A Letter to Harper's

A Letter I Submitted to Harper’s Magazine

The subject of why and how rich people are ruining NYC, and what can be done about it, has become a perennial favorite of the long-form article writing class. In 2018 Kevin Baker took his pass at it in Harper’s Magazine:

Being a long-time fan of Harper’s, and since I know a thing or two about cities — and about NYC in particular — I decided to stage dive into the mosh pit on this one. I felt like Baker had succumbed to the overly-simplified explanations of and solutions to gentrification proffered by those who believe the systemic malfeasance of the world is driven more by failings of markets and public policy than by the larger cultural forces of global capital. I wrote a response letter to Harper’s Magazine expounding on this criticism, which they duly published.

To be fair to Baker, it’s a bit of a cheap shot on my part to claim that problems of gentrification are far too complex to address with a few policy tweaks. Of course they are. It just bugs me when they are not framed that way. Yes, let’s try messing with local housing policy — how can we not? — But let’s not kid ourselves by pretending policy changes will spur rich people to make space for all classes and cultures in our city. The rich people just love the city too much now. They want the whole thing to themselves. We need bigger solutions to this big problem.

And I guess the editors of Harper’s saw some merit to my point. Looking back now — in light of the housing turmoil brought on by the pandemic — it does seem to have a touch of prescience about it.

Perhaps Harper’s felt I wasn’t being quite concise enough about it. They heavily edited what I submitted without discussing it with me. Here’s my letter, as published:

And here’s the letter as I submitted it. (I have no say as to which version is superior):

Kevin Baker’s July 2018 article about NYC is a lovely catalog of the symptoms of the disease affecting NYC today. But like many other people, he reduces a complex set of capitalist forces down to the individual problem of real estate; and offers only tinkering with public policy as a solution.

The disease is not a disease of NYC alone - it affects all our global cities. And it is not caused by the value of real estate alone, it is combined with the forces of inequitable economic development, free trade, deregulation, unrepresentative democracies that over-empower rural areas, and just the fad that it’s cool to live in cities these days, among a host of other issues. And while the causes of NYC’s disease are complex, they are not unprecedented in history (except perhaps for the sheer scale).

What history teaches us is that policy tinkering generally yields marginal results (not that we shouldn’t tinker, we definitely should). But history also teaches us that the teetering and fragile (and mind-numbingly dull) monstrosities that capitalism creates will eventually collapse back on themselves - and it is at that moment that we should seize the opportunity to apply forces of regulation and restraint. It is possible that this empty warehousing of units that even the mega-wealthy are unable to afford is one of the first signs that a collapse like this will be upon us soon. We must be ready for action.