How to Kill a City

The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940, by Max Page, The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America's Big Cities, by Fred Siegel


The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940, by Max Page, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 303 pages, $27.50

The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America's Big Cities, by Fred Siegel, San Francisco: Encounter Books, 314 pages, $15.95

Mario Cuomo once said of America's big cities that "the future once happened here." Cuomo wanted to evoke the days of Al Smith and FDR, when city leaders saw themselves as architects of a new kind of society destined to reform the whole of America. Indeed, the New York governor wanted to inspire contemporaries once again to visionary undertakings. As both Fred Siegel and Max Page make clear, such a selective evocation of a vanished past to promote a particular vision of the future is typical of 20th century urban history. Siegel's 1997 book, which has now been reissued in paperback with an updated conclusion, chronicles the impact of liberalism on a half-century of urban society and politics in three major cities. Page, adopting a narrower focus, recreates the conflicts surrounding four decades of remarkable development in Manhattan. Both authors convincingly argue that getting one's way in matters of urban policy depends on getting people to embrace sometimes highly questionable visions of what they have been, and what, consequently, they can become.

Page's The Creative Destruction of Manhattan is not a history in the conventional sense, as its omissions make clear. For example, if the Promethean Robert Moses had died in 1940, the end of the period Page considers, he would probably still be remembered as a pivotal figure in the development of the island; yet Page mentions him only in passing. Rather than constructing a continuous narrative, Page, a Yale historian, has written a book that lies in what he calls "the rich zone between social, cultural, and urban history." Thus in each of the book's six central chapters he focuses on an episode revealing the sometimes vertiginous complexity—"economic, political, ideological, and aesthetic"—that shapes urban planning debates and development.

In his most substantive chapters, Page compellingly probes conflicts arising from the precedent-setting zoning of Fifth Avenue, slum clearance, historic preservation (with special attention to City Hall), and tree conservation and removal. Two chapters—on the founding of the Museum of the City of New York and on I.N. Phelps Stokes' The Iconography of Manhattan Island, an encyclopedic attempt to cram the island's visual past between two covers—read more like literary analysis than historical investigation. These can be passed over lightly by readers interested in the many things Page has to teach them about how conflicting interests are treated by markets and magistrates.

Much to his credit, Page is at pains throughout the book to show how cultural assumptions influence public policy, and how—and by whom—such assumptions are disseminated. Accepting the usual depiction of New York as "the ultimate capitalist city," Page does not tell a facile story about how the rich always get their way in the town where Washington Irving coined the phrase "the almighty dollar." Instead, he focuses on what comes between the conception and fulfillment of political reform and entrepreneurial development: conscious attempts to shape public opinion so as to make self-serving or sometimes ideologically extreme schemes seem acceptable to the public. In one of his central claims, Page insists that "through the manipulation of traditions by private developers and equally savvy reformers, New Yorkers learned to see the cycle of destruction and rebuilding as 'second nature'—self-evident, unquestionable, and inevitable."

Page's book sometimes succeeds in spite of itself. Nowhere are the merits and limitations of his treatment more evident than in his analysis of the most ideologically charged issue he treats: slum clearance. For many observers, past and present, the tenements of Manhattan's Lower East Side, where many recent arrivals from Ellis Island settled, were and remain an indictment of relatively unrestricted markets and proof of the need for government intervention.

But when Page tells us that "New York originated the idea of a tenement house 'problem,'" he makes the provocative point that there is nothing inherently problematic about poor neighborhoods. His quotes around the term problem indicate that tenements become problematic only when people adopt a particular vision of the world. In that vision, those homes the middle class finds intolerable for itself have no place for anyone, just as a thistle, which in a meadow is just another plant, becomes a problem only when the meadow has been marked out for a rose bed. The success of such an analysis depends on the historian's ability to remain aloof from others' definitions of "problems" and "solutions."

Yet this is just where Page falls short. For example, he discusses the prominent slum-clearance role played by Jacob Riis, whose How the Other Half Lives (1890) shocked its readers with lurid descriptions and photographs of tenement life. Page notes that Riis' focus on what he saw as the moral shortcomings of the tenement dwellers obscured his understanding of the slums. Yet when Page wants to reveal what he thinks was really going on, the scare quotes fall away like chips of marble hiding the statue within, and we get this: "Rarely did Riis insist that the root cause of the slum problem was a system of property exploitation." But Page himself never explains this "exploitation."

Nowhere does Page take very seriously the idea that must have been held by many immigrants, namely that the slums were not a problem but part of a solution—their best available alternative to living conditions in such places as Sicily, Bohemia, and Russia. Page explicitly claims not to be taking sides, but peek behind the curtain of objectivity, and what you find is the standard-issue melodrama in which markets create "exploitation," "overproduction," "underdevelopment," and "chaos." It is indicative of the anti-market ideology prevailing in the academy that one may present such views without much in the way of justification and still think of oneself as disinterested and objective.

It is in fact characteristic of Page's style, and of much academic writing today, that the author clues us in to the deep processes of history, as he understands them, in asides, sly diction, and metaphors. For example, those who made common cause with Riis, who wanted to help the poor by demolishing their homes, come off as somewhat confused reformers who nevertheless played an important role in prompting city government to overcome its "awkward adolescence" and "immaturity." One mark of that immaturity was the reluctance to cast aside the "taboo"—not the principle—that had prohibited the government from becoming the landlord of last resort. If Page critiques the way others make ceaseless urban development seem natural, he does not seem entirely aware of how his own writing portrays the steady expansion of government power as something inevitable and desirable, like growing up.

Page, then, is not a very reliable guide to the significance of markets, whether in real estate or in general. Yet his book is still valuable. It persuasively demonstrates how the terms of the urban policy debate often depend on the "collective memory" of the city and are often set by two groups: those who (cynically or not) wish to manipulate public opinion to promote their interests and those whose ideological biases prevent them from recognizing how their sometimes utopian schemes will affect ordinary men and women on the ground. This is a lesson for our times, when, for example, "blight" has become the semi-official word used by media and government types for the neighborhoods of those less well off than themselves.

Picking up chronologically almost exactly where Page leaves off, in the 1930s, Siegel's The Future Once Happened Here differs from Page's book in scope, method, and orientation. Like Page, however, Siegel is concerned with the way that cherished and frequently distorted images of the past can influence city dwellers' assessment of the present and plans for the future.

According to Siegel, for instance, the reluctance of New Yorkers to dismantle their welfare state may be attributed to "New Deal nostalgia," a belief that New York became what it truly was only when Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia figured out, with the help of fellow New Yorker Franklin Delano Roosevelt, how to plow federal dollars directly into city programs. Siegel, who grew up in New York's Jacob Riis Housing Projects, knows that such often-unarticulated values and collective memories can determine the destiny of cities.

In telling the Depression and post-Depression stories of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., Siegel is guided by a desire to tell the story of modern liberalism, which, he writes, was "born in the big cities" and "eventually died there." Whether or not every happy city is the same, Siegel shows that each of his three cities has become unhappy in its own way, and each sheds light on different aspects of the liberal program.

He depicts Los Angeles as "the centrifugal city," whose policies have been ruinously crafted without reference to "a core of shared civic values." New York shows us what happens when a New Deal faith in government drifts away from the traditional values that Siegel believes the New Deal promoted. The unique institutions of Washington give rise to a unique civic pathology, one closer to the nation-building schemes of post-colonial Africa than to urban renewal. Siegel's depiction of "black nationalism in power" might make the nation's capital seem like too odd a case to be appropriate in a book dedicated to the question of American liberalism in general, but by drawing attention to the blank check Congress for many years was willing to hand city leaders, Siegel uses Washington to argue that the failures of post-New Deal liberalism derived not from a lack of cash but from what Marxists might once have called "internal contradictions."

Siegel has a gripping, if grim, story to tell, and he tells it superbly. He does not attempt to mask his sense of outrage at bureaucrats and their court intellectuals who concocted city-sponsored substitutes for "outmoded" institutions such as the family and the work ethic. Nor does he judge these bureaucrats and others from some ideologically pure line that he wishes to promote; rather, he subjects them to a no-nonsense, carefully documented exploration of how radical schemes helped destroy individuals and neighborhoods.

Occasionally, Siegel's passion and stylistic verve get in the way of his argument. When he writes of the "rubes" who have beaten the cities at their own game by using the federal government to siphon New York's money into the South and the Sunbelt, or of "Afro-fascist goons," presumably those thus described will find it hard to attend to his subtler points. Nor will squeegee men feel their grievances have been given a sympathetic airing. Nevertheless, Siegel's emphasis on the distressing practical consequences of modern liberalism enhances the likelihood that he will make many readers change their minds about the wisdom of allowing social workers to mold the values of their citizen clients. He is not preaching only to the converted.

This is not to say that Siegel is uninterested in pinning down the ideological core of big city liberalism. He repeatedly returns to two mutually reinforcing themes, what social scientist David O. Sears termed "the riot ideology" and what Siegel himself calls "dependent individualism." The former, which grew up in the immediate wake of the 1965 Watts riots, encouraged the aggrieved to see their "power to disrupt" as "a claim against the treasury" and encouraged legislators to see social programs as a kind of "riot insurance." Siegel relishes drawing attention to the more ludicrous but quite telling signs of such thinking, such as when mayoral candidates in Los Angeles referred to the Rodney King disturbances as either "riots" or "uprisings," depending on whom they were addressing.

"Dependent individualism," on the other hand, is Siegel's name for the idea that while restraints on an individual's behavior must not be imposed by law or popular prejudice, governments have an obligation to pay for the consequences of that behavior. Siegel shows that the uneducated poor sometimes had a more vivid understanding of this officially promoted ideology than did officials and social workers. As one welfare mother angrily informed New York mayor John Lindsay, "It's my job to have kids, and your job, Mr. Mayor, to take care of them." Siegel has an extraordinary ear for such moments that crystallize the unintended cultural consequences of ambitious liberal reform.

While he is devastating on the attack, when Siegel tries to defend the kind of government action he wants his arguments become less compelling. It is not at all clear that he himself has remained unaffected by New Deal nostalgia. According to Siegel, the New Deal worked because it respected cultural norms, such as the idea that rewards are related to work. He makes a broad claim about "the success of New Deal liberalism in integrating new populations into the larger society" but provides no serious defense of the claim. Siegel does not ask whether, on the whole, more people would have entered the mainstream more quickly had the scope of government intervention never expanded. Nor does he explain why he thinks it possible that a nontotalitarian government can succeed at something as totally encompassing as integrating individuals into society.

Siegel writes that the "optimistic assumption underlying the book" is that "a better set of policies might improve conditions." But Siegel's book itself shows that once the principle of government intervention in work and housing has been accepted, politicians or utopian idealists will begin a bidding war for clients that will tend to brush aside his concern for the disastrous social implications of programs that the majority may find delightful. Did any of the cynical or deluded people he describes ever claim to be offering a worse set of public policies?

Such objections, however, are almost incidental; Siegel is much more interested in exposing the fallacies underlying what has already been done than he is in laying out a detailed plan for what is to be done. Moreover, it seems fair to say that if Siegel's readers include open-minded makers of policy, the policies that we get might in fact be a good deal better than those we have gotten.

Tom Peyser (tgpeyser@att.net) teaches English at Randolph-Macon College. An extract from his newly published novel, W.W., may be found at www.xlibris.com/ww.html.