Thursday, February 01, 2007

"Time to build again," as Moses controversy gets airing

“New York is in the biggest building boom since the heyday of Robert Moses,” as WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer put it on his show yesterday. One of the questions was whether Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff is today’s Robert Moses, given major projects like Shea Stadium, Atlantic Yards, and the construction of the Second Avenue subway.

Lehrer posed that to Majora Carter, founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, who observed that “everyone has a little bit of Moses in them…. But I do think it would be wise for the Bloomberg administration to pay a bit more attention to where people are coming from…. I think it would be great if we didn’t take that kind of Moses-like attitude any further than it’s already gone.”

Carter was speaking of her neighborhood, but some in Brooklyn faced with the Atlantic Yards project would have echoed her concerns. (The Moses comparison, of course, is hardly exact, since projects like Atlantic Yards would be built under state rather than city jurisdiction; then again, Doctoroff's claims that “We have really learned to listen very carefully” should be taken with a large grain of salt.)

Doctoroff was unable to appear on the program—he’ll be on a panel today sponsored by the Museum of the City of New York—which instead focused on the battle over Moses’s legacy. That legacy is the subject of three simultaneous exhibitions, including at the Queens Museum of Art and Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery, under the rubric, Robert Moses and the Modern City. (Companion volume above right.)

Given the run-up—the exclusion of Robert Caro, author of the epic Moses biography, The Power Broker, from the main panel and symposium—the discussion yesterday was notably decorous, despite some provocative points.

Caro lays it out

Caro led off solo, describing Moses’s path from an idealist building parks to a power-driven man who, in the process of huge urban renewal projects, “was ramming 13 expressways across the city, with no regard for community values, neighborhood values.”

Lehrer tried to provoke him, characterizing the new exhibition as arguing that Moses simply reflected a pro-car zeitgeist and saved New York from the fate of other northeastern and Midwestern cities. Caro, who emphasized to the New York Observer how Moses starved the subway and commuter railroads, instead said “it’s inevitable and desireable that major historical figures be reevaluated.”

Lehrer played a riveting audio clip of Moses, speaking in 1953 to the electrical workers’ union: “You’re never going to get unanimous approval of any of these projects….people who are being discommoded or inconvenienced or call it what you will. You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Caro reached back from some ammunition from his first book, the one before he immersed himself in the epic saga of Lyndon Jonson. He quoted the “great reformer and Manhattan Borough President Stanley Isaacs,” who, describing Moses’ displacement of some half a million people, said “He hounded them out like cattle.”

Caro noted that those displaced were supposed to “relocated humanely,” but Moses didn’t do so. He cited the building of a mile of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, in East Tremont, where “the community as a whole had its heart torn out.”

“You say, ‘Well he had to build the Cross Bronx Expressway,’” Caro continued. “But there was an alternate route, just two blocks away, that everyone was asking him to build.” Why not? It could have been consideration of Bronx politicians who didn’t want a particular company affected—or it could simply have been a bullheaded insistence on a straighter highway.

Lehrer played another Moses clip, from 1964: “The critics have an easy time broadcasting from their ivory towers, amplifying catcalls and Bronx cheers… they build nothing. … the eunuchs of our battered caravansary… as the quaint phrase goes, ‘Pay them no mind.’”

An enduring subtitle?

“Would you have had the city not build for the future?” Lehrer queried.

“Of course not,” Caro (right) responded. “The Power Broker does not say New York City would be a better or worse place…had Robert Moses never lived. It’s possible to say only that it would have been a very different city.”

That indeed reflects the book’s text, but not exactly the subtitle, which is “Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.” Was that subtitle, when the city was in shambles, more a marketing phrase than an enduring historical judgment?

Still up for historical debate is whether Moses did in fact prepare New York for its current—and unbalanced—resurgence. However, as Caro put it, “The shape of the city we live in is his, for better or worse.’

Remaking Moses?

Lehrer, welcoming exhibit curator Hilary Ballon and colleague Kenneth Jackson, both academics at Columbia, pointed out that the exhibition is called “Robert Moses and the Modern City.” Could it, he asked, be called “Remaking Robert Moses”?

“To a degree,” Ballon (left) responded diplomatically. “There are many points Mr. Caro touched on that we agree on entirely, the problems with clearance that Moses neglected. But looking back from 2007, one inevitably reinterprets a historical subject. The primary concern of our project was to understand how the city’s built environment had changed. The man having long been dead, we’re less aware of his obnoxious personality and practices, and more aware of the built structures that, as he said, we live in every day and shape our environment.”

Revising Caro?

Lehrer asked Jackson (left) if he set out to revise Caro’s view of Moses. Jackson, a historian whose essay in the companion volume to the exhibit does exactly that, instead said, “No, I don’t think we did” and noted that, given his regular assignment of The Power Broker in his courses, is probably responsible for selling more copies of the book than anyone else in the country.

Still, he asserted that, “from the perspective of the present, what needs to be understood about Robert Moses is not the fall of New York but rather the success of New York.” He cited the deterioration of many other cities that have lost population and, with the exception of Boston, have seen their public transit systems deteriorate.” He said that New York “has retained its neighborhood feel, it’s retained its public transit system… a public housing system that’s unmatched in the United States.”

And yet—questions not aired on the show--aren’t those systems woefully inadequate at this time? Where to place the blame for hundreds of thousands of people poorly housed? Did Moses’ unwillingness to allow rail to be built along the Long Island Expressway help starve Long Island from contributing to appropriate regional density?

Jackson added, “In our time we have to be impressed by the quality of what he built, the fact that he tended to build it on time and on budget, and they’re generally not falling down.”

The reference to the budget seemed a stretch, given the numerous index entries in The Power Broker under the rubric of “corruption and honest graft.”

As for the road construction, Jackson suggested that, “in a broad perspective, what’s important is how few roads were built in New York.” He even suggested that East Tremont, like other working-class Jewish neighborhoods in the Bronx at the end of the 1940s, would have disappeared. (True, but not so painfully.)

Long-term perspective

Lehrer tried to turn to the present, suggesting that the lessons from Moses will shape future development.

Ballon, an architectural historian, made an important point. “Though he may have well have abused the authority he had outside the democratic sphere, he could sustain long-term building projects,” she said, noting that the long-serving Moses “didn’t operate inside the short time-span of an election campaign or a politician’s career.”

She was specifically referring to infrastructure—which these days might mean a subway—rather than megaprojects, which themselves could take years. (Atlantic Yards is supposed to take a decade. Even some supporters concede it might take twice that.)

Clearing the slums

Lehrer played one more Moses clip from 1953: “If we don’t clean out these slums, the central areas are going to rot. And it’s all nonsense, for some of the people who are interested in this subject, and doubtless they’re sincere, to say that the problem can be solved by rehabilitating and fixing up, slicking up, old-law tenements, by repair jobs. Can’t be done. You’re simply pouring good money after bad. There are very few cases where genuine slums can be fixed up in any other way than by tearing them down entirely and rebuilding, on a smaller coverage, taller buildings, with light and air and modern conveniences. That problem we’ve got to face. I’m not disturbed myself about the movement into the outlying sections and into the suburbs, that was bound to happen and it isn’t unhealthy at all.”

Jackson, who hastened to note that he’s “a Jane Jacobs fan also, and I prefer the intimacy of a human scale small neighborhood to the tall buildings that Robert Moses tended to favor,” warned that “we shouldn’t romanticize a lot of the buildings that were torn down.”

Indeed, the old-law tenements that Moses cited were hardly commodious. However, a map on view at the Columbia segment of the exhibition, titled “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution,” suggests an astonishing ambition.

The map, from the late 1930s, purports to show deteriorated areas in the city. (It's not yet online, but I viewed the exhibition Tuesday night.) A large majority of Brownstone Brooklyn, sans Brooklyn Heights, is subsumed. Had the dictates of the map been fulfilled, the steady revival that led to numerous landmark districts would have been precluded.

Looking for a verdict

Jackson attempted to sum up. “I think we’ve been coasting for the last 35 years, or 45 years, since Robert Moses was in power, because of the roads he built and the infrastructure he built. And now it is time for us to begin to build again. On balance, he enabled us to rise again in the 1990s, let’s say. Another view, probably Mr. Caro would say, he may be right, would be that we’re just now overcoming the disabilities of Robert Moses. But did he make possible the renaissance of New York, as I believe, or are we finally getting over what Robert Moses built, and now we can kind of move forward? I think that’s a really important question, there’s no easy answer for it.”

Indeed.

From the SoBro

Carter (left) joined the conversation and offered something of a corrective. “The conflicts I think are the same as they were during Moses’ era, the fact that there is very little attention paid to where communities are on the ground,” she said.

Carter said that Moses had been more “master destroyer” than master builder, citing the enduring effects on the Bronx.

Ballon acknowledged that Moses ignored “collateral effects,” which was his “tragic feature…because he in fact had a holistic vision of the city.”

Carter said that Moses’s vision didn’t acknowledge the poor and people of color. Lehrer said that Jackson would acknowledge that while those things are true, Moses was good for the city in the long run.

Carter said that Moses gutted the subway system and built housing that didn’t necessarily support community life. “We’re making up for the mistakes he made because he wasn’t thinking truly holistically about this as a real region,” she said.

Ballon noted that the exhibit shows “how buildings and parks have been integrated into their neighborhoods,” how Moses-built swimming pools and playgrounds endure and serve the minorities he had no desire to help, and that Moses didn’t starve the subway since 90 percent of the road monies came from the federal government.

Another question

When it came time for listeners to call in, one pointed out that we’re lucky that Moses was stopped and we don’t have huge interstate highways cutting through Manhattan and Queens and Brooklyn.

Lehrer challenged that assumption, pointing out the difficulty in connecting through Manhattan. “Doesn’t New York suffer from no link between bridges and tunnels?” he asked.

Expect the debates to continue.

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