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An Urban Planner Against the Developer Presidency

Rachel Weber | Longreads | November 8, 2017 | 2,885 words

An urban planner examines the worldview of high-stakes commercial real estate developers, with a special focus on our new developer-in-chief.

Posted inBooks, Current Events, Nonfiction, Story

An Urban Planner Against the Developer Presidency

An urban planner examines the worldview of high-stakes commercial real estate developers, with a special focus on our new developer-in-chief.
Trump Tower Chicago. Photo: Getty Images

Rachel Weber | The Avery Review | 11 minutes (2,885 words) 

The essay below originally appeared in The Avery Review, Issue 21 (January 2017) and was recently collected in a book called And Now: Architecture Against a Developer Presidency. This essay is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

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Ego and social networks, more so than efficiency and expertise, are rewarded in the attention economy in which [real estate developers] operate.

Much has been made of having a corporate executive in the Oval Office. Donald Trump claims that, given his business experience, he will be able to be an effective negotiator, grow the economy, and make efficient allocation decisions with scarce resources. On the campaign trail, in tweets, and in televised debates, Trump has sold himself as a man of commerce, connected only to the material, productive economy and not the fictive, financialized one responsible for the Great Recession. He repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street ties, contrasting them to his own righteous independence, noting, “I don’t care about the Wall Street guys… I’m not taking any of their money.”

But real estate developers, particularly those in the high-stakes world of downtown commercial real estate, are not ordinary businessmen. Large-scale developers generally subscribe to a worldview that grants them considerable agency as strategic risk takers in an environment that is (according to them) largely of their own making. To see development potential that few others see, to take risks that few would want to shoulder, and to control the physical settings in which millions of people go about their daily lives—all this fosters a God complex to which few corporate CEOs would admit. Such sentiment is captured by Tom Wolfe in his novel A Man in Full, as the developer-protagonist admires the Atlanta skyline from his private plane. He mentally pats himself on the back: “I did that! That’s my handiwork! I’m one of the giants who built this city! I’m a star!” Ego and social networks, more so than efficiency and expertise, are rewarded in the attention economy in which they operate.

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