Friday, October 17, 2008

Attacking the World Trade Center

Look, I like destroying New York City as much as the next guy, and on Rob’s and others recommendations, I read and rather liked Max Page’s The City’s End, his well-illustrated chronicle of fictional attempts to destroy the city, and I agree with his main thesis, that most of the attempts to destroy New York City were in some sense affectionate, the product of people wishing to see the city correct its flaws and deal with its problems, rather than by those who would have been happy to see the city laid low and prostate. But I took strong exception to a few paragraphs, in which he attempted to make a general statement on the causes of the city’s “decline” in the 1960s and 1970s. He argues that the city did not so much decline at much as it was “assassinated,” and he sees as the main culprit “the massive effort to remake lower Manhattan as an office and financial center.”

It would have been helpful if Page provided readers with any evidence or statistics for this bold claim, but he doesn’t. I don’t have the numbers either, but of course the World Trade Center wasn’t built by the city, but by the Port Authority, which jealously guarded its independence and its finances, so it hard to see how building the WTC, single-handedly, plunged the city into a thirty year decline. For one with a penchant for economic arguments, he makes rather short shrift of the structural arguments for the city’s post war decline, the rise of the suburbs, the second great migration, and the decline of the city’s manufacturing base, and argues that the city’s manufacturing base was “destroyed in large measure by public policy” by which he evidently means building the WTC. This is a complex issue, and public policy was certainly involved in the decline of manufacturing in the city after WWII, but it seems to me rather silly to single out the building of the WTC. (For a much more sophisticated account of the post-war manufacturing shift than Page’s, also written from a decidedly left of center perspective, see my friend Tami Freidman’s article in the current issue of Journal of American History.)

Page also combats a straw man in the form of the consensus among “contemporary scholars, conservatives and liberals alike” who see in spiraling labor costs, and questions of crime and welfare at the heart of the city’s decline in the 1960s and 1970s. (It seems to me that every liberal scholar I know sees labor costs as an effect, and not a cause of the city’s economic woes, which they attribute to deeper structural causes. ) Page in a classic turn of vulgar Marxism, emphasizing hidden economic forces and hidden conspiracies, wishes to transcend the difficult and messy realities of crime, welfare, resentment over labor contracts, racial tension, as so much “superstructural” twaddle, and point to a single, simple economic cause, the building of two big buildings. Its hard to criticize the details of Page’s argument because he doesn’t provide any, but I had hoped the era of such simplistic explanations of the city’s decline was past. This is Robert Caro’s Manichean vision of New York, with Robert Moses replaced by the Port Authority’s Austin Tobin. The WTC, needless to say, has been though enough already without having to bear the burden for everything that went wrong in the city from the 1960s through the 1990s.

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