Issue #6, Fall 2007

Power Broken

To build great cities, we need more citizen input - not another Robert Moses.

Robert Moses and the Modern City By Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson • W.W. Norton • 2007 • 304 pages • $50

Robert Caro’s The Power Broker may be the most-read 1,000-page-plus non-fiction book in recent memory. It is studied by city planners, developers, government officials, activists, and informed citizens everywhere. Published in 1974 on the eve of New York’s near-bankruptcy and reflecting new ideas about what makes a livable city, the book squarely blamed New York redevelopment czar Robert Moses for the Big Apple’s despair (hence its subtitle: “Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”). And because Moses was the dominant city builder of the era–not only in New York, but nationally–Caro’s compelling narrative spoke to the nationwide worry about urban decline. Today, New York is booming, and, unsurprisingly, Caro’s harsh assessment of Moses’s legacy is under attack.

This revisionism was on display earlier this year at “Robert Moses and the Modern City,” a three-museum exhibit organized by the architectural historian Hilary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson, a historian widely known as the editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City. In the exhibit and accompanying book, the organizers insist on two propositions that are slightly at odds with each other. First, they argue that Moses laid the foundation for the recent resurgence of New York. Second, they contend that since his fall and the accompanying backlash against his tactics, urban progress in New York and cities across the nation has been stalled by an excess of citizen participation. This made the ensuing debate that ran across the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, and other publications more than a disagreement about history. Rather, it cut to the core of the question facing all cities today: Can democracies build? Or is the process of gaining citizen engagement preventing great projects from being carried through?

With large urban renewal agendas on the minds of mayors and developers nationwide, the discussion of Moses is timely, for it may help us clarify just what kind of democratic participation, transparency, and public accountability we need today. But what we need is not an embrace of the undemocratic and often damaging methods of Moses, but a careful rethinking of the forms of citizenship participation there should be in the development process.

Oddly, for all its revisionist claims, the basic narrative of the recent Moses exhibit is roughly compatible with Caro’s gothamized Greek tragedy. The seven well-illustrated pages of the tabloid-size newsprint guide to the exhibits repeat the usual story of Moses’ rise and precipitous fall: the much-admired early beaches, pools, and parks; then the arterial city of roads and bridges; concluding with the controversy surrounding Moses’ slum clearance and urban renewal efforts. The chapters in the accompanying catalogue, by various authors, are well worth reading, but rather than changing the narrative, their new research fills in and deepens it. They do not clearly support either the long-accepted or the revisionist judgment.

In other words, the difference between Caro’s book and the exhibit is not the evidence, or even the story told. Rather it is in the way the organizers have spun it for the press and in Jackson’s provocative four-page chapter in the catalogue, where he argues that cities all over the Northeast and Midwest declined for long-term economic and social reasons, and thus no one is really to blame for the “fall” of the American city. Indeed, Moses shared the urban vision of his counterparts in other cities, and they all had the special resources provided first by the New Deal and then the postwar funding of urban renewal. Caro, according to Jackson, thus exaggerated Moses’s importance: “He [Moses] was simply swimming with the tide of history.” Yet without him the city “would have lacked the wherewithal” to meet the challenge of modern urbanism. He was a “public servant in the best sense of the term,” even if he did not “build what we would have wanted,” and “did not listen to critics or to residents about to lose their homes.” Thus the indispensability of Moses.

However, the claim that Moses’ work is the foundation for the city’s revival after 1975 cannot be proven by empirical evidence. Are the Moses projects the basis for the city’s recent flourishing? To some extent, of course, yes, the parks, bridges, freeways, and parkways are important building blocks for metropolitan New York. But the immediate engine of change in New York since 1975 was not anything that can be associated with Moses. In my view, it was the massive rehabilitation of the subway system under the strong but not dictatorial leadership of Richard Ravitch, and the political development of zoning regulations and city ordinances that allowed and promoted the conversion of old factory buildings, in places like SoHo, for residence. The latter not only reinvigorated a de-industrializing New York but also transformed the meaning of urban living around the world, making loft living a real estate slogan and a marker of contemporary urbanity. Both mass transit and those old buildings were, of course, objects of Moses’ scorn.

The final major theme shared by the revisionists is the belief that twenty-first-century city-making requires a strong hand. Phillip Lopate, in his 2002 Metropolis essay that kicked off the Moses revisionism, writes that listening to architects express their longing for a new Moses made him question the common view that he “ruined or tried to ruin New York.” The more Lopate “witnessed New York City’s paralysis in tackling any new public works or large civic improvements,” the more he came think the “old guy” had been mishandled by history. Ballon and Jackson take the same position. For them, Moses represents “effectiveness within a system of constraints.” The citizen defeat of Westway in 1985, a federally funded project to replace the West Side Highway, they claim, was the symptom of a disease that could be cured by a new Moses.

Even a casual survey of development projects since the 1980s, whatever their merits, rebuts the supposition of urban paralysis. Whether one likes the Times Square redevelopment or not, it was a massive transformation in the heart of the city begun and carried out in the 1980s, as was Battery Park City along Manhattan’s southern tip. And certainly Donald Trump’s pharonic Riverside South along the Hudson matches anything Moses did–though it did not require displacing people. Today, the recently approved Atlantic Yards project, a huge mixed-use development in central Brooklyn including an arena for professional basketball, proceeds, after a great deal of public discussion and review (albeit a controversial one) by government bureaucracies. After the political defeat of an ill-conceived plan for a professional football stadium in the Hudson Yards on the west side of Manhattan, a far better plan for mixed development there is moving forward. Westway and the stadium failed because they both proposed to hand valuable waterfront land over to private development that would be oriented to elite city and suburban users; citizen activism and political institutions contributed to an improved, if not perfect, result in both instances.

While czarists fear that development is blocked by democracy, it’s hard to find city officials–i.e., the people overseeing the development–who agree. When Daniel Doctoroff, the deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding who carries a large portfolio and possesses enough power to make community groups nervous, was asked by the New York Observer to compare development today with that of Moses, he said the difference was the “need for community input”–which he had no problem with, saying he could “go through a list of 25 or 30” projects, “not just in Manhattan, but in all five boroughs” currently under way.

Ballon and Jackson rightly insist that the top-down urban development of the postwar years was a national and not just New York phenomenon. But so too do the post-Moses redevelopment patterns of New York–adaptive re-use of older buildings, mass transit improvements, and large public-private partnered development–characterize lively development agendas nationwide. No czar seems necessary. In-town baseball stadiums have been built in Baltimore and San Francisco. In San Francisco, the stadium and a commuter train connection now form the southern anchor of massive redevelopment–partly new, partly reuse of old buildings. Los Angeles has focused on enhancing the “center,” including the cultural district emerging around Frank Gehry’s new Disney Concert Hall, while Gehry contributed as well to Chicago’s spectacularly popular Millennium Park. In a quite different key, Chicago is undertaking a massive transformation of publicly assisted housing, tearing down Moses-era towers in favor of smaller, dispersed housing projects. Voters in many cities, including unlikely ones like Denver and San Jose, have endorsed light rail systems. Or consider Phoenix, where an environmentally sensitive downtown redevelopment project, centered on a museum, public library, and court house, is part of a regional Public Art Master Plan. However one judges any of these projects, urban paralysis is not the issue.

Nevertheless, some of the city’s–indeed, the country’s–most influential voices on city planning and architecture have come out in favor of “neo-Mosesism.” Writing in the New Yorker, architectural critic Paul Goldberger notes that Moses’s megalomania cannot be wholly excused by his time, but he nonetheless writes that “Moses’s surgery, while radical, may just possibly have saved New York.” Accepting the logic of the exhibit, he embraces power over democracy:

In an era when almost any project can be held up for years by public hearings and reviews by community boards, community groups, civic groups, and planning commissions, not to mention the courts, it is hard not to feel a certain nostalgic tug for Moses’s method of building by decree. It may not have been democratic, or even right. Still, somebody has to look at the big picture and make decisions for the greater good.

Not everyone agrees with Goldberger. Wall Street Journal critic Ada Louise Huxtable more forcibly rejected the historical context argument: “The fact that the gross misjudgments of his later years became apparent to many others, but not to him, as ideas about cities and planning changed, makes this a troubling rationale.” The rhetoric of the exhibit made Huxtable uneasy; the powerful images upstage “the mute testimony of old letters and news clips protesting wholesale demolition of homes and businesses.” She also worried that “the carefully inclusive narrative tells it all in safely worded labels that neutralize outrage.” In this context, a statement by Ballon in an interview with the New York Times is very unsettling. Speaking of the exploitation that went into the making of the Taj Mahal and generalizing from it, she observed, “My hunch is that the more we distance ourselves, we will forget the costs.” While revision is part of the normal work of history, preventing just that kind of forgetting is one of history’s highest callings.

Of course, the issue here is neither Moses nor what killed Westway; it is democracy. How accountable should the development process be to the affected community? What kinds of institutions and policies will secure that accountability? Where should we strike the balance between expertise and democracy? And how do we calculate the relative importance and collective costs of each?

Contrary to what the revisionists argue, participatory agenda-setting can work in a city of millions, and in its rather awkward way it already has. It stopped Westway and the stadium, and some years ago in San Francisco public opposition forced the dismantling of a half-finished freeway, making possible the Embarcadero development. The problem is not the capacity of the public to think about urban issues, but rather the absence of appropriate rules and institutions. As a result, citizens have turned to historical preservation commissions and environmental impact regulations to stop development. Neither is a city-making tool, and their scattershot deployment has produced some very odd reasoning and oddly justified results. A scarce and tiny fish in the Hudson River can stop a highway, and a building of neither historical nor architectural interest is brought forward to stop a building project. It is absurd, but until there is a rethinking of just how democracy can have an effective voice, such strategies will be deployed.

Instead of talking about a new construction czar for cities, we should be talking about democratic institutions for managing current and future development. We need deliberative planning tools that work better than the grab-bag of clumsy mechanisms for public participation we have now, which are rightly resented by developers and neighborhoods, if for different reasons. Transparency and responsibility–with respect to public financing in its various forms–are fundamental. Representative institutions also are necessary, ones that organize dialogue at the different scales of the neighborhood, the borough, the city, and perhaps even the region. City planning should understand itself as, ultimately, the work of city-making rather than simply the agency of growth and development. The mechanisms of citizen empowerment must be clearly defined, and that power must be appropriate to the role envisioned.

Issue #6, Fall 2007
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"Listening to the City" -- infomercial instead of democractic forum:

While this review of the series of Robert Moses exhibits makes some very good points (eventually I hope to write an article discussing some of the important points that have been overlooked, even by this article), I think the "Listening to the City" movement is actually a terrible threat to the democratic process rather than a useful alternative. (It is something that Robert Moses would likely have put together if he had had the technology in his day.)

Here is a brief analysis of "Listening to the City" that I just posted on the "Atlantic Yards Report" website (which is where I heard about this (i.e., Democracy Journal's) review of the Robert Moses exhibits. (It's been lightly re-edited to correct spelling errors, etc. and to make it understandable to someone not familiar with the Atlantic Yards Report website.)

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I've been reading -- AND GREATLY ADMIRING -- your [The Atlantic Yards Report] blog on and off for the past year or so. However, I think your admiration for "Listening to the City" -- both the event itself AND the basic concept -- is greatly misplaced. I say this as someone who actually participated in the main "Listening to the City" event at the Javits Center and as someone who was also involved in a community based advocacy group that helped defeat the tunneling of West St. (An idea that seemed to be, at least initially, popular with some of the sponsoring organizations of this event.)

Not only did this particular manifestation of the "Listening to the City" process exhibit serious problems with respect to fairness and scientific methodology, but the BASIC PROCESS itself is shockingly biased and unscientific.

Unfortunately I don't have the time at the moment to describe the problems with "Listening to the City" in detail. However, someday soon I hope to finally get a chance to put together a detailed critique of it -- something with a title like, "Listening to the City: New 21st Century Public Hearing -- or Infomercial?" (-- or High Tech Mob Rule?) (-- or Kangaroo Court?) A few months ago, you [at Norman Oder, at Atlantic Yards Report] very nicely dissected a pro-Ratner development "poll" by someone at, I believe, "Crain's New York Business." When I read news accounts of this poll and then read your analysis, I was reminded of "Listening to the City" (the similarities being that they are both "junk" science that was used for propaganda purposes), and I had meant to write to you to both congratulate you on your post and to mention that I someday hoped to do a similar kind of analysis of "Listening to the City."

Here is a very brief sketch of some of the things that were wrong with this supposed "21st Century Town Hall":

1) While the body of participants may have exhibited some demographic diversity, basically the participants all heard about the event through, or were specifically invited by, the sponsoring organizations (who happened to have had their own particular agendas regarding the rebuilding). So while the event may generally have mimicked a cross section of the population, the actual thoughts and biases held by the participants weren't necessarily reflective of the population at large (which would be the case if the people had been randomly selected). It's like having a Republican or Democratic party political convention with a demographically diverse group of Democrats or Republicans. Such demographically diverse political conventions don't mean that the opinions of the opposing political party are going to be heard at either of the conventions.

2) The approximately 4,500 or so people were divided up into something like 450 tables of 10 people each. That means that for any issue to be effectively discussed, with participants hearing useful information from both a pro and a con side, there would have to be at least 500 people for EACH POSITION on EACH ISSUE -- precisely evenly divided among all the tables (i.e., with at least one person for each viewpoint on each issue being assigned to each and every table). (It is highly unlikely that any issue, let alone most of them, really had knowledgeable and articulate spokespeople, both pro and con, at more than a handful of tables. So the only information that people had to go on were their own pre-existing knowledge and biases that they brought to the meeting -- and the subtly biases handouts and statements put together by the sponsoring organizations.)

3) Participants at the tables were asked -- sometimes almost coerced -- to speak out on an issue, whether or not they wanted, whether or not they had any relevant knowledge to contribute.

4) Each table voted on an issue (brought up by the moderator) and then submitted a "filtered" GROUP opinion (via one person at each table who was assigned to be the typist) to a central communication center. These responses were then FILTERED by a group of volunteers (perhaps sharing the same general viewpoint of the organizing groups from whom many found out about the event?) manning computers at the main communications center, WHO THEN CHOSE WHICH RESPONSES TO PASS ON TO THE MAIN FLOOR. (These responses were used to formulate the questions that would be asked of the group later in the day.)

5) The questions that were asked later (for these questions participants had individual keypads) were shockingly biased! For instance, some questions (that were often leading questions to begin with) didn't even allow for participants to cast a truly negative response!

For example, there was actually no way for someone to disagree with the idea of a putting West Street into a tunnel (an idea that, at the time, was accepted as the "conventional wisdom" by many, including, so it seems, a number of the sponsoring organizations who quietly touted the idea in the ONLY information material that was handed out to participants).

Basically the question that was asked regarding the tunneling issue was, "How important is it to create a better connection between Battery Park City and the rest of Lower Manhattan?: a) Very important; b) Somewhat important; c)important; d) not important." Nowhere were people given the opportunity to actually say that they believed there were better ways to accomplish this "Mom and apple pie" goal. (Anyone vehemently against the tunnel had to ask themselves, "Of course a better connection is important, but how do I express a negative vote against the tunnel option?")

While it may be obvious that this question wasn't actually about a tunnel per se, this question was nevertheless interpreted as one, I believe, by the Listening to the City people, the supporters of the tunnel and the public at large (who weren't really aware of either the "Listening to the City" set-up, the wording of the question or the wording of the possible responses).

One reason I don't have time to go into more detail, by the way, is that I'm trying right now to put together a critique of that Robert Moses exhibition (yeah, I know that was a while ago), and I also hope to write something about the Jane Jacobs exhibit and programs that are coming up. (I'm not sure yet if I will be able to make the program that you [Norman Oder, of Atlantic Yards Report] are participating in, though.)

Speaking of Jane Jacobs:

1)Despite what people seem to think, Jane Jacobs was quoted in an interview in the "New Yorker" (I believe this was the publication, I don't have the article handy at the moment) as NOT being in favor of putting Greenwich St. through the World Trade Center site. Putting Greenwich St. through the site is mindless, auto-pilot thinking on the part of some of her supporters, so it seems to me. (Think for a moment, if the terrorists had hit the Pan Am Building instead of the World Trade Center and Grand Central Terminal had been leveled, would it really be a good idea to push 43rd St., 44th St. and Park Avenue through the site? While the WTC was not, obviously, GCT, there are times and circumstances, nevertheless, when it is NOT a good idea to put streets through a superblock, and given the unusual topography (similar to that of GCT, by the way) and the unique programmatic requirements of the site, the WTC situation was one of them.

Plus, by the way, Jane Jacobs also fought for the removal of Fifth Avenue through the Washington Square Park "superblock" and greatly admired the siting of the New York Public Library on the Bryant Park "superblock." Sometimes it makes sense to leave streets out, and the WTC site is one very rare instance of one of them.

2) I think Jane Jacobs would have been just LIVID and popped a gasket if she had participated in this event (especially if she were a resident of Battery Park City). By the way, the participants at "Listening to the City" were from all over the nation and the world, and even many New Yorkers participating had never actually crossed West St. to get to Battery Park City -- so, so much for the idea of an event like "Listening to the City" honoring the importance of local knowledge!)

Since I don't have the time to dig up my notes on the event and to write in more detail about it, you may want to check-out Philip Nobel's book, "Sixteen Acres" for a further description of the event. Philip Nobel --I assume you know who he is, but if not he is an architect, I believe, and a frequent contributor to publications like "Metropolis" -- has a much more jaundiced view of the event and even describes an outburst of frustration on the part of the urban designer, Michael Sorkin. The name, "Listening to the City," is not listed in the index to his book, but the name of the moderator of the event, Carolyn Lukenmeyer [?] (or something like that) is listed in the index instead. (Unfortunately, even Philip Nobel seems to have missed out, however, on some of the worst features of "Listening to the City.")

P.S. -- I once spoke to Paul Goldberger during a "question and answer" period after a talk that he gave. He mentioned that although he observed "Listening to the City," he didn't actually participate in it. That, along with the fact that he appears to be sympathetic to much of the same agenda as the sponsoring organizations, seems to explain to me why he doesn't seem to see the glaring problems with its methodology. (But if the shoe was on the other foot, if this event was about Atlantic Yards, for instance, and it was sponsored by the various pro-Ratner "community" organizations and civic groups, and they were just as insensitive to dissenting viewpoints, I think Goldberger (assuming he disfavors the Ratner plan) would be much more aware of how bad the "Listening to the City" approach to a "public hearing" is.

In my opinion, a straight-forward public hearing -- where people are at least more aware of hidden agendas and BOTH the pro and con sides of a controversy can actually be heard by ALL -- is much preferable to the misleading, faux democracy of "Listening to the City."

Norman Oder's response to Benjamin Hemric's post:

Thanks for that thoughtful response. My knowledge of "Listening to the City" is all secondhand, so it's quite possible that closer observation would have led me to greater skepticism. (I read Nobel's book a while back but don't own it, so Goldberger's account was closer at hand. I could've done more research, that's for sure.)

I don't so much admire "Listening to the City" as see it as a another "what if" regarding the Atlantic Yards project. The one Atlantic Yards public hearing, which was followed by two less-attended "community forums" (in form virtually the same), certainly allowed all sides to speak, but there was not a lot of listening going on. Apparently we should be thinking about a third way.

Benjamin Hemric's second post:

I agree that public hearings suffer from the fact that public officials, even those present at the event, often turn a "deaf ear," as Jane Jacobs has said, to the proceedings. This was certainly true at the WTC rebuilding hearings. It was pretty obvious that the public officials had already made up their minds and were just letting the public talk.

What, however, is a possible "third way"? In my opinion, one approach worth looking into is the good old-fashioned public debate where you have a knowledgeable, articulate person (or persons) on one side of the issue debating with a knowledgeable, articulate person (or persons) on the other side of the issue. This way, both sides can present the facts, the argumentation, the slide illustrations, etc. supporting their own side and each will have such arguments, etc. knowledgeably challenged by the other side. (In a sense, such a debate is like a "trial" of the issue in the "court of public opinion.")

Of course it might be difficult putting together such a debate, especially for small local issues. But both the Atlantic Yards controversy and the WTC Rebuilding have, so it seems to me, a sufficient degree of public interest to warrant such a debate format.

Given the enormous amount of interest in the WTC rebuilding, I was actually hoping (and made the suggestion via letter to members of the board of directors of the LMDC) that Public Television sponsor a series of debates on the various issues (e.g., a debate on putting vehicular streets through the site; a debate on rebuilding the entire square footage of the complex, etc.).

Another instance where I think such a debate, or series of debates, could be helpful is in the discussion about the expansion of the Javits Center. The Municipal Art Society, among other organizations, supports a totally different kind of expansion of the Javits Convention Center than what New York State is planning. When I first heard in the newspapers about the MAS's position, it didn't make much sense to me. (It wasn't even clear to me, someone with a degree in urban planning, what they were actually suggesting in the first place.) But with a great deal of effort on my part, I was able to find a website (sponsored by a division of Baruch College) where the MAS's alternative plan was laid out in a detailed way. I was very impressed!

Now when you think about how influential the MAS is (and how influential its partners in this plan also are) and how little of their plan actually made it into the news media (so that even someone like myself, who's very interested in the issue, had a great deal of difficulty finding out what exactly the two positions were), you can see, I think, how useful a public debate format (especially one that is televised and recorded on tape) can be.

Sep 19, 2007, 10:30 AM

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