Sunday, February 11, 2007

Moses revisionism, Jane Jacobs, the BQE, and the Promenade

Only after visiting all three exhibitions that are Robert Moses and the Modern City can you get a sense of the impact he had in more than three decades in power. Those bridges, parks, pools, and housing projects changed the city and region immensely, sometimes over several years and sometimes quite quickly. (One park was completed in less than two months!)

For generations whose views are shaped by Robert Caro's critical biography The Power Broker--a book much longer on prose than on photos--the exhibits offer some important additional perspective. And the revisionist take has gained ground. In the New York Times, architecture critic Nikolai Ouroussoff thinks that the exhibition produces a "nuanced portrait" and acknowledges Moses's defeats and bad ideas:
We can see the beauty in some of his projects without denying the destructiveness of others.

In the New Yorker, architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote:
But Moses’s surgery, while radical, may just possibly have saved New York. For every Moses project that ruined a neighborhood, as the Cross-Bronx Expressway did East Tremont, there are others, like the vast pool and play center in Astoria Park, Queens, or the Hamilton Fish Pool, on the Lower East Side, that became anchors of their neighborhoods and now are designated landmarks.

Revising the revisionists

Not everyone buys the revisionism. Indeed, journalist Alex Marshall, editor of the Regional Plan Association's "Spotlight on the Region," visited the Museum of the City of New York and wrote:
The exhibition as a whole is pitched as a reevaluation of Moses, which is certainly welcome. If the exhibition had a motto, it might be “He wasn’t all bad.” Which, of course, he wasn’t. Along with plowing down neighborhoods for freeways and soulless high rises, he also built some elegantly designed bridges and parkways, and hundreds of recreation centers and parks, including Riverside Park on the Upper West Side.

But the models on view at MCNY should serve to remind us that Moses’ transportation and related visions of housing and work were not just poorly or cruelly executed. They were fundamentally flawed, even on their own terms. If Moses had had his way, Manhattan would be crisscrossed with freeways and studded with new parking lots and garages. Which not only would have destroyed many people’s homes and businesses, it would have made the city less prosperous, and ultimately put less money in both private and public pocketbooks.

...[M]uch of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx... are still recovering from the damage Moses did. The boroughs are not only less hospitable because of the worst of Moses’ freeways; they are also less productive.

...Moses can’t be forgiven his intellectual errors by the observation that “everyone was doing it.” For one thing, everyone wasn’t. Lewis Mumford, who in the 1950s was a prominent and respected critic, laid out in painstaking fashion just exactly why plowing freeways into cities would not improve overall transportation, even while destroying so much of what was worthwhile in urban centers.
Secondly, Moses was not just part of the pack; he led the pack. Before World War II, the general plan was to put freeways beside major cities, not through them. Moses helped convince the federal government otherwise.


The Jane Jacobs medal

While the exhibition gives only some mention of community activist and self-taught urban theorist Jane Jacobs (and Caro's book, oddly enough, ignores her), Jacobs and her The Death and Life of Great American Cities have long been considered a Moses counterpoint.

Jacobs' emphasis on the fine-grained approach to development, however, was criticized by the Times's Ouroussoff last year, as precluding the major projects which the city needs. Still, planners generally pay obeisance to Jacobs' concern for neighborhoods.

And now, in a fortunately timed (though apparently unconnected) response to the Moses revisionism, the Rockefeller Foundation, which backed Jacobs' book, has announced the Jane Jacobs Medal, a major annual award:
to a person whose leadership...
* ...opens our eyes to new ways of seeing and understanding our city
* ...challenges traditional assumptions and conventional thinking
* ...generates a creative use of neighborhood knowledge to advance equity and diversity.
Through honoring those persons, both known and unknown, whose work implements Jacobsonian principles, the Rockefeller Foundation hopes to continue her legacy and make a contribution to the urban vitality of New York City.
The Jane Jacobs Medals, together with cash awards totaling $200,000, will be made annually. The Medal will be given to two persons whose accomplishments represent Jacobsonian principles and practices in action in New York City.


Looking at the Promenade

While I'm not equipped to offer definitive analyses of the Moses revisionism, on a granular level, I found myself wondering whether elements of the exhibition give Moses the benefit of the doubt. At the Queens Museum, a brief set of panels regarding the building of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway states:
The design incorporated innovative triple-decking of the roadways and the public esplanade in Brooklyn Heights, but the BQE also cut through Red Hook and Cobble Hill, demolishing blocks of historic residences...

(This also appears on p. 222 of the companion book.)

That shorthand description omits the furious battle fought to achieve the esplanade (aka Brooklyn Heights Promenade) against Moses's effort to direct the highway through the neighborhood rather than around its edge. As the Project for Public Spaces (source of the photo) explains:
In the mid 1940’s, Robert Moses and the New York City Planning Commission wanted to dissect the well-to-do neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights by putting up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway along Hicks Street. The Brooklyn Heights Association opposed the plan and won.

I don't know if other elements of the exhibition contain similar lapses. (Perhaps someone wants to "mad overkill" the exhibit?) But just as Moses deserves a revisionist look, that revisionism should not be taken as gospel.

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