“Power to the Neighborhoods!”: New York City Growth Politics, Neighborhood Liberalism, and the Origins of the Modern Housing Crisis

Jacob Anbinder

Around 1970, an unprecedented movement emerged across major American cities calling for returning control of urban government to the neighborhood level. Although conservatives had long embraced “neighborhoodism,” a distinguishing feature of this political trend was its newfound appeal to Democrats who were disillusioned by the turbulent urban transformations of the first postwar decades. Using New York City as a case study, this white paper shows how this new “neighborhood liberalism” reordered the priorities that urban liberals expected of their elected officials and, in so doing, remade American cities to a degree that scholars are only beginning to understand. On no issue was this influence clearer than that of urban growth. Whereas large-scale pro-growth projects had been at the heart of the mid-century liberal vision, the new generation of neighborhood liberals saw growth as an outdated obsession that had wreaked self-evident harms on vulnerable urban communities. Subsequently, New Yorkers enacted laws and implemented processes that slowed the pace of growth by requiring neighborhood input in the real estate development process. By the eighties, anti-growth politics and neighborhood protection had become the common dialects through which New York liberals tried to make sense of, and stake claims within, their city’s shifting political environment. Yet neighborhood liberalism’s achievements were not necessarily those that its initial proponents anticipated or desired. Although the devolution of land-use policy brought stability to city life for a fortunate few, the restrictions on urban development that marked the era of neighborhood liberalism set the stage for the severe housing shortages that New York and similar cities would experience in the twenty-first century.