Fitchian reflections on today’s news

This is my introduction for Ruthie Gilmore, who gave the third Robert Fitch memorial lecture at LaGuardia Community College in Queens on May 6, 2014. Many thanks to Karen Miller and her colleagues at LaGuardia for organizing the series.

It’s always refreshing to visit LaGuardia College, where the buildings are named after letters. I went to a college where the buildings are named after slavers, financiers, and reactionary politicians.

I’m very glad to be introducing the Third Robert Fitch Memorial Lecture. When I gave the first two years ago, I was worried there wouldn’t be a second. But as it turned out, John Halle did a fine job delivering that last year, and I’m now looking forward to hearing Ruth Wilson Gilmore—the very model of the scholar–activist—deliver the third. We are, I hope, an unholy trinity.

Though I miss Bob’s person every day, I also miss his mind every time I read or hear the news. A couple of current items cry out for Fitchian analysis. First there was the news that the top 25 hedge fund honchos, most of whom live in or around New York City, pulled down over $21 billion among them last year. A little math reveals that that’s close to half the total personal income of The Bronx, home to 1.4 million people. I don’t have the exact numbers, but given the usual contours of income distribution, the hedgies’ collective income is probably equal to the total income of well over a million Bronxites. Life among the 1% of the 1% is very flush these days.

Ah, but we have a new mayor, one who comes out of what Alex Cockburn used to call “pwogwessive” politics, replacing that plutocrat Bloomberg. I’d seriously love to hear what Bob would have had to say about de Blasio; I suspect it would be rather like what he had to say about Obama, which was highly skeptical of the now-forgotten liberal enthusiasm of 2008. But, most relevantly, de Blasio is out with an affordable housing program that’s grabbed a lot of headlines but looks rather thin on the details—and, as any studious Fitchian knows, it’s all in the details.

There are, however, hints in what we’ve heard so far that make one suspicious. First is the predominance of private money, about three-quarters of the alleged $40 billion pricetag. That private money is supposed to be lured with incentives, but private money is never incented, as they say, by anything other than profits. And by definition, affordable housing is rather thin on the profits. Another thing to be suspicious of is that it features building more high-rises: presumably if we build enough high-end housing, some crumbs will fall down into the laps of the poor—with the proper incentives, of course. De Blasio says he’s going to lean on developers to go along, but as the New York Times reported this morning, “how far the city will push developers will not be determined until after a study by the planning department, and the new policy would not come into effect until at least the middle of next year.”

And guess who runs that planning department? The same man that de Blasio picked as co-chair of his transition team, Carl Weisbrod. Weisbrod is a walking embodiment of how this city is run—the perfect fusion of the public and private sectors working together for the enrichment of the so-called FIRE sector, as in Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. Weisbrod—“anything but the kind of development-averse, ivory-tower technocrat de Blasio might have chosen [but a] real-estate man through and through,” as Steve Cuozzo put it in the New York Post, as if that’s a good thingran the 42nd St/Times Square redevelopment project (itself part of the long-term scheme to push midtown westwards, which Bob wrote extensively about). He then moved on to head the Economic Development Corp., a totally opaque body with the power to condemn and subsidize, that is responsible for things like the South Street Seaport in the 1980s (via its predecessor organization, the Public Development Corporation, which Weisbrod also worked for) and the current upscaling of downtown Brooklyn and western Queens (meaning the area all around us here). And from there he went on to run Trinity Church’s real estate portfolio—something that has nothing to do with a spiritual mission, because it’s one of the largest landowners in Manhattan. So that’s the guy who’s going to have a big hand in running the housing policy for the latest pwogwessive hope.

Oh, and Steven Spinola, head of the Real Estate Board of New York, pronounced de Blasio’s scheme “realistic.” The Times described REBNY as “an influential real estate group,” which is only slightly more pointed than describing the NRA as a club for hunting enthusiasts.

Ok, enough of my Bob Fitch imitation—time to introduce Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Ruthie is a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and American Studies at the CUNY grad center. Her most famous book is Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. She was a founding member of Critical Resistance and other organizations whose aim is to undo the imprisonment boom.

Bob used to describe the string of prisons that the father of our present miserable governor had built upstate as The Cuomo Archipelago. After all, when you create a city as profoundly unequal as this one, where the idea of economic development has been decades of squeezing out manufacturing jobs and replacing them with a few high-paying positions in finance and other elite services, and low-paying jobs like bootblacks and nannies for the rest—or for the most unlucky, prison. So here is Ruthie Wilson Gilmore to tell us about “Mass Incarceration, Deportation, Stop and Frisk: The Urban Ecology of the Prison-Industrial Complex.”

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