Thursday, July 7, 2011

Jacob Riis and the Failure of Good Intentions and Social Engineering...

















Pete Hamill, one of New York’s many working class liberal pundits from two generations ago, once said, “New York’s, or then, New Amsterdam’s good fortune was that it was started by a company, the Dutch East India Company, not run by a religious sect, not a king, but by a company.”

What set New Amsterdam/New York from aristocratic Virginia and Puritan New England was that it’s sole purpose for being was the boundless pursuit of money.

That founding ethos brought forward a number of noble virtues, primarily and specifically the willingness to take in anyone that was good for business.

Within a few short years of its founding, no less than 18 languages were spoken on the streets of that city.

It was the pursuit of wealth, not human nature, nor government decree that ALLOWED such a tolerance, just it allowed the slave trade to flourish there, while also allowing masters, seeking a better return on their investments to train slaves as skilled craftsmen and to offer them freedom, in return for cheap labor and hard work.

This ethos flourished past Dutch rule, through the Colonial times and very much into the dawn of the modern day.

New York took in immigrants by the millions, Chinese, Jews, Russians, blacks from the south and the West Indies, Italians, Turks, Irish and Poles. By the late 19th Century new York was the world’s largest and greatest economic engine.

Today, Russia and India are utilizing cheap labor free-for-all economics to create the same kind of dynamic economic growth. China has been able to move 100 MILLION Chinese out of poverty EVERY YEAR through its market-based economic reforms.

At the start of the 20th Century one reporter observed, “Every four years, new York adds to itself a city the size of Boston or St. Louis. It is the largest Jewish city in the world, the largest Irish city in the world, one of the largest German cities. More than 700,000 Russians call it home and it houses more Italians than Rome. New York is the great whirlpool of the races.”

Generations of poor people flooded into New York to provide the cheap labor it needed, often working in appalling conditions, to give their children better opportunities. Milton Friedman’s mother was a seamstress in a Lower East Side sweatshop and she toiled so that Milton would never see the inside of one.

And these sweatshops created unheralded opportunities for these poor. People who would’ve been peasants, serfs, veritable slaves and “human garbage” under Monarchs and dictators, were free people, able to leverage their own labors into a better life for their children.

Entire generations went from peasant-class to property owners in a generation, thanks to the “miracle that was New York.”

But that same success also spawned the impetus for the move from unfettered freedom and toward a more regulated, more government controlled economy. Ironically enough, the trigger for this shift came in the form of New York’s cheap housing – it’s slums.

Jacob Riis (pictured above) came to New York a penniless Danish immigrant, but given that he had a working understanding of English, along with some marketable skills, including familiarity with the new flash-powder photography, he was able to land a job as a police photographer and move out of the slums after a few years here.

In 1890 Riis put together a pictorial of New York’s slums in all their horrors and penned some compelling stories that outlined the magnitude of the issue, not merely a few malnourished or diseased kids on Delancey Street, or some hardened thugs around what was then called but “Bandit’s Roost,” but a population spread over 37,316 tenements that housed over one and quarter MILLION (1,250,000) New Yorkers.

This book, “How The Other Half Lives,” catapulted Jacob Riis into national and eventually international acclaim.

New York City’s leading social reformer at the time was Teddy Roosevelt, then U.S. Civil Service Commissioner and he devoured Riis’ book with fascination. When Teddy Roosevelt became New York’s Police Commissioner a few years later, Jacob Riis implored him to shutter the brutal police department-run lodging houses, where Riis himself had sought shelter upon his arrival.

In fact, Riis began working with many upper class housing reformers, who ultimately were able to convince the city to engage in some of the nation’s first active “slum clearance movements.”

Riis, with Teddy Roosevelt’s assistance was able to get some of the country’s first tenement regulations passed through Albany.

Across New York City, slum housing, rookeries (old, dilapidated mansions and warehouses, illegally set up for lodgings) and the police department’s lodging houses were closed down and cleared away and the lands were either sold off to developers (mostly from among that same group of upper class social reformers) or turned into parks.

The SINGLE “modern” (more human) lodging house that Commissioner Roosevelt built was unable to house more than a small fraction of the hordes of the now homeless and dispossessed poor. This created what’s been called, “A veritable refugee crisis on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” as slum clearance forced many onto the streets, as those slums had housed those who simply couldn’t afford a better place to stay.

As this drove a teeming throng into the already overcrowded tenements that were left and into Bowery flop houses, usually situated above bars, Riis blamed saloonkeepers “for plying the poor with cheap drink and shelter”. . .BUT, they’d been doing that for eons. It was, ironically enough, Jacob Riis and TR’s misguided plan to improve housing conditions that actually drove the crisis.

When the Columbus park project was completed and some 10,000 homes were converted into a lush, green park, Riis called it, “Little less than a revolution,” a slum housing was razed and “in its place come trees and grass and flowers, for its dark hovels, light and sunshine and air.”

An improvement for the middle and upper classes who enjoyed the park, and reveled in the eradication of that urban blight, but a disaster for the displaced poor.

Like many misguided social reformers, the reforms proposed by Riis and Roosevelt transformed the LAND itself, but did nothing to help and much to harm the poor whose name these reforms were done.

Around the same time that Progressive housing reform (“slum clearance”) was underway, the same “Progressive forces” took aim at the jobs those poor people relied on. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which occurred on March 25th, 1911 created the impetus for massive workplace reforms.

By the time Woodrow Wilson took office as President, not only had the homes of the poor in new York city transformed for the worse by the patronizing pity of the rich, so were their livelihoods.

A part of the issue wealthy, well educated people have in understanding and really sympathizing with poverty is that even those who’ve experienced briefly never possessed any of the internal or intrinsic causes of poverty – physical or mental infirmity, a lack of marketable skills or a language barrier. In the case of Jacob Riis, he came to New York a young, well-educated, middle class, Protestant Danish immigrant, who spoke at least some English when he arrived here. For Riis and those like him, simply removing the trappings of poverty, gaining employment and finding better lodgings was all they had to do to put the external effects of poverty behind them.

As a result, Riis and others felt it HAD TO BE the same for all the other poor, even though it wasn’t, which is why his view that “If you get rid of the slum, you get rid of poverty” was so disastrous when translated into public policy.

The Progressive ideal first championed wholesale by Teddy Roosevelt came out of the desire of the established wealthy patricians to maintain their positions.

In social and economic cauldrons like New York’s they saw a furnace that forged “sharks,” with new ideas and ruthless determination and the ability, IF left unfettered, to displace the established order of things. . .to replace the established businesses and industries with newer ones.

That AND New York’s upper classes saw that the wretched poor, the factories and sweatshops that supported them and the tenement slums that housed them took up would could and SHOULD be valuable real estate.

As much as anything the Progressive movement was motivated by greed in the form of a land grab by some of its more prominent constituents. The Morgan and Vanderbilt controlled New York Central Railroad, which owned the industrial land along Manhattan’s Hudson River side, sought to transform that industrial landscape into more high-value office space that could be built higher than industrial spaces could, thus generating much higher rents.

These patricians formed what was then called the Regional Plan Association or RPA and they immediately gravitated to the idea of planned communities, or “Urban Planning.” FDR’s uncle, Frederic Delano was the RPA’s first chairman.

Their plan at the start was to move New York’s industry and its teeming mass of lower class, working poor across the Hudson. The only thing that kept the RPA from moving those things immediately was the pesky fact all that “teeming confusion” was the basis of the city’s economy. It would have to be done over time, as New York would transition to a newer, less industrialized economy.

Robert Moses (NYC’s “Master Builder”) became an integral part of that plan that continued after WW II. Robert Moses benefitted from a number of pieces of national housing legislation. The first was the 1937 United States Housing Act, which was the nation’s first public housing law. It sprang directly from New York City’s housing reform movement and was often called “the Wagner Act,” after its primary patron, NY State Senator and Tammany Hall legend, Robert F. Wagner Sr. Within a few decades public housing projects were strewn across cities throughout America. Those concrete slab housing projects housed over 500,000 people in New York City alone!

However, Moses came to rely on the 1949 Housing Act even more than its predecessor. That law allowed him to use federal funds to condemn and clear “slums” and sell off the land to private developers on the cheap.

Robert Moses developed the system of highways and bridges that crisscrossed New York City connecting it with Long Island to the East, the upstate mainland to the north and New jersey and points west, while in the process, the man who would never drive a car himself created that highway system by tearing apart and separating once tight knit neighborhoods, in effect, dismantling the last of the pre-FIRE takeover of New York city.

By the mid-1960s, the FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) economy was in place and pretty much dominated New York. The Rockefellers (owners of Chase Manhattan Bank) led a consortium of FIRE business leaders. One of their major projects completed much of what the RPA wanted done. The World Trade Center complex eradicated lower Manhattan’s famed “Radio Row,” which housed scores of small factories, electronic appliance dealers and repair shops and quickly moved them and all those jobs out of the city.

By the late 1960s New York had ceased being a major commercial port, as the FIRE industries DID NOT rely on large quantities of goods brought into the city daily, so thousands of Long Shoreman and Teamster jobs were eradicated.

The “Progressive agenda,” as played out in New York eliminated the unheralded opportunities for upward mobility among the teeming throng of working poor who’d poured into that city for generations, eradicated their cheap lodgings, the factories that employed them and replaced New York’s once bustling, dynamic economy with a staid and static FIRE economy, one which oddly true to its name would play a part in the coming “fire storm” that cleansed new York of the last vestiges of what was before.

The primary impetus for the “progressive agenda” was self-protection for the upper classes and the chance to rake in windfall profits from the clearing of slums and factories and the conversion of those lands into vehicles that better benefitted New York’s patrician class.

That’s why Progressivism and the Keynesian economics that was its hallmark is a Country Club Republican ideology, endorsed by the likes of J. P Morgan, Bernard Baruch and the Rockefellers.

Progressivism transformed dynamic old New York with its teeming factories and myriad industries and commercial hodge podges into the well coifed and more exclusive and far less dynamic FIRE economy of today.

26 comments:

Early Light said...

A very interesting history. It has occasionally become very blatant that government takes land for public use, only to sell it to the private sector in a sweetheart deal. Also, one noteworthy reason for military base realignments is to give prime real estate to developers. Liberal politicians get votes for slash-and-burn cultivation of the military, but the real agenda is to help out the very people that the liberals accuse the conservatives of supporting.
An excellent article pointing out the hypocrisy and misguidedness of modern liberalism.

Skunkfeathers said...

Once again, your research and logical read of that research are superb.

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