Book Review Preview: How to Kill a City

By Dennis E. Gale

Peter Moskowitz. How to Kill a City. (New York: Nation Books, 2017)

Journalist Moskowitz pens a provocative book arguing that gentrification — in virtually all of its dimensions — destroys communities. An impassioned writer, he centers his critique on case studies of four U.S. cities: New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York. Through a series of interviews, direct observations of local conditions, and citations of various published sources he argues that the forces of gentrification are destroying the social diversity of neighborhood life.

Despite his myriad attacks on gentrification and its impacts on working class people, Moskowitz is quick to acknowledge that, yes, he too is a gentrifier. In his native New York, he and his friends patronize clubs and bars in areas undergoing reinvestment. He acknowledges that some of these establishments have replaced other businesses once catering to the needs of low- and moderate-income families. And shifting demographic patterns have replaced racial and ethnic populations with college-educated elites. He skewers the public and private sectors, both of which, he insists, court wealth, income, and public revenues at the expense of long-term residents.

Moskowitz shows that even Detroit and New Orleans, two cities long challenged by population losses, physical decline, and financial disparities, are nonetheless experiencing moderate levels of public and private reinvestment. In both cases, city leaders have adopted policies catalyzing middle-income housing construction and renovation. At the other extreme, he writes, San Francisco and New York, both metropolises seemingly overwhelmed by the forces of gentrification, demonstrate the extent to which the Weltanschauung of urban life can undergo fundamental changes. Nothing illustrates this better than Moskowitz’s colorful walking tour across Manhattan, in which he reveals his deep nostalgia for the city of his youthful memories.

Readers seeking a balanced treatment of gentrification will probably be disappointed by this book. On the other hand, those dedicated to the proposition that gentrification’s overall costs outweigh its benefits will find plentiful grist for the mill.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Dennis E. Gale
Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University
Lecturer, Stanford University
Dennis.Gale@fulbrightmail.org

Book Review Preview: The New Brooklyn

By Tony Filipovitch

Kay S. Hymowitz, The New Brooklyn: What It Takes to Bring Back a City (Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). 

Kay Hymowitz offers a nuanced defense of gentrification as a process of creative destruction, one that results in winners and losers (although sometimes in unanticipated ways).  As she says in her conclusion, “…expensive, gentrifying cities like Brooklyn are far better off than their cheap-rent counterparts” (p. 156).  In the introduction, she sets out to explore how a “left-for-dead city” became “just about the coolest place on earth and the paragon of the postindustrial creative city” (p. 3).  She chooses Brooklyn to study this process because it is a “… microcosm [of] the economic, demographic, and social forces behind the perplexing creative destruction of the more successful urban centers in today’s advanced economies” (p. 10).  Along the way, she lays out her case in colorful, breezy prose told as a tale of seven neighborhoods.

Kay Hymowitz is a contributing editor at City Journal, the house organ for the Manhattan Institute.  She was trained in English literature rather than social science, and this book is better taken as journalism or an opinion piece rather than scholarly research (although she does relate a lively story).  Her idiosyncratic selection of neighborhoods should be seen as illustrative, but not demonstrative.  And, while the work is heavily footnoted, the notes are often to journalistic and other online sources.  Finally, her conclusions are only loosely supported by the data she presents.  That said, I really enjoyed this book.  She tells a good story, one that cannot be ignored, even if I don’t particularly agree with the conclusions she draws from her story.  She has given me a lot to think about, and offered some interesting hypotheses to pursue more rigorously.

Tony Filipovitch, Minnesota State University Mankato
Anthony.Filipovitch@mnsu.edu

Book Review Preview: The New Urban Crisis

By Jason Plummer

Florida, Richard, The New Urban Crisis: How our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation, and failing the middle class – and what we can do about it. (New York:  Basic Books, 2017)

Florida’s stated purpose for writing The New Urban Crisis to (1) define the new urban crisis, (2) identify the forces that led to this crisis, and (3) outline a pathway to achieve an inclusive urbanism.  He uses the first few pages of the preface to describe his childhood neighborhood, a mix of blue collar and middle class residents.  Ultimately, implementing the strategies outlined in his new book should recreate this type of mixed-income neighborhood, a “walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets, bike lanes, parks, exciting art and music scenes, and vibrant areas where people could gather in cafés, and restaurants” (p. xv).

The first three chapters expand on his first stated purpose.  In these chapters, Florida outlines how cultivating a nightlife, attracting start-ups, and tech firms without thinking about inclusion leads to inequality.  The next four chapters identify the forces that led to the new urban crisis and offer a fact-based discussion of gentrification.  In final chapter, Urbanism for All, Florida outlines a pathway to achieve an inclusive urbanism:  land value tax, tax increment local transfers, investments in mass transit, redirect the home mortgage tax credit from affluent homeowners to low income renters, index the minimum wage to a percentage of the prevailing median wage of the metropolitan area, invest in public education, and in terms of global affairs, transition foreign aid to place-based initiatives.

For those who embraced cultivating the creative class as an economic development strategy, The New Urban Crisis will provide guidance building a more inclusive city.  For those who rejected the creative class approach as fueling gentrification and racial stratification, since he does not provide details on how to implement his policies, it is hard to assess whether this revised approach is taming the negative externalities of development or a radical rethink of community development.

The full book review will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Jason A. Plummer
California State University, Los Angeles

Book Review Preview: Urban Policy in the Time of Obama

By Dennis Gale

James DeFilippis, ed. Urban Policy in the Time of Obama. (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

This volume does a commendable job of documenting the often-fragmented bits of legislation, executive orders and regulations targeting cities that were promulgated in Washington between 2009 and 2016. Its 22 contributors offer 19 articles ranging from policies on housing, community development, neighborhood revitalization, immigration, education, unions, healthcare and poverty, as well as crosscutting concerns around race. White House political strategy, programmatic initiatives and theoretical frameworks are also covered. The book should find interest among  students and faculty in urban studies, urban planning and public policy programs.

Disenchantment is the most consistent thread in Urban Policy. Irrespective of how deeply the authors plumb the depths of their topic, they frequently point out missed opportunities and misdirected policies. Hamstrung by tight-fisted Congressional Republicans (especially during his second term), Obama often relied on his executive authority to cobble together existing federal resources to launch new or reformulated initiatives. This offered only a limited policy landscape within which to address multiple urban issues. More pressing matters such as the lingering effects of the 2008 Great Recession and the war on terrorism commanded the White House’s center stage. Congressional stonewalling drove Obama to leverage private capital to help finance domestic policy innovations, raising concerns from some authors regarding creeping neoliberalism.

Although the book casts a wide net in examining various policy topics, housing draws special attention. Editor James DeFillipis points out that Obama-conceived initiatives such as Promise Neighborhoods and Strong Cities were lightly funded and fabricated from ideas retailed for many years by think tanks and other interest groups. Janet Smith describes the Obama administration’s efforts to leverage private financing for HUD’s HOPE VI housing program, concluding that the jury is still out on the effectiveness of these initiatives. And Rachel G. Bratt and Dan Immergluck report that on the negative side, rental housing supplies remained inadequate to demand over Obama’s two terms in office. On the positive side however, the administration presided over a sizeable decrease in homelessness (at least insofar as the best available data reveal).

Dennis E. Gale
Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University
Lecturer, Stanford University
Dennis.Gale@fulbrightmail.org

Book Review Preview: Sustainable London

By Samantha McLean

Rob Imrie and Loretta Lees (eds), Sustainable London? The Future of a Global City (Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2014)

‘Sustainable development’ has become a buzzword in the vernacular of urban policy, yet the term’s ambiguity has made it conveniently adoptable by policy makers wishing to further their own development goals.

Sustainable London? The Future of a Global City examines the effects of sustainable development policies in an era of austerity in London as functions of the government are reduced or delegated to the private sector. The book aims to challenge this mode of development and present alternative models that address social justice.

The book is divided into four sections and a postscript. Part One of the book establishes the foundation of London’s sustainable development policy and presents its challenges. Part Two examines ways in which austerity led to changes in governance and privatization of public services and infrastructure, while Part Three discusses the results of sustainable development policy. Part Four has an environmental health focus, looking at transportation, public health, and urban greening.

The book accomplishes the authors’ goal of challenging current sustainable development policies and their outcomes, or at the very least, presenting their shortcomings. Yet, the true shortcoming is the book’s inability to proffer a feasible approach for working toward a more just city within the confines of a capitalist system.

Imrie and Lees issue a clarion call: we must stop regarding sustainable development as “post-political” and realize that it is linked to politically-motivated causes. However, this call is the only solid outcome of this book. While the editors ultimately want to challenge the economic structure in which unjust sustainable development exists and work towards community controlled development, this is beyond the scope of attainable.

As a recent masters in city planning graduate, I benefited from this book as it provided historic, social, local, and economic context to the global city of London. However, as a future urban planner, I was left without an applicable action plan. In fact, I would think that the authors would want planners and developers operating in the public, nonprofit, and private sectors should be this book’s audience in addition to like-minded academics or grassroots professionals. That would allow for a more integrated approach to promoting the just city.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Samantha McLean
University of Cincinnati
samantha.m.mclean@gmail.com

Book Review Preview: The Brooklyn Nobody Knows

By John Shapiro

William B. Helmreich, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2016).

Did you know that…

  • Barak Obama once lived in Park Slope. So did Al Capone.
  • Bushwick’s unconstrained graffiti art is really a changing exhibit managed by a collective.
  • In Gerritsen Beach, a favorite pastime is giving wrong directions to outsiders.

Such facts are dispersed throughout William B. Helmreich’s first contribution to his intended Nobody Knows series for New York City’s boroughs, expanding on his successful The New York That Nobody Knows. For each of 44 neighborhoods, Helmreich reports on his observations from and conversations while walking 816 miles through Brooklyn. Read it one neighborhood at a time before making a visit, and it is a guide book. Read it cover-to-cover as I did, and you realize the thoroughness with which Helmreich describes the people and condition of Brooklyn in the 2010s, at the height of the Brooklyn hype.  As is the case for the WPA Guide to New York City of the 1930s: while the reportage will become dated, it will enjoy a second life as an historical record.

As a local city planner, I can vouch for his accuracy—though there are places where the common wisdom he retells is incomplete, the urbanism story goes unreported, and he might have delved deeper into the community development movement, which originated here. But as a fourth-generation Brooklynite, I say fuhgeddaboudit: If you love walking cities, buy the book.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

John Shapiro, Professor, Pratt Institute

 

Book Review Preview: The New York Nobody Knows

By Tony Filipovitch

William B. Helmreich, The New York Nobody Knows:  Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2013).

In The New York Nobody Knows Helmreich proposes to evaluate the city sociologically as a whole, and make it come alive. To write this book, he walked all 6,000 miles of streets in New York City over a period of four years. Along the way, he recorded what he observed and the conversations he had with people on the streets.

Besides the introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into six sections: newcomers, communities,  leisure, spaces,  and  ethnicity. Each chapter is supported by the author’s direct observations and by references to scholarly writing and newspaper accounts—the footnotes are frequently an important part of Helmreich’s argument.

Unfortunately, the title choice suggests a personal appreciation of a place. This work also positions itself with other great urban ethnographies. But lacking the tighter focus of these earlier works, Nobody Knows fails to combine the individual mosaic tiles into a coherent picture.

And yet, Helmreich has provided a valuable initial reconnaissance of a difficult terrain. He avoids the pitfall of so many city portraits that present the story as a monolithic, inescapable march to the present; he insists on the messy, often incoherent diversity that distinguishes the city from the village. There are two particularly interesting conclusions that deserve further scrutiny. While the trend is to assimilation, large numbers of city residents prefer to live among religious or ethnic groups with whom they identify. A corollary to this is that gentrifiers may live among the poor, but they do so as neighbors not friends. Second, there is an emerging trend, especially among the young, of hybrid identities that combine cultural elements in new ways.

Helmreich has left us a debt yet to be paid, one that could keep a generation of researchers happily engaged for years to come.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Tony Filipovitch, Minnesota State University Mankato, Anthony.Filipovitch@mnsu.edu