New York For Sale

Book by Tom Angotti, foreword by Peter Marcuse; MIT Press, 2008, 323 pp.

Left to their own devices, markets tend to drop large American cities in two equally precarious positions. The disinvestment of Detroit and Flint serve as symbols of the fickleness of globalization. In New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate, Tom Angotti maps out another urban future where the development of cities are shaped by ordinary working class people through progressive community planning methods.

According to Angotti, director of Hunter College’s Community Planning and Development Department, this future may well exist within the shell of today’s economy. As evidence, he points to over 70 community-driven plans in New York City alone, many of which have sprung from the city’s fights against displacement in the past 4 decades. A comprehensive survey of all such plans would take several volumes, so only two are explored in detail: the 1961 Cooper Square Alternative plan and the We Stay!/Nos Quedamos Plan in the Melrose Commons section of the South Bronx.

In the case of Cooper Square, determined activists moved from protest to planning and forced the city’s developers to severely curtail a Robert Moses urban renewal scheme. They succeeded and, through the growth of community development corporations, were able to create new affordable housing and preserve existing stock.

In Melrose Commons, largely Latino renters and small businesspeople mobilized to confront a developer who would have displaced over 78 homeowners, 400 tenants, 80 businesses, and 500 workers. Through strategic community organizing, the We Stay group made the city accept a plan based in 168 neighborhood consultations.

Angotti’s vision of city planning is an ambitious one. He uses the term progressive community planning to describe a process that can "achieve local and global equality, social inclusion, and environmental justice." In part, this description is made as an attempt to differentiate the planning Angotti proposes from racist, NIMBY-driven "community plans," which serve to exclude and further dislocate low-income communities.

Accessible from the start, New York for Sale is meant to be useful to grassroots activists and progressive planners alike. Most of the organizations Angotti listens to are rooted in low-income communities of color. Throughout the book, knowledge and expertise are found within and outside the walls of the university, dignifying the work of organizers and academics alike. Yet Angotti isn’t content to rest on simplistic formulas of "working-class good" and "developers evil." His multilayered approach takes complexity and contradiction head-on, asking the questions that all concerned with the American city should be contemplating.

A crucial question is that of development in the global city. Displacement by development is common, but so also is displacement without development. In fact, abandonment and disinvestment is, in most cases, a prerequisite for gentrification. The groups here do not conform to simple "anti-development" stereotypes of neighborhood groups. Indeed, in a global economy, development corporations are often able to out-organize organizers by appealing to a community’s need for jobs and income. The irony is that the decisions that robbed the community of good paying jobs were often made by the same people. At Cooper and Melrose, the call is for participatory planning and safeguards of the right of place as well as class and racial justice.

Such stands might make some sections of the anti-displacement movement uncomfortable. They inherently require compromise, contain legions of unintended consequences, and offer the ever-present possibility of cooptation.

Heavy on context, the book contends that community plans are but a point in a long history of resistance in New York City—connecting slave rebellions; Henry George’s run for mayor in 1886; the Depression-era unemployed workers movement; the post-World War II struggles against urban renewal; and the era of economic globalization. While each social movement shares a logic of people before profit, progressive community planning’s clearest lineage descends from the environmental justice movement. As communities of color have challenged both corporate America and the priorities of mainstream environmentalists, campaigns for community-controlled development have taken root.

At its conclusion, New York for Sale offers a ten-point plan—one specific enough to be of practical use while broad enough to avoid being overly prescriptive. Reclaiming the commons, the public sphere, in an age of privatization, is no easy task. Behind each point, such as creating community land trusts, land banking, and re-regulation, lie enormous and costly fights. Yet, it’s clear that someone will emerge as a winner from the latest phase of the housing crisis. Angotti recognizes that in order for communities to win, movements are necessary. He has created something more powerful than a road map for those who would take up the fight. New York for Sale is a tool to show what happened before in order to build global cities rooted in global justice.


James Tracy is a Bay area-based organizer active in a San Francisco community land trust and housing partnership.