CDCs, BIDs, CDBG, LIHTC. 421a and J-51 (RIP). These acronyms represent a host of practices to manage urban development, from building affordable housing to providing security and sanitation services. They’re some of the building blocks of what scholars refer to as the neoliberal city, a landscape of urban governance defined by its reliance on markets and the private sector — whether nonprofit institutions, community organizations, or commercial developers — to provide public goods. In two recent books, historians Claire Dunning and Benjamin Holtzman look back to the origins of the city we take for granted in the urban crises of the mid-twentieth century, and explore the intended and unintended consequences of the policy experiments hatched in response. Holtzman’s The Long Crisis tells a new story about the path to neoliberalism in New York City, where grassroots attempts to make up for retrenching municipal services and deteriorating conditions in homes and public spaces have supported market logics with mixed results. Focusing on Boston, Dunning reckons with a similar difficulty. For all the growth of a nonprofit apparatus for community development and service provision in poor communities of color, decades later these “Nonprofit Neighborhoods” are still defined by scarcity. These uncomfortable histories of urban inequality show how many fighting the good fight participate in a process of “neoliberalization by default” that exacerbates exclusion. In their conversation below, Holtzman and Dunning bring clear eyes to the central contradictions of contemporary citymaking, the limits of local initiatives, the denigration of public goods by both left and right, and where the power for material change lies.
We’ve both traced the history behind what are today fully entrenched parts of urban life, from Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and nonprofits to business improvement districts and park conservancies. Can we go back to what brought you to the project, what your motivations or entry points were?
I was working at a community foundation during the 2008 financial crisis, when cities were struggling, people were struggling. We at the foundation were trying to do some good for the neighborhoods. It was a genuine effort, and one that I found frustrating in that we were responding to problems decades in the making with three and five-year grant cycles. CDCs had bought all this housing and operated as landlords, and their balance sheets evaporated as the value of that property suffered during the housing crisis. The entities that residents were relying upon were themselves struggling; it felt like a lose-lose situation. Despite the deep commitment of funders, of grantees, of city officials, something about this at a structural level didn’t seem to be working, and that was a question that the world of practice couldn’t quite answer for me. To me, that was a historical question: Why are we relying on these small entities to solve big problems and these private entities to solve public problems? Which is why I chose to write about the nonprofit sector and to think about it at a structural level — its relationships to the state, to the economy and markets, politics.
But what about you? How did you come to these questions about crises, and neoliberalism, and the city that we see today?
When I was beginning this work, I found that the scholarship and conversations about the transformation of New York in the late 20th century continued to put so much emphasis on the tenure of Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s. I was old enough to remember some of the transformations that occurred then. But I had been weary of these great man narratives of history, and I was curious about the ways that various New Yorkers had also come to shape the city leading up to his mayoral run.
I looked back to when the city first entered a major economic crisis and began to see cutbacks at the municipal level in the late 1960s, and people originated projects that tried to maintain a certain level of services within their communities, in realms like housing, public space, parks, or security. These kinds of projects looked increasingly to volunteerism and the private sector. They developed through the course of the 1970s, when the city’s economic conditions reached their lowest point, and began to intersect with similar initiatives by more powerful people in the city, whether that be mayors or ideologically driven businessmen, who are looking to expand the role of the private sector and market in city life.
One example would be the increasing reliance on park conservancies to run the vast majority of larger parks in Manhattan and a growing number of parks in the outer boroughs. Such now have many of their day-to-day activities or oversight of their management occur through these private-public partnerships with the city. We have a much greater reliance on the private sector for donations and for management for these crucial public spaces. It’s not as if the city of the 1950s and ‘60s was an equitable landscape. But with processes that give more power to the private sector or market over city life, that almost inherently tends to privilege those with greater resources. By the late 20th century, you had Manhattan parks that were in wealthier, business-oriented areas able to secure near-pristine conditions, while parks in lower-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color faced increasing municipal cutbacks. We can chart that through various other examples, like shoring up private security in business districts and in wealthy areas. Enabling those sectors to secure their own resources exacerbated the disparities by race and class across the landscape of New York.
One of the things that I find interesting about nonprofit organizations is that they hold this legally ambiguous role of being private entities chartered for a public purpose. I try to emphasize that the growing reliance on nonprofit organizations to meet crisis conditions was a policy choice. Under urban renewal in the ‘50s through the War on Poverty in the mid-1960s, the federal government was making choices to allocate funding to nonprofit organizations and the private sector as a way of responding to these kinds of crises.
One of the reasons they were doing it is because people on the ground were asking for it. Low-income groups of color, in particular, were raising legitimate concerns about the exclusivity of municipal government. Boston, like many cities, was still highly segregated and unequal in housing, schools, and access to open space and jobs. These community groups created on-the-ground responses through private, nonprofit organizations to meet the needs of their communities. They did this not as a way of extracting or leaving the government, but of bolstering it. This is a tension that you and I are similarly thinking about: how efforts to increase public rights, public provision, municipal goods and services have come via the private sector, and had these long-term, unintended — and sometimes intended — consequences of fueling an argument of extraction.
The policy choice to fund these private groups was politically popular because it was a way of including, in a constrained way, low-income-led, Black-led, brown-led nonprofits in neighborhoods that have long been excluded. Local community groups were setting up after-school tutoring programs and building affordable housing, guiding middle schoolers through the busing crisis in the ‘70s in Boston, reforming school curricula at the local level, and providing counseling to families, through nonprofit organizations that are private but are using public dollars. These private services could be steered, politically, in different directions, but, ultimately, those who foot the bill hold the power. Whether that’s donors who are able to increase attention to parks in wealthy districts or the deep dependence in low-income neighborhoods on government grants that are by no means adequate for what groups are trying to provide for their neighborhoods.
One of the things that you chart so powerfully in your book is that the real popularity of these kinds of governing structures and the reliance on the nonprofit sector can mask how these nonprofits are being steered through the people who fund them. They also seem to consistently be operating in this environment of austerity. In good times and bad, conditions for a nonprofit are always constrained based on this notion that they never quite have enough resources. That is both intentional from a policy perspective, and it’s also limiting the demands that they feel that they can make.
We talk about these relationships as partnerships, but they’re never between equal bodies. To hold the purse is to hold the power.
You mentioned unintended consequences in relation to a kind of experimentation that is happening in cities, particularly in the ‘60s and ‘70s. How do you see experimentation and its unintended consequences as shaping cities in the late 20th century?
Experimentation is the buzzword of the nonprofit sector, past and present: this idea that we just need to find the new solution to things, as if we don’t already know what poor people and people who have been excluded around different identities need or want. They’ve been telling us for a very long time. But funding programs are all about experimenting, and then assuming that once a solution is found, it’ll be scaled. Every large-scale, federal urban social program is predicated on this experimentation. The part about scaling and institutionalizing and creating the structural change never is fully fleshed out.
I write about one group in the South End of Boston who had been funded on a law-enforcement-oriented grant; they started escorting elderly folks to the mailbox. They also started distributing surplus food, but that was outside the bounds of the grant, and it wasn’t really tracked or counted. It was not proven to be successful, and was cut. The lead organizer said, “Look, we’re feeding families who need this. I’m responding to what our community needs.” But the funder said, “No.” And so the organizer got fired by a relatively sympathetic boss who said, “It was good work, but we can’t risk this grant that we need to keep some of your colleagues employed.” What gets tracked, what’s valued, what gets funded, are all wrapped up in these liberal expectations that we just need to find solutions and then scale them.
To me, that’s been one of the biggest findings of the book and part of our historical amnesia: the effort to experiment or innovate has been the dominant framework over and over again. We’re going through the same processes, and no one’s investing in scaling.
This notion of experimentation comes up a lot for you, too. You’re talking about it as a way of meeting immediate needs in a grassroots, crisis response kind of way.
In the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, groups launched a number of initiatives to care for parks, to try to make their neighborhoods safer, to try to build low-income housing or secure low-income housing. They came up with a lot of innovative projects to improve or just maintain some basic conditions in their neighborhoods. Even though some of these projects would lead to more neoliberal initiatives that look to those outside of government, the people leading these projects weren’t market ideologues. They didn’t necessarily see the market as superior to municipal resources. They just wanted their parks maintained.
I respect how thoughtfully you talk about some of these experiments as neoliberal but not necessarily ideologically so. You don’t put labels on these people who would not have seen themselves as neoliberal, yet you connect their work to a broader political, economic transformation. You push us, maybe in some uncomfortable ways, to think about these folks as part of the history of neoliberalism.
I think this tricky territory came up for me especially regarding the urban homesteading movement. Landlords were just walking away from their buildings for all sorts of reasons, so there were decaying, often dangerous buildings in low-income communities. Community members began taking over buildings themselves. They emphasized the importance of their own sweat and labor and the utility of private ownership. They tended to deemphasize the role of the state. Those points of emphasis got picked up and selectively interpreted by officials to reorient those projects more toward the market, especially when the city — which typically became the owner of these properties — tried to auction them off to the highest bidder.
In telling that story, it was important for me to give an understanding of why homesteaders were framing their struggle in those ways. Homesteading got picked up by both those on the left, because it was seen as community empowerment of low-income people, and those on the right, because they’re deemphasizing the role of the state and emphasizing private ownership. I think it helps us to see the complexity of how neoliberal changes happened.
One of my most uncertain moments was writing about this local activist politician and community organizer, Mel King. Everyone in Boston knows Mel. He is an incredible stalwart of the Boston Black community. He was elected to the Massachusetts State House in the early ‘70s, and promoted a series of policies to direct capital to nonprofit organizations for community and economic development, to help nonprofits buy housing and redevelop it for affordable uses, and to support local small businesses, seeing the market as holding emancipatory potential. Some working groups that he’d been a part of as a community organizer were thinking about the market as able to deliver a sense of continuity and power that had been lacking in these neighborhoods for structural reasons. They were trying to wrest nonprofits away from philanthropic and government funders, who they recognized as being in a highly unequal power relationship, and they viewed the market as being able to distance and insulate nonprofits from those funding relationships. If a community group owns housing, they can charge rents at a subsidized level and support themselves. This business model is reliant on the market.
But they had a real critique of government. We might say, “Mel King’s looking to the market, he’s a neoliberal,” or “He’s trying to reorient service provision towards private and market-oriented solutions.” But we have to recognize what that’s a response to. What’s getting picked up by other policymakers and corporate leaders is the market-oriented solution. What’s getting ignored is the critique underlying it.
We are both talking about inadequacies and efforts to respond to them at the grassroots, neighborhood level, making sure that even as we talk about — and sometimes critique — the solutions groups envisioned and attempted we don’t get distracted from the reasons why they saw potential in community development or community after school programs as a response to something much deeper. Can we hold individuals with less power responsible for the broader transformations of neoliberalism? No, and you and I are both trying to push against that, even as we recognize nonelites as part of this transformation. They’re part of this transformation without being alone responsible for it.
The example of homesteading in Black and brown communities in New York, there’s reasons why they are critiquing the role of government. They can see the result of government action and inaction in their communities all around them. For the decrepit conditions that they were forced to live in, they blamed both slumlords — so there is some critique of the role of the private market in that sense — as well as government, for shaping building abandonment and the inadequate resources community members have been subject to for decades. That critique of government doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s real, it’s sensible. But it will be part of a much longer process that will lead to important changes in the city.
One of the ways that shows up is being located at the neighborhood level, because segregation and discrimination in urban areas is neighborhood-specific. How do you hold the value of thinking at the neighborhood level and how that fits into this broader political and economic shift ?
This mantra around local solutions and local empowerment can so easily be picked up and manipulated towards different ends. It’s not to say that community-based solutions aren’t an important point of emphasis in urban politics. They’re crucial. At the same time, those can be selectively interpreted by power holders, reemphasized, deemphasized, in all sorts of different ways that will lead to conditions not substantively changing. I found your ability to show the ways that happens illuminating: how that emphasis on local participation is driving so much of the historical narrative, but also how those processes can lead to very different ends, through various arrays of elite manipulation.
There’s this term, “the nonprofit-industrial complex,” that I came to partway through this project. It comes out of a collection, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded by the INCITE Collective, and they powerfully write about the ways nonprofits are structurally embedded in these power relationships and racialized relationships. But one of the things that felt lacking to me in this term is not recognizing it as embedded spatially in the urban environment. There’s a historical relationship I’m trying to trace about why traditionally disenfranchised neighborhoods are especially reliant on nonprofit organizations to meet their basic needs, goods, and services.
It has to be a neighborhood story because neighborhoods are uneven. Urban history and political history tell us that the neighborhood really matters because of legacies of segregation. So the solutions that the local people are proposing are coming from those environments. It’s hard to structure a narrative that is grounded at the grassroots, but also recognizes that these processes are responding to political economy of cities at a much broader level. I write about how funding programs show up in Boston, but the same programs are in Pittsburgh, Oakland, and Houston. The programs are federal, the political-economic conditions are national, and yet, they’re most visible at the neighborhood level. In these traditionally Black and excluded neighborhoods, the public sector is very present: public housing, public schools, public police. But their inadequacies are increasingly met by nonprofit supplements in different ways from the ‘50s forward.
One of the major critiques of the INCITE Collective and the idea of the nonprofit-industrial complex is the way that funders have deemphasized, certainly systemic change, but also very basic political organizing work. In the ‘70s there was this vibrant housing movement in New York that was doing incredible grassroots organizing across the city. By late in the decade, all of a sudden, the city actually became more willing to enter into partnerships with what became nonprofit housing groups to manage and sometimes develop low-income housing. What had been a radical movement that emphasized community empowerment and producing larger systemic change suddenly found that there was no room for organizing in any of these city contracts. That was very intentional, on the state’s behalf, to focus on meeting needs of low-income communities but deemphasizing a larger, political kind of work that was being done within communities.
It’s hard to both criticize the government and then ask for funding. That’s just an awkward relationship: one that, when you’re trying to keep your staff employed, needs to be delicate. It feels unfair, as a researcher, to be critical of choices that keep people employed. Executive directors know the trade-offs they make when accepting some of these grants, and often that means letting some of the organizing fall by the wayside. A lot of what I write about is absolutely known to people who do this work. Part of my audience, I’m hoping, are funders in both government and private foundations who are hesitant to fund organizing because it is seen as too radical or risky, or too hard to evaluate but who need to recognize that social movements are how change happens.
I write about a man who had been president of State Street Bank, Bill Edgerly, who went on to support a number of big public-private partnerships in Boston — the Boston Compact, Boston Housing Partnership — that developed 700 units of housing in a handful of years. It’s an impressive coalition, but oriented around business principles and market principles. And he said, “I hope the decade of the 90s will be an era when collaboration takes the place of confrontation.” He says this as a sort of hope, but when you’re the former president of the biggest bank in the area, and you’re leading these coalitions, that’s not a hope, that’s a command.
The takeaways of your book are vast and considerable. Could you speak to some of them, in terms of us shaping our understanding of historical change in cities in the late-20th century, and perhaps even giving us some insight into the present, and even the future?
Let’s ask big questions, not just about how to trim a budget by $5,000 or how to fine-tune program delivery. Those are important questions, but they’re small ones. I want to ask a much bigger question about the relationship of these organizations to the state and market, and our reliance on small organizations to solve big problems. Something is fundamentally not working, even as neighborhood nonprofits are doing important work. I’m not maligning or saying, “Let’s get rid of all these important community groups.” No. They do really important work, but we’re spinning our wheels and need to reimagine what the public and private sectors should and do provide for citizens.
But then what does that look like? Whew! I don’t really know. I’m much more comfortable recognizing the inadequacies, and I’m trying to listen to others for what a different version might look like. How do you think about this? Your book is similarly critiquing genuine efforts to improve cities. We still are talking in these crisis frameworks.
To this day, we continue to see advocates of pro-market, privatized policy solutions. We continue to see the ways in which those policies get enacted as being led by ideologically-driven figures, typically on the right. There’s a lot of truth to seeing them as the leading proponents of these processes. But looking at how these processes transpired historically also shows the role of people who are on the ground in their communities, who can end up supporting these processes not because they believe that they’re superior, but because of the circumstances that they’re in. The denigration of public goods is not simply a project of the right.
For those of us who think it’s important to not continue to just cede power and resources in cities to the private sector and to business, we need to reckon with the continued failures of government policy but also not contribute to that denigration of public goods. We need to fight for our public goods, and to know that how people experience public goods and public services, on the ground, is going to shape the kind of policy solutions that they support, whether tacitly or not. Continuing to support our public institutions, to steer them in productive directions, is also a critical battleground.
I’ve been validated by nonprofit leaders who said, “This describes my experience.” I’m critical of the broader system of the nonprofit-industrial complex, but extracting and eliminating these organizations without anything to replace them is an incredibly risky, inappropriate, and unjust endeavor. What happens when you levy a critique, and it ends up supporting the thing that’s the opposite? My experience as an author is holding that uncertainty, that ideas can get beyond us, and I’m trying to urge as many funders as I can to funding organizing, fund community groups, and support mobilizing in the social movements because that is what changes history.