Date of Degree
Earth & Environmental Sciences
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Human Geography | Urban Studies and Planning
Labor; Planning; Real Estate; Gentrification; Land Use
Labor, Land Use, and the Luxury City is an examination into the entanglements of working-class organizations, real estate capital, and state planning in 20th and 21st century New York City. Through theoretical inquiry, historical interpretation, and contemporary analysis, I investigate the motivations – both internally generated and externally imposed – that guide New York City unions’ and non-profits’ decision-making around questions of land use and gentrification. These institutions maintain a complex set of relationships to both real estate capital and the real estate state, leading many unions and non-profits to either support land use changes that accelerate gentrification or negotiate the parameters of luxury redevelopment rather than opposing it outright. While many examples of the opposite impulse exist, this work focuses on understanding why and how labor organizations and real estate capitalists can converge on land use strategies. Theoretically, this dissertation argues that urban labor’s land use strategies should be understood in the context of shifting regional blocs that bring together fragments of labor, capital, and the state toward a particular spatial strategy. In the capitalist context, labor, capital, and the state are overlapping but distinct social forces with disparate goals around the parameters of urban spatial production. In general, labor seeks to produce space in a way that secures social reproduction; capital seeks to produce space in a way that secures profit accumulation; and the state seeks to produce space in a way that secures social control. Labor, capital, and the state, however, are internally fragmented across multiple axes, leading various fractions of each group to form tentative coalitions with the others in order to secure the power to reshape cities. The contemporary alliances of elements of New York City labor, capital, and the state that emerge around luxury redevelopment are a powerful example of such a bloc. Historically, this dissertation demonstrates both the continuities and variations in union and non-profit approaches to planning, housing, and development in the US, and New York City in particular. The New York City union movement’s mid-20th century cooperative housing initiatives highlight both an alternative model of union-led development, as well as unions’ willingness to partner with elements of capital and the state toward “urban renewal” development programs that could often displace as many workers as they emplaced. The traumas and false promises of urban renewal, combined with many other racial, economic, and gender-based inequities, sparked an intense backlash. One strategy to address this crisis was for elements of labor, capital, and the state to promote non-profit organizations as key players in city politics. Over the second half of the 20th century, non-profits grew to become a major force in the provision of low-income housing, as well as, in some cases, a conservatizing force on urban social movements. Contemporary analysis shows that union and non-profit engagements in New York City land use processes are complex and at times chaotic, but are guided by these institutions’ attempts to survive and grow in the face of an emboldened real estate sector. In general terms, unions intervene in land use processes on the side of real estate capital in order to expand unionized sectors, limit non-union growth, and build collaborative ties with their bargaining adversaries. Non-profits make similar interventions in order to secure funding (private and public), space, and development opportunities for their organizations. Ultimately, unions’ and non-profits’ imperatives to grow, remain funded, invest earnings, and respond to repression encourages them to form tentative coalitions with real estate capitalists and their supporters in the state. While these structural explanations are neither permanent nor determinative, they form a set of incentives too formidable for most union and non-profit leaders to simply reject. Only pressure from below – from rank-and-file union members and non-profit constituents – can force these institutions to pursue spatial strategies that constitute a break from real estate capital and the real estate state.
Stein, Samuel, "Labor, Land Use, and the Luxury City" (2020). CUNY Academic Works.
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