Sunday, September 19, 2010

Anyone Remember When John Lindsay Was a Republican Hero?

Anthony Flint. Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City. New York: Random House, 2009.

Robert Moses, who led various New York City transportation and planning departments, proposed the creation of a ten lane elevated highway in Manhattan. It would require tearing down 400 buildings and remove 2,200 families and 800 businesses. Jane Jacobs was a leader of community groups that opposed and killed this proposal.

Jane Jacobs wrote for “Architectural Forum” when she was assigned to write about city planner Edward Bacon and how Philadelphia center city neighborhoods were being torn down for redevelopment projects. Bacon took Jacobs on a tour and proudly showed her much new construction. Jacobs asked Bacon “where are the people?” Jacobs began questioning urban renewal programs.

The Federal government policies known as Title I, following the philosophy of Le Corbusier that favored large and functional structures, favored razing poorer neighborhoods so new private development could replace them. A problem in New York City was the newly constructed structures were not necessarily better than what they replaced. No one ever asked the residents what they preferred. In East Harlem, relocating 50,000 people also came at the expense of 1,100 stores. Jane Jacobs noted the residents rejected their newer superstores and instead preferred the local smaller stores, now located further away.

Moses proposed constructing a road that would cross Washington Square Park. This was the park where Jane Jacobs took her children. This set up a clash between an urban renewal power, Moses, and a critic, Jacobs.

Moses held as many as 12 appointed public positions simultaneously. When legislation created a commission he wanted to control, he had the legislation created so he would be the obvious candidate to fill the important position within that commission.

Moses used a strategy of building projects quickly. By doing this, opposition to his ideas lacked sufficient time to organize against them. Moses had laws created to enable rapid construction that also provided him ease in condemning land.

Moses ran as the Republican nominee for Governor of New York in 1934. He called the incumbent Governor Herbert Lehman corrupt. Lehman won easily. President Roosevelt wanted Moses out of power and threatened to deny Federal funds to projects Moses directed. Moses leaked this to the press, who faulted Roosevelt for being involved in petty local politics. Roosevelt, Governor Lehman, and Mayor LaGuardia all felt this pressure and decided not to seek to remove Moses. Being able to defy the elected leaders and remain in power only Moses appear stronger.

Moses was known for being vindictive. He was also known for keeping tabs on Commission and Council members and blackmailing them for support in return for keeping quite on extraneous love affairs or drunkenness. Moses even ignored the law, causing Mayor LaGuardia to have the police make certain Moses didn’t have something torn down that legally wasn’t supposed to be destroyed.

In 1949, several members of Congress feared cities were declining. Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 sought to save cities by encouraging new private development. The primary means to build anew was to tear down existing low income and relatively cheaper to purchase neighborhoods. Mayor William O’Dwyer named Moses as Construction Coordinator, Chairman of the Emergency Committee on Housing, and Chairman of the Committee on Slum Clearance. New York received $70 million in Title I funds, compared to Chicago which received the second most amount of these funds at $30 million.

Many of the new developments that were constructed met the aims of the private developers. More profitable housing options for the upper and middle classes were built rather than housing for the displaced poorer residents. Even the housing that was created often cut corners in construction and were not as nice as expected. The displaced low income often could not afford for afford to move back into the new constructions and those who could afford them often were disappointed.

Walter O’Malley, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, noted most of the Dodgers fan base was moving further away from the Dodgers’ stadium, Ebbetts Field. Many fans were moving into more distant Long Island locations. The stadium did not have a Long Island Railway (LIRR) stop and had only 700 parking spaces. Moses refused the Dodgers access to LITT. Moses instead wanted to build a new stadium in Flushing, where Shea Stadium eventually would be built. O’Malley decided to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles.

Moses proposed extending Fifth Avenue through Washington Park. This project called for destroying many Greenwich Village buildings. A new housing development Moses proposed for the area would destroy 130 buildings and displace 150 families.

Moses saw Washington Square Park as a decaying area with broken benches. He saw it as a target for urban revitalization. Area residents saw it as their park and sanctuary. Neighbors in 1935 formed the Save Washington Square Commission in reaction to Moses’s plans. Moses threatened to cut off improvement funds if the residents continued resisting. He refused to meet with the group. In 1939, Moses submitted a second but similar plan. Moses again threatened to cut off New Deal funds. This divided the citizens group and they endorsed Moses’s plan by a one vote margin. A splinter group continued opposing Moses. They gained thousands of signatures opposed the plan. This opposition was joined by a group of nearby New York University (NYU) students who feared for pedestrian safety. Manhattan Borough President Stanley Isaacs insisted that approval of the project would require the support of neighborhood voters.

Moses reacted by vilifying the neighborhood opponents as elitists who were stopping progress. Moses met with New York University officials to seek their support. Moses decided to play a waiting game to wear down the opposition.

Neighborhood groups began obtaining their own data on traffic counts. They did not accept the official city data. Opponents conducted letter writing campaigns to officials and newspapers.

Moses used the tactic of postponing public hearings shortly before they were to be held and then quickly called for them. He hoped this would minimize the number of people who objected from attending.

Jacobs decided her group would insist there be no vehicles allowed at Washington Square. They would not challenge the broad Moses vision, yet they would refuse to compromise on that one point. They would not agree to a two lane road instead of the proposed four lane road,

Lewis Mumford agreed with Jacobs’s group. He saw it as commercial profit at the public expense. Members of the Village Independent Democrats, such as Edward Koch, supported Jacobs’s cause. Both Congressional nominees endorsed Jacob’s goals, including the eventual winner John V. Lindsay.

An alternative newspaper, the “Village Voice”, wrote supportively on the neighborhood battles against Moses. Eleanor Roosevelt joined in support. Then, support began emerging form political power insiders. Secretary of State Carmine DeSapio, a leader of the Tammany Democratic Party organization and a Greenwich Village resident, spoke out for saving Washington Square. Moses realized he had been defeated once DeSapio was against him. From there, support for saving Washington Square increased to including Mayor Robert Wagner and Governor Averell Harriman.

Moses retreated and developed a new proposal in 1959. If Washington Park were to be closed to vehicles, he wanted the streets around the park widened to 80 feet with rounded corners. Instead, Mayor Wagner in 1963 cut off all vehicle traffic, including buses. This yielded 1 ½ more acres of parkland by eliminating the roads.

The location where Moses wanted to become Fifth Avenue south is now LaGuardia Place with a statue of Fiorello LaGuardia. Where the road would have continued south of Washington Park is where Bobst Library of NYU now stands.

Jacobs had a separate struggle with Moses. Moses sought to construct the Lower Manhattan Expressway. This was a project that worked well with the Federal government goals of creating superhighways according to the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. Moses saw several highways connective Manhattan to its regions as important to maintaining Manhattan’s economic and social vitality. He had the Cross Bronx Expressway built and sought to connect it to northern Manhattan. Moses proposed a Mid-Manhattan expressway running from the Lincoln Tunnel to the Queens Midtown Tunnel.

Father Gerard LaMountan was upset that this proposed expressway would mean the Church of the Most Holy Crucifix would be torn down. He turned to Jane Jacobs for help. Jacobs decided she could endure another fight when she saw he also had recruited neighbors and skilled organizers. There were religious and political leaders and understanding that La Cosa Nostra was not pleased to see its territory devastated. Bob Dylan wrote a song of support.

Herman Badillo wrote a report for the city claiming all displaced people would be provided with new housing. The opposition was not satisfied. Jane Jacobs stood up against making it easier to drive vehicles in New York City. She encouraged mass transit, foot transit, and bicycling. Moses argued for the need to act to avoid traffic congestion.

Moses let Jacobs and her associates win an initial victory at halting the project. Moses often used delays to his advantage and would wait for the opportunity to renew his fights for his proposals. Moses declared that Jacobs was an obstructionist.

Rep. John V. Lindsay opposed the project and was elected Mayor. Moses still fought, declaring that the SoHo neighborhood was blighted and should be destroyed. The growing historic preservation movement differed. Jacobs thus had new allies in people seeking to preserve the history of Lower Manhattan.

Mayor Lindsay faced a threatened strike of 200,000 city workers if he delivered on his promise to stop construction projects. Lindsay agreed to an open trench highway that would destroy 650 homes and 400 businesses, compared to the 2,000 homes and 00 business structures Moses had proposed. Jacobs and advocates pushed to kill the idea. Jacobs was arrested for protesting. The arrest galvanized support for Jacobs. Lindsay agreed to kill the proposal.

Governor Rockefeller reduced Moses’s powers. Rockefeller agreed with killing the Lower Manhattan project as well as another Moses proposal for a bridge across the Long Island Sound. Moses remained a consultant but his influence was mostly gone.

Jacobs wrote several influential books on city planning issues. Moses retired soon afterwards.

Jacobs continued being upset at redevelopment plans that began with little or no public notification. She continued working to preserve parks and neighborhoods in the West Village against redevelopment. Rep. Lindsay joined with the neighborhood activists in protesting that not enough notice was given. Jacobs appealed to the press as well as to political leaders, and got their attention.

The plan to develop the West Village was led by James Felt, Chairman of the City Planning Commission, and developer J. Clarence Davies, Jr., Chairman of the Department of Real Estate and Director of Housing and Redevelopment Board (a descendant of one of Moses’s previous commissions). Davies declared the West Village was blighted. They sought to diminish the neighborhood activists by creating a group, Middle Income Cooperators of the Village and its subsidiary, the West Village
Site Tenants’ Committee. To support their plans, Roger Starr and his group, the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, also endorsed the redevelopment efforts. David Rockefeller gave his support.

Jacobs filed a lawsuit to stop the project. The Judge ordered that the blight designation be justified. He also ruled the city had not met public hearing requirements.

State Comptroller Arthur Levitt ran against Mayor Wagner for renomination as Mayor. Levitt supported stopping the West Village redevelopment plans. Wagner then also agreed to oppose the proposal and to increase citizen participation. Felt, noting the City Planning Commission is independent of the Mayor, continued pushing for the development. The City Planning Commission officially designated the West Village as blighted.

Felt tried to use the tactic of suddenly scheduling hearings. There was a secret sympathizer against the proposal working in Felt’s office who always tipped off Jacobs as to when the meetings were being announced. Jacob successfully rallied people to attend.

The neighborhood activists determined that private developer David Rose Associates had already been chosen to build the redevelopments. The group discovered that the developers were supporting the community groups supporting development. They found they even used the same typewriter. The activists then obtained over 100 notarized statements from members of the pro-development groups stating they had been tricked into joining. Davies halted the efforts to redevelop West Village. Davies resigned his post within a month and Felt resigned two years later.

Jacobs, in her writings, would argue that city planning was an impossible task. She argued that neighborhoods had their own structures that shouldn’t’ be changed by city planners.

City planner Edward Logue denounced Jacobs’s writing as “a plea for the status quo.” Roger Staff responded that “if Jacobs had visited Pompeii and concluded that nothing makes a city so beautiful as covering it with ashes.” Starr notes Jacobs’s vision would do little to prevent gentrification from driving low income people out of the neighborhoods.

Jacobs joined movement for historic preservation, including fighting tearing down Penn Station. Her writings are heralded by many libertarians.


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