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t was a great pleasure to read Samuel Stein’s terrific Capital City, a work which is both depressing and inspiring. The book is depressing because it captures so well the brutal hardships of New York City’s intractable housing crisis, as well as the incapacity or unwillingness of city leaders and urban planners to deal with it. Yet the book is also inspiring as a rallying cry for a new radical urban planning that seeks to fundamentally transform cities rather than muddle along with piecemeal reforms.
Capital City is unabashedly a polemic and reminds one of New York City muckraker classics like DuBruhl and Newfield’s The Abuse of Power (1977), Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (1974) or Fitch’s The Assassination of New York (1993). As a heterodox critique of orthodox urban planning, the book harkens to works by Jane Jacobs (1961), Percival and Paul Goodman (1947), as well as radical texts from late 1960s and 1970s that encouraged insurgent planners to become “guerillas in the bureaucracy” and dismantle technocratic “complexes.” (Goodman, 1971)
Yet Stein’s rousing book arrives in a new moment. Where these older texts attacked the business elites, technocrats and party hacks who dominated New York City’s liberal and modernist downtown pro-growth machine of the 1960s and 1970s, Stein’s book is a broadside against a new growth regime of the new twenty-first century “Gilded Age” – an entity he refers to as the “real estate state.”
The “real estate state” is a compelling framework and raised a lot of exciting questions for me.
First, is the real estate state new? It does seem that the city has entered a new era. But what exactly has changed? The FIRE sectors have long exercised outsized political power in NYC when compared to manufacturing. The book, for example, doesn’t mention a lot of important power brokers from the past who were eager to decentralize manufacturing –- Robert Moses most notably. Does the real estate state refer to a new degree of power exercised by today’s developers? (Real estate “on steroids” so to speak?) Or is it a matter of scale — that the firms spearheading gentrification are now global rather than regional or national? Or does it have something to do with the dizzying heights of real estate prices? Or is it the “ghostly” empty apartments shimmering in the moonlight that represent a new type of obliteration of local place?
In short, how can we periodize the emergence of the real estate state? Did this new regime emerge out of the fiscal crisis of 1973-1974? Is it thus simply a synonym for the “neoliberal city”? Or does the term point to something fundamentally new and “post-neoliberal” that emerged out of the 2007-2008 fiscal crisis?
Who are the major players in the real estate state? Who are the developers? What is their urban vision? What are their political views? What sort of political and philanthropic causes do they support? Stein’s blistering multigenerational history of the Trump clan’s real estate shenanigans is riveting. But how many NYC developers really voted for Donald? (I’m not convinced that the core of the Trump phenomenon is in the Real Estate Board of New York? Is Bloombergism really indistinguishable from Trumpism?) What is the role of universities like Columbia and NYU in the real estate state? What about small-time landlords and individual homeowners, condominium and coop owners?
Who are the gentrifiers in the real estate state? Are they different than the “creative class” of previous eras? What is the role of culture and representation in the formation of the real estate state? What is the role of race and gender in shaping or resisting the emergence of this new urban regime?
Who are the working-class and poor in the real estate state? How do they feel about this new stage of gentrification? What do they think about large scale urban redevelopment projects like Pacific Park and Hudson Yards? Do working-class and poor New Yorkers of color have diverse and conflicting ideas about what constitutes a “just city”? Do they want to abolish private property? Do some aspire to become homeowners?
As I read Stein’s engrossing book, I felt overwhelmed by the unsurmountable size of the forces he describes. This shows the power of his writing. Yet as I read about the “Niagara Falls of capital” gushing into the city, I felt like a small rowboat adrift in raging sea. This did lead me to two final questions.
First, should we be wary about describing a real estate state that is monolithic and overwhelmingly powerful? Does it make small change – protecting a single family from getting evicted, creating a community garden — seem futile? Or more troubling, can the notion of a “global real estate state” provide fodder for more reactionary forces?
My last question is perhaps more rueful. With penthouses selling for $238 million, has New York City sadly “jumped the shark”? Has the city exhausted its possibilities as a landscape for radical reimagination? There are a lot of urban planning movements that are left out of the book: Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities, New Deal greenbelt towns, African-American rural farming co-ops of the 1970s (Rickford, 2017), as well as other “decentralist” experiments for example. If the book’s goal is a truly radical form of urban planning that embraces utopian thinking and pushes for a complete upheaval of property relations, perhaps there other more promising sites than super-gentrified Williamsburg, Brooklyn? Are New Yorkers holding on to a memory of a radical Lower East Side that is never coming back? Have we become modern versions of the legendary Dutch youngster – “the hero of Haarlem” – sticking a small finger in the dam in a futile attempt to save its namesake on the tip of Manhattan? Should a new generation of young radicals perhaps look elsewhere: rural areas, small towns, second-cities and perhaps even….the suburbs?