When political economist and social reformer Henry George died in 1897, his funeral was attended by thousands who proceeded from Grand Central Palace in Manhattan to Brooklyn City Hall on their way to Green-Wood Cemetery, his final resting place. The congregation at Grand Central Palace was so dense that mourners struggled to view the face of the deceased. As the procession reached Brooklyn, the crowd gathered along the route was the largest that residents had ever seen.
George’s life was marked by a deep political commitment to social and economic justice. His most popular work, the 1879 treatise Progress and Poverty, examined the paradoxical relationship between persistent poverty and increasing technological progress. What he found was not so much a paradox as a cyclical process that favored the expansion of an elite’s economic power. Landowners acquired untaxed wealth in the form of rents and this wealth grew quickly, without much effort or expense. Property owned in the form of labor, on the other hand, cost individuals great effort and was taxed heavily. To resolve this inequity, George proposed a solution whereby land and other natural resources would be taxed, with the resulting wealth distributed equally among the public, who were, he believed, its rightful owners.
Though reviled by landlords and conservatives who associated his doctrines with confiscation and socialism, George was in fact an anti-tariff free trader who believed his single-tax solution would obviate the need for levies on other economic activities. It was on this platform that he mounted a strong campaign for mayor of New York City in 1897. He died of a stroke four days before the election.
In December of last year, two Straddler editors set out to locate George’s grave using a paper map supplied by a Green-Wood Cemetery park ranger. After much wandering, we at last saw his face—his bust, that is—perched atop a stone column set in front of an erect marble slab whose patinaed bronze wreaths strain for a measured symmetry amidst the neighboring hodgepodge of headstones and mausoleums.
The hill upon which George’s monument rests slopes downwards, eventually reaching the back wall of a large, modern structure built in 2005 to ease increasing pressure on the land required for burial plots. The website for Green-Wood cemetery describes this five-story, steel-and-glass building, the Hillside Mausoleum, as a “dramatic, modern work of architecture,” further marketing it as a “stunningly unique memorial site.” The going rates for niches range from $2,000 to $17,500, with additional charges for what are termed “cremation accessories.” As in life, in death we are subject to forces of supply and demand. All of us must die, and land is finite for the dead as well as the living.
A construction such as the Hillside Mausoleum would, according to George’s theories, be deemed an improvement on land, rather than land itself. As such, it would not be subject to taxation. But it would come as no surprise to George that a typical New York high-rise solution to land scarcity should be developed as a way to match an increasing demand for land use with the drive to realize inflated profits. Through this process, George’s view of the city he loved, and for whose social and economic preservation he fought, is blocked out.
More obscured than George’s grave are the key concepts of his life’s work, which his own city has neglected perhaps more than any other. Most notably, his proposal for the common ownership of land and natural resources to the benefit of all citizens is nowhere to be found in a city ever more on the vanguard of new extremes in profit-maximizing development projects. As we noted in our fall2015 issue, many of the units in the ultra-high-rise residential towers that make up Billionaire’s Row in Manhattan sit empty for a good portion of the year. Niches for concentrations of capital among a very few, they warn of an advancing future in which notions of justice for the many are as absent, as silent, as the dead.