Research Seminar: Daniel Wortel-London

New York City, PC20110316_612

Research Seminar: Daniel Wortel-London

Private Growth, Public Costs: Municipal Finance and Reform in New York City, 1877-1913

Location: Copeland Room, Hagley Library.

Time: 6:30pm.

Between the 1870s and the 1930s New York City underwent a fiscal crisis approximately every twenty years. This paper examines the causes of and responses to the periodic fiscal crisis of late 19th and early 20th century New York. It argues that Gotham’s public finance policies on behalf of private real estate speculation - underassessing utility franchises, subsidizing speculative real estate development, and accruing debt for questionable public improvements – were major factors behind these crises. It examines how reformers of the period used these crises as an opportunity to present alternate fiscal policies that promised to both enhance state revenue and transform the local political economy. Ultimately, it argues that early 20th century Progressives succeeded in developing a new system of municipal revenue and expenditure that, while more stable than its predecessor, maintained the power of the private real estate and banking sectors within the city.   

By demonstrating that unrestricted public support for private growth was a cause of, rather than a solution to, fiscal strains in New York and other American cities, my paper challenges dominant narratives ascribing such strains strictly to tax base erosion and the withdrawal of Federal aid in the Post-World War 2 era. Moreover, it reframes the goals of Progressive reform movements in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly concerning public ownership, as responses to the fiscal as well as social costs of private utility ownership. By doing so, it helps contextualize more recent debates over urban public finance policy, particularly in relation to corporate subsidies and real-estate development, while suggesting alternatives drawn from past social movements. 

Daniel Hard London

Daniel Wortel-London is a PhD candidate in history at New York University.


Allison Isenberg of Princeton University will provide introductory comments.

Attendees are encouraged to read Wortel-London's paper, "Private Growth, Public Costs: Municipal Finance and Reform in New York City, 1877-1913," which may be obtained by contacting Carol Lockman at

Free, reply requested, call (302) 658-2400, ext. 243, or email Carol Lockman at

Banner Image: New York City, 1924, PC20110316_612, Box ‘Unusual/Bizarre,’ Chamber of Commerce of the United States photographs and audiovisual materials, Series II. Nation’s Business photographs (Accession 1993.230.II), Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE 19807