Robert Moses: Scoundrel or Seraph?


Robert Moses is one of the most vilified people in the history of New York.  To this day he is cursed for having installed the Cross-Bronx Expressway that leads away from the George Washington Bridge and tore up neighbourhoods across the Bronx.  He’s also blamed for displacing thousands in slum clearances and trying to turn numerous landmarks into freeways.

However, a series of recent exhibits (Robert Moses and the Modern City at the Museum of the City of New York and Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution at the Wallach Art Gallery) revisit his history and show that his story is more complex that first imagined.

For instance, New York was suffering under the automobile: the grid system could not handle the traffic of the 1940’s and the opening of the George Washington Bridge meant that an unmanageable amount of traffic was deposited on the north end of Manhattan daily.

New York had no option but to build more roads, but Moses makes an easy target as he so whole-heartedly embraced the car.  He went so far as to try and build a bridge from Battery Park to Brooklyn (ultimately denied by Roosevelt in 1944/45 as a threat to national security-if it had been blown up it would have sealed in the naval base in New York harbour) and he tried to build an expressway through Washington Square (but to be fair, it was used by cars back then-it wasn’t the pedestrian oasis it is today).

Here’s a shot of the original model of his Cross-Manhattan Expressway (it would have connected East Side to West; thank god it was never built).  That’s 12 lanes of traffic that would have ripped across 31st street (an early model had it going through the Empire State Building):

Moses also embraced slum clearance.  In 1949, the U.S. government passed the Slum Clearance Act, which gave generous subsidies for the ill-defined notion of destroying slums.  New York’s middle class was in the midst of a flight to the suburbs and so Robert Moses took up slum clearance as his cause celebre to reinvigorate the city.  He replaced neighbourhoods with superblocks that typically either accelerated the decay of a region (by turning it into a ghetto) or simply displaced the problem (almost any privately sponsored slum clearance ended up becoming luxury housing; almost no prior residents ended up in the new apartments).  To this day, the city (particularly the East Side) is dotted with drab high density apartment buildings built between 1945-65.

Similarly, there was no compensation for commercial enterprises displaced by slum clearance.  Most of the light manufacturing companies displaced either folded or moved to the suburbs, further accelerating Manhattan’s decline as a manufacturing center.

In the end, Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 and Moses’ slum clearance ground to a halt.  It was replaced with the Jacobsian notion of focusing on many small scale neighbourhood-centric improvements rather than City Council-driven change.

However, there were several benefits to Robert Moses’ large scale clearance programs.  He used clearance to build many of the institutions that would be responsible for the city’s renaissance, including The Lincoln Centre, the United Nations (he secured them in New York vs. Philadelpia or San Francisco) and the Coliseum convention center.

He also used slum clearance to build up New York’s university’s-and no one disputes the importance of strong universities in building successful cities.  For instance, NYU was based partially in the Bronx until he used slum clearance to consolidate their operations at Washington Park (and build the odd-looking Washington Square Village/Silver Towers):

Also, Moses increased the city’s parkland from 14,000 to 34,673 acres and constructed 660 new playgrounds.

All in all, a complicated 34 year (1934-68) legacy...


Thursday, April 5, 2007

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