Monday, October 18, 2010

Moses Said Forget Walking Out of Egypt, Instead Build Lots of Highways

Roberta Brandes Gratz. The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. New York: Nation Books, 2010.

The argues that the construction projects led by New York planner Robert Moses, many of which was subsidized with Federal funds, served to diminish New York City to an economic low point. It was community activists, personified by Jane Jacobs, who fought these projects and solidified their neighborhoods. It was the movement towards neighborhood preservation that turned around and helped improve New York City.

The authors’ home and her father’s business were destroyed and replaced by a Moses project. She experienced the dislocation many others felt. She notes Moses and Jacobs had contrary philosophies on urban issues. Moses saw the city as something that had to be reshaped by government. Jacobs believed cities could be vital on their own without government control.

Moses followed the then current urbanism ideas of Le Corbusier, who proposed modern high rise buildings taking the place of older, historic buildings. Jacobs argued that cities should have a “mix use” of residential, industrial, educational, and play areas.

Moses emerged during the World War II era where expert planning on a large scale was seen as the best way government should operate. New ideologies emerged in the 1950s. Lewis Mumford and William Whyte questioned the emphasis on planning to accommodate automobile use that was prevalent in the large scale government plans. Charles Adams noted the racially discriminatory effects of slum removal. Herbert Gans noted how people value neighborhood cohesiveness. Paul Davidoff urged planners to listen to public input.

The author notes New York’s current decision makers have not learned the lessons Jane Jacobs taught. The Atlantic Yards construction destroyed a Brooklyn neighborhood. Columbia University displaced 400 families and 1,600 people in its expansion into Harlem that could have been built elsewhere. The Willets Point project in Queens used eminent domain at great cost and gave the land with tax breaks and government incentives to private developers.

The author believes that individuals using local knowledge have been keeping neighborhoods vibrant. She notes where this has happened in Red Hook in Brooklyn and in the South Bronx. The development in the Bronx, incidentally, is happening where Robert Moses and Housing Commissioner Roger Starr previously wanted torn down, believing development would never otherwise happen there.

Positive signs the author notes include Mayor Bloomberg’s solid waste management program which shifted transporting waste from truck to rail, thus significantly reducing vehicular traffic; the 1,500 job expansion at the Brooklyn Navy Yard due to rezoning and attracting light industry; and the $2 billion over a decade Parks Department build and repair capital program.

The urban policies of the Moses era was part of a problem found nationwide. St. Louis destroyed its waterfront and hurt its local economy in building the Saarien Arch. Chicago destroyed neighborhoods to build high rise public housing that failed to provide economic improvement. Pittsburgh removed many African Americans from its Hill District and then left much of this area vacant for decades. Los Angeles destroyed its Bunker Hill downtown economy. Miami built a highway that destroyed its mostly African American Overton neighborhood. Buffalo destroyed its west end. These patterns were repeated in numerous other cities.

The SoHo neighborhood that Moses wanted to destroy became a leading arts district. People moved into SoHo beginning in the 1970s with the rise of “urban pioneers”. An influx of immigrants, many from India, China, and Korea, bought and renovated urban dwellings.

In 1977, New York had 20,000 abandoned buildings. Neighborhood groups, with the encouragement of Mayor John Lindsay, took many of these buildings and revitalized them. The historic preservation movement gained strength, which turned the focus on saving old buildings rather than tearing them down. The projects of Moses included some scandal. The press found instances of the city selling land at reduced prices to developers who failed to make promised repairs while collecting rents.

New York created a historic preservation law. Its opposition diminished by a weakened law that allowed designations to be made only during six month periods every three years. 360 landmarks were designated in the first ten years, which critics noted and developed applauded as being fewer than originally expected. The law was changed in 1974, yet the Commission that designated landmarks was slow to use its new abilities to make new designations. Eventually, such sites as Radio City Music Hall and Tweed Courthouse were saved from threatened developments.

The fight against Moses’s plan to tear down parts of Lower Manhattan and the fight to ban vehicular traffic near Washington Square upset Moses. Moses saw Washington Square as the site of a ramp for his proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Moses claimed that failing to build this would create higher traffic jams. Groups opposing Moses claimed that was a tactic Moses was using to divide local residents. They stated Moses failed to grasp that building more roads encourages more vehicle traffic. A study showed a 10% increase in road capacity creates a 9% traffic volume increase in five years.

The Mitchell-Lama Law, passed in1 955, gave landlords low loans and tax breaks for keeping rents low for low income and middle income renters. These landlords could end their reduced rents by paying off mortgages and other debts after 20 years. Many of these rented units have switched to higher market rates. The number of Mitchell-Lama rented units decreased from 67,000 in 1990 to 44,000 in 2005.

The author notes it is counterproductive to declare an area as blighted where people and businesses exist. That mere designation is an economic death sentence that dissuades current occupants from making any improvements and upkeep.

The author argues Moses was a racist. His first major project, Jones Beach, was deliberately designed with an overpass that kept out city buses. It was accessible to people in the 1920s who had cars. Moses then had 658 playgrounds constructed, but only one of these was in predominately African American Harlem and none in predominately African American Bedford Stuyvesant. Other construction projects consistently ignored benefiting communities where racial minorities were dominant in population.

Moses helped middle class communities, but only those with large car ownership. Moses saw vehicular traffic as an important part of city life. Moses believed roads should go through cities rather than going around them. This made it more difficult to encourage residents to use mass transit alternatives. The legacy of Moses left behind includes the Cross Bronx Expressway, which dislocated 60,000 with three months notice, which today has several of largest traffic bottlenecks found in America.

Moses created the idea of a public agency that operated separately from other government control that could meet in secret and had bond issuing authority. He made his own agency rules. He would threaten to resign when he wasn’t getting his way. No Governor until Nelson Rockefeller dared to not cave in to Moses.

Moses used Red baiting tactics against opponents. He was found to have falsely accused several critics of being Communists, calling them “Pinkos” or “Planning Reds”.

The slum removal programs of Moses have left New York City with crumbling housing for the city’s poor. The poor are often relocated into neighborhoods that deteriorate. Many of these new homes are again sold at below cost to a developer which causes more relocation of more people and the destruction of any neighborhood cohesiveness.

New York will probably not return to being an industrial city, the author argues. Yet it may find economic growth in entrepreneurial endeavors. The city provides incentives to industries to locate in special business zones, yet these zones allow hotels and big box retail stores that drive up real estate values such that industries have trouble affording to remain in the zone.

Big box stores receive sales from customers yet these funds go to an international corporation and are not re-spent in the local community. Cities should encourage more local retain stores.

The debate between building more highways versus improving mass transit continues. Community activists helped defeat a proposed Westway highway. Many past issues remain the same.


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