We are accustomed to seeing New York City destroyed by Hollywood monsters. Unfortunately, this disaster movie is all too real. In The Vanishing City, the mad scientists who unleash the monsters are City Hall, billionaire developers, exception-happy zoning boards, and a system of tax breaks for new construction known as the 421a exemption. The monsters are the literally hundreds of new high-rise buildings looming overhead, completely out of proportion to the areas in which they are built.
New Yorkers will find it hard not to weep by the end, once they see the extent of what they are losing, in their own neighborhoods and far beyond: Harlem and 125th Street, fated to become gaudy boxes for Connecticut hedge fund managers. Western Queens, cut off from the river by the rising Great Wall of Condos along the LIC-Astoria waterfront. The West Village, which in the early 1960s successfully resisted Robert Moses’s efforts to literally bulldoze it for a highway, soon to be flattened in a more humanitarian way by NYU, with a majority of the City Council approving the plan. Chinatown, discovered by ambitious developers as a zoning-free zone. Industrial Willets Point, about to be completely wiped out and replaced with Disneyfied housing, all to benefit the hated, Met-killing Wilpons, to whom the city is incomprehensibly awarding the entire area after seizure by eminent domain. Legendary Coney Island, once the workers’ Luna Park, already reduced to a few acres around the Cyclone. Downtown Brooklyn around Atlantic Yards, being transformed into a kind of charmless Mordor by the Rattner plan. The hearts and souls of a dozen other neighborhoods are to be torn out and built over. The eighth episode of New York, the classic historical documentary by Ric Burns, shows how in the 1950s and 1960s the building frenzy orchestrated by Moses and subsidized by the federal government eliminated functional working-class and industrial districts equivalent in area to the parts of Nagasaki and Hiroshima destroyed by the atomic bombs, and ended up creating slums on the far sides of the new highways. After a railroad went under, even the great temple of Penn Station was leveled. The Vanishing City presents an equally harrowing, present-day sequel.
The stunning thing about this hour-long film is that it is as beautiful as it is frightening. The sequences that show the damage done and still underway are ferocious, tragic, poetic. It is a frenzy: More building stock has been added in the last decade than in any other. Over and over, in every neighborhood, opposition arises, always at a late stage, because plans are forged in closed circles long before they are sprung. The politicians, the city bureaucrats, the developers hold bogus hearings to let the people yell and scream, then go ahead with their gigantomania, undeterred. Is it possible for all these different neighborhood movements to join up and cooperate, to stop the breakneck pace of blind growth? That is the question.
Contrary to capitalist ideology, the city is intervening to create a skewed market that favors a handful of real estate moguls over the middle class. Builders of condos for the rich and offices for the banksters get de-zoned and don’t pay property taxes, or receive outright subsidies (“tax expenditures,”) while more and more of the fiscal burden is shifted to small owners who cannot afford it. Living neighborhoods, schools and playgrounds, theaters and hang-outs, and hundreds of small businesses are swapped for high-density monoliths where residents are anonymous to one another. Tens of thousands of people are displaced and evicted as the proportion of affordable housing in the building mix declines. Surrounding rents rise. Those who can’t afford New York should move elsewhere, as mayors from Koch to Bloomberg have famously said, but did they really mean that firefighters and teachers shouldn’t be able to afford to live in the city on $60,000 a year? City policy caters only to the financial sector and the super-rich, otherwise allowing the large service class of the working poor to scratch out a meager living in the in-between spaces. That’s what Citigroup economists have called a “plutonomy.” The city chiefs avoid the provocative label, but what they present as the only viable development alternative to stagnation is bad economic policy, very likely to backfire.
The mayor’s “2030 Plan” foresees adding another million residents in the next 15 years. No one has ever run for office on the idea, but it guides city policy. How will our bursting trains and clogged streets bear the loads? Despite all the subsidies and favors and tax breaks, and despite the billionaire mayor’s spirited ideological defenses of corporatism, the banks and other corporations continue to move mid-level jobs to cheaper locations. No amount of posturing about the city’s prestige and creative atmosphere can alter the bottom line driving that trend. There are enough empty luxury units to house all of the city’s homeless people twice over, and the cranes keep putting up more. Who is going to rent and buy an overflow of overpriced units in a city with a diminishing middle class? If an additional million people are to move in, a large proportion of them will have to be new-arriving working immigrants. How will they afford it? It’s sickening to think that the best possible outcome of the misguided Bloomberg development strategies will be that they’ve set us up for yet another real estate crash. After that, we may have a chance to come up with a rational plan for our city, based on the need for a green conversion that in the future will be as unavoidable as it is today mocked and ignored: reviving local manufacture, harvesting what we can from urban farming and locally produced green energy, seeking a sustainable quality of life for all. Possibly even repurposing some of these blue-glass monstrosities.
The Vanishing City was rejected for broadcast by a major network because it supposedly doesn’t “show enough of the other side.” Which side would that be? The politicians and the developers who always have a platform on the major networks, who either own the corporate media outright or are major advertisers, and whose will is almost never challenged?
This film needs to be seen in every neighborhood of this city, before the qualities that give New York its unique character are made extinct. And elsewhere: With one city as the emotional, closely-studied miniature, what emerges from the film is a sober history that applies equally well to the country as a whole, telling a tale of governments operating as nothing more than bidders for free-floating investment capital, of neoliberalism and 40 years of economic folly.
The directors are happy to travel with their film, when they can. Contact them through their site. They have provided a package that includes sample letters to send to City Council representatives, and lists current contact information (phones and addresses) for the entire New York City Council.
 The term “plutonomy” was introduced by the notorious 2005 memo by a Citigroup global strategist, which in part read: “We project that the plutonomies (the U.S., UK, and Canada) will likely see even more income inequality, disproportionately feeding off a further rise in the profit share in their economies, capitalist-friendly governments, more technology-driven productivity, and globalization… Since we think the plutonomy is here, is going to get stronger… It is a good time to switch out of stocks that sell to the masses and back to the plutonomy basket.”