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From the Archives of the Century: The Century Foundation & NYC, Part II

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My previous post detailed the Twentieth Century Fund’s relationship with New York City issues and its first task force on New York City’s economic troubles in the 1970s, the Task Force on Prospects and Priorities of New York City.

Despite being widely distributed and well-received in the press, the task force’s report ...A Nice Place to Live did little to influence the continuing decline of the city’s economic health. Correspondence in the Prospects and Priorities of New York City files dated after 1974 shows that interest in the task force’s report did not wane immediately after publication. Letters to the fund through 1975 and 1976 contain queries and suggestions for reconvening the task force, or updating the report, to speak specifically to the looming threat of the city’s bankruptcy. In the Fall 1978 Report to the Trustees, the staff conceded that ...A Nice Place to Live did not predict the imminent risk of default and bankruptcy, as it concentrated so narrowly on discrete problems. However, throughout the mid to late 1970s, other research institutes, such as the Urban Institute and the Community Council of Greater New York, had taken on projects to study the city’s financial collapse and propose solutions to lead to its budgetary stability. As the immediate, critical issues received attention, long-range planning for the future of the New York and its citizens was neglected. Therefore, TCF’s next task force would concentrate on development objectives for the city well beyond the 1977 mayoral election, into the 1980s.

The Task Force on the Future of New York City was proposed in the winter of 1976. The next year, the fund’s research staff, led by Masha Sinnreich, began work on the background paper, which summarized the state of the city’s changing economy, changing demography, and current fiscal policies. As the background paper was in progress, Rossant and the trustees held three discussion group meetings in late 1976 and 1977. The conversations in the discussion group were meant to begin 10 year forecasting on economic, demographic, and policy issues that would ultimately become the charge of the task force. However, once the formal task force was assembled in January of 1979, the fund chose a fresh group of participants that differed from the 1973 task force as well as the 1977 discussion group. The Task Force on the Future of New York City was headed by former New York State Court of Appeals chief justice Charles D. Breitel. Unlike the 1973 task force, staff sought to invite members from outside of New York City and New York State for a broader perspective on what the city could ultimately achieve. Among the 16 members of the task force were Stephen May, the 62nd mayor of Rochester, N.Y. and Peter Flaherty, the 54th mayor of Pittsburgh, P.A.

Newsletter of the Twentieth Century Fund, November 1979

The Task Force’s five meetings from March to July of 1979 were informed by Sinnreich’s background paper as well as commissioned studies and related research gathered by fund staff on policy areas such as housing and land use, transportation, and the city’s overall development strategy. David Grossman, president of the Nova Institute, contributed two short studies for the task force’s consideration, one of which—“Capital Construction Needs of New York City in the 1977-1986 Period”—was published as an appendix of the final report. Discussion of attracting corporate headquarters and foreign investment firms to the city stretched over multiple meetings, as the promotion of white collar and financial sector jobs became a key issue addressed in the final report.

Title page of New York--World City

New YorkWorld City was released to the press in late 1979, and published by an outside press in 1980. The recommendations of the task force was 34 pages, with concise and clear recommendations for improving neighborhoods and rebuilding the city’s workforce, and was published in one volume with Sinnreich’s background paper and Grossman’s appendix. New York—World City was grander in length and scope than the 1973 task force’s report, reflecting its larger reach as a forecasting and planning text that stretched not only beyond the current administration but into the next decade. The report focused on the problems faced by citizens—unemployment, welfare, deteriorating neighborhoods—and the importance of addressing these issues rather than costly new construction projects. Specifically, the report argued against capital projects such as the Westway and immediate work on Water Tunnel No. 3, suggesting instead that modest investment in the current housing stock and CUNY academic programs could help revive neighborhoods and retrain the unemployed population for white collar jobs. As with ...A Nice Place to Live, New YorkWorld City was ultimately optimistic about what New York City could become in the decades ahead. Noting that “New York already attracts the most creative and energetic people in the nation and the world,” the report confidently envisioned New York City rising as the financial and cultural capital that we know today.

In the 21st century, the Century Foundation continues its work on both domestic and international policy issues, and matters affecting New York City remain in its purview. Prior to last fall’s mayoral election, the Blog of the Century presented a series of posts that outlined priorities for the new mayor. While the city faces nowhere near the scale of crisis that Abe Beame and Ed Koch encountered in the 1970s, a resurgence of many of the same critical issues are present in 2014—the cost of maintaining the public sector, increasing job opportunities, and bolstering the population of young technical workers in New York City. In this way, the Century Foundation’s previous project files are not only useful for contextualizing our present-day issues, but also for providing primary sources that can enhance our understanding of these historical events. And further study of the 1970s fiscal crisis will be aided by accounts of the period from key players—notably, Richard Ravitch’s memoir So Much To Do: A Full Life of Business, Politics, and Confronting Fiscal Crises, published in April, explores in part the era and his many contributions to New York City, a prime reason his voice was sought for the 1973 Task Force on the Priorities and Prospects of New York City.

While I’ve selected here a subject and time period that I find interesting, the Century Foundation records boast files on hundreds of projects that document the progressive response to and policy solutions for many major political, social, and economic issues that affected our country in the 20th century. In addition to NYPL’s collection description, you can learn more about the fund’s history at the Century Foundation’s excellent timeline of their organizational history, Archives of the Century. We invite you to read more about the records, and email or visit our reading room to speak to an archivist about the collection.

The first and last images in this post are from DOCUMERICA, an Enrivonmental Protection Agency photography project that ran throughout the 1970s. The entire DOCUMERICA series is available from the National Archives and on Flickr.

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