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


The Century Foundation logoIn 2012, the Manuscripts and Archives Division acquired the records of the Century Foundation, a non-partisan research institute based in New York City previously known as the Twentieth Century Fund and originally founded as the Cooperative League. Since its founding, the Century Foundation (TCF) has supported the creation and dissemination of progressive policy ideas through the funding of books, position papers, pamphlets, task forces, and conferences that address current issues faced in the United States economy and democracy. The Century Foundation records document the governance of the organization and its funded research projects throughout the 20th century, from its earliest projects during the Great Depression to the late 1990s.

As an introduction to the records, which are open to the public, this blog post will highlight the ways that different series of the collection can be used for research on specific topics. In this instance, I consulted the board of trustees minutes and reports, general administrative files, and individual project files to consider the myriad ways the fund approached the 1970s fiscal crisis in New York City.

New York Daily News October 30, 1975

New York City in the 1970s is remembered today as a era of gritty streets, social strife, and economic disparity. Last year's mayoral candidates debated about the return of "a tale of two cities," a phrase intended to reference many of the problems that plagued New York in the '70s as much as it does the Dickens novel. The end of several decades of inflation and subsequent economic downturn, urban depopulation and white flight into the suburbs, and a large portion of the population dependent on welfare programs were just a few factors that collided in New York during the decade. In the 1960s, New York City's municipal budget grew from $2 billion to $9 billion, but by the mid-1970s faced a deficit of over $1 billion. After enjoying several decades of post-war boom, the city hovered near default and the reality of declaring bankruptcy in 1975. Mayor Abraham Beame and and Governor Hugh Carey made a special appeal for federal bailout loans, which was initially rejected by President Ford—leading to the infamous (but perhaps inaccurateDaily News headline of October 30, 1975: "Ford to City: Drop Dead." Eventually, Ford did agree to over $2 billion in loans over 3 years, though the city still struggled with high crime rates, deteriorating infrastructure, and a workforce better prepared for the declining manufacturing sector than white collar jobs in finance and trade.

41 East 70th Street in Manhattan, former headquarters of The Century Foundation
41 E.70th St., former headquarters of the Century Foundation

Though the Twentieth Century Fund was founded in Boston and headquartered there for its first 15 years, the fund has had an abiding dedication to its adopted home, New York City. When the fund purchased a townhouse on East 70th Street in 1958 as its headquarters, it became one of the first foundations to own property in the city. TCF was exempt from property taxes as a non-profit, but began making grants in lieu of taxes to the City of New York in 1967 in the face of inflation and the city's mounting financial difficulties. By 1979, the fund had more than doubled the amount of the grant, which was intended to cover the use of garbage, police, and fire services, but could be applied as the city saw fit. The fund's headquarters on the Upper East Side and grant in lieu of taxes to the City of New York are detailed further in Series III: General Administrative Files in the collection, while Staff Reports to the Board of Trustees (held in Series II: Board of Trustees) summarize the grant payments, noting the fund’s continued dedication to the city in times of fiscal difficulty.

As a research foundation, though, the best way for the fund to help alleviate the city's economic problems was through comprehensive research projects and policy solutions. In addition to long-term studies on the urban environment and urban development, the fund confronted the escalating financial crisis in the city with two task forces in the 1970s, each seeking to address the problems facing the city and its citizens. At the time, task forces were a relatively new endeavor for the foundation. Murray Rossant, TCF's fourth director, introduced task forces in the late 1960s to convene groups of experts on subjects that merited immediate investigation and solutions. While the fund's book-length studies could span years for in-depth research and analysis, task forces were expected to produce reports within a shorter amount of time. Often the reports were published along with background papers or related research data in one brief volume (...A Nice Place to Live, discussed below, was 72 pages) and in some cases were distributed free of charge to ensure wide dissemination of the report's recommendations. Task Force files are found in Series IV. E. Projects in the collection.

Within the first two years of Mayor John Lindsay's second term, the initial work on TCF's Task Force on the Prospects and Priorities for New York City began. It was one of the earliest staff-proposed task forces, showing the research staff's knack for identifying pressing issues of the time. As early as 1970, projects staff were assembling research proposals on large urban cities that orbited the topics the task force would eventually examine. One such proposal was from Bruce L. R. Smith, then a professor of political science at Columbia University, who was researching the Urban Development Corporation's Welfare Island Project in 1971. In the spring of 1973, Smith was selected as the research director and rapporteur after he had submitted a formal plan for the task force—essentially, to examine key problems to be addressed by the newly-elected mayor and administration—as well as a timeline for their work, which dictated that the report would have to be published prior to the November 1973 election so as to not appear partisan in its recommendations. In May of that year, the fund's trustees selected a robust group of local political stalwarts and scholars of urban policy to serve on the task force. Chaired by Robert Morganthau, former U.S. Attorney and soon-to-be District Attorney for New York County, task force members included Mario Cuomo, Richard Ravitch, Donna Shalala, and Robert Weaver.

Newsletter of the Twentieth Century Fund, March 1974

The Task Force on the Prospects and Priorities of New York City met regularly throughout the spring and summer of 1973. Each meeting centered on a core issue, or "priority," to be highlighted in the report, namely collective bargaining, the criminal justice system, health and hospitals, transportation, and economic development. Files for the meetings include complete transcripts detailing the conversations task force members engaged in with selected subject specialists, as well as background papers the research staff prepared to better inform these discussions. While the task force focused on defining clear and succinct policy recommendations for the future mayor, TCF's administration concentrated on the editing and promotion of the report. Murray Rossant's personal file in the task force records even documents his input on the cover design; while ultimately an abstract geometric pattern was chosen, Rossant favored an early sketch "depicting sagging skyscrapers in an ashcan," a dark nod to the decay that the city was experiencing (October 31, 1973 memo).

The final report, titled ...A Nice Place To Live, was optimistic about New York City's future, stating outright: "We reject the notion that New York City is ungovernable" (10). The report argued that the biggest challenge facing the new mayor was controlling public sector spending while improving services, and that the mayor would succeed if energy was put toward a discrete number of issues rather than every problem facing the city. Around 10,000 copies of the report were distributed for free, beginning in December of 1973. The documentation file for the task force shows that, in addition to incoming Mayor Abraham Beame and his administration, TCF gave copies of the report to all individuals and agencies who requested it, including the League of Women Voters, the Citizens Union, and the New York City school system. When New York City municipal agencies hosted 150 interns for the summer of 1974, each intern was given a copy of ...A Nice Place to Live as an instructive text; the report was also used in courses on urban policy at universities.

 Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Prospects and Priorities of New York City

The recession of 1973-1975 was not the only hurdle New York City would face in the decade. By 1977, the city had experienced blackouts, riots, and a particularly contentious mayoral election in which several candidates argued how to best lead the city out of its nadir. The Twentieth Century Fund once again turned its lens on New York City's issues at the end of the 1970s. In the next post of this two-part series, I will discuss the subsequent project as well as The Century Foundation's current work on issues local to New York City.


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