Whether you’re a native New Yorker or a long-time resident, you’ve seen a radical transformation happen in city life over the past 30 years. (Times Square, pictured above, is a prominent example.) Abraham Unger describes this much-debated gentrification process in graphic terms: “The drug-infested parks of 1980s Manhattan now [host] farmers’ markets and fashion expos.” In his new book, Unger offers an explanation of this sea change in the urban landscape — and an analysis of its unintended consequences for urban democracies.

Abe Unger photo
“BIDs raise substantial questions about how power gets allocated and used on the most local level,” writes Professor Abraham Unger in his new book.

Unger is an associate professor and director of urban programs in the Wagner College Department of Government and Politics. His book, Business Improvement Districts in the United States: Private Government and Public Consequences (Palgrave Macmillan 2016), examines a widespread economic revitalization tool. Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs, are public-private partnerships between property owners and municipal governments, designed to promote economic development and boost real estate values.

Yet, these private organizations have the public power to tax and spend on services in their districts. “BIDs raise substantial questions about how power gets allocated and used on the most local level, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood. Ultimately, on that level of the street, is where any discussion of democracy must begin,” Unger argues.

“In this study, that conversation begins with a look at how a group of shadow urban private governments have wielded their public authority.”

Focusing on BIDs in New York City, Unger traces their development over more than a decade and uncovers their hidden costs. This is important because BIDs are representative of the wider phenomenon of public-private partnerships, which are on the increase worldwide.

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