Government Saves the South Bronx
As a general rule I make an effort to keep the tone elevated around here by avoiding sweepingly dismissive adjectives, but if there were ever a moment for an exception, it would be this breathtakingly stupid article in today's New York Times by Michael Powell, which runs under the Web headline "Government Can't Improve Economy? Tell That To the South Bronx."
Mr. Powell writes: "what is there should (but almost certainly will not) give pause to those who argue that government lies at the source of our ills." He writes, "The Bloomberg administration will, in the end, have poured more than $8 billion into building and preserved 165,000 apartments....The era of government may be in danger. But it saved the South Bronx."
There are at least three problems with this tale.
First, it's not new. The Washington Monthly wrote this story 12 years ago, before the Bloomberg administration's $8 billion. "The South Bronx has undergone a miraculous transformation," that April 199 article began. "the truth is that the South Bronx has come back because the government intervened."
Second, it's not true. The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the nation, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. If the economy is improved and the neighborhood is saved, as the Times claims, why is it still the poorest in the country?
Third, the Times article totally ignores what the neoliberal Washington Monthly article, by Robert Worth, was honest enough to admit: "most people know government helped ruin the borough in the first place. The building of the Cross Bronx Expressway, which Robert Moses oversaw during the 1950s, has become Exhibit A in the failure of large-scale urban planning policies. ...Moses wasn't the only villain. In the '50s and '60s, as new waves of poor Puerto Ricans and southern blacks came to New York, the city welfare department "dumped" the poorest of them into the South Bronx by offering landlords above-market rents for taking welfare clients. In retrospect, this policy seems like a recipe for disaster, creating concentrations of extreme poverty that were bound to prove toxic.... the landlords couldn't afford to renovate them, thanks to another bad policy--rent control. By the 1960s, the inability to raise rents was making it increasingly difficult for landlords to make a profit, much less maintain their aging buildings. The city also helped to destroy the job market in the South Bronx. There were other reasons for the decline of the borough's manufacturing base, but the city made things worse by imposing new corporate income taxes on top of federal and state taxes, and boosting permit and inspection fees...In 1968 the state sponsored the construction of Co-op city, a $413 million, 15,400-unit apartment complex. It was the best new housing in the borough, and if it had been integrated into existing neighborhoods it might well have had a stabilizing effect, propping up local businesses and strengthening the area's political constituency. Instead, the planners put it all by itself in the northeast corner of the Bronx, on the site of an old amusement park. Within a year it sucked out what remained of the South Bronx's middle class, leaving those who remained in a virtual ghost town."
Mr. Worth is out in the Middle East working for the New York Times now, which is a fine assignment, but you could make a case that the Times readers would be better off if he were covering New York City, or at least editing some sense into Mr. Powell's copy.
Update: Mr. Powell has responded in the Comments section, explaining his failure to mention the government's role in destroying the South Bronx by offering, "there is but so much one can stuff into a 750 word column." Second Update: He's commented again, suggesting he's dissatisfied with my summary of his comment, and I've responded. He may be right that my summary of his comment was too concise, so I urge readers who are interested to read his entire response.
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