Utter “fiscal crisis” these days and most people will think you are discussing Detroit, not New York City, where city government is relatively flush with revenue. The City is, indeed, a far cry from its 1975 self, which suffered massive service cuts to prevent municipal bankruptcy. But New York still faces budget shortfalls and tension between the need to provide quality services to its whole population and fears of financial instability. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet cogently presents a historical lesson that reminds us of the choices government can make when dealing with this tension.
The 1980 documentary explains the politics behind the City’s reckoning with its fiscal crisis of the 1970s and compares it to how Cleveland’s mayor at the time, Dennis Kucinich, handled a parallel challenge. Artists Public Domain will hold a screening of a 16mm print at the Bronx Documentary Center on May 12th at 7:30pm, and the film is particularly worthy of a revisit in the contemporary context of overwhelming corporate influence in government.
It also explains what to me is a somewhat hazy history. Most contemporary narratives of 1970s New York austerity measures that I’ve encountered portray these steps as necessary pains to reestablish the City’s financial footing. Tighten Your Belts adds complexity to the closure of fire stations, libraries, hospitals, clinics, and daycares in New York’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. Rather than accept the measures as unavoidable, the film documents how the City handed substantial control over its operations to self-interested banks through State-created authorities. Cleveland’s Kucinich, also facing demands from his city’s creditors to sell off assets or cede operational control, charted a different course. Cleveland defied what Kucinich called blackmail from creditors and went into bankruptcy. Through a referendum, the people of the city ultimately supported the measure to do so rather than allow more corporate influence over governance.
At the core of the film is the question of democratic control and advocacy for its maintenance. Certainly, every city’s situation is distinct, and one can argue that the scale of New York and its problem is not comparable to Cleveland’s. Regardless, the directors — James Gaffney, Martin Lucas, and Jonathan Miller — deftly recommend a reconsideration of how we think of banks’ demands on their governmental creditors, and the responsibility of officials to resist such pressure in times of financial crisis. Head out next Monday for an entertaining and insightful history lesson!
Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet
Monday, May 12, 2014
Bronx Documentary Center
614 Courtland Avenue, Bronx
Jonathan Tarleton is a writer, activist, and urbanist with aspirations to contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive urban environment. He is an assistant editor at The Architectural League and Urban Omnibus and has made his way to Brooklyn from his roots in Georgia and North Carolina. Follow him @jttarleton.