A tale of two cities, seventies-style

You don’t need to be a New Yorker to appreciate the 1981 documentary Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet, which chronicles the near default of the city in 1975, or to be from Cleveland, which the film also features and which took a much different approach in confronting its own insolvency three years later. You could be from Detroit or Stockton or San Bernardino or Camden, or any municipality in bankruptcy, on the brink, or simply operating within a set of ever-tightening creditor constraints. Thirty-three years after its release, the documentary’s take on how private business interests exert a controlling hand in the financing of public services makes it perhaps even more timely now than it was then.

I saw it at the Queens Museum a couple of weeks ago, and readers in the New York area will have a second chance to catch up with it Monday, May 12, when it’s screened at the Bronx Documentary Center. The film mixes interviews from the period with archival footage to help viewers understand the scope and severity of the financial crisis New York faced in the 1970s, now too often recalled via the reflexive shorthand of the infamous Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Intercut with stories from the frontlines of de-staffed hospitals, daycare centers, and firehouses are clips of a black-tie gala at Lincoln Center celebrating the acclaimed saviors of the city, including Felix Rohatyn of the Municipal Assistance Corporation and members of the Emergency Financial Control Board, whose cuts to public funding are portrayed as having disproportionately affected the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. A tuxedoed attendee climbing from a limo tells an interviewer of the EFCB’s work: “It's great. It puts an intervening layer in there. It separates the politicians from the constituencies.”

The moment serves as a helpful reminder of what's less recalled about the crisis: How city officials ceded their role as elected representatives of the people to unelected corporate and banking executives. That the institutions headed by these men were simultaneously flooding the market with their surplus of bad municipal debt, availing themselves of public services and infrastructure, and benefiting from what was viewed at the time as a relatively exotic incentive—lengthy tax abatements—is also noted.

Tighten Your Belts contrasts New York’s approach to that taken by then-youthful Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich, whose vocal refusal to sell off the city-owned power company to Cleveland’s largest bank earned him the ridicule of the media and much of the populace. He marshalled enough support, however, to push through a popular referendum leaving control of the utility in public hands, where it remains to this day. Footage of Kucinich speaking at black churches and Polish polka halls, of exhorting people to close their accounts at Cleveland Trust as he does so himself, is powerful though poignant, given what we know soon followed: Kucinich was voted out of office, and the city was pushed into default anyway. Many current residents still call Kucinich naïve (and worse), but it’s hard not to be moved by his passion for preserving the compact between city and citizen. When a local news anchor suggests on live television that it might be time to give in to bank demands (“The ball is in your court, Mayor”), Kucinich responds: “All I have to do is sign my name to this paper, and we have the whole city back again? Baloney. Cleveland Trust cannot blackmail the people of this city. That's what they're doing.”

The shocked reaction of the anchor is as priceless as the filmmakers’ sympathies are plain. But as cities continue to struggle with similar issues, or confront new ones spawned by financial misdeed and privatization of public services, what’s wrong with a little corrective to overly credulous notions about the skills, intelligence, and pure intentions of powerful private interests? Nothing, except maybe that it can still find such vital expression in a forty-eight-minute documentary more than three decades old.

Learn more about the film here and herego here for more information on Monday’s screening at the Bronx Documentary Center.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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