This is part one of a two-part piece on the rationalization of New York City. Look out for part two, which will appear on the Spectre website in two weeks.
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!
The secret of New York is that it is held together with duct tape and screaming. Its highways, choked with traffic and cortisol, were obsolete before the asphalt dried. Its subways, strangled by a ruthless commitment to postwar car culture, scramble to maintain a creaking inch between themselves and operational collapse. As winter descends, residents of its public housing complexes heat water on the stove, the way my dad did in rural Georgia in the 1940s. The rains angrily conquer its antique sewers, which belch sludge into the inlets and bays while sunken highways brim with oily rainwater and single-use plastic. Entropy is skirted only through desperate, perpetual improvisation, a continual bailing-out. It’s like rolling a boulder up a hill with a bulldozer made of toothpicks.
What is this thing called New York? The city feels too big, too chaotic, too full of bewildering feedback to apprehend at any level of generality. One wishes for a limitless eye to construct impossible statistics—total number of bathroom ceilings collapsed on a given Thursday, volume of tears shed per eviction, threatened and actual. Failing this, we accept that the object called New York remains an imaginary one—an aspiration, a project whose incommensurable parts must be willed together each day with fresh infusions of sweat, breath, and sinew. Stop sweating, and New York becomes something else.
The image of sophistication emitted from this city of images is, like so much of what we produce here, a performance—a con. Cons are at the heart of this city. We breathe them in, our eyes rolling back, intoxication washing across the senses before the nausea sets in. Anyone who has lived here long enough, in this space between aspiration and lie, can recall those moments when the city’s promises revealed themselves as mere tactic—when, having wormed their way gently down into the tissue where the secrets live, the fingers that once caressed grow stiff and won’t let go. Our eyes widen with alarm. It starts to hurt.
For some, the surface is reality. Lodged in roomy kitchens high above the streets, guarded by lobbies full of doormen, they experience a city that is elegant and noiseless, smooth, automatic. Exiting their fortresses through doors that never slam, they duck into private cars, armored against the noise and grime. These people have bought their way out of friction, sweating only when they want to. Their assets work like a stent, effortlessly clearing the capillaries of everyday life so that the blood flows cleanly and without obstruction. Every clean space, though, relies on its dirty reverse. When I worked as a cut-rate furniture mover, I inhabited the guts of buildings, their working-class internal organs, where the juice that powers the social metabolism gets squeezed. If you only see the facades, you haven’t grasped the city.
The Untimely City
Both the promise contained in the term “New York”—that something like New York exists at all except as a provisional and often involuntary act of collective self-making—and the broader promises that draw millions to the city, over and over again, turn out, upon experience, to be sloppy, unstable fictions. The city is not one object but an accumulation of accumulations, an omnidimensional quilt of times, places, and practices fixed in a loose structure with dangerously weak glue: at a macro level by the state when there is no alternative and at a micro level by the ways in which we traverse various people’s accumulation projects in our daily lives.
New York’s age and the distinctive structure of its economy give it an even more fragmented feel than most. Even in its manufacturing heyday, when the city had “more manufacturing jobs than Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Boston put together,”1Joshua B. Freeman, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II (New York: New Press, 2000), 8. firms and factories were small, markets ruthlessly competitive, the industrial mix wildly diverse. Instability, improvisation, and hustling structured the city’s personality. Planning at scale seemed futile here—there was nothing in New York to rival Ford’s River Rouge complex outside Detroit or the Homestead Steel Works near Pittsburgh. By midcentury, New York already felt untimely. “New York’s manufacturing sector of 1945 in some respects looked more like its manufacturing sector of 1845 than contemporaneous centers of mass production like Pittsburgh or Detroit,” pointed out the historian Joshua Freeman.2Ibid., 15.
Another schism—city of manufacturers, their eyes on the home market; city of financiers, their eyes on the world—further split New York’s material and social fabric. The latter, whose relationship to the concrete, to the hard stuff of the city, was less indispensable, sought for decades to banish the former, who hung on stubbornly, their rights to small chunks of the city preserved by that fragmentation of ownership and control that produces the serrated texture of everyday life in New York as well as its bewildering, fractious, hyperlocal politics.3On the contest between manufacturing and finance, see Robert Fitch, The Assassination of New York (New York: Verso, 1993).
Gradually, the world market established by the financiers accomplished what their muscle in city government could not—the casting out of industry, the expulsion of a noisy, odiferous rival to the church of the vertical and the reign of the right angle, the banishing of the unruly proletarian majorities whose seething energy threatened the rectitude of the blocks around the factory. A new kind of fragmentation took hold, as these majorities were split up, disciplined by unemployment, cast adrift by the shredding of the welfare state, set against one another along hardening racial lines as scarcity took hold, their bosses further away and more powerful than ever, ruthless ideologues not content to rest until the city becomes a “utilitarian polemic” where “all blocks are the same.”4Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York: Monacelli, 1994 ), 19–20. Every block a thousand blind windows, every home a frictionless market, every storefront an ATM.
After the Second World War, everything seemed to change at once. The shifting texture of experience is captured in the writing of Joseph Mitchell, the famous New Yorker correspondent who painted the city in the ordinary speech of its inhabitants. Mitchell’s profiles captured the last gasps of a localized economy—saloon culture before the suburbanization and consolidation of the brewing industry encouraged private drinking at home; theater culture before the television fostered media behemoths and private, passive audiences. Ellery Thompson, who commanded a small fishing trawler out of Stonington, Connecticut, dragged the bottom of Long Island Sound for flounder, depositing the catch each day at the Fulton Fish Market in Lower Manhattan, much as had his ancestors for three hundred years.5Joseph Mitchell, “Dragger Captain,” in Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories (New York: Vintage, 2008), 537–73. The postwar reorganization of the fishing industry to suit the goals of international capital ended these traditions. When a German submarine torpedoed the coal ship Black Point in Block Island Sound in 1945, or when the crew of the Nathaniel B. Palmer was blown to pieces by a depth charge they pulled in with their fishing nets, it might have been a symbol that the old ways were about to collapse.
By the mid-1950s, factory trawlers, gargantuan vessels that scooped up fish in previously unimaginable quantities, processing and freezing them without ever returning to shore, began to appear from Europe, financed by the likes of Unilever.6William W. Warner, Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1983), vii–xii. By the time the North American countries extended their jurisdictions to banish the foreign trawlers, it was too late. In the hands of domestic fishermen, the seaborne assembly line had the same effect, working in tandem with nitrogen pollution to collapse fish stocks and destroy the industry. When Mitchell profiled the shad fishermen who staked their nets to the bottom of the Hudson, in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, he may have realized only dimly that he was creating a snapshot of the last people who would ever do this.7Joseph Mitchell, “The Rivermen,” in Up in the Old Hotel, 574–619. As it had for the Staten Island oyster and lobster fishers whose livelihoods were cancelled by water pollution by 1920, or the strawberry farmers whose crops were poisoned by the smelting plants across the Arthur Kill in New Jersey, the remaking of production in the image of capital destroyed one version of the web of life that the industry hoped to appropriate.
As late as the 1950s, horse trails criss-crossed Staten Island. Once Robert Moses connected the island with the rest of the city with what was then the longest suspension bridge in the world so that highway traffic could reach New England without traversing Manhattan Island, the conquest of a farming and maritime community by the logic of the suburb was assured.8Gay Talese, The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014). As a result of such decisions, repeated over and over at a world scale, New York’s relationship to water has changed, the sea gone from lifeblood to existential threat.
Mitchell was the kind of writer who could only grieve, could only look backwards. Like most of Mitchell’s subjects, Thompson was a holdout, an irregular chunk of the past lodged in a present whose restless wind erodes most such crags, leaving behind smooth, interchangeable surfaces, objects that one cannot grasp. Mitchell invariably trained his eye on such characters—superannuated fishing captains, junk-shop proprietors, circus freaks, alcoholic writers stuck on Chapter One, wispy vestiges of conquered political machines, saloon keepers who refused to install cash registers. This heroic unwillingness to let the past go is quixotic, deluded, pernicious, or indispensable, depending on how one understands the forces annihilating it. If history is, as Walter Benjamin argued, a catastrophe, then fixing one’s eyes on the past, as does his angel of history, becomes a defensible political strategy, if only provisionally.
The reality is that in New York we do this all the time, since what we love about the city is what has, for a series of murky reasons, resisted the nauseating breeze of a progress that is killing us. We bask in those practices that defy subsumption, that refuse to be erased in the name of the bloodless rationalization dreamt by capital. To the degree that anyone still loves New York, it is because the city resists the relentless erosion of the sense of locality, of place, that elsewhere disintegrates under waves of abstraction, and retains what feels impossible elsewhere—the possibility of spontaneous encounter, of a non-regimented life. In this sense, New York is untimely. We may have cause to wonder whether, paradoxically, it is in the city, or, more precisely, in this city that the old ways are best preserved.
The Fabrication of Progress
If there has ever been a human incarnation of the business of rationalization, which aims for cleanliness but is not itself clean, which must tarry with the human in order to neutralize the human, it was Robert Moses. Thumb through his papers, deposited in what seem like millions of folders at the New York Public Library, and before long you are soaked in the will of the cajoler familiar from the pages of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Paging through the Triborough Authority’s yearbooks, I came across my own block, reduced to a tabula rasa in 1960. “DEMONSTRATION OF BLIGHT,” read the heading.
That capital, whatever its dreams, cannot dispense with human executors—with politics—is the reason Caro’s book remains such a great success, despite its attempt to cram into biography what cries out to be understood from the perspective of theory. Tens of millions of us, billions if you count tourists, still wander the folds of Moses’s brain, live the shape of his triumphs and his drubbings. The infrastructure he arranged guides our bodies, orders our perceptions, organizes our spatial reality. When we recline in the cockpit of a vehicle, rising in a gentle curve towards his Triborough Bridge, our locations and movement become patterned, describable, measurable—coordinated. One of Moses’s many titles, the one that best reflected his omnibus role, his quest to aggregate power, to corral the anarchy of private interest so that this interest could be served in a more enlightened fashion, in other words, to plan—was Construction Coordinator.
What was Moses coordinating? Progress. A bloodless order to stamp out the carnival of schemes over which the city’s legendary Democratic machine had merrily presided. The Tammany chieftains had been too self-interested, too nakedly transactional, insufficiently cynical towards the working class from which they had themselves emerged to serve as a genuine executive committee of the bourgeoisie.
Moses was a new model. An unruly son of the city’s technocratic reform tradition, he spoke in language that evoked science at its hardest—everything “total,” everything “integrated,” everything a “system.” Perfect knowledge, total illumination, absolute mastery. This hard, bright, masculine language was Mosesism’s affective heart. He wielded these abstractions like a spiked bat, seducing the craven and dimwitted and ridiculing those who asked questions, those who were too old, too small, too unsophisticated to see what was good for them. Moses was famous for his models. Clean, sleek, abstract, trafficless—the promise of circulation. Capital dreams of perfect circulation, perfect throughput, doggedly mystical in its pursuit of the frictionless One. Engineers are its priests. Moses was a priest, mediating between the concrete, literally and figuratively, and the ideal, shrieking hymns to Apollo from atop a steamroller.
Moses’ genius was political; his raw materials were the sinews of the bureaucracy. Moses was successful because he understood the goal, grasped that representing the interests of capital as a whole can mean angering or injuring one or another faction, euthanizing the vestigial influence of those whom the system is leaving behind, like the barons of Long Island through whose estates Moses rammed the Northern State Parkway in the 1930s or the grubby, small-time manufacturers clinging to their Manhattan real estate with dirty fingernails, carefully tending the mother of all opportunity costs while larger and more efficient producers based in less illogical places hoovered up their market share. With his wrecking balls, Moses lopped off the rotting flesh and affixed in its place the material basis—the infrastructure—that might accommodate the new. In the postwar era, this meant the mass consumption of owner-occupied housing and automobiles.
Moses wielded the power of ideology in a particularly pure way. He simply presented the saturation of the city with automobiles—a revolution in everyday life whose scope, once comprehended, retains the ability to stagger—as a forgone conclusion. He claimed neither to have created nor fostered this revolution, only to have accommodated it, as one might propitiate God or a tsunami.
But this was disingenuous. For one, the logic of planning in capitalist societies, where the state depends, in the last instance, on private accumulation, creates pressure to run the state like a business. This Moses did. Before long, he was building entrepreneurially, creating a product and selling it, leveraging the revenue to expand the business, creating new thoroughfares, capitalized with bond sales premised on future revenues. Moses’s animus towards rail transit, his starvation of the subways and commuter lines, was a logical consequence of his devotion to the entrepreneurial state. But in writing capitalism’s mindless, expansionary logic onto the city in steel and concrete, working to satisfy bondholders and capitalize future investments, Moses needed to sell as much of this kind of movement as he possibly could. It became his goal to create traffic.
Nor was Moses simply responding to coherent demands expressed by an objective, democratic subject. By submitting to capital as it reproduced itself in the specific historical circumstances of the twentieth-century United States—Moses fastened himself to what contemporaries called “the Highwaymen,”9Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Knopf, 1974), 927; see also Helen Leavitt, Superhighway—Superhoax (New York: Doubleday, 1970). a complex of banks, automobile manufacturers, oil companies, construction firms, public officials, and a host of hangers-on, embarked upon a shared project of road-building and exurban real estate development, transforming seemingly cheap nature and the sweat of the dominated classes into profit.
In doing so, he became the architect of a specific political subjectivity. In the postwar era, the decentralization of residence and production, the democratization of consumption once reserved for elites, the domination of the natural world, and the domination of nonwhite people at home and abroad, all supported and administered by the state, combined to destroy the industrial city, whose socialization of infrastructure and dense concentrations of proletarians were thought by the optimistic to be the nursery of a new political subjectivity, the motor of historical time, and the harbinger of the overcoming of capitalism. In New York, where dual concentrations of renters and immigrants lent a rouge to the city’s politics unmatched in other big cities, made it a place where the name “Communist” on a city council ticket for a time provoked relatively few blushes, these conditions assumed their most intense form. Suburbanization, another name for the admission of new cohorts to whiteness and property, deflated this pressure and defused its power by instilling, in pathetic miniature, the logic of property, which is to say the logic of antagonism and exclusion, in fresh clothes inside millions upon millions of brains. Sprawl, isolation, the fear of falling, and herrenvolk democracy created a specific kind of person—a fascist.
“Good Homes Make Contented Workers,” announced the Industrial Housing Associates firm in 1919, plastering the title beneath an illustration of a semi-detached Tudor cottage rendered in placid green.10Industrial Housing Associates, “Good Homes Make Contented Workers” (1919), https://archive.org/details/goodhomesmakecon00indu; quoted in Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981). 283. This gambit had been predicted since the beginning of the socialist project. Widespread homeownership, a “bourgeois and petty-bourgeois utopia,” Engels warned, was a rear-guard maneuver for class compromise, an arrangement that would “chain” workers to particular capitalists—both their employers and the bankers who in the end owned their homes—and to capital as a whole.11Friedrich Engels, “The Housing Question” (1872), https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/housing-question/index.htm. Industrialists agreed. Following the 1892 Homestead strike, which had erupted into a shooting war, Carnegie Steel began subsidizing homeownership for its workers.12Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English, For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women (New York: Anchor, 1978).
Twenty-five years later, the combined social earthquakes of World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the seizure of the ballot box by women, and a massive strike wave provoked a sense of panic among American capitalists. If the first of the great red scares organized a repressive element as the response to those who would threaten elite domination, the promotion of mass homeownership was its affirmative component and ideological sally. “A wide diffusion of home ownership has long been recognized as fostering a stable and conservative habit,” wrote a right-wing sociologist during the war. “The man owns his home but in a sense his home owns him.” In 1920, the welfare director of a large corporation disclosed the strategy to a housing reformer: “Get them to invest their savings in their homes and own them. Then they won’t leave and they won’t strike. It ties them down so they have a stake in our prosperity.”13Quoted in Ehrenreich and English, For Her Own Good.
This tying down became national housing policy after the depression and another war—events which together constituted a kind of interregnum and last gasp for the old urban industrial economy. The transition period would prove disorienting and not a little glamorous, provoking wonderfully unreasonable spectacles of uneven and combined development, such as the circus-like effort to assemble jet planes in a multistory factory just across the East River from midtown Manhattan, where dueling factions of leftists hoisted aircraft engines between floors in the moments when they were not torturing their bosses, who tolerated it because their cost-plus contracts meant the government would pay whatever they charged.14Al Nash, “A Unionist Remembers: Militant Unionism and Political Factions,” Dissent 24, no. 2 (Spring 1977): 181–89; Jim Maas, “Fall from Grace: The Brewster Aeronautical Corporation, 1932–42,” American Aviation Historical Society Journal 30 (1985): 118–35. But breakdown was imminent. The gutting of industrial New York meant not only job loss—between 1950 and 1975, the city lost fully half of its manufacturing jobs—but a historic defeat for a whole set of urban political traditions rooted in the industrial city, including that class-conscious feminism that linked the subordination of women to the broader set of exploitations engendered by capitalist society and glimpsed in the industrial city, whose form embodied capital’s tendencies towards concentration and centralization, the seeds of a transformation that might erode the prison-walls of the private home and the millstone of unacknowledged and uncompensated domestic labor.15Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution, 3–29.
The industrial city had been a double-edged sword, the amassing of great numbers of proletarians and the gathering socialization of both production and infrastructure tracing the lineaments of a society that might survive without capitalists. Its dismantling necessarily involved a spatial maneuver, a multifaceted decentralization that filed down the edges of this sword. The deployment of technology and its associated science—logistics—compensated for the increase in spatial distance. In this way, decentralization, or the reorganization of geographical scale, was one of the levers with which capital split and scrambled the social-democratic assumption of linear progress, demonstrating that capitalist progress, where the anarchy of production asserts itself as anarchy in historical time, and socialist progress bear little resemblance to one another and that politics can be expected to take its revenge upon history.16Daniel Bensaïd, “A New Way of Writing History,” in Marx for our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique, trans. Gregory Eliott (London: Verso, 2002), 9–39.
The size of the rift opened by industrialization between the scale of technology—of the abstract, the not-strictly-human—and the sensory capabilities of human beings, which evolve at a sludgier pace, accelerated in exponential fashion. Humans remained at human scale, bound by barriers of language and mobility, socially suffering their mortgaged disabilities of distance. New York’s factories leapt across political boundaries, leapt across history. To move south was to move away from the New Deal, away from the unions, away from the Great Migration. To move abroad was to move into other histories, other temporalities.
The shipping container is frequently identified as the watershed moment in this offensive, but the imperative—to dominate humans with technology, to reconfigure space with technology—should be identified as a constant, inherent in the logic of capitalism.17Martin Danyluk, “Capital’s Logistical Fix: Accumulation, Globalization, and the Survival of Capitalism,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36, no. 4 (August 2018): 630–47. The box truck killed the garment unions before the container ship did. The one-time coalfields of eastern Pennsylvania, barely 150 miles from Manhattan, where the mob-connected garment shops flocked en masse to build a fort against the garment unions, represented what one union representative called a “tyranny of distance.”18Harry Crone, 35 Northeast: A Short History of the Northeast Department, Box 2, Folder 7, Dolores Miller ILGWU and Other Publications, Collection 6036/091 PUBS, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation, Catherwood Library, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 65. It was a perfect phrase.
The city reacted to decentralization by becoming a suburb. Planners responded to the exhaustion of the industrial city by lacerating it with highways and stuffing it with cars. We still call it the city, but it is a different thing now. That the city can become a suburb, become its purported opposite, is easier to understand once you think of a suburb less as a geographical location than a set of relationships, an always-possible outcome of urbanism.19Alan Walks, “Suburbanism as a Way of Life, Slight Return,” Urban Studies 50, no. 8 (June 2013): 1471–88. In the postwar period, by these lights, the entire country became a suburb. The deadening culture of the suburb, which has been described so often and so thoroughly that it risks hardening into cliché, provoked a partial movement back to the city. Gentrification, the so-called return of white people to the place that had once been called the city, sold back to them a weakened simulation of what capitalism had taken from their parents—the urban experience in an earlier stage of capitalism, with its thrilling blend of anonymity and community.
For several decades, such experiences had remained the consolatory province of nonwhites denied the dubious prizes of a sub-urbane lifestyle, where generations of whites accepted social and sexual stultification in exchange for a fragile and now-crumbling security. When their children returned to New York, it was to a simulation, the aesthetic of the industrial city with the social edges shaved off, the suburb in the city, its mores guarded by snarling dogs in uniform. For some, it has been an emergency brake on the psychic disaster of the suburbs, parceled, priced, and sold back—at a profit. For others, the reward for surviving the collapse of New York has been to be chucked, unceremoniously, out of the city they created, their creations appropriated and turned against them as weapons.