[URBANTH-L]REV: Adler on Hackworth, Cities for Sale

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Thu Apr 19 14:30:35 EDT 2007

Cities For Sale
A new book takes on neoliberal attempts to revitalize urban centers.
By Ben Adler

American Prospect, Web Exclusive: 04.17.07

The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology and Development in American 
Urbanism by Jason Hackworth (Cornell University Press, 256 pages)

If you live in or near a big city, you may not realize that neoliberalism is 
fiendishly taking over your environ. No, it's not just the Starbucks by your 
office, or the Gap that just opened in the once-edgy neighborhood. It's also 
the high-rise condominium apartment building going up over the subway 
station, the new sports arena downtown, the industrial loft conversion, and 
even the brownstone getting flipped in that sketchy neighborhood.
Jason Hackworth, an associate professor of geography and planning at the 
University of Toronto, has found a common theme among those trends --  
gentrification, privatization, corporate invasion, and public-private 
revitalization projects -- that have come to symbolize renewal in America's 
urban core in recent years. In his new book, The Neoliberal City, he argues 
they are all manifestations of the international trend towards 
neoliberalism, which he defines as "an ideological rejection of egalitarian 
liberalism in general and the Keynesian welfare state in particular, 
combined with a selective return to classical liberalism."

In the 1970s and '80s many American cities faced fiscal crises due to a 
decimated industrial employment base and large unfunded liabilities for 
public employees. Bond-rating agencies downgraded their bonds, which 
prevented municipal governments from borrowing more money to close fiscal 
shortfalls. Cities had to cut payrolls and scale back public investments. 
Consequently the bond ratings went back up, but the size of public payrolls 
did not. In many cities a neoliberal consensus has since emerged: City 
governments should be lean, major construction should be undertaken by the 
private sector, and gentrification should be encouraged as a means of 
increasing the tax base.

While Hackworth's approach is purely descriptive, it is clear that he 
opposes neoliberalism and looks kindly on attempts to "resist" it. His 
in-depth analysis of gentrification, which he calls "the knife-edge 
neighborhood based manifestation of neoliberalism," is the most telling in 
this regard. Clearly, he takes a dim view of its propensity to displace the 
less affluent. As Hackworth also argues, "Recent economic restructuring 
appears to have altered the real estate industry in such a way as to 
encourage the presence of large corporate gentrifiers more than small-scale 
Hackworth is very critical of the shift away from construction of massive 
public housing projects towards HOPE VI (breaking apart the projects into 
smaller units) and Section 8 vouchers (which enable poor families to live in 
partially subsidized regular housing.) He sees these programs as expressions 
of neoliberalism in the urban environment and as causes of displacement of 
the poor (since there end up being fewer total units of public housing). The 
overall lack of affordable housing, meanwhile, combined with the creep of 
gentrification, is squeezing the middle class out of the city.
Ironically, while he is clearly on the left politically, Hackworth seems to 
find a lot of common ground with neo-conservative urban theorist Joel 
Kotkin, who has argued that "[e]verywhere -- from New Orleans to London and 
Paris -- the middle classes, whatever their colour, are deserting the core 
for safer and more affordable suburbs, following in the footsteps of 
high-tech industries and major corporations."

Kotkin's career has lately been devoted to debunking Richard Florida's 
"creative class" theory of urban revitalization. Where Florida sees hope for 
cities to rescue themselves from post-industrial depression through an 
invigorating influx of young creative professionals, Hackworth, like Kotkin, 
decries the result as a city of only rich and poor and bemoans the loss of 
middle-class families. (It should be noted, though, that Hackworth seems to 
argue for a different kind of urban revitalization, while Kotkin essentially 
argues for suburbanization -- so it's safe to say that they would disagree a 
great deal as well.)

While The Neoliberal City is informative on the subject of privatization and 
corporate involvement in gentrification, it leaves the reader a bit puzzled. 
Hackworth only describes, he does not prescribe. So while it is clear that 
he thinks the neoliberal city is deeply problematic, he presents no 
alternative. He states that "[t]he days of Keynesian urban policy seem to 
have expired -- or at least gone into hibernation -- and city governments 
have adapted to the new conditions." It seems he would agree that pushing 
massive urban public construction projects, such as those associated with 
New Deal and Great Society-era programs and a bygone industrial age, is no 
longer a realistic direction for urban America.
But then what is? The cities that look and feel vibrant today are the ones, 
like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Austin, and Portland, that have done 
precisely what the creative class naysayers oppose. They have welcomed 
white-collar employees by taking measures such as redesigning zoning codes 
to accommodate their desire to live in lofts carved out of former industrial 
buildings. Consequently, these cities have captured much of the yuppies' 
disposable income and developed strong service sectors to support their 
dining and entertainment habits. Yes, this leads to a city of rich 
professionals and the poor who serve them cappuccino. But ask the 
pre-gentrification residents of Harlem and they will tell you that $7 per 
hour is better than nothing. And for many cities, that is the alternative. 
Besides, this stratification is merely a microcosm of national economic 
Hackworth admits at the beginning that "it is reasonable to ask why the 
inner-city -- particularly the American inner city -- is a useful space 
through which to evaluate the process of neoliberalism." but, he argues,

This book takes the position that precisely because [emphasis in original] 
the United States is such a thoroughly liberalized environment, the 
identification of changes within this context could very likely be 
harbingers of changes globally. That is, while the transition to 
neoliberalism in agriculture-oriented developing countries is easier to 
identify, documenting the influence of neoliberalism on American cities 
likely portends similar changes in other parts of the world.

While it is certainly informative, it is not clear that Hackworth is really 
describing a localized or distinctly urban phenomenon at all. Rather than 
merely looking to local resistance to privatization and gentrification as 
the means of stemming the tide of neoliberalism, it seems that Hackworth 
should be arguing for a larger response to what he accurately describes as a 
more widespread trend.

Many commentators have suggested it's time for a new social contract that 
emphasizes public investment and a commitment to building an egalitarian, 
middle-class society. Michael Tomasky argued in this magazine that liberals 
should frame their beliefs around a commitment to the common good. Thomas 
Kochan and Beth Shulman of the Economic Policy Institute recently proposed a 
new social contract for "restoring dignity and balance to the economy." Key 
points included a living wage, enforcement of labor standards in trade 
agreements, universal health coverage, and "macroeconomic policies that 
support good jobs." Presumably, if enacted, those policies would manifest 
themselves on the local level in the cities Hackworth studies. And then 
Hackworth can be the first in line for a latte at the shiny new unionized 

Ben Adler is the editor of CampusProgress.org, at the Center for American 
Progress. The views expressed here are his own. 

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