New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate Tom Angotti. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008

Reviewed by Pierre Clavel

New York for Sale, winner of the Paul Davidoff Award for the “best book in planning” from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, is a landmark book, maybe a masterpiece, on progressive planning in the United States. In it, Tom Angotti documents the transformation of the city from one in which a chaotic, bureaucratized government could not control its finances or, more importantly, the real estate development industry, to one in which community groups in some cases found a way to fight the developers to a standstill—or in other cases to at least exert a powerful voice of dissent. In this we see the outlines—drawn on the map of the nation’s largest city—of planning as a seriously pluralist process. This is noteworthy.

As he recounts the history of successful and not so successful struggles for community control of development and analyzes these efforts, Angotti draws out lessons for progressive planners and community organizers. It is an accessible, analytical book, a fascinating read.

Here is the history, as Angotti lays it out:

  • As far back as Peter Stuyvesant in the 1600s, big developers had always been at the center of New York City politics, though they had to beat back resistance from working-class wards and political machines.
  • Starting with Cooper Square at the end of the 1950s, community groups found ways to counter government plans that favored big investors. Since then, more than 100 neighborhoods throughout the city have developed their own community plans.
  • By the end of the twentieth century, what had been a neighborhood-based, if Manhattan-centered, real estate and land development elite had given way to a small number of giant, multi-billion dollar firms backed by international investors.
  • By 2008 (when New York for Sale was published), community planners had built significant momentum and capacity. Real estate interests, however, now more sophisticated in their tactics and knowledgeable of ways to divide community groups and buy off opposition, had become even more of a threat to neighborhood life given their connections to the global financial industry, connections unavailable in earlier decades.

Angotti ends the story in suspense, but along the way provides rich insights into the conflicts between neighborhood interests and the globally backed real estate-City Hall alliance.

Angotti describes in detail several community planning efforts, illustrating a set of unfolding themes: the transition from local to global real estate, the evolution from neighborhood protest to resident-led community planning, the central role of the environmental justice movement, the creation of a charter amendment to make community plans “official” and the developing—but apparently not yet conclusive— cooptation of community planning efforts by newly powerful real estate–City Hall alliances.

In describing two early examples of successful community plans, Angotti explores the relationship between neighborhood organizing and advocacy planners. The first notable community plan adopted by the city, that for Cooper Square, resulted from the combination of resident resistance led by Frances Goldin, starting in 1959, and the assistance provided by pioneering advocate planner Walter Thabit. After many years of “radical and sometimes militant” organizing, the city adopted the residents’ plan, preventing the demolition of eleven blocks of the neighborhood that would have displaced 2,400 tenants, 450 single room occupancy (SRO) units, 4,000 homeless beds and 500 business establishments with 2,900 units of middle-income housing .

In Melrose Commons, South Bronx activist Yolanda Garcia brought together a set of protest and local interest groups to fight a 1992 city proposal to redevelop thirty blocks. With support from the borough president’s office and the help of Ron Shiffman of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED), the community produced a more neighborhood-friendly plan. While both the Cooper Square and Melrose Commons plans prevented massive displacement from low-income and working-class neighborhoods, Angotti is careful to point out the messy and conflict-ridden nature of the process when you take planning out of the office and into the midst of struggle.

In turning to more recent examples of community plans, Angotti particularly highlights the story of the city’s environmental justice movement, which mobilized scores of groups and had the potential, when protest turned into community planning, to create coalitions with other groups who saw the broader impacts of sludge plants, incinerators and solid waste stations. The best example is the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods (OWN), which garnered support for a citywide plan that challenged city practice in solid waste disposal—an increasingly expensive proposition in the 1990s, involving the use of 200 trailer trucks to carry waste to upstate landfills.

In the course of a rich, even overpowering narrative of specific efforts, Angotti makes general observations. Of the over 100 community plans, most were initiated in poor neighborhoods. Contradicting the common perception, these groups were not simply dedicated to the “not-in-my-backyard” approach or to exclusionary goals, but rather they saw the possibilities of joining with other neighborhoods, often less poor, in the face of depredations that affected them all. Rather than resisting the location of an incinerator, for example, they sought to reduce the number of disposal facilities across the city in favor of recycling—against the recalcitrant New York City Sanitation Department.

By the 1990s, in Angotti’s chronicle, community protest and alternative plans had become effective enough that city officials took a new tack, adapting a charter amendment that gave neighborhoods an official sanction for the so-called “197a” plans. Here the mandate, initiated by City Hall progressives like Hortense Gabel and Beverly Spratt, was diluted by practice: city bureaucracies failed to provide technical support to the plans, and under Giuliani and Bloomberg after 1993 there was little mayoral support either.

The most instructive section of the book is the later chapters that discuss the post-9/11 reconstruction efforts and the Atlantic Yards proposals in Brooklyn, which attracted the really big money backed by Real Estate Investment Trusts and international finance. In both cases there were vigorous local voices, but also newly sophisticated manipulation by City Hall and its backers. Most of Angotti’s account presents a picture of neighborhood planning as, if not a populist ideal, at least as a process where the small powers seem to have a fighting chance and occasionally win. But in Atlantic Yards, at least, the picture is of a planning process turned on its head, to the disadvantage of the neighborhoods:

Like Alice in Wonderland in her looking-glass world, the planning for Atlantic Yards was all backwards. In planning without the mirrors, government creates a plan for the area, looks at the potential environmental impacts of the plan, decides what to do and then either takes action by itself or puts the plan out to private developers to bid on. In Atlantic Yards and increasingly in other megaprojects throughout the neoliberal city, the reverse is happening: the private developer does the plan, persuades government officials to back it and then announces a done deal. This ideology of the fait accompli becomes a key instrument for moving through all stages of the planning and public approval process. It poses a serious challenge to community organizers because even those who find the project to be unacceptable are led to believe that nothing can be done to change or stop it. (p. 216)

Angotti wonders what to do in the face of the new conditions imposed by the deep pockets and political authority of the real estate developer–City Hall alliance. He reflects on the years of effort by community groups to defeat such megaprojects as the Lower Manhattan Expressway and Westway. “To what extent would community-based organizations have better served their neighborhoods by retreating from such struggles and focusing on the relatively peripheral areas where they may have greater ability to actually influence outcomes?” But it was good to defeat Westway, too, and Angotti does not try to answer this.

There is the question of what the planning profession can draw from these experiences. One lesson would be simply to notice the disconnect between the “planning” roles played by, say, the architects in charge of the various proposals to rebuild the World Trade Center and the community planning professionals, sometimes trained as architects as well, working with groups like the Cooper Square or the Melrose Commons activists or those involved in the OWN solid waste plan. The megaproject planners, working in the upside-down context Angotti describes—even the world famous architects given carte blanche to create monuments like in the case of Daniel Libeskind and the World Trade Center site—operated in a diminished sphere as professionals because, in contrast to Thabit or Shiffman, they had to accept the dictates of their masters rather than interact with the people in the street. They did not have to think about “equity” or “environmental justice.” They could not provide the legitimacy of client contact the community planners had, or pass it on to their employers, who were content to construct essentially inauthentic visions. This deprived the city of projects connected to the real interests of its residents.

One can ask another question: given the accretion of experience represented in these accounts—hundreds of groups over, say, thirty years or more—and the capacities that have built up, are we better able to use community plans to accomplish greater change than was possible, say, at the beginning of the Dinkins administration when the Cooper Square activists finally achieved success? One guesses we are further ahead but that we still have not found a way to change New York government in a decisive way. Or perhaps Angotti’s activists have found it, and are only waiting for one further push.

All in all, New York for Sale is a splendid book. It stands alongside such iconic works as Percival and Paul Goodman’s Communitas (1947) as an exemplar of what planning can be or might be. As that book documented post-war hope by assembling the historical and then current record of planning ideas, this book documents a remarkable record of community planning experience drawing on more recent efforts. And he tempers hope with realism because he understands profoundly what community planners are up against. He sees both the immense force of the real estate “growth machine” that grew to international dimensions, particularly in New York, and the creative energy that can come when community organizers and planners work in partnership to advance community interests.

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