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Capital City is a recently published book by Samuel Stein, a PhD student at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. Written in easily digestible language, the book has become a favorite of New York City-based community organizers and academic theorists alike. The book shines a bright spotlight on the role of urban planners in redevelopment of the city. Well-intentioned urban planners become entangled in a web of redevelopment based on subsidies from the local government which makes it difficult to carry out the mission of creating a new city with all the bells and whistles communities demand. Added to that the financialization of housing and real estate to the tune of over $200 trillion dollars and suddenly money and power broker developers are the focus of development, gentrification takes over and the result is mass displacement of longtime residents.
Stein, who is a trained urban planner, continually highlights the contradictions of urban planners in cities around the US by saying “Planners tend to be inordinately nice people” and thereby makes it hard to understand how people such as these can be responsible for rising rents and mass displacement.
As a community organizer, I found the historical context of the book clearly describes a timeline of economic and political realignment called the “neoliberal turn”. This involved a move from welfare to deregulation which ended with planners moving from redesigning space to securing huge investments in land and housing.
Chapter Four looks into the story of our current president Donald Trump and his family’s rise to power in the New York City real estate market. The book points directly to Trump as one of the global players in real estate and international capitalism. At this point in the book it was clear to me that we have a global problem, which was born out of the financial capital of the world New York City and the collateral damage will always be working class and poor people. There are strong references throughout the book on global capital and players like Blackstone.
As a human rights enforcer, I believe we need to live and govern by a set of values and principles. In the concluding chapter of the book Sam poses two questions; what more can we imagine and what is to be done? He peels back the onion on planning to ask– how do radical planners put their thinking into action? Urban planners’ engagement with social movements hasn’t provided an answer. The not-for-profit organizations that make up these movements are entangled in their own constraints and play more to the interests of the philanthropic groups that supply financial resources. They seem to suffer from the same symptoms as players—big finance. Housing movements in New York and other cities have been challenging economic disparity among middle and low income people and have pinned this disparity on the commodification of land and housing. However, there is no clear vision coming from groups on the ground with respect to a city where there is intentional moves towards de-commodification. Stein points out effort were made back in 2011 to liberate public spaces for community use.
In conclusion, Sam Stein has given organizers like myself and additional organizing tool for our on the ground work. Capital City is an easy read from an academic activist that has spent a lot of time with his boots on the ground talking to people directly affected by gentrification and displacement that comes directly out of the massive rezoning and redevelopment of New York City. It is simply a must read.