PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST
An epic, riveting history of New York City on the edge of disaster—and an anatomy of the austerity politics that continue to shape the world today
When the news broke in 1975 that New York City was on the brink of fiscal collapse, few believed it was possible. How could the country’s largest metropolis fail? How could the capital of the financial world go bankrupt? Yet the city was indeed billions of dollars in the red, with no way to pay back its debts. Bankers and politicians alike seized upon the situation as evidence that social liberalism, which New York famously exemplified, was unworkable. The city had to slash services, freeze wages, and fire thousands of workers, they insisted, or financial apocalypse would ensue.
In this vivid account, historian Kim Phillips-Fein tells the remarkable story of the crisis that engulfed the city. With unions and ordinary citizens refusing to accept retrenchment, the budget crunch became a struggle over the soul of New York, pitting fundamentally opposing visions of the city against each other. Drawing on never-before-used archival sources and interviews with key players in the crisis, Fear City shows how the brush with bankruptcy permanently transformed New York—and reshaped ideas about government across America.
At once a sweeping history of some of the most tumultuous times in New York's past, a gripping narrative of last-minute machinations and backroom deals, and an origin story of the politics of austerity, Fear City is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the resurgent fiscal conservatism of today.
Phillips-Fein (Invisible Hands), professor of history at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, makes municipal bonds exciting in this painstakingly researched revisionist account of the 1970s fiscal crisis that shook New York to its core. She argues that, although the city would go on to emerge from the crisis seemingly unscathed, its robust brand of social democratic politics would be lost forever. Paced like a thriller and extremely well written, the book chronicles the slow descent of the city into a fiscal abyss and its unlikely rescue by a group of hardened bureaucrats, altruistic investment bankers, and political power players who formed the Municipal Assistance Corporation. Dubbed "Big MAC," the committee succeeded in passing austerity measures that gutted the city's public services and institutions while restoring fiscal health but at the cost of reorienting city politics towards the wealthy and paving the way for the glittering, profoundly unequal "hard-edged city" of today. Phillips-Fein narrates with almost cinematic flair, and by the time the credits roll, the significance of her accomplishment becomes clear. The book should be required reading for all those interested in the past, present, and future of democratic politics.