Saturday, November 18, 2006

Gargano, Schumer, and Robert Moses on the march of progress, now and then

The rhetoric of progress is part of any development debate, now and then.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), last month told the PBS program New York Voices that Atlantic Yards was inevitable:
Look, all of these things, we cannot stop progress, stop development. I think what we have to do is to make sure we go through the proper process to assess everything, from an environmental point of view, from a traffic point of view, from every aspect of it-which we are doing. That's the important thing. It doesn't matter whether it is two buildings or 10 buildings. There's always going to be more buildings built in New York City. Thank God.

It echoed what Senator Chuck Schumer said in May:
"[Borough President] Marty [Markowitz] is taking it on the chin," sympathized Schumer, "from what I call the culture of inertia, this small group of self-appointed people. If we do not grow, we will die."

Community Planner Ron Shiffman believes we must "grow or die," but it has to be done right. However, there are always pressures to accept the project that's been proposed rather than a different one produced by a more democratic process. That's true with Atlantic Yards, and it was trebly true in the era of Robert Moses.

From The Power Broker

In his 1974 biography The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Caro offers an account (p. 748-49) that seems apt today:
There was, of course, a price on the package: if you wanted it, you had to take it as is. You couldn’t ask for alterations. The borough president knew his borough better than did Moses or Moses’s engineers. He knew its people, and where they went to shop, and to worship, and to play and walk in the evenings. He knew the communities in which they lived. Therefore he might know that putting a highway where Moses wanted it would isolate a neighborhood from its shopping area or its churches, while a route just two blocks away would neatly divide two neighborhoods, which had little social intercourse anyhow.


Moses didn’t know—and he didn’t care to learn. He would not even discuss such considerations. He would allow no analysis of community feelings, or planning considerations—no discussion of alternate routes based on such considerations. Moreover, there could be no discussion—although the Board of Estimate on which the borough president sat was the key body in which such discussion was supposed to take place—of the worth of the citywide program as a whole or of whether your borough might not need other projects—schools, perhaps, or babies’ health clinics, or neighborhood public libraries—and whether those should not be built first.

What happened when a borough president sought to raise such considerations is described by an official who spent many years working for one who occasionally did. “All Moses had to do was push a button and the phone calls and telegrams would pour in: You were holding up work, you were holding up progress. ‘We need jobs—do you have any other jobs to offers us? Have you got a better idea for solving the transportation problem? Where is the money gonna come from? You’re holding up progress.’ Let me tell you—until you’ve sat on the other end of those phone calls for a while, you have no idea how hard it is to stand in the way of ‘progress.’”

(Emphasis added)

The situation, of course, has become more democratic today, given that most land use policies emerge from the elected City Council. However, the unelected ESDC is set up to cut through "red tape" and prioritize Moses-style "progress" over the post-Moses "process" reforms.

1 comment:

  1. When it comes to building large projects in New York City, the "democratic process" is nothing more than "paralysis by analysis."

    NYC, and expecially Brooklyn, has more under-utilized and poorly utilized real estate than any other city in the country.

    What did Brooklyn receive in place of Ebbet's Field? Instead of a new ball-park in Brooklyn for the team that is now almost as valuable as the Yankees, Brooklyn got Ebbet's Field Housing Project, a housing site filled with residents who depend on government -- taxpayer -- subsidies for their existence.

    If there was ever a losing proposition, it was that one. The neighborhood around the old ballfield is rather grim, though it has finally shown some improvement, partly due to the expansion of Medgar Evers college, another taxpayer-funded institution.

    ReplyDelete