Opinion | Every American City Needs a Richard Ravitch

Barely two months before his death in June, at 89, Richard Ravitch, the real-estate developer turned public servant, was doing the same thing he had done regularly for more than six decades: sitting at his desk in a Manhattan office and holding an in-person meeting about the future of his city. Much of Midtown was still empty, but Mr. Ravitch was not the type to work from home.

To get to my last meeting with him, I had to do what has become familiar in New York City over the past few years: walk through an empty lobby and go up an empty elevator. Until the end, even as a younger generation of business people viewed the full-time office as optional — along with Manhattan itself — Mr. Ravitch remained moored to a physical place.

Mr. Ravitch’s office is now empty, too. His absence is a stark reminder that New York’s post-Covid recovery needs new generations of people who are as physically anchored to a city as he was, and who understand that urban civics depends on people in business, finance, politics, policy and media just showing up, day after day, to make a little unglamorous progress.

New York is hardly alone in this need. Many American cities find themselves without patrons who feel their own worth and purpose tied to their hometowns’ fortunes. Cities require successful people to have so much at stake — literally — in a particular place that they can’t walk away. Mr. Ravitch’s death was not just the end of an era in New York — it also laid bare the vacuum that American cities have to fill.

Without Mr. Ravitch’s steady presence, New York City would not have recovered and rebuilt from its 1970s malaise. As a developer, he built thousands of affordable apartments in the ’70s, from Manhattan Plaza, west of Times Square, to the Bronx’s River Park Towers. The middle class was leaving the city — New York City lost nearly a million residents that decade — and the housing Mr. Ravitch built helped New York retain an engaged, committed citizenry and work force.

Less than a decade later, as chairman of the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Mr. Ravitch saved the subways from decades of decay. In an era when both Democrats and Republicans were pushing tax cuts and privatization, Mr. Ravitch persuaded both parties in Albany and the moderate Democratic governor, Hugh Carey, to enact nearly a half-dozen new taxes to fund infrastructure. Though he believed in private enterprise, he knew that private enterprise depended on public works.

Rebuilt subways underpinned New York’s subsequent growth. Annual ridership almost doubled in the nearly four decades before 2019. New York City could not have gained more than 1.5 million new residents and more than 1.3 million jobs over that time without the subways’ capacity to move more people around more efficiently.

Mr. Ravitch was able to do these things — and keep New York from suffering the permanent decline that many American cities faced — in part because of personality: He was affable, he was stubborn, he was convincing.

But he could not have saved New York City through personality alone, just as one man in an office cannot create an office culture. What about New York’s late-20th-century culture allowed Mr. Ravitch to succeed — and what do cities need today for new Mr. Ravitches to flourish?

In 1975, when New York City nearly went bankrupt, and in 2020, Mr. Ravitch did not see New York City as an asset class, easily traded for a different asset class when times got tough.

Raised on the Upper West Side, and having spent his adulthood on the Upper East Side, he lived nearly his entire life in Manhattan, and never lost that intense connection to place. At the helm of his family development firm in the 1970s, Mr. Ravitch could have pivoted to suburban split levels or office parks. Real estate is real estate. But he could not conceive of abandoning his city.

Mr. Ravitch was not alone in this commitment. A few years later, during the Koch era, New York ignored the bloodless conventional wisdom of the time — planned shrinkage — and invested billions to rebuild the South Bronx.

Contrast that experience with what’s happening in San Francisco right now. Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, opened an outlet downtown in 2022, only to abruptly close it a year later. Westfield, a longtime shopping-mall owner with roots in Australia, abandoned a mall in the same city, handing the property back to its lender.

Multinational corporations owned by global investors have their place in cities; brands bring quality and consistency to everything from drugstores to building management companies. But in a systemic crisis, such as the changes to urban commuting patterns brought on by Covid, dispersed global investors will not save cities.

If deterioration in public safety makes globally branded stores on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile untenable, the stores’ investors will cut their losses and redeploy their dollars elsewhere in the world. If a Portland, Ore., office building owned by a national asset manager is no longer a desired national asset, the manager will give the building back to the bank.

Transient owners must be balanced by a critical mass of business owners who see a specific city as home — the only place they want to be. Without a strong local ownership base to support a city through a crisis, local property stops being a valuable global asset.

Successful cities also need moderately wealthy men and women — the small-scale developers, the mid-tier of corporate executives — who are motivated to engage in public service not because they want something like tax credits, but because they are fed up with their own quality of life.

Mr. Ravitch was wealthy, but his wealth was not so immense that it allowed him to separate himself from New York City’s day-to-day annoyances. “I take the subway at least twice a day,” Mr. Ravitch told reporters upon his 1979 appointment to the M.T.A. He saw for himself the conditions that were causing New Yorkers to leave.

As M.T.A. chair, Mr. Ravitch led people who were richer and more important than he was — top executives of Bear Stearns, MetLife and AT&T — on a 1981 tour of the subways because, he recalled in his memoir, “none of them, I suspected, had ridden a … subway recently.” One of the executives told The Times that he mostly knew of the subways’ woes from “television.”

That kind of distance between the superwealthy and the reality of the streets is evident in San Francisco, which won’t get out of its current crisis of public disorder and population loss if it depends on the affluent tech community to stop erosion. One of Elon Musk’s first acts as the owner of Twitter was to stop paying rent on the company’s San Francisco office. Many tech employees find it easier to leave than to speak up about the city’s problems and take action.

Robust urban culture also depends on influential people who don’t fall for top-down, gimmicky solutions to complex problems. A decade ago, Uber, the global ride-hailing giant, swept down upon supposedly sophisticated cities and promised to relieve traffic through tech. “I want to talk about the future of human-driven transportation,” the Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick glibly said in 2016, “about how we can cut congestion, pollution and parking by getting more people into fewer cars.”

The reality was that Uber was not ride “sharing,” as Kalanick insisted. Uber flooded Manhattan’s streets with tens of thousands of new cars with one passenger each, bringing gridlock to the worst levels on record. Uber also destroyed the city’s decades-old taxi regulation system, which had been created to control the number of vehicles on dense urban streets, forcing New York City to spend the past half-decade painstakingly rebuilding it.

It turned out that the future of human-driven urban transportation wasn’t some global tech gimmick but the local subways instead. In 2017, New Yorkers’ mass civic outrage over a “summer of hell” forced Andrew Cuomo, who was then the governor, to reinvest not in some new thing but in the old thing, underground transit.

Mr. Musk, another placeless individual, has a whole tunneling venture, the Boring Company, that is persuading cities such as Las Vegas to build multilevel underground car-tunnel networks — that is, choosing car sprawl instead of mass transit and density.

The weaker a city’s broader civic infrastructure, the more vulnerable that city is to the flimflam man. Sometimes, the flimflam man’s proffered solution further weakens civic infrastructure. Consider Airbnb, another placeless global tech firm whose executives glibly promised over the past decade to help New Yorkers lower housing costs by enabling them to rent out their spare rooms to earn extra money. The broader reality is that Airbnb has helped increase housing costs by enabling the illegal conversion of tens of thousands of condos and rental apartments into long-term, unregulated hotel suites. Mr. Ravitch’s pursuit of place-centered profit created housing for the middle class; global tech helps push the middle class further out of central cities, and erodes the voter base needed to discipline easily gulled elected officials.

The latest quick fix for New York is a Manhattan casino, with competing real-estate firms insisting that New York’s core, with its copious commercial and entertainment offerings, can’t recover without something it’s never needed before, and something that has failed to revive downtowns from Detroit to New Orleans: transient gamblers.

In the 1980s, Mr. Ravitch was one of the few who saw through that era’s quick-fix gimmick: Westway, a plan to fill in much of the Hudson River along Manhattan’s West Side with toxic landfill in order to make room for a wide interstate highway beneath it and a centrally planned development above it.

David Rockefeller, the city’s pre-eminent elite citizen, was an ardent supporter of this plan. Mr. Ravitch knew that it was folly. Manhattan didn’t need more land; it needed to make better use of the land it had.

Mr. Rockefeller had money on his side, but Mr. Ravitch had something more important: political savvy. He helped kill Westway by appealing to the fiscal conservatism of the Reagan administration and telling its leaders that the federal money would be better spent on transit.

Successful cities also need business leaders and other civic-minded individuals who understand state and local politics. In the early 1980s, Mr. Ravitch persuaded Republicans to raise taxes for the subways not by direct virtue of his money but by drawing on the respect he had earned by doing the work to intimately understand the city. He knew what he was talking about, and they knew it.

From transit to policing, much of day-to-day American life happens at the state and local levels. But today’s aspiring political stars of both parties see New York City and San Francisco just as places to raise and give national money.

As all politics becomes nationalized, the political compromises that Mr. Ravitch excelled at become harder. Mr. Ravitch was a Democrat, but he worked with Republicans, including the New York senator Al D’Amato and President Ronald Reagan, because he needed them to help the M.T.A.

Mr. Ravitch wasn’t interested in the thrill of going on national TV to slam the Reagan administration for not caring about cities. Instead, he worked quietly with Mr. D’Amato to convince Mr. Reagan to devote a portion of the gas tax — which Mr. Reagan increased — to transit.

The center must hold not just in politics but also in policy. The apartments Mr. Ravitch built weren’t for the very poor, nor were they built on a free-market basis to command maximum rents. Mr. Ravitch understood that public policy aimed at the broad middle class was sometimes necessary, even if it produced complaints from those above and below. He persuaded Republicans to enact taxes for the subways, yes, but he also annoyed Democrats by raising the transit fare, with the disproportionate burden falling on poorer riders. Today, advocates who focus on utopia — free transit for all, a mass expansion of public housing — may please one another on Twitter, but they get nowhere in practical results.

Successful cities also need strong volunteer and advocacy cultures. Mr. Ravitch gained political support for rebuilding subways not just from powerful executives, but also because of the presence of another critical transit leader: Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign.

Mr. Russianoff, a Brooklyn native and Harvard Law graduate, could have gone into corporate law and made millions from leveraged buyouts. Instead, beginning in 1978, for $8,300 a year, he built a small but formidable coalition of regular people who, through their cultivation of the press and political staffers, kept pressure on elected officials to improve fellow citizens’ commutes.

Similarly, New York City could not have rebuilt the South Bronx if enough South Bronxites hadn’t stayed and fought, when everyone else was leaving, to ensure that there was something to rebuild. The Bronx needed people like the neighborhood activist Hetty Fox, who, as families were fleeing, began a supervised “play street” for neighborhood children in order to persuade their parents to stay.

Just as effective political appointees such as Mr. Ravitch need support from communities, they need support from politicians. Gov. Carey, faced with Mr. Ravitch’s call to enact new taxes and raise the subway fare, could have hounded him from his position. Instead, he quietly backed his chairman’s unpopular ideas.

The closest recent example of such enlightened local leadership came from the former mayor Michael Bloomberg. Beginning in 2007, his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, began building bike lanes, wider sidewalks and pedestrian plazas to make New York City’s streets safer. That brought widespread press and political ridicule on Mr. Bloomberg, but he steadfastly backed her, and traffic deaths fell.

None of these elements of sturdy urban culture work on their own. Advocacy groups like Straphangers don’t work unless locally focused, broadly distributed newspapers report on their news conferences. Enlightened real-estate developers won’t get far advising City Hall if City Hall is entirely transactional. A policy appointee’s carefully crafted tax package won’t succeed unless an elected official embraces it.

Mr. Ravitch’s death leaves a void. As he co-wrote last fall, “the city faces a bleak future of billions of dollars in lost commercial property tax revenues as companies downsize to meet the needs of employees who may prefer to work at home only a few days a week, or full time.” At the time, New York City office occupancy was around 40 percent; it has since risen, only to about 50 to 60 percent.

New York and similar cities won’t fully recover from Covid population and commuter losses unless it gets the basics right, including order and safety on the streets and reliable public transit. They must do so even as people and money are more mobile than ever, and thus more able to escape state and local tax hikes. As Mr. Ravitch wrote in 2021, “when people have the capacity to work remotely, relocating for tax reasons becomes more feasible. Policymakers should focus on the challenge of keeping capital in New York. There are clear needs for more government spending, and Washington is responding generously, but we can’t recover here without renewed population growth and private investment.”

But the lesson from his accomplishments and advice isn’t that we need a new person just like Dick Ravitch. (Although if a city doesn’t have a cohort of moderately wealthy, civically responsible leaders who walk the same streets as everyone else does, it’s probably in trouble.)

The more acute question is: Does New York’s precarious balance of locally minded wealthy individuals, civically aware property owners, competitive state and local politics and nimble, smart policy advocates still exist to steer the city toward bread-and-butter solutions — fiscal soundness, decent transit, continuity of basic public services — rather than quick fixes? Does that balance exist at all in cities from Portland to Chicago?

Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. Her book on the modern history of New York City transportation will be published next fall.

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Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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