The Five Borough Report
Notes on Rebuilding New York, by Joshua Freeman

Basic principles  Now is the time to be bold.  Horrible events have forced us to reconsider what kind of city we want to have.  They also may make available resources for substantial investments which will shape life in the region for a generation or more to come.  Now is the time for labor to act boldly in demanding a say, and putting forth a vision of what kind of city will best serve working people.

  • Rebuilding New York must be planned through democratic processes in which working-class New Yorkers and their unions have meaningful say. Whatever else it was, the World Trade Center was not the result of a democratic planning process.  We need to do better this time, giving meaningful representation in the planning process to labor and community groups.  Rebuilding should not take place under the control of a non-elected authority with power to suspend zoning and environmental controls and use eminent domain, thereby repeating all the mistakes of the postwar decades.  Lots of good ideas for rebuilding will be proposed, but they will come to naught if labor does not have power.
  • The pattern of land use in lower Manhattan, especially in the WTC area, resulted primarily from public subsidies and investments, not market forces.  When public money and authority are used, the public not business should decide how.  If private businesses want to rebuild using their own money and land, within existing codes, they should be encouraged to do so.  But if they seek public subsidies or regulatory relief, their plans have to be measured against the public good they will create and weighed against alternative uses of public resources, including investments in other parts of the region.
  • Particular unions have interests in the rebuilding process that will conflict, and which should be frankly acknowledged. The building trades may have different interests than service and  manufacturing unions, private and public sector unions may have different interests, and unions whose members mostly live in New York City may have different interests than those that represent commuters. Acknowledging these is the first step to finding common ground and working out compromises.
Guidelines for public spending and policy Density is good, and, to the extent possible, should be preserved. Density makes cities productive, inventive, flexible, and attractive. Density is a locational advantage for New York.  Density has environmental advantages.  Public funds and policy should be used to restore and maintain dense commercial activity in lower Manhattan, which provided decent jobs (many unionized)  for hundreds of thousands of people.  More generally, we should encourage development where people already live and work, and a development pattern that minimizes the need for long commutes, especially by car.
  • Because of the WTC attack, businesses will disperse some of their facilities, no matter what the government does.  It is unrealistic to think that this can be entirely prevented, and it would be a waste of public funds to try.  It may not make sense to restore the same amount of office space downtown as was destroyed.
  • Dispersion of business could badly hurt workers and add to economic inequality, but public policy can reduce the harm.  We must not repeat the experience of the post-World War II decades, when businesses relocated to suburbs but workers could not go with them, because of poor public transportation and lack of affordable housing (especially for non-whites).  We need public transportation that links urban residents to outlying jobs, as well as affordable housing in areas to which jobs are moving.  Good transportation links will keep jobs in the metropolitan region (as we already see in Jersey City) rather than moving away entirely.  Sites in the outer boroughs and those near New York City with good transportation links (for example along the Hudson in Westchester) should be given priority for economic development projects.
  • The New York economy became overly dependent on the financial sector. Public resources should be used to encourage a more balanced local economy.  Finance and associated business activities and services have helped New York prosper over the past decade, but they are highly cyclical and brought instability to the economy and tax revenues.  Also, they have contributed to gross inequality in income and living conditions.  A more diversified economy would better serve the region.
  • New York should strive to remain a global city, not just in financial services.  New York needs to upgrade its role as a trade hub (for example by improving air freight and rail-sea facilities), a producer of specialized goods and services, and a world cultural and educational center.
  • Public resources should be used to create not only jobs, but good jobs.  Public investments, subsidies, and regulatory relief should be linked to agreements that jobs created provide living wages, decent benefits, and a meaningful right to choose representation.  What makes a job a good job is not what sector it is in - manufacturing, or service, etc. - but whether or not it provides the possibility for dignity, security, and a decent standard of living.  Agreements that provide for job creation or other public goods in return for subsidies or regulatory relief must be enforceable and enforced (which has not been the norm).
  • Government resources should be used to create an attractive environment for living, working, and running businesses, rather than to entice particular companies to remain in the city.   Public investment should be used to restore and upgrade the physical infrastructure (especially the transportation system), improve education and public health, maintain security, and build affordable housing.  Businesses will be drawn to an attractive region, with a productive workforce and good infrastructure, without artificial incentives.
  • Investment in physical plant should be linked to human capital investment.  We need to invest in vocational training, child care, education (including higher education), and public health facilities linked to the kinds of industries we hope to attract.
Priority investments Restored and improved passenger and freight transportation. Specific projects might include:    NJ-Brooklyn rail tunnel;  extending PATH farther east than the current WTC Terminal; expanding subway services, including expedited construction of the Second Avenue subway and  a possible spur of the 1/9 trains to Battery Park City; improved air freight facilities, including rail links.
  • Affordable housing, near jobs.  As happened after World War II, this will require multiple approaches, from new public housing (why not?), to non-profit housing built with government assistance, to facilitation of private construction, in both urban and suburban locales.
  • Regional centers for financial and other business service jobs dispersing from Lower Manhattan.  Some sites should be in the city, including in areas like downtown Brooklyn and Jamaica that already have received considerable investment, and in other areas, like Harlem, that have not been promoted as office centers.  Other sites should be in more outlying areas with good mass transportation connections to Manhattan and with possibilities for residential development (for example, western Yonkers).
  • Investment to provide, protect, and upgrade space and specialized districts for other key economic sectors.  These might include small-scale manufacturing, the art and entertainment industries, medical and bio-tech research, advanced computer and telecommunications hardware and software, and tourism.
  • Education (including vocational training and higher education) and public health.
Joshua Freeman is Director of the Labor Studies program at Queens College, and author of Working-Class New York.

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