New York City tends to be a place of social movements, especially downtown NYC. In New York City, activists pester pedestrians, constantly trying to find the next person kind enough to answer questions, simply listen to the cause, or donate some money. If you live in Manhattan and don’t buy your organic groceries at Whole Foods or Trader Joes, you’re not really a Manhattanite. If you wear genuine fur during the seemingly infinite winter months, a PETA activist may throw paint on you during your leisurely walk through the streets. This is the picture that many people have of someone who lives in NYC, but it is not always the reality. While it is true that these events happen, not every Manhattanite is a green-smoothie drinking, paint-throwing activist that will only talk about the latest protest they participated in. In NYC, a more non-violent form of social movement is also occurring, where the communities improve their own neighborhoods’ by deciding the map of the city based on what they believe is the best use of public space.
Downtown is seen as the place for major social movement in New York City, and has the history to support it. Many protests and riots that were instrumental in changing public policy and the usage of ‘public’ land occurred right around New York University in the Villages. Tompkins Square Park is an area where the history of police riots and community member’s protests is not often discussed. While many tend to talk about the lack of safety in the park due to the windy pathways and the extra presence of homeless folk, we are not informed that this safety default is so that large masses of people cannot congregate together to protest anymore. This causes me to question whether public safety or the inability to protest is more important to the state? Although it is seen as public space, the government proscribes what spaces can be used for what activities, a large component of urban design and planning. Who should decide what is best for the area, the people who live there or the government ‘experts’? While the government may not know the best means to develop an area that it is not familiar with, can a community be held responsible for evaluating the benefits and consequences of developing their area a certain way?
Something that can always be disputed is what the word ‘public’ means, especially in terms of city development and planning. The argument between public and private ownership, particularly in terms of housing, is never-ending. It is disappointing when the government helps to fund public and privately owned facilities such as Barclay’s Center, that do not perform the economic ‘miracles’ they are already shown not to. Trickle-down economics has not worked with previous public-private ownerships, with studies done from multiple Olympics demonstrating this failure, why would it work another time? If I remember my father’s lectures correctly, doing the same act multiple times and expecting different outcomes is called insanity.
If an argument against community-based planning is that the government is an expert then I disagree, because these so-called experts have studies showing certain results but instead choose to ignore those results. Not only does the government choose to fund public-private ownerships through the 421a tax-break, but it also develops low-income neighborhoods in order to create more profitable middle- to upper-class housing. When low-income renters and home-owners do not have enough housing or cannot afford the housing the government puts in their area, they have to move to a different neighborhood or become homeless. Instead of fixing the problem of insufficient low-income housing, there is only the creation of more problems due to bureaucracy and the tendency to want profit more than to fix social issues.
Although the government may not be an expert on developing a community how it would be best improved, I do not know if a community is an expert either. Firstly, even if a community creates their own plan to improving their neighborhood, the largest problem is that the development still needs to be approved by the state. Tom Angotti noted that this was a problem to community-based progressive planning, because overall the government would decide what is ‘best’ for the area even if it was the opposite of what the community decided. Second, can community-members be held responsible for the welfare of that community? Despite the fact that the community is best to identify the problem spots of that neighborhood, they are not necessarily educated as to how to best eradicate or improve that problem.
Tom Angotti writes about how there is no set formula to community-based planning, which makes it seem even more difficult to use community planning as a form of development and social movement in a neighborhood. However, a benefit of using a community-planner is that this person would act as a buffer between the community and state, possibly providing a happy-medium between the two (sometimes) conflicting ideas and ideals. Another problem with community-based planning and development is the fact that this form of development does not guarantee that gentrification does not occur. Therefore, the community-members may eventually be forced out and displaced based on the improvements that they created and oversaw in their own neighborhood.
A third complication to community-based planning is race and class. Angotti argued that “race and class are … the central factors needed to understand planning in the city,” and in my opinion both factors will never be given enough attention because it seems to be politically incorrect to point out these noticeable problems of racism and classism in America (6). If we are not willing or think we are not able to point out the problems, how can we fix them?
Although progressive community-based planning has many minor problems and set-backs, I do believe that it is one of the best options for social movements. While riots and protests tend to get public policies changed or created in a faster time period, they are violent and can create political, social, and economic tension. Progressive community-based planning seems the best way to intertwine the ideals of the government and community with the least amount of consequences.
Unfortunately, one thing that repeats itself in NYC history is the commodification of housing and/or land for profit with many different consequences, and the East Village is a great example of this. The East Village was a marketing stunt to attract people to live in what was, and still technically is, the Lower East Side where there was a great stereotype of crime and drug use. NYU is built on a lot of land with history of using people for profits. Angotti defined displacement as a process in which low-income people are “engineered out of their traditional neighborhoods, to make way for new occupants deemed more “desirable” because of the color of their skins, the taxes they will pay, or the “life style” they lead” (2). Take the area around Washington Square Park for example, which used to be a “less-desirable” neighborhood filled with crime and drugs. After NYU built its first few buildings and students, professors, and administration started to move in, the area started to improve and rents sky-rocketed. Now the area is extremely expensive to live in, much like the entirety of New York City. Much of the city is the rich making profits off of the poor, using their less-desirable land to turn it around to create upper-class housing that only a few can afford. Take Astor Place, named after John Jacob Astor, who was one of the richest people in the world due to the family exploitation of Native Americans in the fur trade, and owned a lot of tenements in the LES. Instead of arguing against the exploitations of others, we post someone’s name on the buildings and maps and celebrate it. Similar arguments are given against the celebration of Columbus Day.
Why is New York City seen as a place of typically violent activism, where every decision, action, or lack thereof is disagreed upon by the people? The difference between a protest in New York City and a protest in a small town elsewhere is simply the number of people present. In many ways, New York City acts as a model for other cities around the world. Often the creative new policies in NYC are used in other cities, states, and countries even if the parameters to the policies are different. The NYCHA is a model housing authority for the entire United States, but not every city operates the same as New York City and should be given the same fix for a problem that may not be the same. I believe that cities should not be typified and made seem all the same; London is different from Paris which is different from Buenos Aires which is not the same as Tokyo which is different from Dubai. Every city has a different problem, and governments and developers should not be afraid to risk new ideas. As Jane Jacobs argued, city-planning is essentially an experiment, so why don’t we embrace that?
Tom Angotti – New York For Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate