ROBERT FITCH: A TRUE PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL
Fifth Annual Robert Fitch Memorial Lecture, May 5, 2016
LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York
“We are basically the very last stand” - P. Kwong
These words, contributed by our editorial board member Samuel Stein, are an excerpt of a tribute read at Peter Kwong’s memorial service in May of 2017. As Samuel points out, Peter was heavily invested in bringing out the contributions of others in the field and leading and teaching by example. Progressive City is proud to publish his remarks from his 2016 Bob Fitch Memorial lecture so that his contributions can lead and teach us all as we preserve his memory and continue his important legacy:
“I am one of the thousands of students Peter Kwong reached through his teaching, his writing, his mentoring and his friendship. Like many people, I first encountered Peter through his books, which not only painted a fascinating portrait of a New York City neighborhood but challenged the entire way I thought about immigration, labor, race and capitalism."
“But I really got to know Peter in his classroom. The course was called ‘Gentrification: Chinatown Case Studies,’ and it traced the history and theory of gentrification through the changes facing New York’s Chinatown. Peter was an extremely generous teacher—generous with his time, but also with his genius. He wouldn’t lecture much; instead he would ask a question, and patiently await a response—sometimes enduring painful silences until a student would speak up and broach an answer. He would then encourage other students to respond. After several voices were heard, Peter would pause, audibly inhale, and say, ‘Ok.’ In his soft voice and with carefully chosen words, he would then speak the most devastatingly clear sentence, somehow encapsulating everything we were awkwardly grasping towards into a simple, clear and profound statement. Though we wished he would have just said that thing to begin with, we knew Peter was being pedagogically precise. The point was not for him to just tell us what he knew, but for us to organically produce that knowledge and for him to simply refine it.” - Samuel Stein
It’s an honor to be introducing the fifth annual Bob Fitch Memorial Lecture. When I gave the first, in May 2012, a bit over a year after Bob died, I dearly hoped there’d be a second. And here we are with the fifth! We have, as they say on Wall Street, come in well above expectations.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Bob lately now that Bill de Blasio and his administration are under multiple investigations over campaign finance corruption involving, among other things, real estate developers. Of course. In a sense, we’re back to normal in New York. For a dozen years, we were governed by an actual plutocrat, Michael Bloomberg, who didn’t really need developers’ dollars since he had about 25 billion of his own. That’s not to say he didn’t govern in the interests of the FIRE sector—finance, insurance, real estate. That’s a given of life in this city, a point that no one made with more power and detail than Bob Fitch did. But de Blasio doesn’t have that kind of cash, so like any politician, he needs patrons, and it’s looking like there was some funny business involved. Though of course I’ll respect the presumption of innocence.
The lack of money isn’t all that distinguishes de Blasio from Bloomberg. Big Bill is supposed to be the great progressive hope of urban America. I never bought that. I first became aware of de Blasio in 1993, when I was writing about the New Party, the ancestor of the Working Families Party. Like the WFP, the New Party was purportedly going to push the Democrats to the left by endorsing “progressive” Dems and withholding endorsements from nonprogressive Dems. I was skeptical because they had roots in the unions that were major cogs in the party machine. It seemed to me their mission was more to bind wavering progressive to the Democratic party than it was to push the party leftwards. Their prompt endorsement of the hackish David Dinkins, coupled with their excruciatingly banal slogan (lifted from Carl Sandburg) “the people, yes!,” was pretty much all the proof I needed. But like a good journalist I went looking for more. And in that search I interviewed the New Party’s executive director, Bill de Blasio. He struck me then as duplicitous and rather dim, and nothing I’ve seen since has caused me to revise that diagnosis.
A perfect example is his affordable housing program, which looks like a gentrification scheme in uplifting disguise. (Sam Stein has written some really good stuff on this in Jacobin and elsewhere.) It targets very poor neighborhoods like East New York and the South Bronx using a strategy called inclusionary zoning. What that means is that developers will be offered incentives to build mostly market-rate housing with some “affordable” units thrown in. But the definition of affordable works out to a household income twice the neighborhoods’ present average. This is pure neoliberal housing policy, based on subsidies to developers and not public spending. It’s how developers do a housing program.
At the core of the Mayor’s relationship with the real estate world is a PR firm, BerlinRosen. They do publicity for him, and also for major developers like Two Trees, which is all over Dumbo and Williamsburg. They’ve evolved beyond publicity to become power brokers and dealmakers on their own. And they got a subpoena from Preet Bahara the other day. If all goes well, we’ll find out a lot more about how the real estate industry influences the administration and its conception of affordable housing. I wish Bob were here to delve in.
Enough of me; it’s time to introduce our speaker. Peter Kwong is a distinguished professor urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and a professor of sociology at the CUNY Grad Center. He’s best known for his work on Chinese-Americans and modern Chinese politics. But he was also a good friend and long-time colleague of Bob Fitch. He wrote the foreword to the Open Road Media reissue of Bob’s masterpiece, The Assassination of New York, originally published by Verso in 1993. He’s going to talk about Bob as the very model of a public intellectual, which is exactly what he was. Peter Kwong.
I want to talk about Bob as a public intellectual. Bob Fitch and I first met during our days as investigative reporters for the Village Voice. We became close friends during the final few years of his writing his masterpiece, The Assassination of New York. At that time, I too was laboring away on my book, Forbidden Workers: Chinese Illegal Immigrants and American Labor. As you know, writing is a very lonely process, particularly when you are working on long pieces like ours. So we really appreciated each other’s company. Bob and I would talk on the phone and met at coffee shops regularly to commiserate and use each other as sounding boards for our latest ideas for our books.
Our common gripe was the lack of editorial help from our respective editors.
At that time, the publishing industry was under heavy attack from big retail chains like Barnes & Noble and amazon.com, who were interested only in bestselling titles and would return unsold copies back to the publishers in short order. As a result, our publishers had to cut back the budgets for editorial and promotional help to the authors.
So when I first met Bob, it was very intimidating. He was very serious, and did not care about small talk. When we talked, he always got right into tackling big problems: world economy, labor movement, socialism, the Chinese labor situation and American politics. The only non-political issue we had time to discuss was our shared love for classical music, and we would exchange information on the latest recordings that we had found.
But after knowing him for a while, I realized that Bob was, in fact, a very simple person. By that I mean he was totally dedicated to the cause of working class struggles. His overarching worldview was that all common working people should be given their fair due. They should not be exploited or lied to. This kind of loyalty to the workers seemed to be so old fashioned. But his life was a testament to this dedication. From early on after his military service, he was a grassroots level activist. Bob was at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement. During the turbulent years of the late ‘60s he was one of the founders of Revolutionary Union, a radical organization. During the early ‘70s he became an editor of the once very popular leftist Ramparts Magazine, a rare journal of radical news and ideas. Many of us still miss it today.
When he arrived in New York, he became involved in union organizing and kept at it to the end of his life. His writing and speeches were inspired by activism and they were meant to provoke and to mobilize people into taking action. His dream, as he said, was to build “a powerful, inclusive labor movement has the potential to realize our democratic values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.” As I have been a labor activist and critic of American organized labor myself, he would often urge me to join him to build a new workers’ movement.
He was a simple man in another way. He lived an austere life—no smoking, no drinking, no drugs, no partying. His material situation was meager, and for years, to the end of his life, he lived in a walkup studio apartment, crammed with books. Yet he rarely complained, because that was how he wanted to live. He was not someone to compromise or to toe other people’s line. He wanted to think for a living, without control, without obligations. He wanted to be able to speak up and to write whatever he wanted.
In that sense, he was incorruptible. He told me one time that he was offered a job working for what he thought was a progressive union. His first day on the job, the executive director of the union took him to lunch at one of the most expensive, most abstruse restaurant for lunch. He knew right away what was up, and he quit the job soon after.
Bob did have to pay for his stubbornness. The establishment shunned him, and even the academy ostracized him. They found him to be too extreme and lacking the “objectivity” required of a scholar. For the longest time he was unable to secure a regular teaching job. He had to work as an adjunct professor in a number of colleges—including this one—teaching more courses than a regular professor, at sweatshop wages, in order to make ends meet and to hold onto his health insurance.
In another way, he was a simple person because his primary interest was in ideas—ideas that were not the run of the mill conventional wisdom, which goes nowhere and explains nothing. Bob was someone who lived for ideas, constantly questioning assumptions and challenging what he considered to be stale thinking.
Bob was someone who lived for ideas, constantly questioning assumptions and challenging what he considered to be stale. For him, ideas came from research, from study, from books and from documents. To Bob, digging up facts was pure joy. We would sit down to talk at a coffee shop, usually after I picked him up in front of NYU’s Bobst Library where he spent much of his time. The moment we sat down, he would ask: “Guess what I found today?” and proceed to say that he had just discovered in the stacks a document that had long eluded him, and which was exactly the evidence he needed to prove his point. “Is that amazing or not?” he would shout, like a kid who had just discovered a hidden stash of candy bars.
His ideas were often different and provocative. We often disagreed. I had to be prepared to defend myself and to counter the facts and data he had in his command. I learned quickly that to be his friend, I had to be willing to be challenged. And to survive our friendship, I needed to stand my ground. Even after a shouting match, I never took him to be malicious. The experience of spending time with him could be draining, but invariably I was rewarded with new insights.
He was simple in another way: he was fearless. He would push his ideas, no matter how controversial. Many people felt very uncomfortable around him. Every time I told somebody that Bob Fitch was my friend, I would detect—usually from individuals on the left—faces of tortured embarrassment. They would say, “Wow. I like Bob, and some of his ideas are great, but I just disagree with the way he says it because he is destroying the movement.” These are apologists standing on a sinking ship, unwilling to own up to their complicity for the sad state of the movement. They preferred to blame Bob for it. I’d like to know—since when the critic is the cause for the destruction of an already rotten movement?
His last book, Solidarity for Sale, critiquing the current state of organized labor, was met with intense response from labor hacks, as I call them, apologists and timid people holding on to political correctness, accusing him of being an enemy of the workers, and claiming that he was even worse than a Republican. However, those criticisms never braced him; they only reinforced his own convictions.
Even more daring was his take on Obama, as he was basking in the limelight of the nation and many on the left. Bob, however, came from Chicago. He did extensive research on Obama’s past as what we call a “social worker,” and his complicity with the city’s power elite. He even held a lecture with the Harlem Tenants Council 10 days after Obama was elected. Bob explained that he thought Obama was brilliant, yet in Obama’s The Audacity of Hope—some of you probably read it—Obama invokes the legacy of Ronald Reagan, who Obama believed “recognized America’s need to rediscover the traditional values of the American community: hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism and faith.” At another point, Obama said, you know what would be a good economic development plan for our community? If we could make sure folks weren’t throwing their garbage out of their cars. Like Bill Cosby, he blamed poverty on Blacks themselves.
Fitch explored further to note that if we look at Obama’s core financial supporters, as well as his innermost circle of advisors, we see that they represent the primary activists in the demolition movement and the primary real estate beneficiaries of the transformation of public housing projects into condominiums and townhouses. He described the profitable creep of the central business district and elite neighborhoods moving southwards and the shifting of human misery about three miles further into the south side of Chicago and the suburbs there.
The area of this demolition included the communities that Obama represented as a State Senator, and the top Black administrators, developers and planners were people like Vallerie Jarrett. Some of you probably know this person—she is of all people in the White House the insider of insiders. Jarrett served as a member of the Planning Commission, and Martin Lipsitz, who became head of the Chicago Planning Commission, served as Obama’s campaign finance treasurer. Jarrett was co-chair of the transition team for the administration. The other co-chair was William Daley, the ex-Mayor’s brother and the mid-west chair of JP Morgan, an institution deeply involved in the transformation of city neighborhoods through their support for what financial institutions call “neighborhood revitalization” and what neighborhood activists call “gentrification.”
Very few people at that time wanted to hear this kind of talk. It was just too controversial and too sensitive. But since then we have witnessed what the Chicago buddies—such as Mayor Emmanuel, once Obama’s closest advisor—have done to the city. He tried to destroy the city’s teachers union, empty out the city’s pension funds and manage the racist police department. The Chicago elite has strangled this once dynamic city to its knees. After eight years of Obama’s imperial and screwed up neoliberal presidency, we really have to thank Bob for his fortitude and bravery in speaking up.
While his style and motivation were simple, his method of research was not. It was truly interdisciplinary, smashing the traditional boundaries of the so-called “social sciences.” He was relentless in pursuing answers from whatever sources, wherever the research lead him. Few scholars have such multi-disciplinary sophistication; even fewer could muster such large amounts of research material to good effect.
One result was his masterpiece, The Assassination of New York. No other book has succeeded in presenting a more comprehensive understanding of the process of transformation of New York City from a dynamic, diverse, mixed-use manufacturing economy into a hollowed-out city, dependent on the narrow finance, insurance and real-estate industries, collectively known as FIRE.
Bob argued that the city’s de-industrialization process was not the natural order of things. It was a result of an explicit strategy to rid it of its low-rent workers, residents and factories and replace them with professionals and high-rent office buildings for the benefit of real estate interests and their partners, the banking and financial institutions. Their rallying call was the building of a post-industrial economy, which made factories and low-wage workers superfluous. Having squeezed out the manufacturing industries, workers lost their jobs, creating high rates of unemployment. This drove many poor people of color from the city. After all is said and done, the post-industrial economy is simply not creating enough jobs to replace the loss of manufacturing. As if this were not bad enough, FIRE is based on speculation and is constantly experiencing boom or bust, offering the city no long-term economic stability.
For Bob to arrive at his enduring and comprehensive analysis of the demise of New York City was not easy. Most academics would start out with the subject matter, go on to research the interested parties involved, and come up with a conclusion about who got what and how. Bob did not think this conventional approach was adequate because this transformation process took decades. It was in fact the history of class struggle in every sense of the word. Bob was interested in understanding how the elite, in this case FIRE, tried to popularize their project in the civilian arena by first turning to the universities, the think tanks, public intellectuals and policy wonks, then winning over politicians, in part through campaign donations. But the politicians and the economic elite did not want to shrink the city through edicts; rather they passed on that responsibility to “non-political” and “neutral” entities like city commissions to implement the plan with minimum public participation. That’s why when New York City defaulted in the mid-1970s, few understood what actually caused it; most people accepted the popularized notion that the city was overburdened by overpaid city workers and lazy welfare recipients.
To avoid this kind of misperception Bob mapped out a large canvas to tell the story, starting by analyzing an obscure, rarely referred to 1929 Regional Plan of New York, where the idea of de-industrialization was first raised. From there he navigated us through relevant policy papers, city plans, and legislative bills over decades. He explained complex urban planners’ data and statistical charts by cutting through technical phraseology, which was meant to deter laymen from understanding. Then he connected these ideas and actions with names and players, attributing specific quotes and deeds through the use of recorded speeches and actual interviews.
That’s why this book is so powerful and persuasive. That’s why even to this day, his analysis of the city is as fresh and relevant as when it was written 20 years ago. His writing is not simple, either. While his research are cut and dry, full of tedious details and profession jargon, he turned his material into a clear, understandable narrative. He was able to do that because of his long training as a journalist in the 1970s. While Bob’s scholarship is impressive on its own, so is his ability to narrate complex subjects in a lucid, engaging and witty manner.
Some people refer to him as a journalist, yet how many journalists have the time and inclination to tackle such a massive project and spend years on one subject? Others classify him as a muckraker, which usually identifies a reformer aiming to expose social ills and political corruption. But Bob’s writing goes well beyond targeting a handful of culprits. He was tackling with one of most important social transformations of our time. Many recognize him as a writer in the George Orwell mode. Like Orwell, he strived for clarity, so as to make the work accessible to his readers. Like Orwell’s, his writing was political, setting out from "a feeling of partisanship, [and] a sense of injustice."
So finally, I want to get back to the title of this talk: a true public intellectual. There are a lot of public intellectuals around. Kissinger is one. So is Paul Krugman, the darling of the moderates. A better example is Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. They all enjoy recognition and large followings. Bob was in no way as well known or as successful, so at the end of his life he was still struggling around, working like a dog, so he could make ends meet. Yet, he is our unsung hero. That is why it is so gratifying for me here today to celebrate him as a scholar and as an activist five years after his death. We still remember and treasure him. Meanwhile, his work has been rediscovered by a younger generation, and becoming more and more popular. Most of all, Bob’s spirit never fades because he is the conscience of our time. His vision, his analysis, and most of all his lifestyle is the model for all of us.
At a time of global crisis, in a world enflamed by wars and inequality, we need many many more true public intellectuals of his caliber to help navigate us into a just and equal future.
Peter Kwong was Distinguished Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College as well as Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). Peter was a pioneer in the field of Asian American studies and immigration, as well as an award winning journalist, filmmaker and author. Peter was the inaugural director of the Asian American Studies Program at Hunter College, and a staunch and tireless activist. Peter passed away in March of 2017 at the age of 75.