Last week, New York City lost one of its greatest urban critics and most outspoken voices of dissent. Robert Fitch, best known for his controversial analysis of 20th Century urban development and planning, died on March 4th at the age of 72. In the Nation on Tuesday, Doug Henwood paid tribute to this undervalued author and organizer.
Although I'd been living in New York for a decade when we met, I really didn't understand how the city worked politically. Talking with Bob made it all pretty clear. We talked endlessly about the role of Wall Street and the real estate elite in planning the city (themes he would put between covers in The Assassination of New York, published by Verso in 1996). So many of the things that were attributed to anonymous global forces, like the deindustrialization of the city and its transformation into the prototype of the globally oriented post-industrial metropolis, were consciously guided by bankers, developers, and their hired hands. They used all the instruments of state power—subsidies, zoning laws, eminent domain—to get their way.
The landscape of the city-the propinquity of skyscrapers and slums, of the very rich and the very poor-reflected the kind of hollowed-out society that a FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate)-dominated economy created. Neighborhoods that once housed factories and their workers were either emptied out or gentrified. If you were employed in the FIRE sector, you could do very nicely. If you were employed in one of the elite service industries—advertising, consulting, and the like—that populated those skyscrapers, you could do pretty nicely. Not as nicely as a bond trader or a dealmaker, for sure—but a lot better than the messengers, busboys, and bootblacks that did the scut work for the service aristocracy.
Visit the Nation to read Henwood's article in full. Visit the Verso website to read more about The Assassination of New York.