recivilization: the catastrophe

340 the slough of despond

Ford to City: Drop Dead
—New York Daily News headline, 29. Oct, 1975

World's Fair revisited: compared to 1939's World of Tomorrow, Flushing Meadows in 1964 seemed a little weary, short on vision and heavy on commercialism. Almost everything was in the same place as before, with the hollow 'Unisphere', a giant advertisement for U. S. Steel's fine stainless, occupying the site of the Trylon and Perisphere. The transportation area across Robert Moses' Grand Central Parkway still dominated, and Ford was still selling rides in new cars around the top of its building, just as it did in '39. General Motors came up with another Futurama, though where 39's centerpiece had been a vision of the city of the future, now GM was directing our attention to nearly everything else. Another conveyor belt of lounge chairs (plastic, this time) took visitors on a trip to the moon, and then under the polar ice cap. They followed heroic highway builders through the jungle, and dallied at a resort under the ocean. There was in fact a future city among all these wonders, if only a pale reflection of 1939's. Another transcontinental highway ran straight through it, along with city-center airports, high-speed trains and moving sidewalks; the only point to this city seemed to be the ease of escaping it.

About the time the Fair opened, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was knifed to death on a middle-class New York street. It made the national news, and became one of those little things that nobody ever forgot. This is because the investigators found that 37 of Kitty's neighbors had watched the murder happen from their windows, and not one of them raised a hand to stop it, or even bothered to call the police. The very idea of community seemed to be dissolving before our eyes. In the coming summer, the first of the urban riots would begin; America was entering a strange new world where anything goes.

More than the riots, more than the assassinations and all the other troubles of those jangled years, the great national crime wave that began in the early 60's made itself the defining phenomenon of national life. Crime always hits closer to home than any of the other ills that can beset a city. Planners and academics, and even politicians constantly underestimate its power, but nothing comes close to matching its corrosive effect on community and neighborhoods. This forty-year spree, unrivalled in our history, for a while turned Americans against the very idea of urban life. It had its roots in the disruption of once-stable communities in the 50's. In bruised neighborhoods where no one seemed to care any more, an enterprising young man might think he could get away with nearly anything; most of the time he'd be right. And as the world around him became increasingly squalid and unreal, he would care less and less about the chances of getting caught.

From 1962 to 1987, robberies in New York increased fivefold. That city was leading the trend, as it so often does, but the rest of the nation eventually caught up. From 1960 to 1988, the number of offenses reported annually nationwide rose from 3.3 million to almost 14 million; adjusted for population, the rate had almost tripled; property crime rates rose almost 300%, violent crime rates almost 400%.

There are so many explanations for crime it's a wonder there wasn't more of it. In the bad years, some cities claimed black teen unemployment rates as high as 60%, although the actual rates were much higher. Black nationalism and the nihilist 'riot ideology' it initiated played their part, along with the lenient courts and permissive atmosphere that conservatives like to pretend were the only causes.

Shoddy policing helped too. Forces all over the nation had given up walking beats and making the rounds, abandoning contact and interaction with the neighbors, and the knowledge and mutual appreciation that comes with it, for the lazy strategy of 'patrolling': a pair of cops cruising about in a car, waiting to be called to the scene where the deed had already been done. Some estimates have claimed that three-fourths of all city crime is drug-related, a figure that reflects more on our irrational and ruinous approach to the problem than the drugs themselves. But the court system of the day did find countless new ways to keep villains on the streets. A Baltimore study identified 354 world-beating junkies who between them had been allowed to rack up the incredible total of 775,000 crimes over nine years.

To pile on a little more misery, there is a subject not yet discussed, but a major factor in the Catastrophe for the cities of the Northeast and Midwest. We have seen how clusters of manufacturing formed in these cities after the Civil War. Industries which had grown up at the same time reached maturity in the early part of the century; despite economic good times after the war, all now seemed to be all collapsing together. Iron, steel and other metals were the worst affected, meaning Pittsburgh was the first big industrial city to show a declining economy. The other towns highly dependent on metals—Cleveland, Youngstown, Buffalo—didn't lag far behind. Economists see 'long waves' of growth and decline for regions, and it is only natural that these should be most pronounced at the beginning of their histories.

Once industries reach the stage of maturity, according to the theory of economic 'life cycles' (which, it must be said, is not completely fleshed out, or even accepted as a general law by all economists), the routinization of production allows them to farm out work to places where wages are lower-thus the mass movement of factories to the south and west, to rural areas, and eventually to foreign shores. Transport costs are not important as they once were; our freight transport network runs so smoothly and seamlessly there isn't much differential anywhere, though large cities seem to come out with a slight disadvantage. Labor costs and local taxes make the difference, and the big cities of the northeast could only lose out. The real question for the snowbelt, and one that no one can yet answer with any assurance, is why these cities, with all their talent and resources, did not generate enough new kinds of work to replace the old. When the lofts emptied out, why didn't they fill up again?

Pittsburgh suffered the most, in a slide that continues today. There isn't a single steel mill left in the Steel City. Corporate mergermania resulted in the loss of firms that the second-rank cities had counted on for decades, and Pittsburgh lost out badly here too, watching such firms as Gulf Oil and Jones & Laughlin Steel get swallowed up by sunbelt predators; the latter resulted in the loss of 17,500 manufacturing jobs. In all, 180,000 Pittsburgh jobs simply vanished in a decade, while manufacturing's share of total employment dropped from 50% to 20%.

Detroit's manufacturing collapse actually began in the 50's. The inner city lost 138,000 manufacturing jobs between 1948 and 1963, and another 89,000 in the 70's [Detroit's manufacturing collapse: Sugrue, ch 5, gives a full account]. The causes included automation, the replacement of older plants with newer ones in the suburbs, or in places where labor costs were lower and union militancy less, the death of many parts suppliers as the Big Three internalized their supply sources, and finally the collapse of the smaller independent automakers, such as Hudson and Packard, who could not keep up with the heavy capital costs of modernization. The automobile industry is traditionally among the most volatile; four recessions in the 50's alone made a heavy blow. Detroit's job losses were heavily concentrated on the East Side, once the center of the industry, contributing much to the area's rapid decay into the city's worst slum.

In a time when more workers lived close to their jobs, the effects of even a single large plant's closure could traumatize a neighborhood. But there were plenty of other occasions for trauma. The refugees from urban renewal knew it better than anyone. No one paid them much attention at the time, but a study of the evicted population of Boston's West End, largely Italian and Jewish, had little trouble detecting high levels of depression and anger, symptoms of psychological distress, a widespread sense of loss and longing, and helplessness. A nation driving in its dream did not care to notice the same in the innocent veterans, black and white, of the ghetto frontier wars, or the refugees from highway construction, or their old neighbors left with devalued homes and a new road ripping through their neighborhood's heart.

For those spared the worst, there was still the melancholy caused by the relentless destruction of so many beloved and familiar things: For New Yorkers the list started with Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Pennsylvania Station and the Beaux-Arts Singer Building, the theatres of a Times Square that was rapidly filling up with porn parlors. In every city, it included the little shops on the corner and grand old department stores downtown, the ones with the beloved Christmas displays in their windows; the ornate downtown movie palace and the modest neighborhood cinema, the public markets, ballparks, trolleys, newspapers, schools, and eventually, entire neighborhoods.

In the 70's, a plague of aggressive-looking graffiti started to stain the walls of the east coast cities. It appeared first on the abandoned buildings, then on the subways, symbols of a public sphere that seemed to be in dissolution, and finally on everything else: the banks, the public buildings and the expensive city-center apartments. All of Philadelphia seemed to be covered in it-like a bathtub ring, rising as high on the buildings as a kid with a spray can could reach. Norman Mailer wrote an essay celebrating it as a new art form, and flattered the vandals who created it as Promethian rebels against an oppressive and unfair world; such was the spirit of the time. Mailer likened the tags to abstract expressionism, and in the sense that the only thing our society seemed capable of expressing was cultural incoherence and the breakdown of public order, he was correct. The tags made a fitting decoration for every sort of rotten urban regime, whether the gangster-populist Frank Rizzo's Philadelphia or liberal Lindsay's New York.

When a community disintegrates, what happens to the people in it? The collapse of industry reverberated dolorously through local economies; for the first time, the battered neighborhoods found themselves holding a large class of people, trained largely for semi-skilled work and now without any evident economic function. Instead of retraining them or employing them to a public purpose, the federal government chose to subsidize and perpetuate their destitution. The Depression-era model of federal relief, always understood as temporary, now was institutionalized as a permanent way of life. In the new social service economy of the late 70's, one in seven New Yorkers was on welfare. Everywhere, women became chained to ADC (now AFDC), as the only means of gaining income, health care and a place to live.

Since the Depression, no one had been able to profitably build affordable housing. Instead of finding the anomalies in zoning, building codes, banking practices and tax policies that created the problem, and fixing them, the government undertook to produce affordable housing by itself, with embarrassing results. At the same time, the massive dislocations caused by its other programs ensured that government, despite its sworn policy and its massive bureaucratic apparatus, eliminated far more affordable housing than it created. So government became complicit in the final stage in the logic of disinvestment, the surge in the number of homeless people that broke into the headlines in the 80's; by 1984 there were an estimated 140,000 of them nationwide, on any given night. Along with disposable neighborhoods, now we had disposable people.

In the 60's, New York became a symbol for everybody's urban problems. Poor John Lindsay, the silk-stocking district Republican congressman who sincerely wanted to be a man of the people, was treated to a bitter transit strike on the first day of his administration in 1966 , followed by newspaper and dock strikes before the year was over, not to mention the famous blackout. His attempts to aid the poor earned him little appreciation, only a strident welfare rights movement and the 'Great School War' over radical plans for community control. Part of Lindsay's tragedy was to assume the very normal policy of bringing blacks into the system, the way La Guardia had done for Jews and Italians, at a time when many blacks were in thrall to an ideology of militant separatism.

All the while, his comptroller Abe Beame managed the creative financing that made Lindsay's heavy spending possible, and would fittingly catch up with Beame during his own mayoral term. From 1961, the year the city first slipped into deficit, to 1975, the city debt tripled, while corporations left Manhattan by the dozens and white flight became a hemorrhage. A state of near-bankruptcy finally arrived in 1975; $1.5 billion in revenues lost from abandoned buildings contributed greatly to the shortfall. The city's request for federal assistance occasioned the Daily News headline that no New Yorker would ever forget, though the big bankers soon convinced the feds that a default of such magnitude might bring down the entire financial system.

While the city was going bust, the South Bronx and east Brooklyn were burning. The whirlwind of disinvestment and abandonment there reached an intensity no one ever dreamed possible. And no one has yet completely disentangled the web of bad public policy, corruption and social pathology that fueled the outer borough holocaust of the 70's. Its cast of villains would include politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, addicts, insurance companies, property owners, HUD, the city, the welfare department, the thugs who stripped the buildings and sold the fittings, the other thugs who torched buildings for hire, and others too numerous to mention.

Panicked families slept with their shoes on, just in case, and fled from one building to another ahead of the fires, as entire streets disappeared. In one Bronx neighborhood, Hunt's Point, it was estimated that a resident had only a one-in-twenty chance of dying a natural death. A single Bronx block saw forty of its residents murdered in the space of a year. In 1977, Jimmy Carter visited the ruins of Charlotte Street for a photo op and vowed whatever aid it took to rebuild the neighborhood. At the same time, his policy men were discussing fashionable new theories of urban 'triage', classifying which neighborhoods might be saved and which should be encouraged to disappear completely. In the end, the President without a clue did nothing at all.

1977 was the nation's all-time peak year for arson, with 167,500 cases, 60% of which took place in vacant buildings. New York may have provided the most spectacular examples of smoldering, devastated neighborhoods, but the scene was repeated on a smaller scale in every city of the northeast. By the 80's, it was estimated that vacant lots made up a fifth of the land in the 48 largest cities. In Detroit, attractive areas of single-family housing were suffering the same fate as the Bronx, helped along greatly by the Section 235 program and its 17,000 abandoned houses. Now came the hour when the children of Detroit turned Halloween into 'Devil's Night'. Instead of scrounging candy they would set fire to the abandoned buildings that symbolized the despair of their neighborhoods. At its height in the 80's, close to 800 buildings went up each Halloween, while Detroiters watched the funeral pyre of their city from the rooftops in an amazement that gradually turned to resignation.

All this happened in a period of general good will and good intentions. In the inner cities, necessity was forcing blacks and whites to work together, to get to know each other. Black voices became increasingly prominent in the democratic forums, and people were listening to them. State governors, including such pragmatic Republicans as Nelson Rockefeller, or James Rhodes of Ohio and George Romney of Michigan, could be extremely sympathetic to big city problems, and back up their sympathy with good works. Newspapers looked for crusades, and when they were convinced of an issue they pursued it. Businesses and foundations poured money into neighborhood groups, and many lovely people who toiled for these groups worked their tails off. A considerable amount of virtue had been expended in the war to save the cities. Virtue was routed.

Despite Washington's central role in the collapse of the cities, most of the proposals of those years called not for a smaller federal role, but a larger one. Year after year, mayors trooped pathetically to the seat of empire and pleaded for more money to stave off total disaster. Experts called for chartered 'federal cities' with their budgets directly overseen by Washington, or for a 'Marshall Plan', of $35 billion or so, to be spent on programs much like those that had helped cause the problem in the first place.

The disarray of liberal thinking became manifest in the matter of busing, in which a band of activists gone mad used the federal courts to destroy inner-city school systems. School desegregation had been a contentious issue all through the postwar decades; city politicians strove mightily to keep it on the back burner. Washington, which desegregated right after the Brown vs Board of Education decision in 1954, was touted by the feds as the 'showcase of integration', but white enrollment fell 10% immediately, and by smaller increments every year thereafter; by 1967 the Washington schools were only 7% white.

No one would deny that ending segregation was-and remains-a civic necessity. But by the 60's the only means imagined of accomplishing it was a horrific assault on inner-city school districts. The existence of incorporated suburbs and their school boards allowed the courts and the plaintiffs to settle on a legal fiction. They could impose the poisonous remedy of busing on the inner city only, while the rest of the community, safe behind its suburban walls, got off free. The NAACP and the other groups obtained an apparent victory, while avoiding mass white backlash. Inner-city whites, most of them already suffering declining schools, had to take the weight by themselves. They could protest all they wanted, in their unsophisticated way, and the rest of the nation had the pleasure of sitting back and deploring their white trash bigotry. By the 70's it was crystal clear to everyone that any attempts toward desegregation by busing would inevitably lead to rapid resegregation, dramatic decline in the city schools and bitter divisions within the community. Convinced of their moral imperative, they did it anyhow, in city after city. The damage they did will take decades to repair, if, indeed, it can be repaired.

Busing, as its effects played out, was for many the place where the mind snapped. Others may have 'seen the elephant' when they looked at public housing, or at the Bronx, or at Detroit. The liberal state died in the ruins of our cities, ruins it had done so much to create. Under Roosevelt and Truman, the party of the common man had married itself heart and soul to the scientistic tradition, to the dream of social control through technics for the benefit of all. Those were big-hearted administrations. They managed 'relief', the inevitable responsibility of economies that work by the boom-and-bust cycle, more efficiently and honestly than local machines had done previously. They kept people going; they kept families together.

That was their inheritance from the old city machines-money in the pocket for fair labor, when workingmen needed it badly. It is a common, human equation that requires no studies or analysis; its necessity, on occasion, will always be with us. Democrats of the time never hesitated to sign the checks, and as time went on signing checks became an automatic habit; what was once relief now became 'welfare'. When the academics and ideologues of the 'program' model came around, they got checks too, to spend for experiments on the body of the community following whatever ideas seemed most promising at the time.

The new dispensation arose from a queer sort of bipartisanship; the left said 'come along, now', the right replied 'yes, but...'. Voices that spoke against it, whether community activists or market-oriented conservatives, found themselves marginalized or ignored. The massive intervention seemed to have science fully behind it; there were 'experts' to diagnose the ills and prescribe remedies. Who were congressmen and mayors to argue?

This model has collapsed, once and for all. It still awaits a decent burial. Some liberals would prefer to leave the corpse on its throne, despite the increasing aroma. Some conservatives are ready for the ceremony, shovels in hand; so far they have been mostly leaning on them. Neither side has really exerted itself to find a new approach. What really happens when an entire, cohesive mode of thinking, a national consensus, meets a dead end? And how does a nation accustomed to success deal with such a massive debacle, one that came as such a surprise, at a time when most Americans had never had it so good? Those are questions where the historians may need a little help from psychologists. Not only has the nation failed to come to terms with the role played by government and experts in the fall, but it has spun an elaborate mythology around it. Most people probably still believe that the Catastrophe was inevitable, and that the main cause of it was a sudden 'flight to the suburbs'.

We have taken some pains to show how this outward movement has been flowing since 1800 at the least. Something quite different occurred in the postwar decades. Forget Vietnam: the collapse of the inner cities, the holocaust of their neighborhoods, this disintegration of community was the gravest, most complete chronicle of failure since the Civil War. Our failure to understand it, and our lack of anywhere to turn for answers once the old gods had failed, has twisted our thought about cities in the decades since Detroit and the Bronx were burning. Everything we did was wrong, so we became afraid to try anything. Our acceptance of their fallen state, and our lack of seriousness both in analyzing what happened and trying to chart a new course, constitute nothing less than a paralysis of the civic mind.

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