DC Podcast Episode 12: Capital City

Dear Decipherers: it is with a heavy heart that we report that the much-anticipated book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State by Samuel Stein was actually kind of a huge dud. Click below to listen to our discussion on all the ways the book disappointed us, plus a few things the author did get right:

Why was this book so disappointing, despite its obviously important subject matter? It’s not that the author was unknowledgable; Samuel Stein is familiar with many of the main tools in the planning kit, and has an understanding of their potential outcomes, both good and bad (upzoning raises property taxes and displaces residents, for example). Stein’s analysis of the politics of municipal New York, while it had too much focus on the most visible characters, was generally good and easy to follow. Still, the problems and issues outweighed the overall educational benefits of the text. .

One of the first and most major problems with the text is that it failed to realize its central proposition: pulling the curtain back on planning and planners, allowing laypeople to see what they do, and why it is important. How much power do planners really have? Sam Stein doesn’t put any planners on record, choosing instead to focus on the actions of boards, commissions, individual (elected) high profile officials, and private corporations. While he may feel like planners are ‘nice people’ with good intentions, he doesn’t actual profile any specific individuals, the work they do, how they make individual or collective decisions, or how they interact with the boards or commissions they are supposed to serve. It feels like Stein wants to write a 2000s version of The Power Broker, but didn’t have sufficient access (personal or professional) to a character quite like Robert Moses. So although Stein is able to paint broad strokes about the role of planners generally, he is unable to distinguish between them in ways that are extremely important (the difference between public and private sector planners, the difference between infrastructure planners and historic preservation planners, etc.) and in this way, he fully misses the mark on the central proposition of his book: to explain how planners work, what they do, and why it’s so impactful. (Sidenote: it’s also somewhat negligent to mix in random planning terminology, like planned shrinkadge, and never identify the specific planners involved in promoting these policy decisions.)

A second problem with the text is that it does not dedicate many words or much ink to the organized groups of citizens and labor that opposed many high level policy decisions and engaged in activism to fight city hall. Based on his interview with Citylab, Stein evidentially knows more on this topic then he was willing to write in the text. Still, this is a huge issue: if you are going to write a book about the ways in which current policy frameworks impoverish excluded, marginalized groups, its pretty stereotypically white-savior-male-centrist-liberal of you to focus on the failures of ‘good intentions’ while saying very little about the successes of neighborhood organizers, tenement movements, and unions.

A final and major problem with the text is that it is ahistorical. Relying on cherrypicked statistics and encounters in New York from primarily the last 20 years, it provides essentially no framework for how to think about New York as a city prior to that time. It’s highly problematic for a book about gentrification (a concept fundamentally rooted in the pace of neighborhood change) to pay so little attention to the deeper bedrock of urban history that underlies this place. When Stein makes the claim that monied interests are particularly problematic to urban environments in this century, he ignores the many previous centuries in which their role was even greater, their control even firmer, and their standards for their workers and residents even lower. Stein is not sensitive to the history of the broader evolution of cities generally; his idealism about what cities should be makes him a bad historian of what cities have been (ie, a form of extraction from the rural hinterland, a mechanism for extracting labor at the lowest price, etc.) While he’s clearly read David Harvey, he lacks the focus or attention to detail Harvey brings to his texts to bear out the consequences of his suppositions.

In short–this text feels like the writer was really desperate to get published ASAP, and that the text was published in beta form, before it was really polished or ready for reader consumption (The 40 or so odd pages on Trump also made us feel this way; that bit of the book felt weird, divergent, self-important, and almost dated at this point). Stein has much to say, but the way he said it in the paltry 200 pages of this opinionated urban rantology was…not impressive. We recommend consulting/reading the resources below..but not this book.

Header image: A vacant lot on first ave, in the process of being converted into a community garden. Images by the photographer Marlis Momber, a german born photographer who lived and volunteered in Loisaida ave (in the lower east side) for 40 years, documenting the lives of citizens and major changes to the urban landscape. For more images from this series, go to: http://localeastvillage.com/2011/08/19/a-look-back-at-el-jardin-del-paraiso/

Additional Resources:

New York Based Groups:

1.The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) is a great space for learning about community history and housing activism in the Lower East Side. Its members support community festivals and gardening, and bike activism, and provided support during the Hurricane Sandy cleanup: http://www.morusnyc.org/

2. The Tenement Museum (down the street from MoRUS, and west of the Jacob Riis housing projects) is a museum dedicated to the immigrant experience in New York. It was founded in 1988 and housed in a former tenement building. It teaches urban history through the stories of the families that lived in the building between 1870 and 1930: https://www.tenement.org/

3. The Sustainable South Bronx Group, founded by activist and Bronx resident Majora Carter, started one of the first urban green collar training and placement systems in the U.S. www.ssbx.org/


1.The Tenant movement in New York City, 1904-1984, by Ronald Lawson.

2. There Goes the Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up, by Prof Lance Freeman.

3. The New Labor Radicalism and New York City’s Garment Industry Progressive Labor Insurgents During the 1960s, by Leigh David Benin

3. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, by Samuel Delany. Delany is a science fiction writer and black queer activist who grew up in Haarlem. The book is a discourse on sexuality, relationships, and gentrification in New York.

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