Rotten Apple: How New York Symbolizes Inequality in America

Sean Posey I Urban Issues I Analysis I September 4th, 2014

There are few more fascinating stories in American urban history than the rise, seeming fall, and gold-plated rebirth of New York City. At the beginning of the twentieth-century, the Big Apple was growing by leaps and bounds. Forty percent population growth rates proved to be the norm. Even Chicago and Buffalo-the then rapidly growing "City of Light"-couldn't outpace New York.

Masses of poor immigrants poured through Ellis Island every year, passing the copper visage of the Statue of Liberty and into the dense grid of Manhattan.

Names were made and financial empires built in those days as monstrous curtained-walled skyscrapers sprouted up, reshaping the city's landscape as much as its brokers and financial barons reshaped the economic landscape. The city's fortunes have waxed and waned in the nearly a century that's passed, but New York remains the symbol of American urbanity and economic might. Yet "America's City," despite all the flowery press surrounding its recent rebirth, is also the symbol of American inequality.

Apex and Decline

While the great metropolises of Europe began to dig themselves out of the rubble of the Second World War, New York emerged unscathed and poised to take its place as the preeminent city in the world. It represented the largest manufacturing center on Earth - with over a million people employed in various industries. New York's waterfront teamed with longshoremen working the busiest port in the world. The Garment District reigned as the capital of fashion design and production. New York stood as a manufacturing metropolis with few rivals.

Beginning in the 1960s, however, the city entered a steep decline that served as a symbol for the deepening urban crisis that gripped America. Racial and ethnic conflict, suburbanization, and deindustrialization ate away at the city during the "decade of discontent." In the 1960 Census, New York lost population for the first time in its history. By the 1970s, Gotham seemed to be going the way of Detroit: the legendary landscape of Olmstead's Central Park turned feral; rip-offs and muggings sent fear into the hearts of the bridge and tunnel crowd; the city infamously teetered on the edge of bankruptcy in 1975; and general looting accompanied the embarrassing failure of the power grid in the summer of 1977.

In particular, the decline of industry proved devastating. From the beginning of the 1970s to the end of the 1980s, New York lost half of its manufacturing employment. Industrial companies in the Fortune 500 with headquarters in the city also dropped precipitously. [1] Deindustrialization, combined with problems emanating from the 1970s property market crash, greatly exacerbated the crisis.

New York lost 10 percent of its population during the 1970s. Entire sections of the city took on a post-apocalyptic air. Films like 2019: After the Fall of New York and 1990: The Bronx Warriors attempted to cash in on the city's notorious landscape of physical and social decay. And Diane Keaton's character in the Oscar winning Annie Hall famously quipped, "What's so incredibly great about New York? It's a dying city…" But all of these obituaries proved to be very premature.

From Manufacturing to Market Manipulation

New York initially grew around one of the greatest harbors in the Western Hemisphere. Shipping, and later manufacturing, drove much of the area's growth. But shrinking industries and the movement of shipping to ports in New Jersey changed the locus of economic activity in the 1970s. Instead, deregulation and the financialization of the economy started to drive economic growth. The real action wasn't in the garment district or the old longshoreman haunts anymore, but in the glass cathedrals of capitalism on Wall Street. New York began to grow again-not around productive enterprises based in manufacturing or shipping-but around extractive enterprises based on the chicanery of the financial services sector.

The passage of the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act in 1980 and the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982, which started the deregulation of the financial industry and savings and loans associations, ushered in the era of casino capitalism. Aside from allowing thrifts to move into real estate and other commercial activities, deregulation also enabled savings and loan institutions to sell mortgages. Wall Street bankers took advantage of the naïveté (and in some cases the criminality) of the S&Ls and extracted fat profits from these arrangements, while also helping to bring on the S&L disaster.

Traditionally, finance acted as a facilitator of capital allocation for manufacturing and other economically productive enterprises. Starting in the 1970s, the financial industry began to increase its share of GDP. American corporations in general also began to seek increased profits through activities not primarily associated with production.[2] This helped set the stage for the meteoric rise of the financial industry in New York.

Between 1977 and 1985, manufacturing employment went down 23 percent in Manhattan, but employment in the banking sector increased by the same amount. By 1996, Manhattan had on average three times more employment in FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) than the country as a whole. [3] In the early 1980s, Wall Street activity represented about 10 percent of all corporate profits. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, 40 percent of corporate profits came from "The Street." [4]

The 1990s brought even more deregulation, which once again provided an outlet for the funneling of vast profits from other parts of the country to New York. As investments banks went public in the 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s, the restraining influence of the partnership model vanished and the big boys of Morgan Stanley, Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, and Goldman Sachs grew enormously powerful.[5] Of course this ended disastrously for the general public, but it sucked enormous sums of money into the city, money that was used to promote tourism and to rebuild the battered core of the Big Apple.

The Speculative Skyline

Bouts of skyscraper construction are notoriously tied to speculative enterprises.[6] Much like now, New York embarked on a skyscraper building frenzy during the real estate boom of the 1920s. In the decades before the Roaring Twenties, companies paid for and solicited construction of large office buildings for their firms. However, with the red-hot real estate market of that era, skyscrapers emerged in order to cash in on the run-up in real estate prices. This was also the origin of the first commercial mortgage-backed securities.[7] New York's skyline has changed, and continues to change, with various (overheated) business cycles. [8]

Today, high rises are once again going up in big numbers around New York - fueled by the ill-gotten gains of Wall Street and the speculative real estate market. Architect Magazine refers to these primarily residential towers as "symbols for the transformation of Manhattan into the haven of choice for the global one percent, who will soon ride the ridge of 57th Street in their castellated turrets."[9] These behemoths are, in short, monuments to the new American inequality.

Race and Inequality

New York is not commonly associated in the popular imagination with the ills of racial segregation and inequality. Yet below the patina of progressivism that coats the city's image is a classic tale of American racial conflict and oppression.

In 1964, New York played witness to the first of the major race riots of the decade. In the years after Harlem burned, white flight and deindustrialization hit minority neighborhoods with the force of a natural disaster. But there was nothing natural about the process, and no help was dispatched as the Bronx burned and crime soared during the 1970s.

As economic inequality and the rebranding of New York started to take hold, new pressures came to bear on communities of color: gentrification and economic displacement. According to long-time Wall Street watcher Les Leopold, "Not only does financialization destroy middle-income manufacturing jobs in urban areas, but the process also removes low-income neighborhoods through gentrification. The rise of high-income financiers (and the desire of banks to loan more money to them) creates upward pressure on housing prices in urban areas that cater to elites, like New York, Chicago and San Francisco." [10]

Part of making neighborhoods safe for corporate investment and financier wealth is aggressive policing. As New York tumbled downward, crime-and fear of crime-became a source of constant consternation for the city. During the height of the city's crime problem, police introduced the term "wilding" to describe what they insisted were gangs of (predominately minority) teenagers committing random assaults on the streets. The actual existence of a wilding phenomenon in the late 80s and early 90s was hotly disputed, but it contributed to the atmosphere that surrounded the wrongful convictions of five youths in the infamous "Central Park jogger case" of 1989.

Rudy Giuliani's "zero tolerance" campaign began a new era in city policing in the early 90s. In particular "stop-and-frisk"-instituted under Giuliani, but perfected under Michael Bloomberg- disproportionately targeted minority pedestrians. Stop-and-frisk is intended to get weapons and drugs off the streets. But the practice rarely leads to convictions, and it has drawn enormous criticism and substantive claims that it deliberately targets African Americans. [11]

There's scant evidence that a reliance on stop-and frisk has been responsible for the dramatic drop in New York's crime rate over the past two decades. John Liu, the former state comptroller, refers to the policy as "the most widespread manifestation of racial profiling anywhere in the United States." [12] And despite the fact that crime is at lows not seen since the early 1960s, arrests are at "near historic highs."[13] With the recent brutal death of Eric Garner (now ruled a murder) during a stop-and-frisk attempt, the chillingly racialized nature of the NYPD is again becoming a symbol of the stark imbalances in America's policing and prison systems.

The Capital of Modern American Inequality

The end of the twentieth century didn't bring the end of Wall Street's wild ride. While the city cracked down on "wilding," the financial center of New York went on a rampage of its own. The big banks played a central role in the economic cataclysm that enveloped the world in 2007-2008; however, New York - or at least those in its upper strata - benefitted greatly from the profits funneled out of subdivisions, pension funds, and ghettoes around the country during the bubble.

As Americans descended into the Great Recession in 2007, Wall Street bankers pocketed $33.2 billion in bonuses. But as much as development benefited from financialization, many of the city's citizens suffered. In 2012, the poverty rate increased for the third straight year. And that's with a poverty level for a single person set at $11,500! Thirty percent of the Bronx lives below the poverty line. Before redistricting in 2010, New York's 16th Congressional District was the poorest in the nation.[14]

In a perverse way, New York City has benefitted greatly from an economy that did so much to damage productive investment and the economic health of the country; however, the large chunk of the city's population that suffered the most through the urban crisis of the 70s and 80s has not benefitted. To the contrary, they are increasingly subjected to the forces of gentrification and speculative development.

With levels of inequality approaching those seen in Africa, many of the city's citizens rose to challenge 'The One Percent" as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. For a few months, all eyes turned to Gotham. But ultimately Occupy collapsed once police ejected protesters from Zuccoti Park and from other encampments around the country. Nearly three years later, the beat goes on uninterrupted in the Big Apple.

Despite the recent election of liberal Bill de Blasio, it's unclear how deepening inequality and the affordable housing crisis will be solved. As Joel Kotkin argues, global cities are by their very nature squeezing out the middle class and deepening all kinds of socioeconomic problems. They are repelling the middle and working classes who can longer afford to live in them. This is a marked change from historical precedent, when the less affluent sought out places like New York, believing them to be cities of opportunity.[15]

Even while the well heeled enjoy the panoply of comforts offered by the New Gotham, the city's cultural identity is crumbling under the weight of commercial homogenization and the disappearance of ethnic and working class neighborhoods.[16] Will radical New York once again rise in an Occupy-style fashion or will the focus of Leftist politics move to another part of the country? If not, the Empire City will continue to serve as the symbol of American plutocracy, and the American Left will have to look for new grounds in which to fight against the forces of neoliberalism and oligarchy.


[1] Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) 202.

[2] Natascha van der Zwan, "Making Sense of Financialization," Socio-Economic Review, Volume 12, No. 1 (2014) (Accessed July 25, 2014).

[3] Sassen, 208.

[4] Simon Johnson, The Global Crisis: Is It Over Yet? (MIT Sloan School of Management, Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2009).

[5] For more information see John Gillespie, Money for Nothing: How CEOs and Boards Enrich Themselves While Bankrupting America (New York: Free Press, 2010).

[6] Vikram Mansharamani, Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 202.

[7] Frank Byrt, "Securitization in the 1920s," National Bureau of Economic Research. (Accessed July 28, 2014).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Aaron Betsky, "Symbolism of Skyscrapers: The Meaning of High-Rises Around the World," Architect Magazine, July 23, 2014. (Accessed July 25, 2014.)

[10] Les Leopold, "How Wall Street Turned America Into Incarceration Nation," Alternet, November 25, 2013. (Accessed July 29, 2014).

[11] Colleen Long and Tom Hays, " Cop who made tapes accuses NYPD of false arrest: Adrian Schoolcraft made hundreds of hours of secret tapes while on duty ," Associated Press,, October 9, 2010. (Accessed July 30, 2014).

[12] Seth Freed Wessler, "How 'Stop-and-Frisk' (Not So) Quietly Became the Center of NYC Politics," ColorLines, June 18, 2012. (Accessed July 30, 2014).

[13] Joseph Goldstein, "Safer Era Tests Wisdom of 'Broken Windows" Focus on Minor Crime," New York Times, July 24, 2014.

[14] David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2012), 24.

[15] Joel Kotkin, "The Problem with Being Global," New Geography, August 23, 2014. (Accessed August 25, 2014).

[16] For a detailed examination of these trends see Jeremiah Moss, "Jeremiah's Vanishing New York,"