Kim Phillips-Fein’s excellent new book vividly depicts a period when New York was seen — not always positively — as an archetypal example of urban liberalism. Much of the emergency that defined New York’s mid-1970s character revolved around debt, accounting practices, and municipal bonds, but in Phillips-Fein’s hands it is not only exciting but extremely relevant, too ... Phillips-Fein, putting archival sources like meeting minutes to dramatic use, reveals all the last-minute machinations to forestall disaster.
It’s a refreshingly counterintuitive point of view. The conventional wisdom has always been that New York had reached a point where it simply could no longer afford such an expansive network of public institutions and services. Sacrifices were necessary...But, as Phillips-Fein argues, none of this was a foregone conclusion when the city first confronted the fiscal crisis. She revisits the familiar story with fresh eyes, seeing it not as part of an inexorable, if painful, evolution but as a battle between two competing views of the city and its government ... What else might have been possible? This is the one realm in which this powerful and involving work of narrative history comes up short. Phillips-Fein makes a convincing argument that the city’s abandonment of its liberal ideals was a choice. What she doesn’t do is offer a different path, imagine an alternative history for New York.
What she doesn’t say is that when even one of the most heavily taxed cities in the nation couldn’t pay for all of its wonderful achievements and programs, it begged, borrowed and stole from the future via underinvestment ... Ms. Phillips-Fein is right when she points out that New York’s financial rescue became a model: The problems it faced in the 1970s were previews of what cities like Cleveland and Detroit would later face ... Ms. Phillips-Fein, too, seems not to comprehend that rescuing New York meant restoring the city’s economic base.
Phillips-Fein narrates with almost cinematic flair, and by the time the credits roll, the significance of her accomplishment becomes clear. The book should be required reading for all those interested in the past, present, and future of democratic politics.
Given events since, New York’s crisis—and the author’s astute account of it—seems oddly timely, a swirl of 'crisis budgets' and union-busting, of collapsing public education systems and declining labor power. In the end, she writes, as New York went in the ’70s and beyond, so went the nation, from a time when government held public goods to be of value to one in which private enterprise is the 'sole way to fuel social development'—perfectly consonant, that is to say, with an economy and culture of inequality. Sobering, smart reading with many pointed lessons for activists.