We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it


United States

new internationalist
issue 178 - December 1987


The underside of New York city
Manhattan's flash and glitter has influenced
the world but there is also a downside to life
in New York. Richard Swift reports.

Photo: David Vita Few people are neutral about New York City - you either love it or hate it. The restless energy in Manhattan's concrete canyons is not to everybody's taste - not even every New Yorker's. It takes a bit of getting used to. People of every colour and nationality packed together on the graffiti-covered subway, three locks on every door, and street noise so intense it's hard to hear yourself think if the window's open on the 45th floor.

Still people are attracted to this legendary Gotham and somehow they survive and even prosper there. The energy is infectious: for novelist Jerome Charyn New York is like a powerful magnet. 'What I missed was a goddamn New York face, someone who slouched and talked to himself or tried to sell you rubber bands and a hot radio. That level of nervousness that I needed [to] exist.'

What Charyn likes about Manhattan is its stimulation overload. This frenetic nervousness shapes the relationships between New Yorkers. Crowded together they react to one another with instant friendliness or instant hostility. This runs the gamut - from quick and easy advice to strangers on the street, to taxi drivers screaming at the traffic or even gunplay if you should offend the wrong person on the subway.

The latest New York expression ('don't get in my face') captures perfectly the tension of living in a highly concentrated space. Although bizarre by most standards this New York intensity taps into a human desire to be where the action is no matter what the costs. In a sense what attracts people to New York is not much different from what attracts them to Mexico City or Lagos - the impulse to leave the poverty and predictability of the village for the bright lights of opportunity.

But the costs of living in this urban confusion are very real. Conservative skeptic H.L. Mencken could have been writing of contemporary New York when he penned these words 60 years ago.

'What makes New York so dreadful, I believe, is mainly the fact that the vast majority of its people have been forced to rid themselves of one of the oldest and most powerful of human instincts - the instinct to make a permanent home. Crowded, shoved about, and exploited without mercy, they have lost the feeling that any part of the earth belongs to them, and so they simply camp out like tramps, waiting for the constables to rush in and chase them away.'2

Today it is even harder to find a secure place to live in New York than it was in Mencken's day. Homelessness is a critical problem and a booming Manhattan real estate market is making even a middle-class life style impossible. The average Manhattan household is only 1.5 people - a culture of single people living in tiny apartments.3

But no matter what you think of the place, New York City has become a metaphor for city living. When we think vast financial power, we think Wall Street. When we think down-and-out, we think of the Bowery. When we think of fame and success, we think of the bright lights of Broadway. When we think urban squalor we think Lower East Side.

Manhattan real estate: Weimar inflation.
Dick Hanley / Camera Press

Of course all cities have their financial districts and their slums, many rival or even surpass New York. But somehow New York City combines horror, fascination and history to become the benchmark of urban experience.

By taking the pulse of New York City we can get a fix on the direction in which urban life as a whole is moving in this era of 'global cities'. For many people outside the US, especially in fast-growing Third World cities, New York is a model of success - an example of modernity to be emulated whatever the cost. In exploding cities like São Paulo or Jakarta, confronted with social problems of immense proportions, it is not surprising that New York is seen as a 'mega-city' that works.

Since the end of formal colonialism in the 1950s development experts have held that the Third World will become gradually more like the West as growth and development march hand-in-hand towards a glowing future. NI has spilled a good deal of ink showing that precisely the opposite has happened - that in fact much of what passes for development in the Third World is not even intended to meet the basic needs of poor people. But a trip to New York City (in many ways the capital of overdevelopment) casts a whole different light on the situation. Instead of 'them' becoming more like 'us', 'we' are becoming more like 'them'.

The parallels are all there. The homeless sleeping in Grand Central Station (where someone recently died of malnutrition) or begging on fashionable Fifth Avenue. Pockets of slum housing scattered everywhere from upper Manhattan to the Bronx and Brooklyn. A huge 'underground economy' with street vendors selling anything from umbrellas to old magazines to scrape together a few dollars. The rich hiding in their limos or retreating to their penthouses high above the sights, sounds and smells of poverty.

You can discover one of the sharpest contrasts between power and powerlessness in New York in the short walk from the Lower East Side to the precincts of capital around Wall Street. Mere blocks from old immigrant tenements on Avenue A (where you can now score 'crack', a cheap and dangerous cocaine derivative) and the single men warming their hands over a barrel-fire in front of one of the Bowery hostels is the glittering Chase Manhattan Plaza. This bank's fifth basement vault alone is the size of a football field and is said to hold almost $50 billion in securities and more than $4 million in cash.4

New York is a brash, thriving city of fabulous wealth, a global cultural and business mecca that embodies the essence of American capitalism.
Peter Abbey / Camera Press

New York has always been a company town. When the Dutch East India Company founded New Amsterdam in the 1600s they intended it to be a major financial centre. They succeeded. Today New York City is home to some of the largest banks in the world - Citibank, Chase Manhattan, Morgan, Banker's Trust, Manufacturers and Chemical Bank. Not so long ago these banks used to be able to decide the fate of entire Third World governments. Today their influence has been curbed slightly by Japanese and German competition. But banks like Chase and Citicorp still hold dozens of Third World governments in debt tutelage. And through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) they are able to dictate spending priorities that put interest payments ahead of people's needs.

Wall Street's banks are no more charitable closer to home. In the mid-seventies they precipitated a fiscal crisis by imposing an austerity programme on an overextended city government in order to 'save' the city. Banker-controlled boards (like the Emergency Financial Review Board) acted as mini-IMFs dictating cutbacks and layoffs. Like the IMF they were able to bypass the accountability of the political process in order to get what they wanted.

The results were dramatic: 67,000 jobs in city services were lost. Day care places for low-income families were cut. Public transit fees were increased at the same time the system was allowed to deteriorate. Potholes grew bigger and the streets dirtier. Fire and police services were cut to the bone. The banks were able to shift their 'over-exposed' debt load in New York City to municipal unions forced to invest their pension funds for fear of losing more member jobs.5 The banks and investment houses that supposedly make New York great treated the city like just another banana republic.

New York's fiscal crisis acted as a model for the national austerity politics of Reaganism in the 1980s. Those most affected, minority communities and unions, were unable to mount an effective opposition. That's because the political bosses that run city government do so with very little input from either opposition or citizens.

New York is the city of a thousand deals. Opposition is muffled by buying off its leadership - a piece of the action, a seat on a powerful city agency, or the promise of an unopposed nomination next time round. Political scientists call this clientism, all too familiar to the student of Third World politics. If giving the leadership of marginalized groups a slice of the cake doesn't work there is always the old standby: divide-and-conquer. Unions against the community, Blacks against Hispanics, everyone against immigrants.

This is a city of food stamps and homelessness, of desperate poverty and of growing black and Hispanic populations pushed to the margins of urban life.
Photo: Larry Towell

A culture of official corruption has long existed in Third World societies. But 'everyone taking their cut' is also a well-established practice in New York. Residents believe the endless delays in finishing building projects like the long awaited subway line to the borough of Queens is because 'the longer they last the more money gets made.' One New York observer claims, 'In this town everybody's got a hustle: kickbacks, selling dope, handling hot goods, getting bribes - without a hustle you don't survive'. But even New Yorkers were shocked by a recent FBI 'sting' operation that offered bribes to 106 New York officials. The only one who refused claimed the bribe was not big enough. 6

The widening gap between rich and poor, so familiar to those who know the streets of Bangkok or Bogota, is there for all to see in New York. Manhattan is surrounded by a hinterland of boroughs that contain some of the poorest slums in the US. Each morning subway trains filled with the workers (mostly Black, Asian or Hispanic women) leave the boroughs and empty out in Midtown or Wall Street. These are the workers who keep New York's financial empires going or try and survive with $8000-a-year jobs in the 'rag trade' (garment industry). A scene not too different from Zimbabwean workers arriving from the poor suburbs to their jobs in downtown Harare.

Most people who work in Manhattan can no longer afford to live there. Weimar-style inflation in real estate has more to do with the movement of money in a global market than with what most New Yorkers can afford to pay for housing. Manhattan's grid is like a giant monopoly board where developers from all over the world have their speculative fun.

The Blacks and Hispanics (73 per cent of the homeless) are being squeezed out of rapidly gentrifying Manhattan neighbourhoods like East Harlem and the Lower East Side. If they can't find a place in the boroughs they end up 'doubling-up' with relatives, taking refuge in the city shelter system or sleeping rough in Central Park. Racial division by neighbourhood is so pronounced one New Yorker claims the city is beginning to remind him of South Africa. 'At J street subway station everyone who transfers to the F train is lily white, all the Blacks stay on the A train to get home.' So the dynamics of underdevelopment, wealthy metropolis and impoverished hinterlands, operate even in this 'global' empire city.

There is also another New York, one hidden amid the forest of skyscrapers that covers Manhattan.
Photo: Camera Press

New York City is like the Third World in one other respect: it is filled with Third World peoples. The city has always been the first call for immigrants to the new world, the place where America meets the world. And they are still coming today: Jamaicans, Koreans, Filipinos, Central Americans, Chinese and Africans.

Abidjan, the boomtown of West Africa, draws population from all across the west end of the African Sahel. Recife in north-east Brazil is a magnet for an impoverished hinterland stretching all the way to the Guyanese border. But New York draws from a vast global hinterland - everyone from Guatemalan Indians fleeing the military to a Korean greengrocer looking for better business opportunities. There may be as many as 400,000 undocumented (illegal) workers in the greater New York area.7 Whatever the count these 'illegals' play an important role in New York. They are an enormous pool of workers without job protection, tenants without legal rights, people living in fear of being 'turned in' and cheap labour to fuel Manhattan's finance and service industries.

Despite the Third World feel you get walking around Manhattan it would be facile to say New York is becoming exactly like a Third World city. There's too much money and the middle class is too big for the comparison to be in any way exact. There is also too much of a public sector - despite Reagan-inspired cutbacks. And, though suffering, the basic physical infrastructure of bridges, roads, electricity, water and sewage systems is in place.

But even with financial and human resources unavailable to Third World cities, New York is plagued by a host of insoluble problems associated with the growth of any 'mega-city.' That is one reason the Big Apple is such a bad model for Third World countries who continue to identify progress with the growth of vast urban conglomerations.

Simply dealing with New York's waste is an awesome problem. Recently the world was treated to the spectacle of a barge full of New York garbage plying the Atlantic coast as far south as Belize in a vain search of a spot to dump the city's refuse. In one year the city generates enough waste to fill all of Manhattan's vast Central Park to a height of 11 feet. Add to this deteriorating air quality, massive traffic problems, education and welfare systems strained to the point of collapse and you get a sense of the problems created by jamming millions of people into a few square miles.

[image, unknown]
Willy Spiller / Camera Press

The restrained language of the recent Bruntland Commission Report on the environment and development describes what is happening to such 'mega-cities' in the Third World.

'Few city governments in the developing world have the power, resources, and trained staff to provide their rapidly growing populations with the land, services and facilities needed for an adequate human life: clean water, sanitation, schools, and transport. The result is mushrooming illegal settlements with primitive facilities, increased overcrowding and rampant disease linked to an unhealthy environment.'8

So what's the answer? It obviously does not lie in getting rid of cities, Pol Pot style. Most of us now live and will continue to live in an urban environment - some of us even like it. But maybe we could start rethinking city life. Does the world's population have to be concentrated in a few mega-cities? Is there no way to decentralize cultural and economic opportunities so we could have more but smaller cities? Perhaps city's could be planned with an eye towards the quality of life: more public spaces, green areas and low-income housing. We need to correct the imbalance between economic stagnation in rural areas and crowding and congestion in urban ones. And we must make sure not to overload the carrying capacity of the air, water and soil currently stretched to the breaking point by urban conglomerations like New York or Mexico City.

These changes are a long way from where we are at right now. They imply a society with a great deal more equality - and an openness to doing things differently. But it would be wrong to think of New York as just a pessimistic example. There are many New Yorkers today who are committed to change. They work with the Homeless Coalition, fight for tenant's rights, plant rooftop gardens, squat in old buildings and resist the pro-development policies of Mayor Koch. They are demanding that New York serve all its residents and not turn into a playground for the international jet set. And they do all this with the same kind of hustle and flair that makes New York an exciting place to be.

1 Jerome Charyn, Metropolis: New York as Myth, Marketplace and Magical Land, Putnam, 1986.
H.L Mencken, Prejudices; A Selection, Vintage 1959.
Charyn, op cit.
Toby and Gene Glickman, The New York Red Pages, Praeger. 1984.
Eric Lichten, Class, Power and Austerity; The New York City Fiscal Crtsis, Bergin and Garvey 1986.
6 N
ew York Times, Aug.12 1987
Emanuel Tobier, The New Immigration, New York University.
World Commission on Environment end Development, Our Common Future, Oxford University Press. 1987.

Worth reading on. New York City

Novelist Jerome Cheryn's Metropolis: New York as Myth, Marketplace and Magical Land, Putnam, 1988 is probably the best book for catching the flavour of New York. Despite an unfortunate weakness for the city's current egomaniac mayor, Ed Koch, Metropolis gives a sense both of the enormity of New York's problems and the energy of New Yorkers in trying to solve them. There is another flavour piece on New York in a collection by British travel writer Jan Morris entitled Destinations: Essays from Rolling Stone, Oxford 1980. Morris' article on Manhattan is her usual perceptive, high-quality writing.

In a somewhat more academic vein Eric Lictin's Class, Power and Austerity: The New York City Fiscal Crisis, Bergin and Garvey, 1988 gives a good account of a struggle that revealed exactly who held power in the city. The New York Red Pages: A Radical Tourist Guide by Toby and Gene Glickman, Praeger, 1984 reveals some little known aspects of Manhattan's history. For keeping up to date with development politics in the city the best sources are the Village Voice and City Limits, New York's alternative monthly that covers 'news from the other New York' (40 Prince St., New York, N.Y. 10001 USA, subs are $15 plus postage).

Three other books that get at some of the urban dilemma are Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts in the Air, Verso Editions, 1982, the excellent State of the World report for 1987 published by the Woridwatch Institute and a good collection of essays entitled Gentrification of the City by Neil Smith and Peter Williams, Allen and Unwin, 1986.

last page choose another issue go to the contents page [image, unknown] next page

New Internationalist issue 178 magazine cover This article is from the December 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop