NYC Book Club Conversation With Mike Wallace
On May 27, Gotham Gazette held a NYC Book Club online chat with Mike Wallace about his book A New Deal for New York.
A New Deal for New York is very different
from Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 – first of all, it
isn’t really a history book. When and why did you decide to write
A New Deal for New York?
definition of "history book" is up for grabs here. True, it's not a
narrative of a past time, but I hope that its prescriptions for future
action are suffused by and made better by such understanding of the past
as I can muster. I decided to write it in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
It seemed like a contribution a historian could make, setting discussions
about the future in the context of the city's past, and particularly the
relevance of the New Deal, whose accomplishments seem to have been
forgotten, if not deliberately stubbed out by the reigning powers that
Why do you think that is?
Partly, this is a culture with memory problems. Partly, we've been
relentlessly beseiged, arguably since the 1970s, and the so called
fiscal crisis of New York, with ideological mantras about the
ineffectuality, not to say the wickedness, of government action. Most
people no longer have direct first-hand knowledge of the amazing
accomplishments of the New Deal, especially here in New York City, and
it seemed a reminder was pertinent, especially at a time when we
were/are so desperately in need of informed purposive public action.
Your book is divided into three parts. In the last
section, you suggest creating a government-assisted effort to create a
new public works program that puts the unemployed to work for the public
good. What sort of reaction has your proposal had from local and
On the national level: 'forget
about it'. The attitude of the right wing crowd currently at the apex of
national power, when confronted with the problems not just of NYC, but
of virtually every state in the union who, we hear repeatedly, are
suffering through the worst financial crises since the depression of the
30s, has been, in effect, "frankly, we don't give a damn."
hard right are actively salivating at the prospect that budget
shortfalls on the local level -- to say nothing of the shortfalls on the
national level -- required by their preposterous handouts to the rich, will FORCE local governments into the... kind of austerity programs that
New York City unfortunately pioneered in the 70s. Locally, however,
there's been a groundswell of belief that states and localities can
not and must not stand idly by while social services are decimated. The
major manifestation has been a widespread move to raise taxes and other
kinds of revenues, but while that can save some jobs, it can not
produce new ones. There's been little sign that any levels of
government are prepared to come anywhere near the kind of job
creation programs that were such a major feature of the New Deal.
Local conservative writer Steven Malanga has called
reviving the New Deal a "fantasy." It sounds as if you agree.
You can't go home again -- thats for sure, but that
doesn't mean that modern day equivalents are not worthwhile. And
possible. Malanga and the Manhattan foundation crowd are, in my opinion,
victims of bad economics and worse history. They have a one-size-fits-all public
policy -- cut taxes -- which they assume, despite all the
evidence, will magically create jobs. This rests on the shoddiest kind
of research, as anyone can see by checking out the Fiscal Policy
Institute's web site, where several studies which, in my opinion,
demolish Malangism can be found.
And why is it a fantasy? It may be
improbable at the moment, but this is a very mercurial country. Remember
that FDR ran not on a New Deal platform but in favor of a balanced
budget. As the depression deepened -- and there are very few signs of an
upturn in our future, quite the opposite -- more and more people,
especially in the middle classes, who had been staunch believers in
laissez faire, did a rapid about face once the problems reached their
level of society. We may well see something like that again, but, to be
sure, it will require bold political leadership. Interestingly, one of
the things I suggested in the book was that the pressure of hard times
might generate a revival of the liberal Republican wing. This revival has
inched closer to reality. Who would have thought that Joe Bruno & Co
would have duked it out with a Republican governor, on behalf of higher
taxes on rich people? It wasn't done out of desire, but desperation, and
there's more where that came from.
What other changes have taken place in New York City politics
since the writing of the book that you'd like to comment on?
I think that Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff have cast their lot
with a broader vision of downtown's development than had been part of
conventional wisdom a year ago. Their plan looks toward a more
broad-based notion of the area's economy. Also, he switched to the
'increase revenue' side to some measure. But there's a long way to go.
One of the missing items is a willingness to mobilize public opinion on
behalf of public action, another is a willingness to take the lead in
forging a national coalition of urban-based constituencies, on behalf of
federal policies that would -- as Rohatyn and Galbraith the younger have
suggested -- do a form of revenue sharing with the states. But
ultimately, I think nothing will happen in a major way, so long as the
Bushites are in power.
The first section of your book
is devoted to the aftermath of September 11, 2001. You discuss the
proposals for what should be build at Ground Zero, and suggest that you
would like "to let most of the land lie fallow, at least for a suitable
period, replenishing itself and its visitors." Do you still feel that
Well, that's one part that's been superseded by
events. I still think that the rush to throw up office space is ill
considered, that the vacancy rates remain spectacular, that very few
businesses have been coaxed downtown, and that the transportation
improvements that might actually make a difference are still quite some
distance in the future. I do like the current master plan, in that it
definitely envisions proceeding in stages, with most office space
slotted for a dim future and the up front concentration devoted to
Mike, I tend to disagree with
your feelings that 12 million square feet of office space should not be
placed on the site. Why? This site was one of the most succesful and
desired real estate locations in the nation, and you think that should
all be lost for a "New Deal"?
"Most successful" is a
dubious notion. Remember that for most of the World Trade Center's
history it was no where near full. As late as the mid 90s -- in the
aftermath of the late 80s and early 90s depression -- landlords down
there were desperate. The responses were clever enough -- convert
offices to housing, wire key buildings and bring in dot coms -- but
remember that even when the economy turned north (a function in
considerable degree of a bubble in tech stocks rather than healthy
growth -- as banking jobs continued to flee the area for Jersey,
midtown, and elsewhere) not a single new skyscraper was built in the
late 90s in downtown. This is a devastating comment on the marketplaces's own
judgement on the need for more offices down there.
Also, the New Deal is
an not only an end in itself, its a means, a way of dealing with crises. To the
degree that public investment (as with transportation) can help build
a 21st Century infrastructure in order to attract private investment, downtown's best chance
for recovery lies precisely in bold public
intereventions on the order of the New Deal. I would add, though it's a
different arena, that we could do with the return, in an updated
fashion, with some of the New Deal's financial programs. While Glass
Steagall (the legislation passed in the 30s that mandated a
division between investment banks and commercial banks) might have had to be revised and updated,
the taking of the
wraps off the division between banking, insurance, brokering, and so
forth, had a lot to do with the flameup of corruption that marked and
marred the last decade or so.
In addition, the development of
deriviatives and more arcane financial instruments down in the towers
there or, even more so, in midtown, while having some rational basis in
desire to hedge against increasingly wild market fluctuations (partly
themselves a product of deregualtion),they were more dedicated to
avoiding taxes and controls, which in turn led to the flourishing of
corruption and massive redistribution of wealth up the social ladder.
It's true that New York, by being host to the barbecue, got a lot of
spinoffs from it, but the telling feature was what happened in the
downturn, when thousands of brokers and bankers were tossed away like kleenex and the resulting
drop in bonus driven revenue rippled
through out the city's economy. That's no way to run a railroad, much
less a city.
New York, though, is very dependent on Wall Street and
finance. If that industry can't fuel our economy, what will?
There is no way we can live without finance. That doesn't
mean that we can't regulate it in the public interest more effectively.
On the subject of economic development: do you think
there's a way to have a multi-dimensional economy that would make the
city more resilient. Developing, for example, manufacturing that could
fit the needs of first of all of the city and the region and use the
skills and abilities of the local population in a more creative way?
I quite agree. We tended to turn our backs on
manufacturing and the port in recent decades, under the assumption that
we should put our eggs in the basket of the future. But that was
shortsighted. We should remember that there are tremendous needs for
manufactured items in the local economy, as always. Some are new,
like green manufacturing which would be a great complement to the
building industry. The port is another arena. We have amazing
opportunities to move some of it back from New Jersey. There are
changing patterns of world trade, which will send massive boats in our
direction. If we develop a high speed floating delivery system that
makes use of the harbor, and if we can solve some of the bottlenecks
bequeathed us by Robert Moses' preposterous focus on highways.
I read [in A New Deal for New York]
some very enthusiastic descriptions of the gatherings that attempted to
formulate a collective response to 9/11. Do you think that there is any
chance that these kinds of gatherings could be continued in response to
ongoing issues in city politics?
They are ongoing.
See the web site of the Regional Plan Association. Also check out the
Center for an Urban Future's site. Also look at www.lcan.org, site of a
labor and community coalition. The latter have proposed a job program,
and a housing program. I think the ferment continues. Also the Gotham
Gazette posts info on new gatherings.
How about in
other issues besides rebuilding?
groups, and others like the community service society, have come up with
a variety of plans. They deal with social services, with fiscal reforms
(see the work of the City Project), and rebuildilng defined broadly. I
can't remember when -- since the ferment that preceded the 30s reforms
-- there's been so much thinking about the future.
What other forms of local organizing do you think
could be used to hold the powers that be accountable for meeting the
needs of the people of the city?
I think the kinds of
resistance to cutbacks that have flourished around things like firehouse
closings is one. Politics is local, even on the local level. Remember
that the environmental justice movement began with efforts to block new
and ill chosen efforts at garbage disposal. It led in time to larger
citywide coalitions that had significant impact. On housing, there's a
housing coalition of many scores of groups. They had something to do
with Bloomberg's coming out with a housing plan, one that reversed the
Giuliani legacy of malign neglect. Housing First, it's called.
When will you bring your history of New York City up to
I'm working as fast as I can on volume II, but
it's a preposterously big job, and I'm a slow reader. It'll probably be
a few years yet before it lumbers off the production line. But I might
issue bits and pieces of it here and there. I'll probably have a forum
at the Gotham Center, which I direct, looking at NYC in World War II, the topic
I'm working on at the moment. Check our web site -- www.gothamcenter.org
-- for more news on that. The center also features the work of other
historians laboring in the vineyards.
Your first one,
which goes up to 1898, took 20 years, and was a big hit. Which sections
of the book have gotten the strongest reaction?
hard to say. Different strokes appeal to different folks. In the
immediate aftermath of 9/11 there was a lot of attention to our account
of the great fire of 1835. After Scorsese's movie, the material on gangs
in the antebellum city got featured. What I like most, however, is the
sense that its way of thinking about the city as a whole, seems to be
resonating with lots of people. Especially in the aftermath of Ric Burns'
film, which has extended the reach of these ideas to a larger audience.
Last question: Will your new history take long enough to write so that there will come to pass a new New Deal that you will be able to
include in it?
We can only hope....