Holtzman, Benjamin. The Long Crisis: New York and the Path to Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.
Reviewed by Claire Dunning
The notion of “crisis” may feel overplayed these days but remains pertinent when upheavals related to climate, democracy, health, and white supremacy continue to go unchecked. As governments respond too slowly or not at all, we have witnessed acts of creativity and courage by communities stepping in and neighbors caring for one another. Such stories warm our hearts and improve the lives of some but also, Benjamin Holtzman warns in The Long Crisis, should give us pause.
The Long Crisis looks to another era of uncertainty and precarity, tracing how New Yorkers navigated the fiscal crisis and the consequences of those choices. Holtzman neither celebrates nor discounts efforts of people organized into neighborhood patrols, renovating abandoned housing, and cleaning up neighborhood parks, and instead presents these community-based efforts to “address alarming conditions affecting the city’s livable environment” as contributing to the “ascent of marketization during the final decades of the twentieth century.” Holtzman thus joins voices—past and present—who recognize(d) simultaneously the value and inadequacy of community action to meet structural challenges, and contributes careful analysis of how political pressures, fiscal constraints, and policy processes absorbed and then mutated calls for sustained state support into justifications for its continued retreat.
What if instead of in corporate board rooms or academic ivory towers, the origins of neoliberalism lay in the residential neighborhoods of New York City and in the actions of people who themselves would not have identified as neoliberals but whose experimental, local actions ultimately “transformed the political economy from the ground up”? In asking—and persuasively answering—this question, The Long Crisis looks where few have and builds on work by N.D.B. Connolly, Lily Geismer, and others in identifying the role of liberals and Democrats in the neoliberal turn. Holtzman adds that the embrace of marketization functioned “not as an explicit rejection of liberalism,” but rather “to assist officials in securing the conditions that liberalism had long promised to maintain.” Such discussions highlight the slipperiness of “neoliberalism” as a term and its evolution as a practice and ideology, underscoring the need for the kind of interrogation Holtzman provides.
Despite the centrality of neoliberalism to the book’s arguments (and title) the term is largely absent from the chapters themselves, often substituted by its components: “marketization” or “privatization.” This choice foregrounds analysis of how these abstract processes played out in, say, the underlying logics by which housing cooperatives went from things to protest to objects of desire for middle-class New Yorkers. It also obscures debates over periodization and definition that remain as unresolved in scholarship as they do in public discourse. Then again, perhaps this is Holtzman’s point: intellectual debates over the term distract from the precarity New Yorkers and others face daily and their collective efforts to survive.
The thematic orientation of several chapters—particularly chapters 1 through 4 on housing, parks, and streets—positions them particularly well to the classroom, through discussion of how volunteer-led neighborhood patrols evolved into Business Improvement Districts, for example. Each trace how grassroots efforts, often by Black or Latinx New Yorkers, became first templates for larger city-wide programs that increasingly relied on private action and later justifications for continued public retreat in favor of private, often corporate, action.
Importantly and powerfully, Holtzman locates blame for the continued precarity of so many New Yorkers not in the community actions and voluntaristic efforts that he so skillfully anchors his narrative around but rather in choices by those with disproportionate power for whom the crisis was not something to survive but an opportunity to further entrench, expand, and extract. As crises of different sorts continue to define our current moment, we would do well to not just learn from Holtzman’s history but to follow its model: asking “for whom the city has been remade,” grappling with “both the success and costs of the encroaching market,” and holding fast to the goal of “a more equitable and just metropolis.”
Claire Dunning, assistant professor of public policy and history at the University of Maryland, College Park, is the author of Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State (University of Chicago Press, Spring 2022).
Featured image (at top): Mayor Abraham Beame and Jimmy Carter meet with residents of the South Bronx, circa 1977. “Jimmy Carter Greets Residents of South Bronx, New York,” White House Staff Photographers Collection, 1977-1981, National Archives.
 N. D.B. Connolly, “The Strange Career of American Liberalism” in Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century, Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); and Lily Geismer, “Agents of Change: Microenterprise, Welfare Reform, the Clintons, and Liberal Forms of Neoliberalism,” Journal of American History 107.1 (June 2020): 107-131. See also, Andrew J. Diamond and Thomas J. Sugrue, eds. Neoliberal Cities: The Remaking of Postwar Urban America (New York: NYU Press, 2020).
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For a useful antidote to the spate of books and articles depicting the pernicious effects of neo-liberalism see:
Themis Chronopoulous, “The Rebuilding of the South Bronx after the Fiscal Crisis,” Journal of Urban History, vol 43(6) 2017.