Long Crises: Kim Phillips-Fein Interviews Benjamin HoltzmanHistorians in the News
tags: neoliberalism, New York City, political history, urban history, policing, Municipal Finance, Urban Crisis
With the victory of Eric Adams in the Democratic mayoral primary, New York City stands at a crossroads. How will the city negotiate the changes brought about by Covid-19? What will be the lasting legacy of Black Lives Matter? How will the metropolis—and other American cities—evolve in the years to come?
As New Yorkers grapple with an uncertain future, the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and its aftermath are often invoked by the press and politicians. Today, “New York in the 1970s” is shorthand for a city facing poverty and crime, running out of money, and suddenly confronting the end of one social order and the rocky emergence of another.
Given these dynamics at play, the publication of Benjamin Holtzman’s The Long Crisis: New York City and the Path to Neoliberalism could not have come at a more opportune time. The book tells the story of New York City in the years that preceded and then followed the fiscal crisis and near-bankruptcy of the city in the 1970s. Holtzman reveals how—with the absence of effective government responses—ordinary political wisdom changed to favor private, market-based solutions, whereas earlier generations might have looked to the city government or collective institutions such as unions. He shows that New York City’s history during this time went beyond austerity, constituting a whole new approach to government. This shift to the right was not just a matter of ideology, nor was it driven entirely by elite actors. Rather, it was built by many different political participants and communities on the ground, ranging from park volunteers, to business groups, to neighborhood patrols and beyond. Raising key questions about the city’s history, The Long Crisis is a critical work for understanding the origins of contemporary New York City—and thinking about where we go from here.
An interview with Benjamin Holtzman
Kim Phillips-Fein: This is a book about New York City in the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Why did you want to write about New York City in this era?
Benjamin Holtzman: The project came out of my dissertation. When I initially got to graduate school, I was pretty sure that I didn't want to write about a crowded field like New York City, and I was also pretty sure that I didn't want to write about a period I had been alive during, which meant not writing about the 1980s. But when it came time to really get into the details of a dissertation project, I found myself returning on a personal level to the transformation of New York City that I'd seen when I was young. I kind of remember the city of the 1980s, the transformations that really became much more visible over the 1990s, and I found myself thinking through how those changes came to be. From an intellectual standpoint, many of the books written about New York City during this particular period were by Marxist geographers, David Harvey most prominent among them. I admire and have gained a lot from that work, but something in those stories—which tell a much more structural history of the period—made me curious about the reactions of people on the ground.
Many of the works that influenced me also explored the idea of the urban crisis. But there were fewer historians writing about the aftermath, which for a lot of cities was a period of economic “rejuvenation” in the late-twentieth century. So I landed at this project thinking about the political aspects of this transformation.
KPF: Very frequently, if you talk to people about New York City in the late-twentieth century, there is a notion that the city is so much better off now than it was then. Certainly you see this in the recent mayoral race—nobody wants to go back to the bad old days. But your book is called The Long Crisis. How do you contend with the success narrative that’s been written of the late-twentieth century in New York City?
BH: I'm trying to do two things with the title. One is drawing attention to the period of great economic trouble in New York City's history—the transformative events of the fiscal crisis in 1975. But also I want us to think of the crisis as something that started years earlier, with ramifications that continue long afterwards.
The starting point for the book is really in the late 1960s, when New York City was facing various sorts of economic troubles. This came to a head when the effects of urbanization, capital flight, federal disinvestment from urban areas, and a national recession constrained municipal resources in New York City. How did people respond to those dynamics in the years prior to the fiscal crisis? The consequences of these changes linger past the 1970s. Even within this latter period of economic “rejuvenation” after the 1975 crisis, many issues remain.