The Dream of a Middle-Class New York

Photo: Illustration by Mario Wagner. Mitchell Funk/Getty Images (Crowd); Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley (Top left building).

In 1890, the richest one percent of Americans were wealthier than the other 99 percent combined, but the disparities were gravest in New York City. At all ­levels—civic, moral, ­sanitary—the urgency of the problem was obvious, and from around the United States talented young people arrived to try to do what they could to fix it: professors from Indiana, doctors from Connecticut, nurses from upstate New York. The social sciences were then still fairly new, and the conviction they carried, that through careful study and experimentation society could be improved, still held a thrill. The obvious laboratory was the Lower East Side’s immigrant Tenth Ward—the Typhus Ward, the Suicide Ward, by the reckoning of one prominent historian the most crowded neighborhood in the world, and soon also arguably the most studied. Harlem before Harlem, Bed-Stuy before Bed-Stuy.

These laboratories often took the physical form of settlement houses, tenements where young, well-intentioned children of the American elite would live alongside the immigrant poor, hoping to study them and build institutions that might improve their lives. “In our rooms, it seemed as if we were back in college again,” wrote Jane Robbins, a recent Smith graduate, of the dozen other residents on her floor on Forsyth Street. Their reports were memorably, often dramatically, grim: “They pant for air, and perspiration that drops from their foreheads is like lifeblood, but they toil on steadily, wearily, except when now and again one, crazed by heat, hangs himself to a door jamb.” Robbins and her peers were scrupulous social scientists; they monitored gang wars and ran education and comportment classes for young men and women. Throughout the settlement-house movement, there were wrong turns into cultural condescension, but there were also formal links to the great universities of the day, and a mania for measurement. You can just about see the call-and-response rhythm of modern liberalism being built: the almost theological declaration of injustice, the scientific optimism that society could be fixed. “There is already room,” wrote Stanton Coit, the young Amherst graduate who founded University Settlement, the city’s first settlement house, “to lay at least the foundations for the New and Perfect City.”

We don’t talk about perfect anymore. What we talk about is affordability—what kind of life an ordinary person can buy. In New York, where the pressures of real estate are, shall we say, unique, the subject is manifestly physical. Often it feels like this city really has only two classes: those who believe they can afford the space they need to live in and those who believe they can’t.

The city has gotten steadily wealthier throughout the past generation, but over the last decade the change has been exceptional. And during these most recent few years the population of that second group—those who feel they just can’t afford to live in their own city—has swelled, so that it is now thick with members it would have only recently considered enemies: attorneys, doctors, liberal artists. Bill de Blasio’s campaign, rich as it was in the rhetoric of economic populism—in its reminder of the “nearly half of our neighbors who live beneath the poverty line,” in its conjuring of a spectral, sprawling Brownsville of the mind—was a movement that assembled not only the poor, but also the middle class and alienated professionals. He spoke to the anxiety of not being able to afford a rent increase; to those who feel increasingly priced out of much of the city; to those who can’t afford pre-K for their children and worry about the inadequacies of the public schools and the hospitals. The advance through the city’s residential neighborhoods of young millionaires from the financial industry, and the intrusion of global financial capital in the form of pieds-à-terre, has seemed relentless. Proximity, the great economic genius of middle-class cities, no longer looks like a method of collective uplift so much as a theater of envy, in which everything we could possibly want is there to desire, but still just out of reach.

Part of De Blasio’s appeal has been his artful use of an extended historical analogy, in which he cites Dickens and suggests we are living in a second Gilded Age. “Salient elements in De Blasio’s 21st-century agenda,” says John Recchiuti, a historian of progressive reform, “were at the center of progressive New Yorkers’ political activism exactly 100 years ago.” This has been a deft political gesture, capturing the alienation that even many middle-class New Yorkers feel. But it is also a way of summoning political will. To raise the specter of the Gilded Age is not only to remind New Yorkers of how inequality once broke New York. It is also to remember how, afterward, the city was fixed.

On the immigrant Lower East Side, the space itself was the problem—it smothered light, separated people from water and toilets, and pressed them together with strangers and their garbage. In 1901, Seth Low, the president of Columbia and of Stanton Coit’s settlement, was elected mayor on a reform ticket, and the movement that began in the settlement houses acquired political power. Low and his allies won passage of the Tenement Reform Act of 1901, which reformed building codes to require light in every room, and soon six-story New Law buildings started to emerge on ghetto corners, with courtyards and good light.

What is remarkable about this emerging movement is that it did not become a permanent charity endeavor. As the tenement residents left squalor behind and began to acquire a more permanent piece of the middle class, the movement followed them. Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party set up shop on 42nd Street, soliciting ideas about minimum wage and unemployment insurance from the city’s social scientists.

Some of the reform unions began to interpret their mission more broadly. Enter Abraham Kazan, a young, immigrant union official on the Lower East Side, equal parts socialist pauper-prince and A-list macher. From a tub-thumping Scottish anarchist, Kazan learned of European experiments with the cooperative—union members would pool their resources, building houses and factories that they could own themselves. The labor movement had been oriented around strikes, around class combat, but to Kazan the cooperative model seemed to promise something different for his members, a way to buy their own dignity. Soon, the ladies of the garment workers union were building the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx, the Hillman Houses on the Lower East Side. By 1927, Governor Al Smith had signed a law providing public financing for cooperative housing. The model spread, but by 1930 the city still had more cooperative housing than the rest of the country combined. During the Depression, high-end housing around the city went vacant. Not a single working-class cooperative did.

If you grew up middle class in New York’s outer-boroughs at any point in the past half-­century, then this has likely been your sentimental geography—some evolved, Taylorized version of Kazan’s design, which metastasized after the Mitchell-Lama middle-class housing initiative of 1955: the airfield-size expanse of Co-op City in the northeast Bronx, the towers perched strangely, opportunistically on top of the approach to the George Washington Bridge. This long phase of development contained all manner of mistakes—it often destroyed neighborhoods, many of them poor, and replaced old communities with brick monstrosities—and it has no real heroes, only complicated figures like Robert Moses, at least 50 percent villain. And yet it is telling that the lasting monuments of the postwar housing boom in New York—one of the wealthiest places in the world, in the era of the greatest economic expansion in human history—are not luxury towers but endless redbrick buildings in the boroughs, space carved out for a middle class.

Even now, no one is certain quite how to pinpoint De Blasio—at some times he has seemed a committed left-wing ideologue, at others an operative, even a hack. So it has been possible to assume that his rhetoric was merely opportunistic campaign talk, his leftward move only tactical. (That some of the mayor’s early appointments have been Establishment figures has reinforced this sentiment.) But this obscures the scale of De Blasio’s stated ambitions, which seem enormous. He built his campaign around the proposal to make prekindergarten universal and free, an idea that policy wonks have pushed for years but that had usually been considered a dreamy political nonstarter. He has said he means to build or preserve 200,000 housing units. This suggests that the new mayor understands something about the nature of reform in New York, that it is—that it has always been—essentially physical, a matter of space.

Affordability is a moving target: What should a middle-class person be able to afford, and what constitutes a denial of his or her dignity? We can agree that the tenements of the 1890s did not meet basic human standards, but middle-class New York does not look like that today. But there are, in fact, real ways in which the city could be ­rearranged to make it easier for the non-rich to stay here and thrive. A survey of some of the best of them appears on these pages, from attacking housing costs by flooding the market with supply to building a transit system that serves the outer-boroughs as well as it does the inner one; from reviving our public-school system to embracing tax hikes on the city’s financial class to support whole categories of targeted social-service programs for those who are undeniably in need. Of whom there are millions.

The smart line on De Blasio, from just about the beginning of his rise in the polls, has been that he’d picked a fight that he cannot win. Inequality, after all, is a product of global economic forces and national policy choices. And mayors, like presidents, have more rhetorical power than direct control—taxes and major laws run mostly through Albany; control of even the MTA and Port Authority is shared with representatives from the foreign cultures of upstate and New Jersey. For a mayor to make it his mission to force some meaningful consolidation of “two cities” into one seemed a little grand. Adam Davidson, the economics writer for The New York Times Magazine, surveyed the data and the experts and concluded that against the broader forces of inequality De Blasio was, basically, “powerless.”

Powerless—that’s a little extreme. Immigration, after all, was also a product of global forces, mediated by national policy, and though the Progressive Era reformers did not have the power to change the flows of immigration, progressives nevertheless did something even more important, and within their control: They made life more decent for the immigrants. The mayor of New York is the chief executive of a city that is bigger than Israel or Switzerland; the government directly under his control is larger than that of 43 separate states, and the economy under his supervision is roughly the size of Canada’s. Even a partial authority over that much power is a very great deal of power indeed. Consider how radically the last two mayors, by the ends of their terms, had remade the city in their own distinct images.

And yet a program of the scope that De Blasio has begun to sketch out—a symbolic remaking of the city under the banner of affordability—is at least as vast an undertaking as Bloomberg’s or Giuliani’s and arguably more complicated. The first trade-off De Blasio has proposed is about the simplest that he will confront—a somewhat higher marginal municipal tax rate on those making over $500,000 a year in return for universal prekindergarten, which is both an expansion of services to the poor and a cost saver for middle-class parents. Increasing the stock of inexpensive housing and improving our public schools are knottier problems, and it’s far from clear whether this coalition of the emotionally disenfranchised—those making $10,000 and those making $100,000—really does agree on what a better city looks like, or even on a definition of affordable.

But a mayor’s greatest power, says Jonathan ­Soffer, a scholar of city government in both the Koch administration and the Progressive Era, is often political, “the power to change the corporate culture,” the way the city’s government and the city itself behave. That, yes, and also the power of precedent, the memory that something very similar to his project to correct the excesses of a gilded age has been accomplished, right here, before.

The Dream of a Middle-Class New York