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