Death and Taxes
Kevin Baker’s essay about New York is a comprehensive catalogue of the symptoms of overdevelopment affecting the city today [“The Death of a Once Great City,” Report, July]. But like many other commentators, he reduces the causes from a set of complex capitalist forces down to a problem of individuals and real estate, and offers only adjustments to public policy as a solution.
The situation in New York is not unprecedented in history (except perhaps for the sheer scale). From that history, we know that policy tinkering generally yields marginal results. However, we also know that there are moments of crisis in which we have an opportunity to apply the forces of regulation and restraint. Perhaps the rows of empty apartments and condominiums Baker describes are a sign of impending turbulence. We must be ready this time to take action.
Baker’s grievances are mostly anecdotal, often seem motivated by NIMBYism, and leave little room for broader changes in cultural preferences. For instance, in my parents’ generation, it was a sign of poverty to live along certain subway lines that are now quite popular. This change was driven more by people than by policy, and has made a significant and visible difference in the pattern of urban development.
It’s especially unclear why some specific redevelopment projects, such as Hudson Yards or Long Island City, should be automatically considered net negatives for the city. Long Island City, for instance, was once a warehouse district full of abandoned properties, and is now a highly developed cultural hub.
Though Baker eventually concedes that cities are dynamic, the undercurrent in the essay is that old is better than new, a default position that is no less shallow or damaging than that of the construction boosters.
New York City
Baker identifies many reasons why New York has made itself into a playground for the wealthy, but the biggest factor is arguably not within the city’s control. Since the Thirties, state and regional zoning laws in most other parts of the country have made dense development difficult, if not illegal. As demand for urban living climbs, these laws ensure that such homes remain a scarce commodity—and as with any scarce commodity under capitalism, the rich get first dibs.
I was disappointed that Baker did not fully explore the issues around property taxes on luxury condominiums. New York determines the tax rate for condominiums on the basis of comparable rental properties, resulting in unconscionably low property tax rates for luxury residences that continue to attract the rich while depriving the city of the funds it greatly needs.
Marc R. Greenough
Driving down the Joe DiMaggio Highway on Manhattan’s West Side, one sees only a labyrinth of glass towers to the left: a death trap for migrating birds.
The title of Baker’s essay is, for humans, figurative, but we should remember that the death contained in the city is literal for other species.
Baker makes contemporary New York seem like a terrible place to live, but it has always seemed that way to those of us who cannot imagine why sane people would want to spend much of their lives surrounded by steel, glass, and asphalt, riding in elevators and parking in fetid underground garages.
Baker seems to pine for a sense of community. This can be found by moving out to areas that more readily welcome families and encourage neighbors to firmly plant their roots.
Rebecca Solnit posits that countless political factions have us “drifting and milling and marching toward some unknown shore” [“Unmusical Chairs,” Easy Chair, July]. But she misses the connection between changing media trends and the splintering of political coalitions into smaller, less cooperative subfactions.
At the onset of the Great Depression, the vast majority of news consumers depended on newspapers. Readers may not have grasped the finer points of political vernacular, but they had a common sense of economic right and wrong, and were able to perceive the difference. With the onset of “happy news”–oriented local television newscasts in the mid-Seventies and the proliferation of “infotainment” network broadcasts in the Eighties, this literacy was lost, allowing the niche media outlets of the twenty-first century to reshape once shared ideals in their own interests.
The picture Imani Perry paints of Alabama, in spite of the vivid ugliness she cites in places like Uniontown, is far more hopeful than the state perhaps deserves [“As the South Goes, So Goes the Nation,” Letter from Alabama, July].
African Americans represent more than 26 percent of the population of Alabama, the seventh-highest population proportion for this group in the country, yet fall enrollment at the state university in 2017 included 29,544 white and only 4,081 black students. If the title of Perry’s article is accurate, then what does the racial disparity at the University of Alabama say about our future?