Earth and Environmental Sciences
Labor, Land Use, and the Luxury City
Samuel Stein is a geography PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center and an Urban Studies instructor at Hunter College. His work focuses on the politics of urban planning, with an emphasis on housing, real estate and gentrification in New York City. In 2019, Verso will publish his first book, Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, which explores how the overconcentration of capital in urban real estate has affected the practice of urban planning. His scholarly and popular articles have been published by The Journal of Urban Affairs, Metropolitics, Jacobin, The Village Voice, and many other magazines and journals.
Since the 1980s, New York City’s land and property values have risen at an extraordinary rate, and luxury construction has reshaped the urban landscape. At the same time, New York remains a “union town,” with labor unions and working-class community-based organizations growing fast in both membership and influence. The literature on labor renewal suggests that growing unions and non-profits should act as a check against housing cost inflation and challenge planning policies that result in rising rents and racially patterned displacement. However, the opposite, in fact, often occurs: many of New York’s most influential working-class institutions have developed complex campaigns in support of land use changes that accelerate gentrification.
How and why are they doing this? In what ways do rising land values promote their members’ interests, and in what ways do they conflict with them? How has the city been shaped by these actions? Labor, Land Use and the Luxury City seeks to identify the political-economic forces that guide these decisions, while also highlighting the tactical choices union and non-profit leaders, staffers, and members have made along the way.
It’s hard to write about New York in the present tense, as it changes while you type. With my dissertation, I’m trying to develop a complex analysis of some apparent contradictions within New York City planning politics: groups that represent working class New Yorkers have regularly supported certain kinds of land use changes that accelerate gentrification. This summer alone, we witnessed several cases in which this played out to varying degrees. Inwood was rezoned in an action that was vehemently opposed by some working-class institutions but tenuously supported by others. An insurgent community-based organization managed to stop a developer-initiated rezoning in Elmhurst, Queens, which had the backing of at least one prominent and reputedly progressive union. A rezoning in Bushwick, publicly propelled by one of the most lauded organizing non-profits in the city, lurched forward. Only the word count imposed on blog post limits me from listing more examples.
Since I am continuing to monitor these changing developments, I’ve drafted what I could at this stage of my dissertation process: a theory chapter that seeks to provide readers with ways of thinking about the social production of urban landscapes in order to make sense of the particular dynamics unfolding in New York City. Social production of space is one of the fundamental insights of contemporary human geography, but it can seem both obvious and baffling. On the one hand, space—particularly in the form of cities—is clearly shaped collectively by people. On the other hand, it can be hard to imagine just how space is socially produced. Most people feel that they don’t have a great deal of say in how the city changes, particularly compared to wealthy real estate developers or powerful politicians.
What I tried to do in the chapter, then, was to show the forces the guide and constrict various social forces’ abilities to affect the shape of the urban landscape. Specifically, I looked at labor’s goal of securing a landscape of social reproduction, capital’s goal of securing a landscape of accumulation, and the state’s goal of securing a landscape of social control. Within each grouping, however, I highlighted the structural dynamics that cause fractures or rifts, and the inter-class and intra-class conflicts and alliances that often arise while pursuing particular forms of spatial politics. This proves crucial to understanding why some factions of labor might align with factions of capital and the state in support of gentrification-accelerating planning policies. Rather than seeing labor, capital, and the state as static forces in either harmony or conflict, this chapter draws a much messier picture, which, I believe, will actually be much more recognizable to followers of New York City planning politics.
The next steps in my project are to keep reading (including both the secondary sources and archival materials I have collected), keep interviewing participants in these processes, and keep paying attention. That last step is the most important: like the city itself, the political coalitions that form around planning politics can change fast.