported quality of schools, and they point to web sites that map home prices alongside school ratings. Zip codes appear to dictate a child’s educational and economic destiny. Until recently, however, urban historians largely failed to explore the origins of the seemingly self-evident connection between schools, metropolitan geography, and financial well-being.

Ansley Erickson’s Making the Unequal Metropolis takes a major step toward filling this void. Underscoring the inseparability of urban and educational history, Erickson explores educational inequality in Nashville from World War II through the end of Metropolitan Nashville’s court-supervised school desegregation in 1998.

City Market, Nashville, Tennessee, 1939, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Nashville serves very well as a case study because its 1963 consolidation with Davidson County pulled urban, suburban, and rural students into a single metropolitan school district. Here then is an inviting opportunity to consider what happens when desegregation unfolds, with apparent success, across an entire metropolitan region.

Unlike the more familiar Sunbelt stories where a powerful central city—Houston, Dallas, or Phoenix—annexed contiguous suburban municipalities, Nashville’s voter-approved consolidation “proceeded largely on suburban terms.” Consolidation boosted the city’s flagging finances, but it also diluted black voting strength and, at least initially, fortified the white suburban communities that defended segregation.

41k+LlUfjvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgNashville, of course, had long been highly segregated. Erickson shows how federal policymakers aided and abetted Nashville’s pro-growth elite as they used schools as “organizing nodes” in the creation and reinforcement of the unequal metropolis. Building upon Clarence Perry’s Progressive era concept of a “neighborhood unit” organized around a school, these actors leveraged urban renewal funds during the 1950s and 1960s to jointly expand and increasingly segregate housing and schools. Into the 1970s, they prioritized suburban school construction while closing inner-city schools.

Civil rights attorneys, showing that “de facto” segregation was, in fact, contrary to law, pressed for crosstown and then county-wide busing. They initiated a desegregation lawsuit in 1955 and in 1971 secured a plan that utilized busing to achieve extensive desegregation in more than two-thirds of the district’s schools. And it was precisely Nashville’s unified metropolitan school district that made busing more feasible than elsewhere. Further litigation yielded an expanded 1983 plan in which Metropolitan Nashville became one of the nation’s most successfully desegregated systems. By 1990, when one-third of black schoolchildren nationally attended schools with “highly concentrated” black populations, Nashville had almost no schools with student bodies that were more than 90 percent white or black. Along with Charlotte, Louisville, and Tampa, Nashville would become “one of desegregation’s best-case scenarios.”

What Erickson shows, however, is that numbers alone were poor indicators of success.   “Statistical desegregation” did not translate into a genuine equal educational opportunity. She contends that the ways in which educators, city planners, and judges understood busing ultimately proved deficient. She argues that desegregation plans were crafted to benefit white suburbanites at the expense of inner-city African Americans, who frequently saw their neighborhood schools close as buses shuttled their children to predominantly white institutions in distant suburbs. The “integrated” schools also reinforced inequality through their curricula. Vocational programs, for example, prepared black and white students for racially and gender differentiated labor markets. In effect, much of the problem here stemmed from policies prioritizing schooling’s economic rather than democratic value.

Capital, Nashville, Tennessee, Carl M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

As efforts to assuage white resistance outstripped efforts to advance equal educational opportunity, Nashville and the courts abandoned desegregation in 1998. The consequences were dramatic: by 2009, Nashville was trending toward the national norm with more than one-fifth of its black students in “highly concentrated” black schools.

Erickson laments this re-segregation and asserts that “the time may be right to engage with desegregation as an important and necessary American project.” This muted call for desegregation matches her emphasis throughout on the inequalities—rather than the advances—embedded within one of the nation’s most successful efforts to eliminate segregated schooling.

Nashville police officer wielding nightstick holds African American youth at bay during a civil rights march in Nashville, Tennessee, 1964, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This disquieting assessment cautions against mistaking a paradox such as desegregation for a panacea. Yet Erickson’s attention to the metastasizing yet persistent nature of inequality does not suggest the need to abandon either desegregation or its democratic potential. By illuminating the ways individuals and institutions constructed educational inequality, Erickson provides clues for taking it apart.

This book deserves special attention from urban historians for its nuanced analysis of metropolitan desegregation and its revision of conventional explanations of metropolitan stratification. While scholars have typically emphasized housing policies and markets as drivers of stratification, Erickson shows that schools to a significant degree shaped the metropolitan landscape and political economy.

Featured image (at top): Miss Mary Brent, principal of Glenn School, greets pupils, both white and African American, in a previously all-white school, 1957, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

Walter C. Stern is Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research focuses on the historical intersection of race and schooling in the urban United States. He is the author of Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, 1764–1960, and he is working on a book on the intertwined histories of school desegregation and mass incarceration.

Member of the Week: Andrew Pope

Andrew Pope Headshot 2018Andrew Pope

Lecturer in History & Literature

Harvard University


Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

My current project, Living in the Struggle: Black Power, Gay Liberation, and Women’s Liberation Movements in Atlanta, 1964-1996, explores how poor and working class residents of Atlanta came to identify mutual interests across traditional lines of difference like race, gender, and sexuality. The project began as a study of Southern African American women and the welfare rights movement they built in the 1950s and 1960s. As my research progressed, I saw how intertwined this activism was with other social movements and so expanded my study to explore the myriad ways African American women’s work shaped post-civil rights era social movements in the South.

One strand that connects all of my research is how everyday interactions fostered relationships which, over time, led to political strategies or alliances that helped poor people survive and build political power.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

In the fall, I’m teaching a seminar called Queering the South. I did not start my dissertation with a Southern Studies background so I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned and how the field has recently changed. Together my students and I will examine the people and ideas that are often left out of, or marginal to, accounts of modern Southern history. Every week, we’ll read oral history interviews conducted by scholars like E. Patrick Johnson and John Howard. These will anchor the course in the experiences of ordinary people and help students bring questions to our readings of novels, songs, monographs, and articles. We will also conduct oral history interviews and write for non-academic audiences.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I read, and excitedly re-read, Jennifer Nash’s Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. My thinking and my writing isn’t always theoretically inclined. Nash’s book is the best type of theoretical analysis, offering a history of black feminist theory, a critique of some of the ways intersectionality is used today, and a compelling vision for a future of black feminism that has tangible benefits for people’s lives. I make a point to read everything Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor writes and so can’t wait for her upcoming book Race for Profit: Black Homeownership and the End of the Urban Crisis. I enjoyed Ansley Quiros’s recent article about Freaknik in Atlanta Studies and so eagerly read her book God With Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976. I especially loved her chapter on the Cotton Patch Gospel and utopian community organizing in Americus, a small city in southwest Georgia. I’ve also dug into the recent special issue of the Journal of African American History edited by Kevin Mumford on black gay history too. So much brilliance in the issue.

My go-to summer reading always includes Samuel Delany’s novels, short stories, and non-fiction. He’s an urbanist working in, and creating, so many different configurations of people and practices and places. He is a joy to read and sparks my imagination about the types of questions urban historians should be asking. And I can never get enough of Joe Sheehan’s writing. He writes a baseball newsletter that is the single thing I’ve read the most over for the last decade. His work relishes in analytical rigor, argument, and narrative in ways that I am always trying to replicate in my own writing.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

Reach out to graduate students at universities in the city you are studying, even if they’re not working on similar projects. Traveling for research can be lonely, especially as graduate school progresses and the dissertation becomes harder to finish against the backdrop of ever-dwindling job opportunities. Having friends in the city makes research trips so much more pleasant and connects you to parts of a city you may not otherwise engage, including current organizers and activists or neighborhoods beyond where archives are located.

Most recently, you held the postdoc at Carnegie Mellon’s Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy (CAUSE). What were the highlights of that experience? Would you recommend the postdoc to other scholars?

If you have the chance, leap at the opportunity to be involved with CAUSE! Dr. Joe Trotter and Hikari Aday have built a program that cultivates and celebrates African American history. Each month, the speaker series brings scholars of African American history to campus to speak with Carnegie Mellon community members and Pittsburgh residents. All of their initiatives bring together scholars of African American history and the general public. Dr. Trotter is the next president of the Urban History Association and I hope the annual conference comes to Pittsburgh so that everyone can experience firsthand the great work CAUSE is doing.

The highlight of the past year was Dr. Trotter’s mentorship. He helped me see my project in a new way, worked with me to craft a strategy for revising my dissertation into a book manuscript, discussed new article ideas with me and read drafts, and introduced me to scholars working on similar topics. He did it all with such kindness and good cheer. It was wonderful to have a postdoc year devoted just to research and writing at CAUSE.



Announcing The Metropole + Urban History Association’s Third Annual Graduate Student Blogging Contest!

The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest exists to encourage and train graduate students to blog about history—as a way to teach beyond the classroom, market their scholarship, and promote the enduring value of the humanities.

This summer’s blogging contest theme is “Life Cycles.” We invite graduate students to submit essays about the birth, death, or aging of institutions, neighborhoods, cities, or suburbs. You may also contribute personal reflections about the life cycle of a particular research project.

All submissions that meet the guidelines outlined below will be accepted. The Metropole’s editors will work with contest contributors to refine their submissions and prepare them for publication.

In addition to getting great practice writing for the web and experience working with editors, the winner will receive a certificate and a $100 prize!

The contest will open on June 10 and will close on July 15. Entries must be submitted to Posts will run on the blog in July and August, and we will announce the winners in September. Finalists will have their papers reviewed by three award-winning historians. The winning blog post will receive $100.

Contest Guidelines

  1. Contest entrants must be enrolled in a graduate program.
  2. Contest entrants must be members of the UHA. A one-year membership for graduate students costs only $25 and includes free online access to the Journal of Urban History.
  3. Contest submissions must be original posts not published elsewhere on the web.
  4. Contest submissions must be in the form of an essay related to the theme of “Life Cycles.” Essays can be about current research, historiography (but not book reviews), or methodology. Essays that stick to the following criteria will be most successful:
    1. Written for a non-academic audience and assume no prior knowledge.
    2. Focused on one argument, intervention, or event, and not trying to do too much.
    3. Spend more time showing than telling.
  5. Posts must be received by the editors ( by July 15, 2019 at 11:59 PM EST to be eligible for the contest.
  6. Posts should be at least 700 words, but not exceed 2000 words.
  7. Links or footnotes must be used to properly attribute others’ scholarship and reporting. The Metropole follows the Chicago Manual of Style for citation formatting.

CFP: 2020 Latrobe Chapter Symposium of the Society of Architectural Historians

Call for Papers: 2020 Latrobe Chapter Symposium

Race, Ethnicity, and Architecture in the Nation’s Capital

In 2019, the Washington Post reported that the nation’s capital had the highest intensity of gentrification of any American city, with more than 20,000 African Americans displaced from low-income neighborhoods from 2000 to 2013. For architectural and urban historians, the implications were clear — this demographic transformation would inevitably reconfigure the physical appearance, experience, and structure of the city.

Yet this mutual shaping of Washington’s social and architectural make-up was by no means new. Since the city’s establishment in the late eighteenth century, scores of enslaved people and voluntary migrants structured the social and material composition of the broader Washington, DC region. The 13th SAH Latrobe Chapter Biennial Symposium — Race, Ethnicity, and Architecture in the Nation’s Capital — therefore calls for scholars to think through this history. It challenges participants to not only uncover the material contributions of diverse racial and ethnic groups, but also expose government and private attempts to control, segregate, and appropriate design traditions. Interested scholars are encouraged to submit work that delves into topics like the importance of slavery to the construction of local buildings; the development of Chinatown, Eden Center, Langley Park, Little Ethiopia, and other regional hot spots; urban renewal and public housing; racially integrated mid-century suburbs; and the design of embassies, museums, and public spaces, among other topics. In addition to the panels, symposium attendees will have the opportunity to join walking tours of sites that expose the mutual construction of race, ethnicity, and architecture in the nation’s capital.

Historic Victorian architecture at LeDroit Park, a neighborhood in NW, Washington, D.C., photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2010, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Formal CFP below (you can also access the CFP via this link): 


Governments and private developers have employed built environments to control and regulate racialized bodies. Through the systemic planning of residential and commercial districts, public spaces, and transit, they ensured the growth of isolated enclaves whose economic health varied based on inhabitants’ race. Historically-specific understandings of race have likewise shaped the design and construction of the capital’s architecture, for example influencing the development of various building typologies, ranging from embassies and museums to shopping centers. The 13th Latrobe Chapter Biennial Symposium therefore calls for a timely investigation of the symbiotic relationship between race, ethnicity, and architecture in the greater Washington, DC region. It conceptualizes race broadly, not as an issue of binaries, but rather of corporeal hierarchies that meaningfully structure the design and experience of architectural and urban spaces.

Presentations might explore:

  • Architectural education and practice;
  • The importance of slavery and its legacies to the construction of government and university buildings;
  • Development of Chinatown, the Eden Center, Langley Park, Little Ethiopia, and other ethnic regional hot spots;
  • Urban renewal and the construction of low- income public housing;

Growth of racially integrated middle-class suburbs and their modernist aesthetic aspirations;
Design of embassies, museums, and public spaces that appropriate different cultural design and construction practices; Architectural transformation of neighborhoods as a result of broader demographic changes.

The purpose of the symposium is to feature recent research
discussion. Presentations must be analytical rather than descriptive in nature and should place the subject in a comparative context that emphasizes the relationship between race and architecture.

All sessions will take place on Saturday, April 18, 2020, at The Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning. Tours will commence the following day on Sunday, April 19, 2020.

Please send a one-page, 350-word abstract of a 20-minute paper and 1-2 page curriculum vitae by August 1, 2019 to All applicants will be notified of the selection by August 23, 2019. April 1, 2020 is the deadline for final text to be sent to session moderators, who will work with presenters to develop themes for discussion. For further information, contact Vyta Baselice at

Neoliberalism: Kim Phillips-Fein and Tracy Neumann Unpack the Knotty Realities and History of the Ubiquitous Term

We close out the Metropole’s coverage of the new edited volume, Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century with a discussion of neoliberalism and its importance in thinking about urban history. Working backwards, Maryland historian David M.P. Freund explores economic policy notably the government’s role as “monetary sovereign,” in our third entry.  While for our second installment we interviewed  University of Virginia historian Andrew Kharl regarding the impact of property taxes of black homeowners. Finally, you can check out our general over view of the volume here in our first essay on the book.  

If you’ve ever doddered about online, and particularly if you encounter economists like Scottie Lincicome who lean to the right, you’ll see plenty of tweeting about what my grandfather might call “the neoliberalism”:

To his credit, Lincicome carries about with humor, civility, and good faith arguments. Yet he serves as one small example of the significant support that “neoliberalism,” sometimes called “the politics of austerity” by its critics, enjoys. Unfortunately, no amount of positivity can erase the dubious impact that its policy prescriptions enacted on urban America beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s; not the stuff of high comedy, but rather Greek tragedy.

The consequences continue to play out today, and the new edited volume Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century reckons with this history—most notably in Pulitzer Prize nominee and New York University historian Kim Phillips-Fein’s contribution: “The History of Neoliberalism.” In a compact, cogent 15 pages, Phillips-Fein delves into the concept’s knotty roots, explains historians’ initial reluctance to adopt the term within the field’s lexicon, and argues for neoliberalism’s value as a “way of thinking about the recent past that emerged out of a range of problems that are both intellectual and political in scope, and … speaks to the need to find a way of describing in broad terms the distinctive dilemmas of the present.”[1]

41lj9sNoDNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Wayne State historian Tracy Neumann can relate. In her 2016 book Remaking the Rust Belt (which is referenced in more detail within the interview), she explored the transformation of Pittsburgh, PA and Hamilton, Ontario along with the rise of mayors like Pittsburgh’s Pete Flaherty. Once securing office, Flaherty proceeded to reestablish ties with the famed corporate elite driven Allegheny Conference while also pushing low tax, austerity friendly policies.[2]

Neumann and Phillips-Fein discussed their overlapping interest in neoliberalism over email, the results of which you can read below – it is the final installment of The Metropole’s series highlighting Shaped by the State.

 Tracy Neumann: In your essay, you suggest neoliberalism is a useful alternative to the “declension narrative” that for many years has dominated postwar US political historiography. You argue that neoliberalism links late-twentieth century political and economic shifts in a way that other frameworks (the rise of the right, financialization) do not. But U.S. historians, as you point out, have long avoided the term or adopted it only “with some trepidation.” They seem to view neoliberalism as totalizing and teleological: they aren’t sure whom to describe as neoliberal, when neoliberalism began, or how to delineate between liberal and neoliberal policy instruments and ideological orientations.

Yet historians of other regions have been much more open to the term, and our colleagues in other disciplines have long theorized, used, and engaged it. In short, for more than a decade neoliberalism has provided a shared language that allows scholars to talk to each other across disciplinary boundaries and geographical specializations—and U.S. historians have largely absented themselves from that conversation. So, I’d like to open with a question that goes beyond the scope of your essay, which like the volume in which it appears is focused on twentieth-century US political history: As Americanists become more willing to engage with neoliberalism as an analytical category, how do you think this might shape the kinds of histories we write, the questions we ask, the scales at which we operate, and the extent to which we engage—or not—beyond national and disciplinary boundaries?

1980s Pittsburgh, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Kim Phillips-Fein: The idea of neoliberalism points to power relationships, ideas and political sensibilities that do not divide along partisan lines, and so its main categories would seem to be different from those of elections and party competition—the staples of American political history. It is certainly true that some of the best new historical work engaging the question of neoliberalism is explicitly transnational. I’m thinking of Quinn Slobodian’s study of neoliberalism, which foregrounds the origins of the idea in an international intellectual community. Angus Burgin has written an excellent (as yet unpublished) “concept history” of the idea of neoliberalism, exploring it in the context of a history of ideas that moves between geography, anthropology, politics and sociology, and Gary Gerstle’s recent essay framing the past forty years as a “neoliberal age” looks at neoliberalism as analogous to the “New Deal order.”

But I suspect that one of the larger reasons that historians have been wary of the idea is really because of the politics of the word. Neoliberalism has gained prominence not only as an academic term or as a mode of theoretical engagement, but as a way of critiquing political and economic inequality. The term is widely used by activists and journalists who have deployed it to criticize the power of economic elites and the role that free-market ideas have played in justifying cuts to the welfare state and attacks on labor unions.

This very mode of critique may have been alienating to historians who have not wanted to see their work in those terms. What I wonder is whether the use of “neoliberalism” by historians will continue to have this critical edge, or whether the word will evolve, eventually becoming a more neutral descriptive device—a way of characterizing a political and intellectual position, or of denoting the post-1970s epoch in American history, that does not imply a radical politics.

New York City skyline, Thomas O’Halloran, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

TN: I think that’s an excellent segue into talking about cities, since they are so often where political positions and the definitional issues around them are worked out. Urban historians, I think, are in a unique position to clarify the analytical contours of neoliberalism—something that Suleiman Osman also gestures toward in his contribution to Shaped by the State. Osman writes (p. 252) that “diplomatic, global, and international historians who analyze the history of globalization, and urban historians who examine the plethora of localist and neighborhood based African American, Latinos, Native American, LGBT, environmentalist, and women’s protest in cities and suburbs of the 1970s” have produced some of the most useful studies of “glocalization.” Similarly. cities are central to the claims of much of the social scientific literature on neoliberalism, and sociologists and geographers describe cities as testing grounds for neoliberal policy experiments. In the past three years, at least three monographs have been published on the history of neoliberal urbanization: Andrew Diamond’s Chicago On the Make, Timothy Weaver’s Blazing the Neoliberal Trail (about Philadelphia and London), and mine—Remaking the Rust Belt (about Pittsburgh and Hamilton, Ontario). We wrote about similar cities in countries with similar political trajectories, and perhaps unsurprisingly arrived at some similar conclusions: neoliberalism is, in fact, a useful category of analysis for the postwar city; to understand it, we must examine neoliberalization as a process with a much longer history than most of the literature has thus far suggested; that the roots of urban neoliberalism lie in the urban renewal projects of the 1950s; that grassroots activists helped legitimate urban policies based on volunteerism, individual choice, local control, and market-driven reform; and that not everyone who contributed to neoliberalization was ideologically neoliberal.

But we disagreed on the essential characteristic of neoliberal urbanization: for Tim, it was enterprise zones; for me, it was public-private partnerships; and for Andrew, it was racial politics. So, while there was a great deal of analytical coherence between our projects, our empirical research suggested different local histories of neoliberalism, none of which looked exactly like New York’s experience in the 1970s. Since your latest book is about New York City’s fiscal crisis—one of the events David Harvey, in his influential book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, cites as evidence of the ascendance of a neoliberal political project—I’d like to hear your thoughts on how urban historians might help define the nature and chronology of neoliberalism in the United States.

Aerial view of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

KP-F: My approach in Fear City is a bit different. For me, part of the importance of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s in New York was the the role it played in national politics. Not simply how it reconfigured the city, but the way that the fiscal crisis became scripted into national political debates and used to attack the Great Society, the welfare state, and the whole idea of collective action for the common good.

One of the elements of neoliberalism that has sometimes made me uncomfortable is the sense of it as a seamless approach to society, something that permeates from top to bottom. I think when we look at the 1970s and 1980s, one of the main things to keep in mind is just how intensely contested many of the ideas about the primacy of the free market really were. It is not as though any of them were easily won or accepted. There was a fierce struggle between different ways of understanding society, of looking at the world.

John Hancock Center, Chicago, photograph by James Karales, 1971, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

This is certainly what I saw in New York in the 1970s. Neoliberalism seemed a very incomplete intellectual formation at that moment. When I began working on the project, I thought I would find much more theoretical coherence among the elite than I did. Instead, I saw a lot of intellectual and political conflicts, and a sense of panic that surprised me. And on the ground, the project of austerity met with a lot of resistance. If anything, the idea of neoliberalism crystallized out of the crisis, instead of existing beforehand to be implemented then.

That said, I think cities are interesting, promising and perhaps also complex places to look at the development of neoliberalism. On the one hand, cities in the late twentieth century are the front lines of any antipoverty politics, struggle for racial justice, or conflict over the shape of social policy and the welfare state. This is why the effort to reshape local government to be more responsive to private interests is so important. But cities are also places that embody a distinctive relationship between the private and the public sector. Real estate, in particular, is a part of the urban economy that is critically dependent on government in ways that make it a bit different from manufacturing or financial companies. Local civic boosters long have sought to win infrastructure improvements and to encourage city governments to respond to their needs. Cities and urban governance have always blurred the lines between public and private—well before the era of neoliberalism.

The housing struggle in crisis, National Tenants Organization, 1973, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

TN: Your point that we can’t think of neoliberalism simply as a top-down political project imposed wholesale by elites is so important, and it underscores the historical and contemporary significance of cities as sites of political action and policy formation. But it also takes us back to something you emphasized in your essay: that historians’ unease with the term “neoliberalism” stems in part from not knowing whom to classify as neoliberal. Are neoliberals people who actually called themselves neoliberals? Are they self-described liberals who sought to undo the welfare state? Are they self-described conservatives who promoted free-market politics? What’s your answer? If you were writing a field guide to neoliberalism in the United States, what would your taxonomy of actually existing neoliberals look like?

BN-TB747_bkrvfe_JV_20170421140317.jpgKP-F: This is a great question, and here I have to say something that I didn’t really say in the Shaped by the State piece. I see myself as a political historian first and foremost, and what I mean by this is that I want to write about people’s efforts to shape their society—both the attempts to do this by people with evident social and economic power, and those without access to those traditional levers. So for me, the labeling matters: what people call themselves is important. What they think they are doing and how they articulate their political agendas matters. After all, part of what I am interested in is what people are consciously trying to do to accomplish their ends and transform their society.

So for this reason, in my own work I would use “neoliberal” as closely as possible: primarily to describe New Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s, people who think of themselves as liberals and who remain committed to some vision of using the state to ameliorate social problems, but who are also skeptical of unions, the welfare state, and, in a way, the whole project of collective action and social democracy. Some of these people did call themselves neoliberals, others didn’t, but I think the word is most useful for describing this group. And we need some word to talk about them!

View of construction of the World Trade Center, NYC, photograph by Thomas O’Halloran, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

I do find “neoliberalism” useful as a word as well—as a way of talking about an overall approach to social policy, a way of using the rhetoric of the market to justify and expand the economic power of elites. But I think it is important to always call attention to the fractures within the framework. Precisely because the intellectual vision of neoliberalism is so far-reaching, I think it matters to point out all the ways that the world—that history—operates differently.

Featured image: Skyline view of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 1990, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

[1] Kim Phillips-Fein, “The History of Neoliberalism,” in Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 348-349.

[2] Tracy Neumann, Remaking the Rust Belt: The Post Industrial Transformation of North America, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 48.

Member of the Week: Peter Laurence

Peter LaurencePeter L. Laurence
Associate Professor of Architecture
Clemson University School of Architecture

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

Much of my research has been concerned with the presence (and absence) of urbanism in architectural theory and in architects’ thinking in general. This led me, more than twenty years ago, to studying Jane Jacobs, and that in turn led me to urban history, urban studies, and the history of urban design. Publishing Becoming Jane Jacobs in early 2016, the US election later that year, and the dramatic changes to the political and cultural landscape that followed caused me to turn to other aspects of Jacobs’s work, resulting in some new essays and chapters focused on her writing on US imperialism, racism and the “plantation mentality,” public space in the face of privatization and gentrification, and her eventual self-exile to Canada. Since then I’ve returned to projects in architectural theory; I’m currently editing a book on the history of architectural education, and just started co-editing a book on contemporary architectural theory. In the meantime, for a number of years I’ve been working on, a research/activist project that has the goal of incorporating fundamental lessons in urbanism and urban design into architectural education, which currently doesn’t, and hasn’t, required professional architecture students (in accredited degree programs in the US) to have any coursework in these areas. After these projects, I plan to return to another book on Jacobs, although I’ve also been thinking about a book on architecture and urbanism.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Apart from the occasional undergraduate honors seminar on Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities and co-teaching a course on theories and methods for first-year students in our interdisciplinary PhD program in Planning, Design, and the Built Environment, in any given semester I’ll teach one of our four required graduate courses in architectural history and theory. This curriculum, which I helped to establish as Director of Graduate Studies some years ago, can be taught however the instructor sees fit, although we want to make sure that various essential historical periods are covered. Most recently I taught our course focused on the mid- to late-twentieth century (and post-modernism), and I naturally teach this with an emphasis on urban history and urban design (e.g., architecture and urban theory in the urban renewal era). Next spring I’ll teach our course focused on the Modern Movement in architecture, and this will similarly include the professionalization of city planning, functionalist urbanism, city histories, and so on. While my recent course on late twentieth-century architectural theory was certainly on my mind while planning a symposium on Architectural Theory Now at University of Pennsylvania in April, since I’m primarily teaching foundational courses for Masters-level students, I generally keep my research separate from my teaching and focus on what the students need to know. What I learn myself in the teaching process, as always happens, informs my thinking and writing.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

Like everyone working on book projects, I’m most looking forward to completing and seeing the two books mentioned earlier! I’m also looking forward to a book on Jane Jacobs’s early life by Glenna Lang and an English-language version of a Swedish book on Jacobs that I contributed to. I recently had an opportunity to preview Suffragette City: Gender, Politics, and the Built Environment, forthcoming from Routledge, and recommend it. I’m looking forward to Spatial Practices: Modes of Action and Engagement with the City and The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of the City also coming from Routledge. Meanwhile, I have The Municipalists by Seth Fried and New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson cued up for a first and second listen in my audiobooks library.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

My advice is to proceed with caution. I’m very concerned about trends in higher education. I haven’t yet read Herb Childress’s The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission, but, apart from his recent editorial (which doesn’t mention the critical issue of declining state funding for state universities), I’ve been reading similar things as a longtime faculty senator and member of the AAUP, which reported non-tenure-track instructional appointments at 73% as of 2016. Apart from the increasingly frequent political attacks on academia, new scholars need to beware that universities, and faculty, are under pressure to produce more PhDs, along with more research, and that job training and placement are not always their highest priorities.

You sit on the board of The Center for the Living City. For UHA members who have never sat on a board of large nonprofit organization, can you share what it means to serve in that role? How do you use your academic expertise and leadership skills to support the Center’s mission?

The Center for the Living City isn’t a large or very old organization. It was established in 2005 to carry forward (with her collaboration and blessing) Jane Jacobs’s interests in the ecologies of cities, and more specifically various social, environmental, and economic justice activities in urban contexts. As a small organization, it has to be strategic about what it can take on. One notable project is the Observe! program, an international program to engage girls and young women, including Girl Scouts (who would earn an “Observe!” merit-badge patch), in learning about and developing agency and positive change in their communities. This program has had pilots in US, India, and Bangladesh; in India and Bangladesh, empowering girls has been a special goal of this project. Another project is creating workshops for city journalism and journalists writing about cities; this project naturally echoes Jane’s work as a journalist and writer. Reflective of Jacobs’s diverse interests, CFLC has a diverse group of board members. I’m one of the academics and, knowing Jacobs’s suspicions of Ivory-Tower dwellers, don’t take that for granted! I contribute something as a Jacobs scholar and urban historian of sorts, but I feel I’m more directly contributing to the mission with activities like theurbanismproject and, in a small, local, day-to-day way, teaching architecture students something about urbanism, urban design, and cities.

Join Our Team!

As The Metropole enters its third year of publishing, we are looking to grow! We want to bring readers more great content, and we want to include more devoted urbanists in the blog’s operations–on the editorial side and with marketing and publicity.

Why join in this work? Well, as UHA Member Walter Greason pointed out early this morning…

The position descriptions (and application instructions) for Assistant Editors and Blog Ambassadors can be found here. Please reach out to us if you have any questions!
Featured Image: Hartford, Conn. – Underwood Typewriter Plant – owned by Olivetti, Library of Congress,


Money Matters

Our focus on the new edited volume, Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century continues as University of Maryland historian David M.P. Freund explores economic policy notably the government’s role as “monetary sovereign.” Freund recently discussed his research and the value of applying heterodox economic analysis to the study of American history in a podcast for “Money on the Left” which is mentioned below as well. You can see The Metropole’s overview of Shaped by the State here along with our interview with Andrew Kahrl and his exploration of the property assessments and Black taxpayers here

By David M.P. Freund 

At a social function several years ago I was introduced to a colleague, who is a rather prominent historian of the United States, and he asked me about my research. When I answered that I was writing a book about money, banking, and financial policy he replied—without missing a beat—that the topic “makes my eyes glaze over” and then, a minute or so later, turned away to talk with someone else. No, it wasn’t polite, but I’ve always appreciated his unfiltered response, which was sort of a caricature of the reaction that I get from a lot of people, including academics, when I raise the subject. And so while I recognize that these topics might not seem scintillating at first glance, they demand our attention and some questioning of economic orthodoxies. Testing the conventional wisdom about finance and its history has the potential to really shake things up.

My chapter in Shaped by the State argues that if we are to reckon fully with public policy’s impacts on the American economy and the built environment, we need to scrutinize common assumptions about money. In simplest terms, I explore how federal power shapes people’s access to financial resources. Who gets to borrow funds for the purpose of producing or consuming and how do state institutions help determine those outcomes? What is the federal government’s relationship to the markets for money and debt?

To be clear, this is not a study of the federal budget and government spending priorities; this is not about “fiscal policy,” traditionally conceived (although it has important implications for that subject). Instead, it concerns the state’s role, as a monetary sovereign,[1] in both the creation and distribution of money and debt, a different but no less important source of unequal development and persistent inequality in modern America.

417URUZrQ9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI began exploring the government’s hand in the making of inequality in a book about race and federal housing policy called Colored Property (Chicago, 2007) and so this new project has distinctly metropolitan origins. In Colored Property, I argue that the federal government created a new kind of discriminatory market for housing in the 1930s, one that financed construction and sales in new ways by reinventing and subsidizing mortgage lending. Of equal importance, the new federal presence popularized the mythical narrative that suburban growth and the meteoric rise of white homeownership rates were strictly “free market” outcomes. The federal state helped to create wealth in housing and structure racially the market that distributed that wealth, while simultaneously concealing its foundational contributions to both of these processes.

While writing that book I was puzzled by scholars’ characterizations of money and debt, because they seemed to be at odds with the documentary record of the state’s growing influence. And I soon learned that these characterizations are faithful to conventional, textbook treatments of finance. Standard economic theory portrays money as a commodity-like token that, by representing value, facilitates extensive barter-like networks of exchange (it has other functions as well). Debt, by contrast, is portrayed as a contractual arrangement to “borrow” someone else’s money now, in exchange for a promise to “repay” that money later, plus an accompanying charge for the privilege (i.e., interest). In other words, money enables you to buy stuff whereas debt helps you make special arrangements for using other people’s money to buy stuff. According to this logic, you cannot “make a purchase” directly with a debt instrument. And money is not debt.

Of equal importance—and again curious to me, in light of the documentary trail—standard theory treats money and debt as “exogenous” to economic growth. By this economists mean that financial instruments are useful to facilitate exchange but not, in the final analysis, essential to the growth process, because exchange would theoretically continue without them (and would naturally lead the economy towards full employment). They argue that “money is only a mechanism”—to cite a forerunner of modern macroeconomic theory—“by which [a] gigantic system of barter is carried out.”[2] In this telling, economic growth is a “real sector” phenomenon, rooted in the use of “factors of production” and driven by individual choices about exchange, while the financial sector helps people arrange their wealth and make strategic decisions about spending. Finance helps people exchange efficiently.

Two things about this conventional wisdom should concern us. Again, it does not line up comfortably with the historical record. Consider the mortgage revolution. Beginning in the 1930s and for decades thereafter, federal insurance programs created valuable financial assets (home mortgages), which in turn created new wealth in housing. The exercise of state power built new homes and enabled people to gain equity in private property by sanctioning, insuring, and facilitating the circulation of debt. And this creation of new financial instruments produced wealth that the “real” sector, on its own, would not have otherwise produced. Indeed, federal officials struggled to convince lenders and borrowers alike to experiment with a new and untested long-term mortgage. The state literally created a market.

Sign of Federal Housing Administration housing. San Diego, California, photograph by Lee Russell, May 1941, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Second, and crucial to understanding debates about the sources of inequality, the conventional narrative about finance and free markets performed—and continues to perform—important political work. In the case of mortgage lending, it enabled contemporaries (public officials, bankers, homebuyers) and subsequent observers (economists and historians) to radically misrepresent the federal government’s stamp on the post-war housing market and its racial geography. If one agrees with the orthodox premise that the financial sector cannot be a motor of wealth creation—that it, instead, merely “unleashes” generative powers already latent in the “real” economy—then one can earnestly believe that the government’s creation of debt instruments is not economically “productive” or wealth-producing. By this logic, federal mortgage programs did not create and distribute wealth in housing or, for that matter, a host of related sectors. Rather, the story goes, new state capacity merely “freed up” the private sector so that it could perform this important work.

It was this apparent distortion of the state’s record that sent me down a rabbit hole of examining financial policy in light of monetary theory. The result is a series of essays and a book-in-progress called State Money: Economic Growth and Market Mythologies in Modern America, in which I take a deep dive into the mechanics of finance and debates over the nature of money. Both of these subjects are sampled in my “State Building” chapter in Shaped By the State.

The big take-aways are pretty straight-forward. First—and this is regularly met by blank stares—the orthodox economic models informing most historical scholarship on banking, debt, and financial policy are grounded in a story about finance that does not appear to have happened. We cannot document the “origins story” about money and credit that undergirds basic textbook economics—the claim that money first emerged in ancient societies to replace barter (which was inconvenient and limited people’s options) and that credit forms developed later, to further facilitate this barter-like exchange. Nor can we document that money forms, to this day, necessarily operate differently from credit. A vast heterodox scholarship in economics, sociology, history, and anthropology has shown instead that our conventional monetary instruments have their origin in debt instruments: basically in IOUs, or “promises to pay.” It demonstrates that monetary creation, which is performed both by banks and monetary sovereigns, represents the issuing of debt. And it demonstrates that the issuing of debt is essential to productive processes, to economic growth. Orthodox economists have consistently refused to address this critique, however, and that should trouble us. Historians should be skeptical of an economic conceptual universe that is grounded in a fictional account of money’s history.

Federal Reserve Building. Front of whole Federal Reserve Building from center, photography by Theodore Horydczak, between 1920 and 1950, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The second takeaway relates to a more familiar topic—the quarter century of financial reform initiated with the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 and culminating with the Emergency Banking Act of 1935—and illustrates the stakes in what might otherwise seem an arcane debate among monetary theorists. By accepting economic orthodoxy about money and debt, histories of financial policy regularly mask the federal state’s assumption of important new powers over the American economy. For example, these early 20th century reforms consolidated and vastly enhanced the U.S. government’s authority to issue a sovereign currency, to ensure the value of bank-issued deposits, and to support materially new markets for debt spending (through a host of “selective credit programs”). I have not encountered a scholar—in person or in print—who disagrees about these fundamental changes in state capacity. But the consensus view is that these reforms had no impact on the dynamics of the growth process—that is, on the market mechanisms which drive the economy’s production of real wealth (in things). These reforms helped to unleash real sector productive capacities, the story goes, but were neither essential to nor constitutive of the growth process.

Now step back and consider this familiar history of reform in light of the heterodox work on money and debt. If creating monetary instruments and issuing debt are economically productive—and I agree with generations of writers who argue this point—then the U.S. government gained unprecedented authority in the early 20th century to drive economic growth and dictate the allocation of its benefits. The federal government’s new stake in the currency and in the mechanics of American finance—I discuss specifics in the chapter—gave the state unprecedented power to shape the marketplace.[3]

Note that the heterodox view of money also challenges profoundly conventional accounts of fiscal policy: namely, the claim that the U.S. Treasury collects private revenues (by taxing, charging fees, and borrowing) and then recirculates them when it spends. Money’s well-documented history demonstrates, in sharp contrast, that spending by a monetary sovereign is different in kind from spending by the private sector. And it shows that money creation by a monetary sovereign (which is what the U.S. Treasury does, with help from the Fed, when it spends) is different in kind from money creation by the banking system (which is what banks do when they create checking deposits). When the U.S. government spends, it adds net financial assets to the economy. Neither private investment nor private (bank) money creation have such power.

8d66eb17bb7d02ca4856ab443a78f2148cafbb129f58a3c81282007c6fe24ff2I elaborate on this point a bit in the “Money on the Left” podcast linked here and above. But the best introductions are the writings of L. Randall Wray, Stephanie Kelton, and other scholars associated with Modern Monetary Theory. Kelton’s contributions have been especially visible of late (in Bloomberg and The New York Times, for example) in part because of her work with Congress and with Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns.

In short, money matters in ways that conventional renderings of finance too often ignore. Money is a form of debt and debt obligations both enable and structure economic development. For these reasons, public policy’s history of shaping creditor-debtor relationships deserves prominent place in our study of the American past and present.

Featured image (at top): FHA posters, Ewing and Harris, 1937-1938, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

David M.P. Freund, associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, is the author of  Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban American (University of Chicago Press, 2007) which among other awards received the Kenneth Jackson Book Award from the Urban History Association in 2007. He is currently completing State Money: Economic Growth and Market Mythologies in Modern America, a history of financial policy and free market ideology in the modern United States. 

[1] A government that monopolizes currency issue, denominated in the money of account, in this case the U.S. dollar.

[2] Alfred Marshall, Official Papers of Alfred Marshall, ed. by J.M. Keynes (Macmillan, 1926), 115. In a standard textbook account published in 1973, Paul Samuelson explained that “if we strip exchange down to its barest essentials and peel off the obscuring layer of money, we find that trade between individuals or nations largely boils down to barter.” Paul A. Samuelson, Economics (McGraw Hill, 9th edition, 1973), 55. As later editions explained, “societies that traded extensively simply could not overcome the overwhelming handicaps of barter.” Samuelson and William D. Norhous, Economics (McGraw-Hill, 18th edition, 2005), 511. Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald agreed in 2003 that money is “hardly essential,” but rather “a convenient way of keeping score” and “of ascertaining who has claims on resources, . . . [T]hat is all. . ..” Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald, Towards a New Paradigm in Monetary Economics (Cambridge, 2003), 293-4. For introductions to the evolution—and distortion—of Keynesian assumptions regarding money and risk, see J. Barkley Rosser, Jr., “Uncertainty and expectations,” and L. Randall Wray, “Money and inflation,” in Richard P.F. Holt and Steven Pressman, A New Guide to Post Keynesian Economics (Routledge, 2001) 52-64, 79-91.

[3] On earlier periods of reform by monetary sovereigns, essential reading includes L. Randall Wray, Money and Credit in Capitalist Economies (Edward Elgar, 1990), chp. 2; Geoffrey Ingham, The Nature of Money (Polity, 2004), chps. 5-6; Christine Desan, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism (Oxford, 2014); and Desan, “Money as a Constitutional Medium,” Law and Political Economy (May 14, 2019)

Fiscal Fright in NYC: A Review of Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics

Kim Phillips-Fein. Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017. 417pp. $9.98. (Paperback) 
Review by Michael R. Glass

By 1965, a $255 million gap had opened in the New York City budget. To cover the city’s operating expenses, Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. decided to “borrow now, repay later.” After all, he reasoned, “a good loan is better than a bad tax.” His successors, John Lindsay and Abraham Beame, made the same choice. Each mayor turned to short-term loans with the hope that additional tax revenues or federal aid would materialize. They did not. In the spring of 1975, the banks refused to purchase the next round of bond issuances, citing concerns that the city had exceeded its constitutional debt limit. The country’s largest metropolis teetered on the edge of default. Kim Phillips-Fein recounts these events and the social conflicts that followed in Fear City. The result is a magisterial account of the New York City fiscal crisis.


Although critics would attribute the city’s fiscal woes to profligate spending, Phillips-Fein argues that the budget gap was the product of several interlocking structural processes. Deindustrialization steadily undercut the city’s economic foundation, as manufacturers shifted their operations to southern states and then abroad. Federal housing and highway policies siphoned middle-class white residents to the suburbs, depriving the city of their tax receipts. And while the federal government briefly injected additional resources during the War on Poverty, the Nixon and Ford administrations shrank the funding for those programs. City officials were left the stewards of a robust public sector that included tuition-free universities, municipal hospitals, and inexpensive subways, but it all rested upon a dwindling tax base. They plugged the gaps with loans upon loans until the day of reckoning eventually arrived.

Three boys with tough expressions smoking cigarettes, photograph by Bill Cunningham, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Sophisticated in its methodology, Fear City tells the story of the ensuing crisis from multiple vantage points. The middle chapters focus on the negotiations over bond sales and the terms of a possible aid package from Washington. These meetings triggered a process of elite class formation that brought together investment bankers, corporate executives, and real estate magnates; the crisis “made these upper echelons look to each other.”   As officials begged for their investment, these elites demanded layoffs, service cuts, and tax abatements in return. The last section shifts attention to the communities and institutions hardest hit by austerity and the activists who rallied in their defense. Weaving together multiple archives and toggling between scales, Fear City narrates the crisis from both above and below.

Albert Shanker, Pres of U.F.T. holds report issued by mediators to Mayor Robert Wagner that helped to stop strike threat of teacher, photo by Walter Albertin, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What emerges from these divergent perspectives is a crisis that unfolded along competing time horizons. For the members of the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC), the agency created to market long-term bonds on behalf of the city, the crisis was a week-to-week scramble to locate investors for the next bond sale. With a deadline looming, for instance, power brokers convinced Albert Shanker, head of the city teachers’ union, to purchase MAC bonds with the teachers’ pension funds after an all-night conversation in his apartment. The union bailout rescued the city hours before it would have declared bankruptcy. For Mayor Abraham Beame and Governor Hugh Carey, who shuttled between meetings at the White House and Capitol Hill in search of aid from tightfisted officials, the fiscal crisis was a succession of deadlines, meetings, and fraught negotiations.


Ordinary residents, meanwhile, experienced service reductions in both moments of intense drama and protracted struggles. During the first round of budget cuts, garbage piled up in the streets, class sizes swelled in the schools, and hundreds of laid-off police officers blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. At Hostos Community College in the South Bronx, students barricaded themselves inside the building for several weeks to prevent its closure. Residents of Williamsburg kept their local firehouse open by occupying it for sixteen months straight, dubbing it the “People’s Firehouse.” Although the city nominally ended the crisis when it re-entered the bond market on its own accord in 1979, many services that had been eliminated were never restored, and rates of poverty, drug addiction, and crime all spiked over the next decade.

African American parishioners arriving at Harlem – Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, photograph by Marilyn Nance, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ultimately, the fiscal crisis fundamentally transformed the city. The budget cuts shrank the scope of the public sector, diminishing not only the level of city services but also citizen expectations of government. The years-long specter of default created what Phillips-Fein calls “the politics of inevitability,” which made alternatives to austerity seem nonexistent. To be sure, New York still maintains a comparatively expansive array of public goods: its subway system, while perennially underfunded and marred by constant delays, remains public and viable; its city university system, while no longer tuition-free, remains fairly affordable. At the same time, officials preserve these services by catering to the corporate executives, white-collar professionals, and tourists that now drive the city’s economy, and they court capital investment through public-private partnerships and tax subsidies. Fiscal discipline, efficiency, and private initiative have become the guiding principles of urban governance.

9780805095258_p0_v4_s600x595.jpgWhile Fear City reads as an origin tale for our current age of inequality, historians would do well to project the fiscal crisis backwards as well as forwards. A question that the book raises, but never fully answers, is how a small number of bankers could bring the entire city to its knees by simply refusing a loan. Phillips-Fein claims that city leaders repeatedly “turned to debt” to evade divisive political debates. Mayors certainly used loans to kick the can down the road, but cities had also depended on other debt instruments in the twentieth century. The literal foundation of the modern metropolis—its roads, bridges, and sewers—had been financed, chiefly, with municipal bonds. With each transaction that financiers brokered, they accrued additional power, and when cities ran up deficits, they proved willing to offer additional loans. By the 1970s, American cities (and suburbs and towns) had become dependent on the support of private financiers to deliver public services—both for the long-term bonds that financed the infrastructure and for the short-term loans that plugged the gaps. In other words, the fiscal crisis did not create the dependence on financiers; rather, it revealed the dependence that had been growing for decades.

Phillips-Fein’s comprehensive account opens new avenues of inquiry for other scholars. By framing the fiscal crisis as a monumental turning point, Fear City asks urban historians to chart the fate of cities under the austerity regimes that arose in the late twentieth century, as well as how decades of “borrow now, repay later” had led cities up to the fiscal cliff.

Featured image (at top): New York City Skyline, Charles and Ray Eames, circa 1976, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 

Mike Glass is a Ph.D. Candidate in US History at Princeton University. His dissertation explores the history of school finance in suburban Long Island during the postwar era. 

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