Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Empire City

Empire City, a documentary film from 1985, is now streaming for rental on Vimeo.

While it was originally meant to contrast 1980s New York with the "golden age" from 1830 - 1930, it provides a rare and fascinating glimpse of the city at the very moment it shifted fully from the socially progressive era and into the Neoliberal Age of radical free-market economics.

Looking back three decades later, we can see the beginning of the glossy, greedy epoch in which we now live.

The film features the creators of today's city, from Donald Trump to Felix Rohatyn and David Rockefeller. In one scene, a young Trump stands with Mayor Ed Koch at a topping-out ceremony for yet another Midtown tower and says, "This mayor has created such a tremendous atmosphere with respect to the city of New York. Eight years ago, I must say, I was embarrassed to say I was in the real estate business in New York. Today, I can honestly say I'm proud of it."

That atmosphere was one that explicitly favored developers over everyday New Yorkers.

In the 1980s, under Koch, City Hall’s goal became to re-create New York, making it friendly to big business, tourists, real estate developers, and upscale professionals. In the process, City Hall turned away from its citizens. CUNY professor and urbanist David Harvey has called this the shift from managerialism to entrepreneurialism, meaning that the city government changed its main priority from providing services and benefits for its own people to competing with other cities for outside human resources and capital. In the new competitive city, attracting tourists, newcomers, and corporations was (and still is) more important than taking care of New Yorkers.

Koch discusses this shift in Empire City, saying that New York is now for "banks, insurance companies, white-collar jobs," and not manufacturing. During his tenure he gifted developers and corporations with the expansion of three kinds of tax abatement: J-51, giving subsidies to landlords to renovate apartments and increase gentrification; 421a, reducing taxes on luxury buildings to induce their construction in “underused” areas; and individual incentives that gave hundreds of millions to corporations like AT&T to bribe them into doing business in New York. It was an expensive smorgasbord. According to urban anthropologist Roger Sanjek, “Between 1984 and 1989, J-51 and 421a tax losses together cost the city $1.4 billion.”

(In 2016, the Times reported that, over the course of his career, Trump “reaped at least $885 million in tax breaks, grants, and other subsidies for luxury apartments, hotels, and office buildings in New York.”)

For the rest of the city, it was austerity -- disinvestment, cut-backs, and layoffs.

Empire City provides a tale of two cities as it takes a look at the impact of austerity and urban renewal on New York's most vulnerable citizens. Director Michael Blackwood visits Harlem and the Bowery, interviewing locals, authors, and activists like Jane Jacobs.

On the increasing class and race segregation, Herman Badillo says, "The mayor is not the mayor of New York City. He doesn't represent half the people of New York City. He only represents the whites. He's not interested in the black or Hispanic communities. He's only the mayor of the affluent part of New York City."

Discussing early gentrification, social worker Rita Smith notes, "Poverty is a business. They move you into areas, and then a slum results, and then they move in and build it up. There is a purpose to everything that is going on."

Empire City from Michael Blackwood Productions on Vimeo

The decisions made at that time still reverberate today. They laid the foundations for hyper-gentrification and the vast gap of inequality that plagues New York in the twenty-first century. This is not "change as usual." It isn't natural and isn't inevitable. It was deliberate. It had a purpose--and that purpose has now been realized.

As Norman Mailer says in the film, "Manhattan has been sacked architecturally. Its neighborhoods have been destroyed." Tall towers with "repellent surfaces" speak to the "nature of power: It's abstract, it's impersonal, it's immense, and you can't get near it. What it says is that we at the top don't give a damn about you at the bottom."

For more on this topic, read my book, along with Fear City and The Assassination of New York.


Bilwick said...

Which part of liberty to buy, sell and trade would you eliminate? And by what right? (This should be good. "Liberals" are about as up on logic as they are economics.)

zuzuzpetals said...

Thanks for the film info. Just put in my order for your book.