FIRE and ICE: The Realities of 21st Century Urban Development

Modern day urban development shares similarities with its antecedents but also clearly exists in a new economic, political, and social reality. The industries long responsible for driving urban growth remain significant (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate, hence the acronym FIRE) but new economic engines (or in the case of universities old ones with new mandates) and organized resistance have changed the face of the game. Community and neighborhood associations, like those led by Jane Jacobs in opposition to Robert Moses’s development in Greenwich Village, persist in surprisingly entrenched forms. Furthermore, NIMBYism’s prominence over the past three decades raises as many questions as answers. Who do these groups represent? Are they cover for more conservative, exclusionary forces or real manifestations of neighborhood agency? Do they supply the needed brakes on untrammeled economic development by business, institutional, and municipal elites, or do they remain as undemocratic as their “elitist” counterparts, promoting interests as parochial as “global city” discourse is expansive?

University as Economic Engine

What NYU has done is not just change for the better its immediate surroundings in the Village; its NYU that gave rise to the shift of the cultural and social center of Manhattan south of 14th Street.

– Marty Lipton, NYU Board Member in New York magazine, Nov. 22, 2010

Today New York University represents not only a top tier educational institution but also a force for urban renewal and change. Throughout its history, NYU has been a major player in the city’s development. However, the academic and professional juggernaut that New Yorkers have come to identify as NYU took decades to achieve. New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman recently dug into the recent controversies that the university’s plans have sparked in the historic Greenwich/West Village area of the city. Pointing to the new development struggles of the 21st century, Sherman’s work dutifully explores the tensions underlying community-university relations. Global city tropes combined with long held beliefs by prominent New Yorkers like the late Daniel Patrick Moynhihan (Sherman quotes the Irish American Senator, “if you ‘want to create a great world city, establish a great university and wait 200 years’”) laid the groundwork for an aggressive modern “power broker” like NYU’s current President John Sexton, who envisions a university that serves as both symbol and exemplar of New York itself.

Sexton’s increased expansion includes a new 38 story hotel and 1400 bed freshman dorm. Unlike the (possibly) more esteemed Columbia University, Sexton suggests that NYU remains distinctly of the city unlike the cloistered Ivy League campus to the North. Obviously, as Sherman points out and Sexton signifies, the work of urban theorists such as the controversial Richard Florida (Rise of the Creative Class) provide the theoretical foundations for NYU’s push. The idea that universities, hospitals, and the like serve as a new source of renewal outside of the traditional areas of FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) has been amplified by the work of writers like Florida who suggest that drawing more young creative types will propel American cities forward into the new century. Instead of FIRE, Sexton presents a new paradigm, ICE, “intellectual, cultural, and educational.” Some might suggest ICE sounds a bit woolly headed for any tangible development, perhaps even masking serious political, social, and economic conflicts under the pleasant sounding acronym. Moreover, many critics doubt Florida’s conclusions. Several naysayers have argued Florida’s prognosis strikes of elitism while ignoring the social and political frictions arising out of this new configuration. For example, throughout Sherman’s article, local Greenwich and West Village residents cracked wise about the NYU student body; as community activist Susan Goren remarked, “I remember the Village with Bob Dylan on the bus, Mick Jagger at the Lone Star. All it is now is NYU kids texting and walking into you wherever you go.” Others don’t even reflect on what the Village once was, choosing to take aim at the university’s itself, as one community meeting attendee exclaimed “This is a crime against the Village, and it must be stopped.”

Sherman does well to note that NYU’s entire history has attempted to balance its own institutional needs with those of the city. Repeatedly, the university encountered resistance, such that in its new efforts, it has reached out to the community to negotiate or at least give the appearance of negotiation, through an appointed task force that consists of local residents and university officials. Predictably, depending on who one speaks with, the success of this interaction remains debatable. The tendency of opponents to fall back on Robert Moses analogies persists. To his credit, Sherman acknowledges the incongruity of such comparisons but also admits that aspects of such juxtapositions remain apt: “The Moses analogy can be crude in its own way – Marc Jacobs and Carrie Bradshaw not to mention the financial industry did their part to transform the Village into a theme park – but it is certainly true that NYU is the largest single force shaping development in the Village.” As Sherman points out, since its establishment the university has expanded by an average of 125,000 square feet annually.

Clearly, Robert Moses towers over the history of New York. He shaped the city in ways that perhaps, no other individual has, yet, as Joel Schwartz pointed out in his 1993 work, The New York Approach: Robert Moses, Urban Liberals, and Redevelopment of the Inner City, Moses proved a major player but not necessarily the unilateral force Robert Caro portrayed. Yes, Robert Moses exerted a magnificent influence, but not the all powerful czardom that Caro attributes to New York’s “master builder.” Moses power rested with establishment liberals as much as elite business interests. “It also depended on the grudging approval of a generation of city planners, who could support the ends, if not the means, of Moses style renewal,” Schwartz writes. “The times as much as the man shaped the prototype for the redevelopment to come.” (Schwartz, 85). For example, communities targeted for slum clearance and renewal often purposely attracted municipal attention as “civic groups defined norms of homogenous community life, which used class and race to measure what was on the discordant fringes. These steps were carried out by self-proclaimed citizens committees, executives acting in plenary sessions, and planners who stamped their sketches “confidential,” writes Schwartz (144). Liberals and conservatives alike believed in the Progressive era belief in development at all costs. Though many claimed to be creating stable interracial neighborhoods, such efforts were more class based and exclusive as often large numbers of working class minorities and some whites found themselves evicted, stuck with self relocation due to renewal efforts. Moses used public housing as a crutch for relocation complaints. Since nonwhites were disproportionately affected by development efforts, this resulted in a skewed racial public housing population. Schwartz goes to great lengths illustrating that neighborhoods courted development, even brokering it. Moreover, organizations believed to be traditionally left leaning such as Columbia, NYU, Bellvue, and local unions often consented, aided, or in NYU and Columbia’s cases, drove redevelopment. Schwartz even argues that in the case of NYU and its leading advocate Edwin Salmon, Moses acted as a brake on development as Salmon spouted off one ambitious redevelopment plan after another. Schwartz’s account suggests that opponents of NYU expansion may not be as pure of heart or as advantageous for the city as popularly believed.

Ironically, NYU’s current position as economic engine contrasts sharply with its much more precarious finances of the 1970s. Professor Themis Chronopoulos’s “Urban Decline and the Withdrawal of New York University from University Heights, The Bronx” in the 2009 Spring/Fall edition of the Bronx County Journal addresses this very issue. Like Sherman, Chronopoulos acknowledges NYU’s tendency toward expansion, noting that “in the postwar period, NYU overextended itself through construction and the acquisition of new facilities,” all in the name of increasing/meeting rising student enrollments. Chronopoulos suggests that NYU’s desire to reach national acclaim only began in earnest in 1962 with the presidency of James M. Hester. The climb to prominence required attention to not only the population of local students but also those from out of state, making university growth a critical factor to increasing the size of the student body. (Chronopoulos, 6) In fact, this overexpansion along with decreased enrollment at its Bronx campus, placed debt and financial burdens on the university such that by 1973, NYU sold its outer borough campus to the city. The former Bronx branch became BMCC while NYU used the funds from the sale to keep the institution afloat.

Still, NYU failed to serve as the only example of a institution of higher education falling on hard times in the 1970s. Rather the 1970 study The New Depression in Higher Education found that nearly 2/3 of the nation’s universities had overexpanded in the postwar period, leaving themselves financially vulnerable. Though each institution experienced the crisis differently, often unique to its particular circumstances, the report did identify six prevalent factors, including “high inflation, increased student aid, rising faculty salaries, more research activities, the creation of new programs, and the costs of student protests.” (Chronopoulos, 10) When Columbia and other schools claim that universities act as “recession proof employment engines,” they would do well to reflect upon the struggles of the 1970s. Considering the cost cutting measures of California public universities in recent years, one might suggest this point has been somewhat exaggerated.

One of the ironies of universities in the 1960s, especially urban ones like NYU or Columbia, was the fact that they engaged in corporate and government backed research, some of it for controversial armaments and the like, while many of their students utilized these institutions as vectors of dissent. Moreover, as with the 1968 Columbia riots, students sometimes protested local urban renewal or expansion efforts by university leaders. In the current environment and with the rise of social media as a form of protest, students’ role as social critics seems muted or at least blunted. Though some recent examples of mobilization across University of California campuses and occasional outbursts in England suggest that this aspect of higher education remains, it hardly seems the same level of fervor or intensity that the nation witnessed in earlier decades. Certainly, fewer students today organize to oppose urban renewal efforts by their schools.

As Sherman notes, the bigger the institution, the greater its suffocating effects, as universities sometimes operate as a smothering influence, undermining the more distinctive aspects of metropolitan region. Schools like Michigan and Berkeley shape local activity, or as Sherman concedes, “Universities create their own gravity: the more massive, the more dominant.” So what about universities in less densely populated metropolitan regions? Take Old Dominion University, located in Norfolk, Virginia, one of several cities that make up the Hampton Roads area. In 1986, the school informed local residents that it was planning to acquire land adjacent to the university as part of a 5.6 million proposal to be approved by the state’s General Assembly. Rather than build a hotel or student dorms, ODU hoped to construct “a row of fraternity houses for about 320 students.”  While the proposal included parks and recreation fields, journalist Elizabeth Regan summarized local homeowner and ODU alum Christie Sykes’s dismay at the proposal. “Her family has been a good neighbor to the school and is active there,” Regan wrote. “But she thinks the school did not return the favor.” Several communities also resented the proposal. Residents of Larchmont, Edgewater, and Edgemere expressed anger over what many viewed as “a double edged sword: the loss of their homes or severely diminished property values if Greek Row is built nearby.” Perhaps this is reminiscent of the 1980s or local Hampton Roads attitudes, but can anyone imagine a debate between NYU/Columbia/University of Chicago in which the school attempted to build “fraternity houses.” Needless to say it seems highly unlikely.

Resistance is Futile?

And what of the kind of community resistance encountered by NYU? Sherman carefully illustrates the negatives and positives of this opposition. Getting NYU and other institutions to consider the consequences of their expansion while creating some sort of communication between local residents and university officials must be a positive. However, the expectations regarding the task force’s efficacy among opponents fail to match their perceived reality. Take Task force member David Gruber, who claims to have come to the debate with an open mind yet, declared NYU officials “real fuck ups.” Not exactly the stuff of nuanced negotiation. Village Voice editor in chief and “longtime NYU observer” John Sutton explained to Sherman the difficultly of panels like the NYU community task force, saying, “[The opposition] doesn’t show any proportionality. Even when NYU does something good.” Sutter characterized some of the opposition as adopting an “infantile point of view.”

Sherman’s article and Sutter’s insights suggest that local civic groups and community associations might not be as pure as the driven snow. Philadelphia magazine contributor Steve Volk covered similar territory in the July 2010 issue. While not dealing with universities, Volk documented the difficulties Philadelphia urban entrepreneurs encountered when attempting to build in the city. Undoubtedly, areas of the city could benefit from refurbishment by new business, such as new restaurants. Volk acknowledged the vision of a prominent businessman/restaurant owner Stephan Starr being forced to meet with community organizations like the Fishtown Neighborhood Association strikes many people as “beautiful enough to make anyone in love with American democracy a little weepy-eyed. Even the mightiest among us must stand before the people, etc., etc.” Yet, Volk quickly departs from this narrative, casting a cynical eye over the proceedings and noting that this Pollyannaish conceptualization of urban development “skews horribly wrong . . . developers don’t just apply for permits from all the appropriate agencies. Developers must also perform a song and dance — sometimes the civic equivalent of a lap dance — for the communities in which they hope to locate businesses.” Volk’s initial example revolves around Star’s effort to build in the aforementioned Fishtown neighborhood. What does Starr offer? According to Volk, a pretty good deal:

In this case, what Starr’s up to is pretty sweet: He intends to renovate a dilapidated eyesore of a building near the corner of Girard and Frankford, prune the trees that are growing inside it, and remold it according to the protocols of Starr über-cool — building the slick city version of a traditional German beer garden. We know what happens next. Property values, already climbing in Fishtown, will rise even more. And other businesses will open in Starr’s wake.

The demands made by the Fishtown Association resemble those presented by similar groups around the city. Demands range from promises regarding the employment of locals to new playground equipment to rules for the kind of restaurant and food that will be served. The problem with all this, Volk suggests, is that these associations lack any kind of democratic representation. Who becomes a member? How does one gain a leadership role? Are decisions or demands constructed from what the actual community wants? Volk points to several examples where it sometimes seemed that local big wigs squashed attempts at outdoor seating simply to settle old scores rather than to consider actual neighborhood benefits. Philadelphia’s restaurant owners clearly fear these organizations, as few entrepreneurs seek approval from zoning boards without community support in their pocket.

Still, with the diminishing coffers of municipal government and their expanding economic vulnerabilities, one could argue these groups exist as one of the few brakes on development. Numerous urban policy experts have suggested that gentrification and urban growth are processes that require government intervention to slow down over expansion and reduce uneven development. What’s emerged in Philadelphia (where municipal government had not updated zoning rules in decades due to the results of Robert Moses style urban renewal) is a “transactional process” that unfolds between community groups and developers. Roger Sanjek and Steven Gregory have contributed work that argues community groups today operate on an uneven playing field. In the case of Corona, Queens, residents found opposing municipal plans to construct a light rail train line to JFK airport difficult. Pro development forces employ Global city tropes while portraying local residents as willfully holding back the metropolis’ progress, thus retarding all its residents of future prospects. The inability to form an argument or line of persuasion that explains why such developments will negatively affect the entire city, not just local residents repeatedly emerges as one of the obstacles to successful opposition. Clarence Stone documented similar circumstances for Atlanta’s communities in the late 1960s and 1970s.

If some point to issues like environmentalism as means to unify dissent, some writers have noted difficulties with this as well. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis argued that in Southern California, the language of environmentalism was marshaled to soften the image of neighborhood associations, thus hopefully expanding its support. In this way environmentalism and the slow growth movement was sometimes more “about homeowner control of land use and much more.” (159) Minority populations often faced with a false choice between environmentalism and employment, chose to side with pro-growth forces on some occasions and with slow growth on others. The implicit exclusionary rhetoric of many homeowner’s associations complicated choices for minority communities who had been increasingly squeezed out of other neighborhoods by government development schemes that wanted to avoid crossing middle and upper class white communities. The eventual emergence of NIMBYism serves as Davis’s concluding observation. The complexity of the issues means that determining specific class polarization around land use has proven nearly impossible. The appropriation of anti-elitist populist rhetoric by developers in opposition to NIMBYism further complicates the historical picture. Though the slow growth movement proliferated, it did so in individualistic ways, each focusing on their own parochial interests. Steven Erie has come to similar conclusions regarding SoCal and the construction of transportation infrastructure. Erie points out that at least in terms of airport construction, minority groups pose far less a threat than wealthy white Anglos, often Republicans, who want to prevent obscured skylines, pollution, increased traffic congestion and property value decline that many associate with transportation development.

How much do these West Coast examples mesh with their counterparts in the East? Unclear. Consider Volk’s assertion that much of the audience at the Fishtown – Starr meeting consisted of agreeable “30-something hipster moms and dad” but that its “disaffected minorities” [note- Volk here is using the term minority as a numerical term, not a racial category] who scream the loudest or exhibit the strangest behavior:

Tonight, one young man in the audience wears vampire contacts, which make the pupils of his eyes appear pinpoint-small and devilish; he stares at Starr with a thin, perpetual smile. But the restaurateur never seems to notice, let alone get creeped out. One man tells Starr that if he is disturbed by the noise, “water balloons — no, beer balloons” will rain down on the restaurant’s open courtyard.

In The Whole World is Watching, Columbia sociologist and former SDS firebrand Todd Gitlin illustrated the process by which movements became hostage to the media’s focus on particular individuals like a Stokely Carmichael or Tom Hayden, whose proclamations came to be seen as dogma for their particular followers. Gitlin points out, these individuals, for better and worse, served as the public’s image of their respective organizations, defining them through their public statements and actions. With no debate or consultation, these movements hardened into vehicles for the personalities of leaders. The portrait painted by Sherman and Volk suggests that this remains a possibility, though certainly one might assert that the rise of social media might mitigate such developments.

Interestingly, the actor that seems, if not absent, marginal to all this is city government. Balancing business interests, environmental concern, racial/class equality and sundry other issues of metropolitan life has never been easy. In previous decades, many cities simply scrimped on racial/class equality, often maintaining distinct inequality. However, in today’s world, municipal government cannot afford to alienate its non white residents. City government in these accounts seems impotent; a mere institution responsible for shepherding business interests through city hall while appeasing resentments held by the city’s diverse populations. This is not Robert Moses’ New York. NYU’s John Sexton seems to loosely fit that role, but unlike Moses, a incredibly powerful public employee, Sexton is a public figure whose president of a private university.

Neoliberal economic governance leaves municipalities vulnerable to credit rating agencies who directly affect urban finances. Cities adapt to these agencies’ values, one of which is economic development. Increasingly dependent on transnational capital flows and riskier lending schemes, development that occurs without use of city funds must be eternally appealing. Moreover, economic conditions and efforts by cities nationwide to draw middle class professionals have resulted in increased urban homeownership. This dependence on middle class homeowners means that one of urban areas greatest sources of revenue, property taxes, have become increasingly limited as they are sometimes viewed as one of politics’ figurative “third rails.”

In the end, for all the gnashing of teeth in Philadelphia and New York, what seems to be needed is mediation by a less interested third party. Who this should be appears less clear. Volk blamed the lack of action by Philadelphia’ government as cause for the new “transactional” nature of urban development. While some champion such arrangements as tangible ways to solve these sorts of conflicts, others see it as graft. The problem with somehow empowering local government is that it depends on local government, an entity dependent on largely on local circumstances. This dependence on local conditions makes extracting a one size fits all remedy to the tensions of 21st century urban growth that much more difficult. Moreover, where once the dividing line between an overbearing Robert Moses and local nurturing Village mother Jane Jacobs appeared brightlined, today it all seems washed in differing degrees of gray. As for city government? How can twenty years of “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” (and do not lay all the blame at the feet of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton may not have drank the same kool aid, but some of that pot he smoked sparked his inner Alan Greenspan), neoliberal government, and reduced federal support for cities not exert a knee breaking influence on mayors and city councils nation wide?

The country’s two most prominent Mayors, the outgoing Richard M. Daley and New York’s Michael Bloomberg, have mastered the dark arts of neoliberal economic development, but even their governments lack the kind of authority Daley’s father, Richard J, enjoyed. Michael Bloomberg’s achievements have come with the cost of economic stratification, as Manhattan now consists of the very wealthy or the very poor. For all his successes, Bloomberg long ago conceded that those middle and lower middle class New Yorkers who hope to grow old in the city should move to the outer boroughs. They did. Now parts of Brooklyn are becoming the new Manhattan, while even less celebrated Queens reports higher rentals and properties. What about Daley? He sold off public properties like the revenue producing Skyway toll road, for one time lump sum payments. Within in a couple of years, the money had been depleted, leaving real questions about how future governments will account for the loss of revenue. The HOPE VI redevelopment of Chicago’s high rises has shown mixed results and had unanticipated effects on the city’s inner ring suburbs and lower income communities.

All this is to ask, who do we throw in with? Local community groups that demand tribute and sometimes fail to represent the interests of residents? City governments that throw tax incentives, abatements, and other worldly prizes to draw investment yet seem unable or unwilling to restrict their development? Developers who appear to generally be more attentive to community concerns (perhaps only because they have been stung in recent years, nonetheless …) but may simply not understand local dynamics or neighborhoods adequately? Right now, this unholy triumvirate operates much like a three legged stool, precariously balanced on three unequal partitions. With the right manipulation, it still works, but if one’s hoping for long term stability, in the words of English reformer John Bradford, “There but for the grace of god, go I.”

Ryan Reft