New Life at Ground Zero
New York, Home Ownership, and the Future of American Cities
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Presents a lively in-depth look at the efforts and struggles of the New York City Housing Partnership to build moderate and middle-income housing in New York City.
Not long ago, the South Bronx and other devastated New York City neighborhoods had become legendary as the worst urban war zones, so infamous that busloads of foreign tourists would ask to be taken there to snap pictures of the rubble. What's more, the city's treasury was empty, and the federal government under Ronald Reagan was pulling back from its commitment to confront the nation's "urban crisis. " In New Life at Ground Zero, Charles J. Orlebeke traces New York City's dramatic comeback in the '80s and '90s, focusing on one organization, the New York City Housing Partnership, which helped spark the recovery by building thousands of new homes for the ownership market in the South Bronx and throughout the city. As Orlebeke vividly recounts, this high stakes gamble was pulled off by a diverse cast of characters—sometimes working cooperatively, more often at odds in the nation's most complex and contentious political environment. Behind the facade of "public-private partnership" presented by retired banker and civic leader David Rockefeller and popular mayor Ed Koch in 1982, lay minefields of conflicting interests, bureaucratic roadblocks, and clashing personalities.
New Life at Ground Zero sets the stage for the emergence of the Housing Partnership with account of colliding views about how New York City should develop after World War II, whether as a gleaming "city of the future," or as the messier, human-scale city of neighborhoods envisioned by Jane Jacobs. Both views seemed irrelevant in the mid-'70s, as New York City plunged into near bankruptcy. From this civic ordeal would emerge the Housing Partnership, a business-led nonprofit developer that would combine large-scale rebuilding with relatively low-density neighborhoods of resident owners.
In telling the Housing Partnership story, Orlebeke draws on a careful analysis of internal documents and communications and on interviews with key partners, including city officials, Partnership staff, community activists, business leaders, homebuilders, and buyers. Still flourishing today, the Partnership has branched out into rebuilding abandoned rental buildings with neighborhood entrepreneurs, and is also sponsoring the development of new retail stores in places once written off as hopeless. As such, it stands out as a useful model of community revival for other cities to study and adapt to their own local circumstances.
Reflecting on the Housing Partnership achievement, the author taps into his experience as a public official and a student of urban policy and argues persuasively that this story is an early example of an increasingly potent, national community development movement that challenges the conventional pessimistic view of the urban prospect.
Charles J. Orlebeke is Professor of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He previously served as Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"Charles Orlebeke has written a fascinating history of an extraordinarily important New York institution—the New York City Housing Partnership. Together with local housing officials, financial institutions, and neighborhood organizations, the Partnership has succeeded beyond all expectations in rebuilding communities in areas of the City that used to be national symbols of urban despair and desolation. As unlikely as it sounds, the book is a page-turner. Within the book's covers Orlebeke has masterfully captured the tremendous passions that were harnessed to transform vacant land into thriving communities. " — Michael H. Schill, Director and Professor of Law and Urban Policy, New York University Law School
"In this sensitively written and richly documented history of the origins and accomplishments of the New York City Housing Partnership, Charles Orlebeke speaks to the resilience and future possibilities of cities, while making a compelling case for a more homeownership-driven national urban policy. " — Michael A. Stegman, Duncan MacRae '09 and Rebecca Kyle MacRae Professor of Public Policy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and formerly Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research, HUD
"The story presented by Orlebeke is an important contribution to housing and public policy analysis. The thousands of units produced by the New York Partnership stand as proof that public-private partnership can work both to produce and empower. " — Phillip L. Clay, Associate Provost and Professor of Urban Studies, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, MIT
"Orlebeke's narrative deftly weaves together the high-level political maneuvering with the hope and faith of residents looking for better homes to raise their families. In his final chapter, Orlebeke sets forth a refreshing paradigm for urban policy, based upon community development and the power of public/private partnerships, truly the best platform on which to build this country's urban revitalization. " — Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO, Local Initiatives Support Corporation