Tale of Two Cities

By Annmarie Walsh

“…The Ginzberg study challenges some costly, slanderous myths about N.Y.…”

New York is Very Much Alive
, edited by Eli Ginzberg (McGraw-Hill)

Waiting for the curtain to go up in a London theater recently, a big-voiced man from Chicago lectured his English neighbors on the perils to life, limb, and prosperity lurking in their planned visit to New York. The row of solemn faces murmured low, as if waiting for New York’s corpse to be lowered into the grave, before turning their attention to a play imported from, yes, Broadway.

I dared not pierce the gloom with optimistic protestations from the row behind. But I wish the man in front of me would read New York Is Very Much Alive. Subtitled “A Manpower View,” this impressive study was prepared by Columbia University’s Conservation of Human Resources Staff, which is headed by Eli Ginzberg and largely supported by the United States Department of Labor. While the various chapters by fourteen contributors lack coherence, as such collections usually do, the study challenges, on the whole successfully, some costly, even slanderous, myths about New York.

Test yourself on the following assertions: true or false?

  1. Jobs in New York City have been declining in number.
  2. New York no longer offers locational advantages for most businesses.
  3. New York’s economy is at the mercy of large firms whose decisions can wreak havoc with it.
  4. New York City is locked in mortal combat with its own suburbs; to survive, the city must stem the movement of business outward from the center.
  5. New York’s educational facilities are inferior to those elsewhere in the nation.
  6. The city’s welfare rolls have skyrocketed, swelled with hordes of new residents, who do not subscribe to the work ethic.

If you uttered a resounding “true” down the line, you are in for some surprises.

In both absolute and relative terms, the city’s economic growth compares favorably with that of other large cities in the United States. According to one fairly reliable set of figures, New York City experienced a gain of more than 380,000 jobs in the private sector from 1959 to 1970, a rise topped only by Los Angeles, whose city limits incorporate vast tracts of suburban-type space.

New York City’s taxable property values nearly doubled in the past decade. Manhattan holds onto more than 80 per cent of the metropolitan region’s top industrial headquarters and maintains a national lead in construction of new office space. And the city’s labor market is as large and complex as those of the smaller European nations. It is highly specialized and fragmented: half the people working in the city are employed by firms with less than 100 employees.

Another persistent cliché (that the study only haltingly confronts) is the dichotomy of city and suburb. The idea is often put forth that the city must go it alone, fighting its own nether parts for nourishment. On the contrary, some of the information cited by the study, and more that is not included, strongly suggests that New York City and its varied suburbs are likely to sink or swim together in future years.

The Ginzberg study does point out that the suburban economic boom of the 1960s was tightly tied to the city. Much of the new suburban business moved from the city, while new growth replaced it in the city. Corporate headquarters throughout the region continue to use facilities and backup services of Manhattan. Moreover, retail and local businesses serve suburban families whose income is derived from the city. Almost two-thirds of the people who earn over $10,000 in the metropolitan region live outside the five boroughs, but over two-thirds of them work inside the city limits. So there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between the city and its hinterland, however more characterized by hate than by love.

“…Crime, not welfare, is the main alternative to legitimate employment in the city….”

Continuation of the suburban boom of the 1960s, however, can no more be taken for granted than the boom of earlier decades in our central cities. Moreover, the major new direction signaled by the 1970 Census is the development of the smaller metropolitan areas across the country. If this is to be at the expense of the larger, older metro regions, both city and suburban residents of New York stand to lose. Vested interests in suburban real estate around New York would be considerably hurt by regional economic decline. The major hope for the city’s huge underemployed population to find jobs in the suburbs would be dimmed. It is a long way from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Phoenix, Arizona. The conclusion seems clear, then (although not drawn by the Ginzberg study), that regional cooperation—not competition—among city and suburbs to stimulate improvements in transportation, land use, revenue distribution, and human resource utilization is absolutely crucial to the future well-being of city dweller and suburbanite alike.

The Ginzberg study highlights one characteristic of New York’s economy that has been poorly understood. New York’s employment problems are not caused by too few jobs to go around, but by what the economists call “structural” obstacles that separate the man from the job. Geography is one of the obstacles—blue-collar jobs located in parts of the region that are distant from the homes of the potential blue-collar works. Insufficient information is another obstacle, there being no true labor market without effective referrals linking potential worker and employer.

The most prominent structural obstacle to employment growth, however, is the talent gap. The report comes down hard on the need to tailor the city’s educational facilities to realistic employment opportunities. Open enrollment in the City University is pointless, according to Ginzberg, without practical education-planning directed to manpower goals at all levels. Vocational education, particularly at the high school level, has long been a weak link in the nation’s school system—a fact which is something of a puzzle in a society that venerates work. New York’s offerings in vocational education are better than most, but dismally inadequate. In addition, effective programs to overcome the language barrier of Puerto Rican youth could cause significant improvements in the city’s labor force.

The Ginzberg report also underscores the fact that welfare payments are not at the heart of labor force problems. In fact, crime, not welfare, is the main alternative to legitimate employment in New York. Opportunities in the underworld sector of the economy—in drugs, gambling, prostitution, and related theft—are far more lucrative than welfare payments or jobs for the unskilled. The Ginzberg study estimates that a quarter of a million people derive income regularly from illegal sources in New York.

The issue of employable welfare recipients is like the proverbial pea under the princess’s mattress. Although the taxpayer seems to experience great discomfort, the actual source of irritation is very small. Mothers and children form the bulk of the welfare recipients and few of them receive any assistance within two years of coming to New York. Only about 7 per cent of the city’s welfare population was male—single or family heads—in 1970. (The work programs sponsored by Federal and state governments have not been successful in reducing welfare rolls, according to the Ginzberg book. As of mid-1972, of some 31,000 people sent to the New York State Employment Service by the city’s Department of Social Services under the state program, 4,000 were found to be too sick or otherwise unable to work; 7,000 were enrolled in training; 2,800 were referred to job interviews; and 926 persons were actually hired—these out of a total welfare roll of over 1.2 million. About 6,000 welfare recipients were participating in unpaid work for municipal agencies.)

Another source of popular concern has been the apparent decline of manufacturing in New York City, a trend typical of nearly half the nation’s 30 largest cities. But, in fact, this decline has been more than offset by gains in services, transportation, finance, insurance, and real estate businesses, according to the figures of the Ginzberg book. The prominence of the service sector buffers the city’s labor force from cyclical fluctuations in unemployment endemic to pure manufacturing cities like Detroit. Moreover, manufacturing jobs in the city are lower-paid than the service jobs that are replacing them: most manufacturing jobs are with firms having les than twenty employees.

All these facts have been known to those whose livelihood depends upon the fluctuations in real estate and other markers, as well as to a constellation of professors and consultants currently being labeled “urbanologists.” The Ginzberg book offers little that is new to the already informed. But its sponsors intended more to joust with popular fears than to explore the causes and cures of urban aches. The public relations emanating from the study have been considerable. Press releases were available from McGraw-Hill four weeks before the book was, and the Mayor himself attended the publication party last March.

This public-relations job is, on the whole, a welcome development. The destructive myths about the city’s future may be far more influential in the long run than the objective measures of economic growth. For example, perceptions of the quality of New York’s labor force held by actual and potential employers will necessarily influence future job market trends. If companies feel that they cannot get decent help here, they will not move here, stay here, or grow here.

It is a stark fact that many economic decision-makers consciously or unconsciously assume that the continuous increase in the proportion of nonwhite and Puerto Rican population signals continuous drops in the quality of the labor force. Consultants have turned out report after report recommending against industrial location in New York, relying heavily on these demographic trends, without explicitly examining the real potential of the labor force. Yet New York Is Very Much alive reveals that during the 1960s nonwhites made significant progress toward parity with whites in the job market for clerical, professional and technical work, and as craftsmen and foremen. Discriminatory patterns are stronger in sales and management

The book points out what should be obvious: unskilled and minority group workers are not a “problem” but a major and integral part of New York’s labor force. The nonwhite and Puerto Rican populations of New York are younger and have higher birth rates than the native white population. Tomorrow’s urban economy will depend on their capabilities. Unless the political, corporate, and union establishments quickly recognize this fact and recapture New York’s historical advantage—its superior willingness and ability to absorb and upgrade new entrants to the labor force—economic trouble might well become chronic.

Because of these psychological dimensions to the city’s blues, the long-rage effect on popular thinking of New York Is Very Much Alive could prove important. At least one hopes so. In any event, I plan to take a copy of Ginzberg’s welcome tome with me on my next trip to London.

*A version of this article appeared in the May 7, 1973 issue of New York Magazine.