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.
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.
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.
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.
While 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.