In their last issue, New York magazine published an eye-opening interview with Dan Doctoroff, former Mayor Bloomberg’s deputy mayor of economic development and reconstruction.
The occasion for the interview was Doctoroff’s new book, Greater Than Ever: New York’s Big Comeback, about his years working to rezone nearly half the city, a Robert Moses-level act that made the city glitter as it helped to boost vast inequality and unprecedented levels of hyper-gentrification.
In the interview, Doctoroff acknowledges this. A bit. “The city grew faster than we expected,” he says. But he holds to the belief that “You have to treat citizens and businesses like customers.” It’s a basic tenet of what urbanist Julian Brash has called The Bloomberg Way, “a notion of governance in which the city is run like a corporation. The mayor is the CEO, the businesses are clients, citizens are consumers, and the city itself is a product that’s branded and marketed. And New York is a luxury product.”
To create that luxury product, the Bloomberg administration relied on two types of zonings: up and down. They are not equal.
Upzoning opens territories for higher rents and bigger development, while downzoning preserves neighborhood character by limiting growth. As Sarah Laskow pointed out in Politico New York: “Upzoned lots tended to be in areas that were less white and less wealthy, with fewer homeowners. Downzoned lots tended to be areas that were more white and had both higher incomes and higher rates of homeownership.” That meant “more privileged people were more likely to have the city change the zoning of their neighborhoods to preserve them exactly as they were.” Less privileged people got upzoned out.
In his book, Doctoroff argues that this massive rezoning “changed the physical nature of the city in ways that will undergird prosperity for decades,” while attracting new “dreamers and strivers.”
Interviewer Carl Swanson calls these people “the new New Yorkers who, while they might claim they long for some filth Camelot of the busted 1970s, happily throng this implacably gentrifying customer-service metropolis.”
For Doctoroff, says Swanson, nostalgia is “practically an epithet.” Of course. Nostalgia as epithet is a strategy used by pro-development people to discredit and dismiss those who want to preserve the city as a diverse and affordable place. “You’re just nostalgic” has become a cliche of the pro-growth mindset.
But it was this bit of the interview that really grabbed me:
“Doctoroff also writes in the book about how he never really liked New York City, much less wanted to live here, which is an odd thing for someone who served for six years as its deputy mayor to admit. When he first visited with his family, in 1968 — he was 10 and a resident of Birmingham, a well-off suburb of Detroit — it was ‘hate at first sight.’ He moved here in 1983 after his wife got a job at HBO — Doctoroff had been only three times and it never grew on him. The self-described ‘creature of the suburbs’ helped remake this city, in some ways, for his own maximum personal comfort.“
Isn’t that what many of us suspected?
It brings to mind something that urbanist William Whyte wrote on the urban renewal of the 1950s and ’60s. While more people were moving into cities and rebuilding them, he said, it was “not the same thing as liking cities.” The people doing the rebuilding “don’t like cities. They do not merely dislike the noise and the dirt and the congestion. They dislike the city’s variety and concentration, its tension, its hustle and bustle.”
And what about the new “dreamers and strivers”? Do they love New York? Or do they love the suburbanized town remade for the personal comfort of a certain class of people?
Doctoroff calls himself a “creature of the suburbs.” Throughout the 2000s, we’ve witnessed the suburbanization of New York City. This shift is not expressed only in the proliferation of big-box chain stores, it also comes in the hearts and minds of many (not all) newcomers.
As Rem Koolhaas has said, “The city has twice been humiliated by the suburbs: once upon the loss of its constituency to the suburbs and again upon that constituency’s return. These prodigal citizens brought back with them their mutated suburban values of predictability and control.”
Under Bloomberg, the city’s poverty rate rose to its highest levels in a decade. More people became homeless. The income gap in Manhattan rivaled sub-Saharan Africa. By 2016, New Yorkers were spending 65.2 percent of their total income on rent. Small businesses are in crisis. Neighborhoods are hyper-gentrifying — and re-segregating along race and class lines.
As Michael Greenberg recently wrote in his important New York Review article on the city’s affordable housing crisis: “We speak nowadays with contrition of redlining, the mid-twentieth-century practice by banks of starving black neighborhoods of mortgages, home improvement loans, and investment of almost any sort. We may soon look with equal shame on what might come to be known as bluelining: the transfiguration of those same neighborhoods with a deluge of investment aimed at a wealthier class.”
Is this really “greater than ever”? As always, we must ask: Greater for whom?