August 21st, 2021

13 Hour Cymbal Spiderclock


Observers in the past decades have commented on increased urbanization in India, which has led to new challenges for development, housing, and labor. But the majority of India's population, and thus electoral power, remains in rural regions.

In a 2018 article, SAI BALAKRISHNAN examines how agrarian political power manifests in urban spaces, looking to real estate markets in Mumbai.

From the paper:

"The electoral power of the agrarian countryside is evident in the relationship of Mumbai to its hinterland. India is the second largest exporter of sugar in the world and more than 40% of India’s sugar exports come from the western Maharashtra region. Sugar production in the region is organised in the form of cooperatives. These sugar cooperatives have been heavily subsidised by the state: 90% of sugar cooperative finances came from state-guaranteed cooperative bank debt; over three quarters of the equity was a direct handout from the state budget. It was Mumbai’s thriving industrial economy that was the source of sugar subsidies. Mumbai’s industrial classes tolerated the diversion of capital from the city to the countryside, as they understood that the state government legislators relied on the peasants for their votes, and that capital diversion was the price to be paid for the political stability from subsidised agrarian prosperity.

In a market-oriented urbanising economy, these elites continue to influence the making of urban real estate markets by flexing their regulatory muscle. The price of a plot of land increases when it is well connected to roads and transport networks, when it has uninterrupted water supply, when it can rise high in the air and thus maximise development rights. Politicians control these road, water and air resources, and in a context where local governments are not yet fully empowered as decisionmakers, state-level politicians wield immense control over resources that get capitalised into the price of land."

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July 12th, 2021

Long Crises

An interview with Benjamin Holtzman

With the victory of Eric Adams in the Democratic mayoral primary, New York City stands at a crossroads. How will the city negotiate the changes brought about by Covid-19? What will be the lasting legacy of Black Lives Matter? How will the metropolis—and other American cities—evolve in the years to come?

As New Yorkers grapple with an uncertain future, the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and its aftermath are often invoked by the press and politicians. Today, “New York in the 1970s” is shorthand for a city facing poverty and crime, running out of money, and suddenly confronting the end of one social order and the rocky emergence of another.

Given these dynamics at play, the publication of Benjamin Holtzman’s The Long Crisis: New York City and the Path to Neoliberalism could not have come at a more opportune time. The book tells the story of New York City in the years that preceded and then followed the fiscal crisis and near-bankruptcy of the city in the 1970s. Holtzman reveals how—with the absence of effective government responses—ordinary political wisdom changed to favor private, market-based solutions, whereas earlier generations might have looked to the city government or collective institutions such as unions. He shows that New York City’s history during this time went beyond austerity, constituting a whole new approach to government. This shift to the right was not just a matter of ideology, nor was it driven entirely by elite actors. Rather, it was built by many different political participants and communities on the ground, ranging from park volunteers, to business groups, to neighborhood patrols and beyond. Raising key questions about the city’s history, The Long Crisis is a critical work for understanding the origins of contemporary New York City—and thinking about where we go from here.

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July 8th, 2021

Phenomenal Works: Davarian Baldwin

Black Metropolis

Even 75 years later, St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton Jr.’s 1945 tome Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in the Northern City remains my aspirational model for social scientific scholarship. Written by two graduate students, with an introduction from their comrade and friend Richard Wright, the text uses interdisciplinary methods strategically to offer a rare materialist analysis of urban inequality and community formation. Their work disrupts the dominant human ecology vision of the day, led by their mentors of the “Chicago School,” which saw the organization of cities emerging from an organic process dictated by the cultural tastes and temperaments of racial groups, rather than being driven by the accumulation of socioeconomic power. Drake and Cayton’s work directly challenged not only those who controlled their immediate professional fate, but also scholars who propped up the segregationist outlook of both the real estate industry and public policymakers in the Federal Housing Administration.

With the text at just under 800 pages, it’s easy to lose sight of the pathbreaking methodological brilliance found in Black Metropolis. For example, Drake and Cayton drew from South Side activists in the 1930s to offer one of the first academic uses of the term “ghetto” as an analytic for engaging the state-sanctioned racial segregation of African Americans in cities. Their “Black Ghetto” chapter overwhelms the dominant human ecological paradigm of their Chicago forbearers with detailed sociological data to document racial disparities in housing, labor, health, income, and other metrics—challenging any claims about the organic structure of cities. Before US politicians and scholars turned their eyes to Nazi Germany, Drake and Cayton used the term “ghetto” to shed light on municipal policies like racially restrictive housing covenants, white vigilante violence, and financial divestment from Black communities to argue that the racial organization of urban space looked not like a human ecology but fascism. Still, the authors immediately placed this sociological rendering of the “Black Ghetto” in conversation with an ethnographic account of what residents called “Bronzeville.”

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December 12th, 2020

Eight View


Between 1940 and 1990, housing growth in the United States outpaced population growth by 173 to 88 percent, and the proportion of homeowners nearly doubled. The same trend is observable internationally, and scholarly debate weighs whether demographic shifts or policy decisions are to blame.

A 2015 book by NANCY H. KWAK examines the rise of homeownership in light of US foreign policy and economic objectives. Focusing on the export of low-income homeownership programs, the book situates housing policy within broader distributional debates.

From the introduction:

"In the US, the homeownership ideal had begun forming in the mid-nineteenth century. Tracts on pastoral-republican suburbinization, Calvin Coolidge's call for a 'Nation of Homeowners,' the Better Homes in American Movement and the Home Modernizing Bureau all helped build an ideology that connected national identity with single-family owner occupancy. At the end of World War II, American advisors began urging countries around the world to push local, undocumented land uses to the margins and consider formal homeownership as a long term goal for the masses. Mass homeownership fuelled globalization by standardizing local processes of housing and land valuation, use, and tenure into a uniform system facilitating national and international investment. As more people participated in a globalized property and credit system, more of the urban landscape became friendly to corporate investment, making policymakers amenable to mass urban resettlement and modernization schemes. Implicit and reinforced in this system was the belief that the middle class served as a critical anchor for political stability, and that homeownership not only anchored the middle class but created it.

The World Bank played a particularly important role in normalizing an American version of mass homeownership at the end of the twentieth century. Up until the 1970s, the Bank had not exhibited much interest in directly addressing urban poverty, and its workers thought of housing primarily as welfare provision rather than generative investment. It was only in an era of explosive urban poverty and declining congressional support for American bilateral aid programs that the Bank took a more active role, beginning in Senegal, then moving to Tanzania, Zambia, Indonesia, and others. World Bank housing experts clarified that property rights could confer 'enormous benefits on many poor families.' "

Link to the book. h/t the one and only Paul Katz.

  • "In Canada and the United States, industrialization and urbanization occurred more or less simultaneously, creating a substantial working class in the growing cities by the early 20th century. In Latin America and the Caribbean, on the other hand, dependent industrialization resulted in a rapidly growing urban population with a relatively small industrial sector, a large commercial service sector, and a significant informal urban economy." Kwak and Sean Purdy introduce a 2007 Urban History issue on "Public Housing Histories in the Americas." Link.
  • "Planning colonias proletarias required surveying and subdividing land, actions undertaken by municipal engineers, architects, and planners. But it also required negotiating with resident associations and political brokers who deftly manipulated municipal codes and blueprints." Emilio de Antuñano's dissertation on urban planning in Mexico City, 1930-60. Link. And another dissertation by Michael William Sugarman compares housing policy in Bombay, Hong Kong, and Singapore from 1894-1960. Link.
  • "Taking the city of Sydney, Australia, as exemplary of a dynamic that has unfolded across the Anglo-American economies, we explain how residential property was constructed as a financial asset and how government policies helped to generate the phenomenal house price inflation and unequal capital gains of recent years." A 2019 precursor to Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper, and Martijn Konings' The Asset Economy. Link. And stay tuned for Martijn Konings forthcoming Phenomenal World piece on property inflation.
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