Bear with me as I begin this note the way I begin most workdays: with a gripe about the subway. New York’s transit system is a public service on which millions of people depend—and the system is breaking. Worse, its chronic problems appear intractable. We are told that replacing the ancient switches that malfunction daily would be a multigenerational project with astronomical costs. Extending one line by a few stations took more than a decade and required billions.
Daily exposure to this public transit morass conditions people to expect dysfunction from the public sector. In contrast, private investment, encouraged by the same politicians who starve and mismanage the transit authority, works its magic all too effectively aboveground. As packed rush-hour trains grind to a halt, mixed-use luxury buildings zoom upward, transforming neighborhoods and skylines from Chelsea to Long Island City to downtown Brooklyn. Stalled trains and gleaming towers are the twin symbols of contemporary New York, and together they send a message: where society failed, capital triumphed.
Gentrification—the various effects of this victory on cities around the world—feels inevitable, in part because alternatives can seem difficult to find. Critics of gentrification are often chastised for romanticizing the gritty, funky urban centers of the 1970s and ’80s, while downplaying that era’s high crime rates, brutal policing, and crumbling infrastructure. But admonitions to remember the “bad old days” (cold comfort while forking over today’s four-figure rents) are predicated on another act of forgetting. In the years following World War II, the seeds of a social democracy took root in New York. Historian Kim Phillips-Fein argues in her 2017 book, Fear City, that aspects of postwar New York resembled today’s Nordic welfare states. Healthcare, housing, transit, and education were treated as public goods, and culture as a basic amenity. New York’s libraries and theaters became the best in the country; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on city land, grew into perhaps the greatest institution of its kind in the world.
This is not to refocus romantic visions from one era to another—New York’s social democratic institutions often failed to deliver equal services to all—but to highlight an alternate political reality that existed within living memory. In this issue, Charles Petersen characterizes the Met’s pay-what-you-wish admission policy as a rare holdover from a time of free college tuition and city-run hospitals—one that somehow survived until January of this year. The museum’s recent switch to charging out-of-state visitors a mandatory entry fee symbolizes the triumph of what Phillips-Fein calls the “austerity politics” of the 1970s—an ideologically driven effort to dismantle the social safety net.
Donald Trump, a protagonist in Fear City, took advantage of the city’s fiscal crisis in his real estate dealings. When he was elected president, some cultural critics predicted that his brand of reactionary politics would provoke a creative flourishing after years of complacency, with artists taking up the punk mantle of the Reagan years. But that has not happened in any appreciable way, and in any case a hostile environment is not necessarily a boon. Social democratic New York was a world-historical center of culture, fostering Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism. Art does just fine when human welfare is secure.
Two features in this issue, both highlighting exhibitions in the Bronx, examine the real complexity of living and making art amid austerity. Sebastián Pérez discusses photographer Joseph Rodriguez’s 1980s images of Spanish Harlem, which depict a community at once bearing the brunt of disinvestment and holding on to vibrant traditions. In her essay on Gordon Matta-Clark’s early “anarchitecture” pieces—cuts into abandoned buildings in the Bronx—Rachel Wetzler highlights the works’ mixed legacy. A fierce critic of developers and landlords in the 1970s, Matta-Clark performed dramatic architectural interventions that have inspired many contemporary urban planners and starchitects.
Art galleries are often among the first and most visible signs of gentrification in a given neighborhood. Activists in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles have demanded the closure of art spaces. Harry Burke recounts for A.i.A. how activists in Manhattan’s Chinatown protested a 2017 exhibition there of work by artist Omer Fast. Animosity toward the gallery show, which featured a partial simulation of a Chinese-run business, was no doubt intensified by the pressures of an economic system in which private cultural institutions are pitted against longtime neighborhood residents in a competition for space and resources. The protests also drew attention to the activist networks operating in the community, suggesting that such organizations provide the best hope of establishing a new kind of city. The social gains of the postwar period were not bestowed by especially generous plutocrats. People fought for the city they wanted. And they won.