Alex Smith; Section 2; Reaction Paper 1; Graffiti Piece vs. Green Development Zone

Alex Smith

Reaction Paper #1: Critical Synthesis

September 28, 2015

Dr. Leslie Martin


“Moral Panic and Growth Machine” vs. “Green Development Zone”

            According Ronald Kramer in “Moral Panics and Urban Growth Machines: Official Reactions to Graffiti in New York City, 1990–2005,” growth machines can be defined as “loose coalitions that form between a variety of interests, such as local political elites, landowners, corporate developers and speculators. What unites these diverse actors is an interest in extracting the maximum profit possible from how land is put to use (“exchange-value”), as opposed to using land for the satisfaction of relatively modest needs (“use-value”).” (Kramer, 2010)  Based off of this definition, growth machines exist both in New York City, according to the above article, and in Buffalo according to Aaron Bartley in “Building a ‘Community Growth Machine’The Green Development Zone as a Model for a New Neighborhood Economy.”  Both articles discuss growth machines; however, the nature and actions of each of these machines are drastically different.  There are a few similarities, but for the most part, the New York City machine is the exact opposite of the Buffalo machine.

In order to fully understand the similarities and differences between the two machines, the basic premise of each article must first be understood.  In the Kramer article, the main issue being discussed is what Kramer calls the “over-reaction” to the issue of graffiti.  In New York City, from the 1990s through the 2000s, whether graffiti was actually a widespread problem or not, there was a major moral panic over the issue.  Kramer asserted that this moral panic was a result of the “broken windows” thesis.  According to this thesis, if a slight issue such as graffiti gets out of hand, then serious crimes will occur and property value will decrease, which will lead to an economic collapse because less people will want to live in New York and less businesses will set up shop, and then all of a sudden the whole city goes down in flames.  However, after doing research, data showed that there was actually no correlation whatsoever between the amount of graffiti and the number of people wanting to live in New York.  Despite a rise in graffiti, people continued to both want to tour the city and buy property in the city, and businesses continued to flock to the city.  Kramer suggests instead that the panic over graffiti was simply an excuse for the growth machine in the city to take what it wanted.  Part of Kramer’s definition of a growth machine is that it seeks to make maximum profit from how land is put to use.  In the case of New York City, the machine used graffiti as an excuse to take the land that it wanted in order to gain maximum profit.  Government officials claimed these land seizures would benefit all New Yorkers, but it actually harmed many people economically and only benefited the machine. (Kramer, 2010)

On the other hand, the Bartley article was essentially the opposite story.  In response to the severe poverty in Buffalo, an organization known as People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) created what is called a Green Development Zone (GDZ).  The GDZ “combines green affordable housing construction, community-based renewable energy projects, housing weatherization, green jobs training, and urban agriculture toward the goal of creating pathways to employment for neighborhood residents while improving housing conditions and reducing the neighborhood’s carbon footprint.” (Bartley, 2011)  Simply put, PUSH mobilized the people of Buffalo to see their common goals and work together to improve the economy.

Now that the basic concepts of each article understood, the similarities and differences can be analyzed.  The most important similarity between these two stories is simply the fact that they both involve growth machines.  For the case of New York City, it is very obvious that a growth machine exists and is the reason for the over-reaction to graffiti.  Economic elites, government officials, big business owners, and other high-power individuals work together to get what they want, even if it involves economically harming neighborhood or urban residents.  That is a classic example of a growth machine.

However, for the case of Buffalo, it is more difficult to say that PUSH and/or the GDZ are a growth machine.  One could argue that pluralism would better fit as the driving force behind the Buffalo GDZ, but it is in fact a growth machine.  In class, pluralism was defined as the theory that there are groups of equal power within a community, contributing and keeping each other in check, and equally distributing resources among the community.  Additionally, with pluralism, only the people who are actively engaged have an effect. (Martin, 2015)  The reason that pluralism does not pertain to the Buffalo GDZ is that the GDZ is not comprised of groups of equal power.  The GDZ includes everyone in the community working to achieve a common goal; rather than several groups, it is simply one huge group.  Going back to Kramer’s definition of a growth machine, the GDZ fits that definition, because it involves a “coalition” of people attempting to use land to make maximum profit.  The results for neighborhood residents, however, is where these two growth machines drastically differ.

In the New York case, as well as most cases, the growth machine works on a top to bottom principle.  It is run by a few elites, such as government officials, big business owners, and basically anyone with a lot of money.  These elites seek to improve the over-all economy by first benefiting businesses, in order to generate excess wealth at the top.  Ideally, the excess wealth will then “trickle down” to neighborhood residents, which is what was supposed to happen with the graffiti issue.  However, in actuality, neighborhood residents were economically harmed by the crack down on graffiti.  In complete contrast to the New York machine, the Buffalo GDZ growth machine works on a bottom to top principle.  Rather than a relatively small number of elites running the show, the Buffalo GDZ involves most if not all neighborhood residents, gets them unified and mobilized, and improves the economic standing of the lower class people.  Ideally, an improved economy for people of the lower class will then boost the over-all economy of Buffalo including the people at the “top,” meaning the economic elites and government officials.  The best part about the Buffalo case is that their bottom to top approach actually worked.  While the economic elites of New York promised to benefit all New Yorkers, they actually harmed most people and only helped themselves.  Contrary to this, the Buffalo GDZ growth machine benefited everybody.

After discussing growth machines in great detail in class, it is very interesting to analyze two growth machines that are the same but also the complete the opposite at the same time.  For each case, there is a coalition of people who seek to improve the economy of the community. For that reason, each group qualifies as a growth machine.  However, while the New York City machine worked on a top to bottom principle and benefited elites but harmed urban residents, the Buffalo growth machine was simply a growth machine at the neighborhood level and benefited everyone from bottom to top. Although the Bartley article is very biased towards the Buffalo GDZ, I would still say that the Buffalo growth machine is a better example of how unification is key for exercising power and getting things done.







Works Cited

Bartley, A. (2011). Building a “Community Growth Machine”. Social Policy, pp. 9-20.

Kramer, R. (2010). Moral Panics and Urban Growth Machines: Official. Qual Sociol, 297-311.

Martin, L. (2015). Top: Community Power. Section 2.


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