Book review - The Creative Destruction of New York City: Engineering the City for the Elite

Authored by Alessandro Busà and reviewed by Catalina Neculai

5 Sep 2018, 9:56 a.m.
Catalina Neculai


The Creative Destruction of New York City: Engineering the City for the Elite

Authored by Alessandro Busà and reviewed by Catalina Neculai

New York, NY: Oxford University Press 2017; 360 pp.: 978-0-19-061009-8, £19.99/US$29.95 (hbk)


An important feature of neoliberal urbanisation has been the ostensibly random and natural, yet ultimately programmatic, advancements of the gentrification frontiers in cities in the Global North and the Global South. Urban studies research has responded to this accelerated and continuous socio-spatial restructuring in the form of an open call for a ‘geography of gentrification’ (Lees, 2000). The contours of this developing geography of gentrification are rich, dynamic and consensual to a degree. In its dynamism, the field has continued to engage with the theoretical, empirical and lexical dimensions of gentrification. The name has become saturated and thus has acquired new prefixes that denote the shifts in the nature and reach of gentrification in different contexts and underpinned by different ideologies of urbanisation – re/super/hyper/mega-gentrification – while the semantics of gentrification have yielded new, more fitting coinages –‘greentrification’, ‘Katrina-fication’ (p. 24). Gentrifications (in the plural) are, therefore, very much embedded in the history, politics, culture and socio-economics of the spaces in which they unfold.

Located in an exceptional laboratory of urbanisation and urban research (Mollenkopf and Castells, 1991: 5), Alessandro Busà’s book The Creative Destruction of New York City: Engineering the City for the Elite is a noteworthy and much-needed addition to the geography of gentrification. Notwithstanding its focus on a ‘usual suspect’ in the gentrification literature (Lees et al., 2015), the book enriches the interdisciplinary New York canon and contributes significantly to the late 20th-century/early 21st-century political and historical geography of the city while demonstrating its inexhaustible, and often alarming, possibilities. Written during a period of recurrent concerns over the imminent and hopeless loss, or crushing, of the ‘city’s soul’, The Creative Destruction is also a timely engagement with the often masked processes, actors and agendas that have driven the socio-spatial restructuring of New York’s neighbourhoods.

An earlier book-length account of this loss by gentrification is Sharon Zukin’s (2010)Naked City,which explains urban authenticity and how the revivalism of neighbourhood ‘character’ in the city’s gentrification has worked against the very neighbourhoods and residents it wishes to keep ‘authentic’. In the same vein, DW Gibson’s (2015)The Edge Becomes the Center gives voice to New Yorkers’ experiences of the ubiquity of gentrification, of what it means to be an urban citizen and ‘take the city seriously’ (Gibson, 2015: 315). In another account, Jeremiah Moss decries the hyper-gentrification of a ‘once neurotic, now evermore narcissistic and sociopathic’ city (Moss, 2017: 8). The Creative Destruction is thus not singular in its concerns, but it singularly unravels the macro- and micro-politics at work in the piecemeal gentrification, re-gentrification and super-gentrification of New York’s boroughs, from the wastelands of far-East Brooklyn to Manhattan’s own, already redeveloped districts.

Preoccupied with ‘the most aggressive urban development agenda ever adopted in the history of New York City’ (p. xviii), the book carefully unearths the actors and channels of urban power, ‘the invisible hands pulling all the levers’ (Moss, 2017: 41). ‘Naming names’, Busà draws up a map of networked ‘stakeholders’ (Marcuse, 2002) with vested interests, who have constituted an urban regime that, simply put, has served the interests of neoliberal corporate capital and enabled its social reproduction through a seemingly innocuous (because technical) politics of rezoning. A development weapon in the hands of public and private actors, New York’s rezoning for profit has been enacted under the guise of urban ‘quality of life’, ‘safety’, ‘sustainability’, ‘uniqueness’, ‘dynamism’ and ‘authenticity’, yet displacing existing residents and small businesses despite such positive grammar of renewal and preservation.

At a glance, the book tells the story of New York’s latest phase of state-sponsored gentrification, drawing on a tsunami of empirical qualitative and quantitative data that lend it a high degree of factual trustworthiness; in fact, the demystification of political ‘slogans’ through recourse to hard facts is the book’s implicit mission. While to a certain extent methodologically ambiguous, the book’s tactics of research that can be gleaned from the narratives appear to combine evidence collected from interviews with residents and grassroots non-governmental actors, media stories (including alternative, radical or local media), official city reports, as well as a wealth of secondary literature that consolidates its propositions. Busà explicitly espouses the theoretical and ideological frames of interpretation on the left, namely the research that understands urbanisation, and by extent gentrification, as the often disastrously uneven and cataclysmic (re)making of the city in the image of capital. Just like many of us engaged in Marxist-inspired urban work, Busà takes this type of framing as a given and projects it, unwittingly perhaps, as an expression of his academic urban activism. This activism is particularly visible in his academic discourse which is punctuated by ironies (see, for example, the imagined shopping list of the Russian or Middle Eastern oligarch, consuming New York, on p. 88) and hyperboles, both conveying a sense of accumulated dramatism in the representation of the city producers (‘legions’) or of the new urban consumers (‘hordes’).

From the very start, The Creative Destruction is grounded in Busà’s own personal story of housing as a non-New Yorker ‘creative’ being priced in and out of different iconic neighbourhoods in the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn: West Village, China Town, Chelsea, the Bowery, Bedford-Stuyvesant. Rightly confronting ‘the gentrifier in the mirror’ (Schlichtman and Patch, 2014), Busà then reassures himself that he is not one of ‘the gentrifiers of the desired kind’ (p. x), thus moving his attention from molecular practices in a ‘deranged housing market’ to what he calls ‘corporate-style creative destruction’ (p. xv), whereby the city is run like a corporate business, with the Mayor as its CEO. The narrative strands that run through the book’s chapters function as the building blocks in his demonstration. Divided into seven chapters, with a ‘Foreword’, an ‘Introduction’ and an ‘Afterword’, the book is organised around three interrelated narratives, with two case studies as thoroughly examined exemplars of rezoning as ‘creative destruction’, a commonly recycled Schumpeterian metaphor particularly pertinent to New York’s own history of urbanisation (see also Neculai, 2014).

One narrative (Chapters 2, 3 and, to an extent, 7) details the patterns of investment and disinvestment in the urban built environment after the Second World War, and more significantly, in the wake of the city’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. It shows how the reactivations of the real estate market underlying (re/super-)gentrification have been firmly induced by municipal politics and the actual policies of consecutive administrations from Abraham Beame to Michael Bloomberg and de Blasio (who seems unable to shake off Bloomberg’s pro-business legacy). Busà recounts the city’s history from the planned shrinkage and the advent of the FIRE industry of the 1970s through the pro-growth machine of the 1990s and 2000s to an equally critical urban present. Aside from the gradual, block-by-block destruction of the authentic city, these policy-led developments have also caused a perpetual crisis of housing affordability which, by the time of De Blasio’s administration (2013 to the present), has become even more deeply entrenched than actually resolved.

Connected with the evolution of urban space under capitalism is Busà’s supply–demand paradigm that seeks to explain (re-)investments in blighted, vacated or already gentrified neighbourhoods as the result of a wilful dialectic of production and consumption, and a mutually determinant relation between the ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ of the city, with a visible impact on its physical, symbolic and social spaces. It is, of course, important to understand that the dynasties and powerful actors of the FIRE industry go hand-in-hand with the governmental actors and agencies, in partnerships that often evade public scrutiny. It is also highly relevant to note the demographic of in-movers, the new urban and creative classes, the tourists and the super-rich laying claims to unique urban experiences and iconic urban places. However, the binary needs to be further disentangled or collapsed by taking into account, not just the producers’/consumers’ evident intersectionalities of class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, education, profession or income, but also their degrees of decision-making and resistant power.

The second and third interlocking narratives (Chapters 4, 6 and 7) regard the actual rezoning policies and the city’s branding campaigns that are both a consequence of rezoning and its very rationale. In more technical and data-heavy explanations, Busà looks at the history and political meanings of (re)zoning in New York in order to show how the ‘area-by-area’ reclassification amendments to the 1961 zoning plan are a planning strategy that panders to market demands and the needs of an imagined or desired community of in-moving residents while neglecting and displacing the areas’ existing residents and small businesses. In parallel, through hegemonic representations in the media and popular culture, branding strategies capitalise on the propitious conditions for business growth and residential mobilities especially at critical points in the city’s history. Busà employs a wealth of empirical examples that beef up his accounts. Chapters 1 and 5, in particular, focus on two parallel rezoning plans: Harlem’s 125th Street and Coney Island, both areas in need of ‘revitalisation’ after a post-war history of blight.

The limited scope of this review does not allow for further incursions but I encourage urban studies researchers and students to engage with Alessandro Busà’s book in depth and in full. And in conclusion, I propose a different kind of reading and line of questioning from the ones discussed so far, namely the issue of political representation and democratisation of participation in the production, reproduction and consumption of urban space. The book is almost despondent on the issue of community activism, since most of the rezoning stories recounted within its pages are stories of failed community participation whether by community boards or by grassroots organising. Busà seems to suggest, although marginally, that coalition building between working class and middle class urbanites against the elite city of finance and real estate could be a solution. Whether solutions come through new forms of political civic participation and coalition formations or new forms of mobilisation, community activism requires its own counter ‘thick descriptions’.



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