Roger Sanjek, The Future of Us All: Race and Neighborhood Politics in New York City, 1998

“All politics is local,” the famous Tip O’Neill dictum takes on a new tinge in Roger Sanjek’s anthropological study of Elmhurst-Corona specifically its local government entity Community Board 4 and civic actors/organizations. Tracing the communities colonial beginnings to its 1998 incarnation, Sanjek illustrates its changes in demographics, economy, political life most notably in the sphere of civic politics, and responses to the actions of the “permanent government” (the mayoral administration”. Sanjek argues the importance of this Queen’s community lay in its diverse demographics that mirror predictions for the nation, “The arrival of a “majority-minority” population on a national scale in the next century will not repeat the story told in this book, nor will the many local transitions from now to then follow any singe script. Still, the elements and forces of change that transformed Community District 4 are already at work elsewhere and will recur in verying combinations and patterns in the coming decades.” (367)

The 1975 fiscal crisis serves as a key force in driving change within Elmhurst-Corona. The state government imposed its control over the city. Felix Rohatyn (Sanjek refers to Rohatyn as “Felix the Fixer”) created the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC) plan. The committee that devised the plan consisted of “eight bankers, and corporate executive plus one academic. No city council members, municipal workers, or residents of neighborhood New York were represented at its meetings.” Later in September 1975, New York’s governor established the Emergency Financial Control Board (EFCB) which held the power to approve budgets and expenditures, and authority to abrogate labor contracts, all to assure their deficit spending would end by 1978.” (92)

Successive administrations embraced speculative economic interests arguing that municipal investments in the form of tax incentives, tax abatements, and various other pro development tools favored large financial institutions that ultimately failed to create jobs and sometimes resulted in the institutions abandoning New York for cheaper surrounding states. Global communications and technology reduced the importance of New York as a central headquarters. Yet, administrations in the mid-1970s, 1980s, and 1990s reiterated the idea of New York as a “global city”, overbuilding office space and handing out lucrative deals to large financial and technology firms. Small businesses felt squeezed by rising commercial rents and fines induced by various municipal ordinances that many entrepreneurs found little more than an unfair city tax. Worse, the 1980s and 1990s investment in the “speculative economy” failed to create jobs. Sanjek also notes academia’s enthusiasm with the global city ideal pointing to political scientist John Mollenkopf and sociologist Saskia Sassen as two examples. Of Sassen, Sanjek notes “The high point of world city studies was the sociologist Saskia Sassen’s book The Global City, published in 1991. Paying little attention to the real economy, it stressed the “strategic role” or New York and Tokyo and London “as highly concentrated command points in the organization of the world economy”; New York’s “agglomeration” of interlinked “producer services”; and the importantance of “face to face” communication in the “advanced corporate service sector.””(143) Of course, neither Sassen or Mollenkopf’s ideas were entirely new, as early as 1971 economist Stephen Hymer suggested that “New York has become a major capital of the world” along with “Tokyo, London, Paris, and Frankfort” which Sanjek argues drew on a “1926 essay by Regional Plan Association economist Robert Haig. [Unfortunately, agglomeration only occurred in banking and finance, other sectors failed to grow or even diminished as did the city’s securities (39% to 35%). According to Sassen, New York’s “producer services” did not expand at the national rate. Sanjek continues to engage with Sassen’s work pointing to her failure to account for technological change – quotes Sassen “Established telecommunications centers have what amounts to an almost absolute advantage … Development … requires massive investments and continuous incorporation of new technologies, discoveries, and innovations [and such] facilities have not been widely dispersed.” (In fact they had, as Elmhurst-Corona phone hustlers, among others, understood.) More tellingly, Sassen cited a 1988 study concluding that “advances in computerization and communications technology are ‘making it increasingly feasible to design [producer services] in the form of software.’” In fact, the “advanced sectors” were shifting from the old face to face agglomeration era to a new dispersed economy operation screen to screen.” (144)

The economic landscapes of the 1970s and 80s, shaped the municipal government’s attitude toward its outer boroughs. Manhattan based economic development received favored status. The economic polarization of New York’s economy (in some ways mirroring a larger national process) created a spatial polarization where immigrants, blacks, latinos, and ethnic whites increasing crowded into communities such as Elmhurst Corona. This population influx was not met with increased services. Rather Koch, Dinkins, and Guiliani cut services in the name of fiscal austerity and (moreso for Guiliani than his predecessors) the “rhetoric” of free market ideology. Schools bulged as quality of life issues no longer served as a municipal concern. As the 1970s and 80s proceeded civic activists and organizations embraced larger roles in communities like Elmhurst-Corona, taking up places in the public sphere.

Interestingly, the Lindsey administration's creation of community boards which reflected its wider decentralization attempts influenced by the federal government’s Great Society Programs emphasis on “maximum feasible participation”. Community boards gave the local community an appointed committee to represent community interests to larger municipal government. Sanjek traces the changes in the Community Board 4 (CB4) both in its focus and demographics. [of note: the creation of these boards and their subsequent utility for local residents were a remnant of Lindsey’s admin … this reminds me of the push back in recent years on the Moses legacy by Kenneth Jackson and others that argue it doesn’t matter if Moses was racist or not b/c today the pools, parks, etc, that he built in white communities have undergone demographic shifts like Elmhurst Corona in which they serve multiracial/multicultural communities] Moreover, Sanjek follows the discourse emerging from CB4 revealing early incarnations in which anti-immigrant/racial remarks were used to its transition to a purposeful ignorance of race/ethnicity [ie no one was allowed to talk about it at all] which later gave way to a late 1990s celebration of the community’s diversity.

As Elmhurst Corona’s demographics shifted from an Italian American enclave to a diverse community of numerous races and ethnicities., oppurtunities for both interracial conflict and cooperation increased. Sanjek’s clearly wants to illustrate how the CB4 and local civic life have bridged racial gaps in the community. Local actors such as local state assemblypersons, organizational leaders, local “wardens”, tenant/block and community associations and district managers emerge as vital to neighborhood success. [one thing that might be a criticism is that the level of engagement and constant attention required by local actors just to maintain a community like Elmhurst-Corona appears overwhelming, its an investment that might only work in a middle class context, whereas poorer communities might really struggle to meet such activity – even Elmhurst Corona illustrated some of these struggles when attempts to get local businesses in to meetings regarding a black Korean conflict had trouble drawing more Korean store owners b/c of economic difficulties i.e. couldn’t close shop b/c already struggling etc.] Individuals and organizations that illustrated an ability to embrace other races and ethnicities exhibited the most influence and activity. [Sanjek provides numerous examples of mediation by local actors between groups that he suggests fosters increased community relations i.e. the black-korean grocer conflict that resembled the Brooklyn variant … in some ways Sanjek’s work explores the idea that place was replacing ethnicity as identity as numerous parts of the book acknowledge locals tendency to identify individuals with locality.]

Notably, Sanjek highlights the role of women across racial/ethnic groups emphasizing their importance in community success. [oddly to me, a little … he seems to be embracing the idea of women bringing their “domesticity” to the public sphere but admittedly his examples were governmental and community leaders]. Working in a number of areas from the state legislature, city council, the community board or district, and local civic life, his examples such as Ruth Rothschild, Edna Baskin, and [] Marshall play a central role in The Future of All of Us’ narrative. Additionally, Sanjek’s anthropological background contributes to his focus on “public rituals” which he suggests fosters an acceptance of a diverse public space and increases interracial interaction. [this in turn reminds me of Rise of the Creative Class that argues not in these terms but a similar idea that parades and the like are the future in terms of urban community building/making cities livable/attractive]

The Future of Us All contrasts interestingly with Mike Davis’ City of Quartz in some areas such as land use politics. The “zone wars” in Sanjek’s account result in an entire borough pushing back against Manhattan development. Moreover, it reflected a multiracial/multi cultural effort. [Sanjek explores a similar multicultural movement when discussing the efforts of small business owners to lower commercial rents and pushing other interests … he notes that such examples of cooperation are rarely highlighted instead moments of conflict are … interestingly none of the mayors pleased this movement as they continually shifted support as each administration dodged them]. Davis’ example explored the complex and byzantine relationships of the “slow growth movement” in California and how its middle class ideal of property rates was hijacked by wealthier communities which made different arguments [Davis also underscored how the rhetoric of environmentalism became a common aspect of the slow growth movment along with vaguely racial implications by some actors].

Some might argue Sanjek’s work suffers from the anthropological impulse/compulsion/hang up about placing themselves centrally within the narrative. Admittedly, disclosure remains vital but at times it feels smug or trite. As well, Sanjek seems to lionize individuals (which may or may not be true of the specific person) which some critics could suggest distorts a non “biased” approach.

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