What’s to Reconsider?

Robert Moses’ legacy is highly overrated. If he hadn’t had FDR priming the pump with money, little that he did would have gotten done. And while Moses was pouring cement for highways, plenty of people elsewhere were building public buildings and other essential projects. WPA money flowed into socially useful projects of immense variety, such as schools, day care centers, hospitals, clinics, colleges, firehouses, police stations, libraries, and markets.



historian, director, Gotham Center for

New York City History

Routine, ruthless, wasteful, oversimplified solutions for all manner of city physical needs (let alone social and economic needs) have to be devised by administrative systems which have lost the power to comprehend, to handle and to value an infinity of vital, unique, intricate and interlocked details.



The Death and Life of Great American Cities

A growing kind of revisionism is apparent today, championed by some planners, developers, architects, historians, critics, and politicians who wish for a new Robert Moses “who could get things done in New York.” The crescendo of this call rises to its greatest pitch when a coalition of citizen and issue-based groups vigorously oppose or manage to delay some megascheme. Sometimes, in all seriousness, this suggestion comes with the caveat that this should be a “modified Robert Moses,” a little gentler, more benign, somewhat humane, and, even, with a dose of Jane Jacobs thrown in. This is a hilarious oxymoron. The assumption that the audacity of a Moses can be tempered by a dose of Jacobs is erroneous to the core. The writings and advocacy of Jacobs make this clear. Occasionally, a wishful speaker wants to demonstrate fairness to both Moses and Jacobs or to pick and choose from each. Not possible. This is an either-or, black-or-white condition.

No matter that in his early good government career Moses was a legitimate reformer, no matter how noble one thinks Moses was because he amassed only unbridled power and not bags of money for himself, no matter how wonderful one might judge Moses’s parks, he was probably the most undemocratic, arrogant, ruthless, and racist unelected government official of the twentieth century.1 One can’t separate the man, his methods, and his monuments. This is a leopard with immovable spots.

His most contemptuous quotes are the stuff of legend: “When you operate in an overbuilt [emphasis added] metropolis, you have to hack your way through with a meat ax.” Overbuilt? Back then? If overbuilt then, what would he say now? And: “To make an omelet, you have to break an egg.” And: “If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?” And, “Cities are made by and for traffic.”

Take him in all his autocratic glory or reject him entirely. No in between is possible. Trying to blend Moses and Jacobs is like trying to push together the old black-and-white Scottie dog magnets: the harder you push, the more resistance you feel.


Some of the exuberant praise for Moses’s parks is even questionable, such as all the green grass around public housing—a legacy of the tower-in-the-park plan with the ubiquitous little black sign with white letters, “Keep Off the Grass.” The same was true in city parks. I remember as a child occasionally ignoring that prohibition in Washington Square Park and getting summoned off the green by some park official. Since then, some of the unused grass areas around public housing have been converted to parking lots or play areas. Some have just been left as fenced-in grass.2

In the early 1960s, Central Park was under assault by Moses, notes Anthony C. Wood in Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect the City’s Landmarks. Robert Moses was pushing to let Huntington Hartford build a thousand-seat, two-story café, designed by Edward Durrell Stone, in the southeast corner of the park across from the Plaza Hotel. Only fierce citizen opposition stopped this plan. And, of course, there was the Tavern-on-the-Green episode related earlier in this book.

Landscape historian Betsy Barlow Rogers, who led the monumental restoration of Central Park starting in 1975, wrote in detail how Moses ignored the purpose and design of the park as a masterpiece of scenic, passive recreation to impose his notion of a site for monuments, active play facilities, and increased automobile convenience.3 While accepting some of his encroachments as worthy, Rogers notes that Moses created the twenty-two fenced-off playgrounds around the perimeter of the park “to preserve the surrounding scenery. To further discourage romping on the grass, he encircled lawns with pipe rail fencing, posted ‘Keep Off the Grass’ signs, and made infractions of this rule punishable by fine.”4 He should see the throngs sitting or playing on that grass today.

Moses must be turning over in his grave looking at Bryant Park, with all the countless people every day sitting on movable chairs or on the grass itself.5 It was his rendition of that park as a walled-off sanctuary in the 1930s that made it so hospitable for drug users but hostile for everyone else. The current redesign, based on principles of sociologist and author Willian H. Whyte, returned the park to daily users by the thousands when it reopened in 1992.

And Jones Beach? A masterpiece started in the 1920s with state bonding funds and continued during the Depression when the federal government thought it good policy to put people to work on great public works around the country. Building a public amenity with public funds was still an accepted notion. Most surviving Works Progress Administration projects built everywhere in the country still have similar enormous appeal.

But as beautiful as it is, Jones Beach purposely excluded the poor. Moses engineered the Southern State Parkway and other roadways leading to it so that the overpasses were built too low for public buses to drive under. Moses’s key staff person revealed this to Robert Caro. Some of those bridges have since been rebuilt with higher vehicular headroom. But, for the most part, buses still can’t get through them with ease, according to Department of Transportation officials. Buses could fit under part of some of them but not entirely, thus rendering it improbable any bus would risk it. By his order, no mass transit could be built in the rights-of-way along the highway routes that would have made beach access available to the poor—then mostly immigrants or anyone without a car. Is that an appropriate public park design in a democracy, no matter how aesthetically appealing?

If he could help it, Moses built only for the white middle class in cars. That what he built eventually benefited the poor and working class was surely not his intent. When the middle class left the neighborhoods in which Moses inserted desirable recreation sites, the poor moved in and benefited. Moses’s playgrounds are also a celebrated accomplishment—658 of them citywide, one in Harlem, none in Bedford-Stuyvesant. And La Guardia had to force Moses to landscape the ten blocks of Riverside Park he had cheaply created for Harlem from 145th to 155th Streets, after fierce resistance. As if in retaliation, he built there the only comfort station with a frieze of stone monkeys in the entire city.6 When he built Riverside Park by covering the open train tracks and adding 132 acres of landfill, Moses had stopped the park at 110th Street, leaving the black community with the noise and grime of the trains eliminated in the park below 125th Street and above 145th Street. Even a wide wharf at 125th Street, easily converted for recreation, was ignored, and the ten-block stretch above was left with difficult pedestrian access.7 The lush lawns and extensive planting that mark the park’s beauty did not appear on that omitted stretch covered by a roadway viaduct. In fact, few amenities grace the six miles of Riverside Park and parkway in the Harlem stretch. Only one of seventeen playgrounds in the park was built in Harlem, and only one of five football fields. He had spent $16.3 million on the first 2 miles from 72nd Street and $7.9 million on the next 4.7 miles.


For decades, New Yorkers have cursed Walter O’Malley for moving the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. But Michael Shapiro in The Last Good Season documents in gruesome detail O’Malley’s effort to stay in Brooklyn, an effort tenaciously thwarted by Moses. Moses refused to condemn land in downtown Brooklyn for a new stadium (as the state and city have been anxious to do for the Nets arena included in the Atlantic Yards project on that site), insisting that O’Malley take land in Bedford-Stuyvesant that O’Malley knew was too distant and inappropriate for the purpose.

One can’t ignore how ruthlessly Moses took funding from upstate parks to finance the Long Island parks he favored. Nor can one minimize how he moved the Northern State Parkway 3 miles and then curved it to preserve the property of well-connected wealthy estate owners like Otto Kahn, or the Long Island Expressway for J. P. Morgan. Yet he had no compunction about splitting the working farm of James Roth, covering his most fertile soil with asphalt and making it impossible for the struggling farmer to get his tractor across the highway.

The New York-born Moses never learned to drive, but he set about trying to create a spaghetti network of highways on a scale the country had not yet seen. Most significantly, Moses’s roads went through cities versus around them. In retrospect, it is difficult to realize how far ahead of the rest of the country Moses was in highway projects. Other cities’ officials watched and followed, going so far as to borrow construction contracts and loan documents he created as models. The erroneous, actually false, assumption is that Moses improved transportation in New York City and the region. What he did was improve only automotive transportation while undermining or killing some transit and preventing its future expansion.

Moses’s highway construction was infinitely more destructive of the functioning city than most people recognize. It boggles the mind to consider how much of that functioning city was in the way of the 130 miles that went through New York City and then to imagine the damage that rippled out from each roadway’s path like stones tossed in the water. No real calculation has ever been done of homes, businesses, social institutions, and churches lost.


Moses was equally influential in shaping the country’s urban renewal policies. Caro notes that Moses’s Yale classmate Senator Robert A. Taft reached out to him to discuss “details of a new type of federal slum clearance program—‘urban renewal’—that he was considering sponsoring.”8

Moses was not alone in his vision for a new urban form. “The era’s leading housing reformers, Henry Wright, Clarence Stein, and Lewis Mumford of the Regional Planning Association of America, wrote off tenements as relics of nineteenth-century industrialism. The metropolitan future, they argued, lay in towns planted in regional ‘greenbelts’ where there was room for a new communal civilization.”9 This was clearly the idea of the moment, but only Moses had the power to make his version of the vision come true.

Title I of the 1949 Housing Act was the primary vehicle for building middle-income housing on cleared land, which Moses aggressively pursued. 10 While Congress was working out the details of this program with Moses’s help, Moses persuaded Mayor William O’Dwyer in 1948 to appoint a Mayor’s Slum Clearance Committee of which Moses was made chairman.11 O’Dwyer had already appointed him construction coordinator and chairman of the Emergency Commission on Housing. Understandably, New York was first in line with the most urban renewal proposals of any city in the country and, in the end, gained the largest share of funding.12 Moses was the master all others emulated. Joel Schwartz describes what this incredible program meant:

Title I’s impact proved enormous. Projects removed 100,000 people from Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, and, with their accompanying public housing, generated a diaspora of at least twice that number. Site clearance forced out at least 5,000 businesses of all sizes, and public housing forced out thousands more. Municipal experts declared that these losses . . . were negligible. But in Central and East Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant, and other minority ghettoes, these enterprises nurtured a sizable portion of the black and Hispanic middle class. In other neighborhoods, redevelopments wiped out larger businesses or forced their ruinous shift to other quarters. Job loss as a direct result of redevelopment was between 30,000 and 60,000 in the postwar period. By the late 1950s, the number had risen to several hundred thousand.13

These were direct impacts. No way exists to measure the ripple effects of the lost businesses, residences, and institutions near the newly formed gaping hole. It is safe to say, however, that once the undermining began in one area, fraying of the larger surrounding fabric took on its own momentum.

Gay Talese described how a big project’s clearance spreads deterioration beyond the specific cleared site. In a 1964 New York Times story about the massive dislocation impacts in Bay Ridge following the demolition of five hundred homes and the dispossessing of seven thousand people for the expressway leading to the new Verrazano Bridge, Talese wrote:

In all, it took 18 months to move out the 7,000 people. Eventually, even the most stubborn—or out-of-touch residents of Bay Ridge abandoned their homes because of resignation or fear—fear of being alone in a spooky neighborhood; fear of the bands of young vagrants who occasionally would roam the area smashing windows or stealing doors, picket fences, light fixtures or shrubbery; fear of the derelicts who would sleep in empty apartments or hallways; fear of the rats that people said would soon be crawling up from the shattered sinks and sewers because, it was explained, “rats also are being dispossessed from Bay Ridge.”14

The federal official in charge of the program in the early years told Caro, “Because Robert Moses was so far ahead of anyone else in the country, he had great influence on urban renewal in the United States—on how the program developed and on how it was received by the public—more than any other single person.”

Urban renewal became a favorite of mayors across the country because of the lava flow of federal funds that came with it, especially if coupled with a highway project. Few cities resisted like Savannah, where, a local resident reports, “it was resisted as a communist plot.” Where the demolition derby got started, it was hard to stop. Each massive project inevitably led to further decay and an accelerated cycle of clearance. The holes in the urban fabric of American cities are still visible today from Buffalo to Cleveland to St. Louis and beyond.

Title I was, indeed, producing middle-income housing, as progressive Democrats, Regional Plan advocates, the press, and all Moses’s supporters wanted. Between June 29 and July 2, 1959, the New York Times published a series of articles, “Our Changing City,” surveying the state of public housing and urban renewal. Barren looking, devoid of hope, and overwhelmed with relocation problems are how the articles found public housing. Ford Foundation staffers “became convinced that Title I had aggravated the city’s housing shortage, destroyed many Old Law tenements that could have sheltered low-income residents, and created sterile, crime-ridden environments.”15

Deborah Wallace and Rodrick Wallace wrote a very important book, A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled, that shows the enormous impact all this dislocation had on the mental and public health of the distressed population and the entire city and region. They wrote:

Many poor neighborhoods simply collapsed from the spatial concentration and temporal peaking of these modes of housing destruction. Health areas of the South-Central Bronx, for example, lost 80 per cent of both housing units and population between 1920 and 1980. About 1.3 million white people left New York as conditions deteriorated from housing overcrowding and social disruption. About 0.6 million poor people were displaced and had to move as their homes were destroyed. A total of almost two million people were uprooted, over 10 percent of the population of the entire Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (25 counties).

Just thinking about the magnitude of this forced migration helps focus on why, by the 1960s and ’70s, New York was a collapsing mess. As Moses said, it was the “meat ax” approach to city building.


What is not recognized sufficiently in regards to any of Moses’s cataclysmic urban development schemes is exactly what the Wallaces were referring to: the thousands upon thousands of lives disrupted, the downward spiral of so many lives often jump-started by such massive demolition projects, the endless tales of social dislocation. The Wallaces have provided additional insights not often discussed.

Based on years of study, they document how the fires of the 1970s continued to destroy what Urban Renewal started. What they shockingly outline is that this occurred within a framework of deliberate city policies that were based on erroneous information, pseudoscience, manipulated data, and malevolent policy goals.16 The Wallaces effectively show that the closing of firehouses, guaranteeing inadequate responses, and the withdrawal of other municipal services in the most vulnerable neighborhoods purposefully continued the clearance that Moses started.17 This all occurred under the post-Urban Renewal policy of “Planned Shrinkage” with the overt goal of killing off “sick” neighborhoods.18

What was often destroyed, the Wallaces note, were, in fact, “stable ‘slums,’ i.e. poor neighborhoods of old, mildly overcrowded housing that are not experiencing rapid deterioration physically or socially, are true communities, often with a history decades long.” They then quote a 1977 book on public health and the built environment by Loren Hinkle, published by the Centers for Disease Control. It goes to the heart of the issue: “It is the social environment and not the physical environment which is the primary determinant of the health and well-being of people who live in cities. . . . The importance of the social milieu is such that the dislocation and disruption of social relations that are produced when one moves a family from a dilapidated dwelling [within a functioning community] to a modern apartment [outside that community] may have adverse effects upon health and behavior that are not offset by the clean, comfortable, and convenient new dwelling.”19


5.1 Ricardo Levins Morales designed this poster in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for the people left out of the rebuilding planning process in New Orleans. He could just as well have designed it for the people of New York City left out of Robert Moses’s construction process. (To view it in splendid color, visit his website www.rlmarts.com.)

Such a massive scale of social disruption would not have occurred if organic change and a different scale and form of progress had been allowed to take hold—the kind that Jane Jacobs identified as building up the fertility of the land instead of eroding it. So many dismembered lives could have been uplifted instead of undermined, given a different path of development. Voices advocating that alternative path were drowned out by Moses and stilled by the deaf ear of a press and the policy-making community enthralled with his message and accomplishments. Projects on the scale that Moses built inevitably and severely and destructively disrupt the social, economic, and psychological life of thousands. Destabilization is a given. The benefits cannot match the losses.


Jacobs’s views about city development evolved. As noted in the introduction, she first learned in East Harlem how the delicate urban fabric worked to stabilize neighborhoods. By visiting the area, walking the streets, and talking to residents, she learned how the row houses, small apartment houses, tenements, stores, and local businesses created an intricate web, the whole of which gained strength from the complex, often invisible connection of the parts. Through the eyes of Union Settlement House director and Episcopal minister William Kirk and social worker Ellen Lurie, she also watched it being torn apart by one public housing project after another, wiping out an estimated tens of thousands of dwellings and 1,500 businesses.

Moses plowed through the South Bronx to build the seven-mile Cross Bronx Expressway, connecting the George Washington Bridge to I-95, as Caro vividly details.20 In just one mile, 1,530 families (more than 60,000 people) and businesses were dislocated and 159 buildings demolished.21This occurred despite the existence of an alternate route a few blocks away that would have been quicker and cheaper. Only six tenements and nineteen families were in the way of the alternate route. Moses dismissed the thousands of Bronx residents and businesses pleading for the alternate route to save their homes, livelihoods, and community, saying only, “It was a political thing that stirred up the animals there.” Residents and businesses were given ninety days to leave. Like so many other wiped-out neighborhoods, it had solid schools with involved parents, local businesses, seven movie houses, synagogues, churches, old walk-ups with affordable apartments that had light and air, and all manner of social institutions and networks.

And what do we have there now? A traffic nightmare with four of the eleven worst bottlenecks in the country. Nineteen of the country’s fifty worst bottlenecks are either in the five boroughs or in nearby counties, as Tom Namako reported in the New York Post on February 26, 2009. On September 20, 2002, Alan Feuer in the New York Times described the truck-clogged, congested road as “arguably the most savage road in New York City.”


What is seldom mentioned in regards to any of Moses’s cataclysmic urban development schemes is the thousands of lives disrupted. Caro’s chapter “One Mile” recounts how this devastation undermined the South Bronx and is famously cited for detailing the resulting human pain and suffering. Rare is any similar examination of the human costs of other such disruptive projects. Moses and his public relations machine, along with the political leaders, did such a good job of selling the public on the false notion that these strategies cleaned up “slums,” cleared “blight,” and replaced “deteriorated” neighborhoods that most people today are unaware of the true condition and quality of these communities and the lives of the people in them.

The true mark of Robert Moses has to be the way he treated the people who stood in his way. Elizabeth Yampierre, a Brooklyn lawyer and citywide leader of the city’s environmental justice movement, recalls:

My family lived on the Upper West Side, in a blue-collar community. We had a family infrastructure that made it possible for the women in my family to work, for the children to be cared for, and although we were not wealthy by any means, we were doing okay. When we were displaced, we became “roadkill” in Robert Moses’ vision. Our family was scattered to the Bronx to Queens and throughout Manhattan. I went to five schools in eight years, and, in my family, some people went on to become drug addicts and some women went on public assistance. The entire fabric of my family was destroyed as a result of that displacement.

Yampierre told her story at a public celebration of Jane Jacobs’s life held in Washington Park after Jacobs’s death in 2006. Yampierre had not read Jacobs’s books.

A similar human tragedy unfolded in South Brooklyn when Moses ignored the pleas of residents of Park Slope and Windsor Terrace to move the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway to avoid razing five hundred buildings, mostly homes. An alternate route, again only a few blocks away, would use mostly vacant lots and “save money and heartache,” the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper reported in March 1945. Even the state legislature unanimously voted a resolution asking for relocation since the road was partially state funded. He ignored them all.

Moses became known as the country’s foremost “master builder,” an American Baron Haussmann, the man who shaped nineteenth-century Paris. But Moses didn’t start out in that direction.


Moses started out as an advocate of government reform and rose to power under Governor Alfred E. Smith, who in 1919 assigned him the task of reorganizing state government, heavily centralizing it and shifting considerable power from the legislature to the governor. As Moses filled an assortment of appointments, he learned how to navigate that governmental power better than anyone. He didn’t override the political system; he used it. With each agency and authority he created and then took over, he began building, first with the Long Island Park Commission, then the New York City Parks Department, the New York State Power Commission, and eventually twelve state and city positions at one time.

The concept of the public authority—an independent agency separated from normal government process of checks and balances and with the ability to issue its own revenue bonds—was Moses’s. Proceedings are secret, and records are not public. Authorities were purposely designed to be impervious and impregnable to outside voices and impacts. The public authority, Caro notes, “became the force through which he shaped New York and its suburbs in the image he personally conceived.” To this day, the public authority remains a favorite government device “to get things done” and to avoid a genuine public process that includes community input, real negotiation, and compromise.

Probably no one, elected or not, in any other state held such vast power over such an extended period. He served under five mayors: Fiorello La Guardia, William O’Dwyer, Vincent Impellitteri, Robert F. Wagner Jr., and John V. Lindsay. “No law, no regulation, no budget stops Robert Moses in his appointed task,” La Guardia once boasted. Since Moses usually wrote the rules for the agencies he led, his task was usually his to define. And he served under six governors: Alfred E. Smith, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Herbert H. Lehmann, Thomas E. Dewey, Averell Harriman, and Nelson A. Rockefeller.

With all the leaders under whom he served, Moses was famous for threatening to resign his position if he did not get his way. Each relented—until Rockefeller. In 1962 Rockefeller wanted Moses to resign as chairman of the State Council of Parks to make way for his brother, Laurence, long a member of the Palisades Interstate Commission and a known parks and conservation advocate. Rockefeller told Moses he could retain his Long Island parks chairmanship. Moses refused and resigned from both state park positions and the State Power Commission, fully expecting Rockefeller to back down. He didn’t. “For decades, governors had dreaded what would happen if they had to be the one to fire Bob Moses. Now one governor had fired Bob Moses. And nothing happened.”22

Because he created parks all over the state, he is most favorably known as a great park builder. “As long as you’re on the side of parks, you’re on the side of the angels. You can’t lose.”23 Caro quotes Moses here to illustrate how well Moses knew how to manipulate public opinion. And while his highways and urban renewal projects are sometimes considered inevitable, there is nothing inevitable about the routes and sites he chose that destroyed dozens of productive and vibrant residential and industrial neighborhoods and uprooted and undermined the lives of more than a million people and businesses. While the estimates of displaced residents and businesses are known for only some projects, a total seems impossible to calculate but is acknowledged to be at least five hundred thousand people. Some estimates exceed one million. There is no estimate for the displaced businesses. And there was nothing inevitable about his building only residential towers in the park without the traditional mixed uses of an urban neighborhood.

To assume improved roads, housing, parks, and expanded universities and other institutions would not have happened is foolish. They would indeed have happened but differently. Revisionists would have us believe that Moses was operating in the context of his time, doing what everyone else was doing. Evidence indicates otherwise. He shaped the context of his time. Others learned from him and followed his path.


Moses started the reshaping of the country for the car first through his facilitating the 1939 World’s Fair, then through his New York projects, and then by helping other cities plan and design their projects. It was a perfect combination since Moses’s vision of park creation always included—and sometimes started with—the necessary vehicular access.

In 1935 Moses took the suggestion that the city should hold a World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow and, as city parks commissioner, made it happen. He quickly recognized the immense potential of the project to enhance his own power and agenda, given the contracts and jobs involved in building the pavilions and the vast network of new Queens highways needed to reach the site and, of course, the enormous park to be created in the process. Nothing about the fair could happen without the approval and input of Moses.

The 1939 World’s Fair, with its theme, “The World of Tomorrow,” had a greater impact on the subsequent development of the country than most people realize. The fair is widely acknowledged as the icon of the Art Deco period of design. Less recognition, however, exists of its role in shaping urban planning and setting the nation on the car-oriented course that has existed ever since. “The story we have to tell,” critic Lewis Mumford said of the fair’s theme, “is the story of this planned environment, this planned industry, this planned civilization.24 If we can inject that . . . as a basic notion of the fair, if we can point it toward the future, toward something that is progressing and growing in every department of life and throughout civilization . . . we may lay the foundation for a pattern of life which would have enormous impact in times to come.”25 Indeed! Instead of being an enormous trade show at which manufacturers could discover the newest products and technologies, as in fairs past, this fair was directed at consumers. Manufacturers would have the opportunity to exhibit their products and persuade viewers how their lives would be improved.

Two major exhibits vied for and received the most attention. The first was the fair’s symbol, the Trylon and Perisphere designed by architect Wallace K. Harrison. Inside the Perisphere was the World of Tomorrow, designed by Henry Dreyfuss, in the form of a model of Democracity. Democracity broke with the tradition of looking for solutions to problems in existing cities and imagined a whole new configuration of highways linking bedroom communities for the middle class, industrial districts with workers’ housing nearby, and a business and cultural district at the center marked by a single skyscraper. The message was clear: the current city was no longer viable and its problems intractable. The solution: demolish and rebuild the city and provide alternatives outside of it for those who could afford it.

The more popular exhibit, in fact the most popular of the fair, was General Motors’ Futurama, created by industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, which actually dovetailed nicely with Democracity. Here, viewed from a moving platform, was the future with cities built from scratch around highway interchanges. Tiny cars—no congestion, plenty of space between them—on multilane roadways went over mountains and bridges and ran on liquid oxygen. A fantasy, yes, but an extraordinarily seductive one. Walter Lippmann wrote: “General Motors had spent a small fortune to convince the American public that if it wishes to enjoy the full benefits of private enterprise in motor manufacturing, it will have to rebuild its cities and its highways by public enterprise.”26

From then on, the cleverly crafted advertising campaigns of the car manufacturers equated cars with modernity and middle-class status, and the automobile industry became the foundation for our postwar economy. Caro notes in a similar vein:

The three automotive giants would later plow tens of millions of dollars into his World’s Fair at a time when other major companies were shying away from it. In the sense that he was America’s, and probably the world’s, most vocal, effective and prestigious apologist for the automobile, that he designed highway networks not only for New York but for a dozen cities, that by his success in building expressways in the city he did more than any other single urban official to encourage more hesitant officials to launch major highway-building programs in their cities, and that, by building them to new, high standards, he did more than any other single urban official to set the early standards for urban expressway design—he was the spearhead, the cutting edge, of this Panzer division of public works.27

The fair’s message seems to have altered even Moses’s vision for roads. Until then, he built “parkways”—the Taconic, Bronx River, Henry Hudson—all built to connect middle-class car drivers to parks for leisure-time enjoyment and some commuting. They were four lanes, beautifully landscaped “ribbon parks,” with graceful curves offering bucolic views. Roads went around cities. Early suburbs had evolved along rail lines. The car was an additional means of transportation, not a replacement for the enviable transit system that knitted neighborhoods together into one city and wove the country’s cities into a national fabric. That pattern remained until after World War II.

The car culture was emerging, not yet booming. The auto industry was to be the vehicle to put the nation back to work. An assortment of postwar national policies, including the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, purposely spurred that emerging car culture and industry. Those highways would be designed for practical use by commuters and truck traffic, even though many of Moses’s roads were still routed to connect parks. Some roads actually sliced through parks, like Upper Manhattan’s Van Cortlandt and Inwood. Moses’s roads created more traffic, as all new roads do. Experts told him this. They strongly urged him to build transit, too. He refused to listen.

Moses set his own course. One massive clearance project followed another in what former Random House editor Jason Epstein called “periodic paroxysms of self-destruction in the name of renewal.”28


As the first big highway builder, he created the vision and then the template for the nation. He helped craft the funding and authorizing legislation in Washington for urban renewal and highways nationwide. Then he was first in line to get funding for local projects, with the growing strength of the highway lobby behind him.

Aides to President Eisenhower consulted with Moses about national highway needs as they crafted the 1956 Highway Act. One of the early managers and the de facto head of the Interstate Highway System, Bertram D. Tallamy, had formerly served as superintendent of the New York State Department of Public Works. He revered Moses. In the 1920s, Tallamy used to come down from Niagara to attend lectures given by Moses on the art of “Getting Things Done.” Tallamy told Caro that “the Interstate Highway System was built by principles he had learned at those lectures.”29

After the ’56 act was proposed, University of Michigan professor Robert Fishman notes, “Moses became the principle spokesman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in urging that interstates ‘must go right through cities and not around them,’ contrary to what President Eisenhower advocated. The president envisioned a road network between cities, like Germany’s autobahn, with short connections to city centers.”

Moses did not confine his strategy to New York. Other cities hired him to design freeway networks in the 1940s and ’50s. Few were built. Funding was usually difficult, so many were postponed. Some were scaled back or simply canceled. Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, D.C., Baltimore, Los Angeles, Detroit, and others had Moses’s help or influence. The first was New Orleans.


The French Quarter of New Orleans survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005 better than most of the city. But in the 1940s it narrowly missed being hit by a planning disaster engineered by none other than Moses. “A progressive spirit flourished in New Orleans after World War II. The desire for progress was reflected in the decision . . . to hire Robert Moses, the great freeway builder . . . to introduce 20th century thinking to New Orleans . . . Moses had done more to change the face of New York . . . than any other person in the 20th century. In 1946, expressways were considered avant-garde in America and Moses, with his faith in the automobile to move people in cities, was the acknowledged leader of this approach to urban-transportation planning.”30

So the battle to preserve New Orleans’s French Quarter involved defeating a proposed Moses-designed elevated highway for the waterfront, which would have demolished as much of the Quarter as his New York highways did back home. But while the waterfront route was changed, the idea of a highway through the city remained. A decimating highway did get built instead in New Orleans that cut through Treme, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in the country. Claiborne Avenue, a glorious boulevard of live oak trees and thriving local retail, restaurants, and the Capitol Theater, was the heart of this historic community. “Black people’s Canal Street,” one remembers it, “the large neutral ground for family barbecues, the central artery for Mardi Gras Indian parades.” It was replaced by I-10. As one elderly citizen recalled for Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Elie, “Claiborne Avenue had gorgeous oak trees from one end to the next, not like now with a piece of concrete over people’s heads. Treme was a neighborhood of white and black. They didn’t go to the same school or church but the kids played together on the street and everyone sat outside together having fun. Claiborne was the heart of the business community and in 1963, I-10 ripped out the heart of hundreds of families’ homes. Then they built black and white housing projects and separated the people.”31 Nearly five hundred homes were removed.


Portland is today considered the nation’s best model of a popular livable city whose balanced transportation system has helped rejuvenate the city way beyond expectations. It was the first city to aggressively reinvest in public transit after World War II. In a 2005 article in Willamette Week, Bob Young wrote:

If there was one event that defined Portland in the past 25 years, it was killing the Mount Hood Expressway, a six-mile, eight-lane asphalt behemoth that would have vaulted across the river from Johns Landing to Interstate 205. . . .

Indeed, the godfather of the freeway was none other than Robert Moses, the fearsome architect of modern New York City. . . . In 1943, the power brokers of Portland—the five white men of the City Council and the city’s utility, banking and insurance executives—brought Moses west to modernize their little town.

Moses’ vision called for new freeways slicing up Portland like a pizza. His plan would triple the mileage of blacktop. . . . “It was a grid of freeways with a school and church within each grid cell,” says Ethan Seltzer, director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies at Portland State University. . . .

The idea was to curb urban decay. . . . But what planners failed to realize was that freeways actually accelerated urban decay by destroying neighborhoods and sucking residents out to the suburbs.32

Resistance started with local residents of Southeast Portland in 1969 when the city started buying properties but was picked up and led by then Legal Aid lawyer Neil Goldschmidt, who was running for city council. Goldschmidt offered a totally different vision, inspired by Jane Jacobs. He won the election, went on to become mayor in 1972, led the effort to make federal highway funds convertible to transit, and launched a transit-building program that continues today and is the envy of cities across the country. Goldschmidt furthered the transit investment band-wagon as head of the U.S. Department of Transportation in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter.


Hartford and Baltimore rejected plans designed by Moses. This was early. Hartford hired him in 1949 when, with a population of 177,000, “downtown streets were jammed with traffic all day long, much of it carrying shoppers to five big department stores,” reminisced Joel Lang in the Hartford Courant in 1983. Hartford may have rejected Moses’s specific proposals, but the highways that got built still plowed through and decimated the downtown.

In Baltimore in 1944 Moses was hired “to recommend a route for what was then known as the East-West Expressway (which still hasn’t been built),” wrote Gwinn Owens in the Baltimore Sun in August 1981, upon Moses’s death. Opposition was immediate in both West and East Baltimore and, like a dozen proposals that were to follow, Baltimoreans made it clear they weren’t going to have their communities plowed under for a Moses-type expressway. The routes selected as alternatives to Moses’s ideas still heavily damaged the central city. The idea of cutting through a city was now a widespread and accepted policy. If it wasn’t the Moses-designed route, it just as well could have been. The elements were all the same.

In 1942, at the request of Michigan’s commissioner of highways, Moses reviewed plans for Detroit’s crosstown expressway between Detroit and Willow Run that ran through established neighborhoods of the city. In a fifteen-page letter, Moses wrote that generally speaking, the plan for the expressway “seems to us to have been admirably conceived and laid out.”


He also had a hand in the Pittsburgh urban renewal plan, one of the first in the country that erased a substantial part of the heart of the city’s industrial and downtown heart. In its place was a vast expanse of grass with a few stand-alone buildings placed at a distance from one another with the two sides of the triangle graced by the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. As Lewis Mumford noted in his book The Highway and the City, “One look at the cluster of skyscraper offices that now rise in the ‘rehabilitated’ area of Pittsburgh known as The Point should convince them of their error; a handful of skyscrapers standing in a glittering freight yard of parked cars is a contribution to neither business nor urban beauty.”

In 1957, one hundred acres of the Hill, the heart of the city’s black community and center for jazz-filled nightspots, was cleared for a Lincoln Center-style cultural island with an opera house, symphony hall, and theaters. It was never built, but eight thousand residents were displaced.

Clearly, highways halted in midconstruction or before construction—not necessarily designed by Moses—in communities across the country were stopped by citizen protests that usually included long, delaying lawsuits. Where highway projects were derailed completely or in midstream, downtowns and neighborhoods have held on or regenerated—if enough urban fabric was left to do so. In many cases, however, the highway fever did not cool with Moses’s departure. Alternative routes were selected, some implemented. Whether they were better or worse is hard to know, but too many cities have been crippled by highways through the city. Even more were started but never finished, leaving unnecessary cleared land in their wake.


An earthquake in 1989, not common sense, took down San Francisco’s vigorously opposed and never-completed Embarcadero Freeway on the waterfront and redirected federal transportation funding into investment in the city’s subway system. The rejuvenation of that moribund waterfront is now a model of success with its seven-mile promenade of sidewalks, palm trees, and historic trolleys connecting to Fisherman’s Wharf, a restored ferry terminal, farmers’ market, and new hotel. Nearby property values have skyrocketed 300 percent.33 But citizens, led by a straight-talking Mayor Joseph Alioto, had stopped the freeway’s completion years before. He said during a 1974 Senate hearing on the cause of our transportation crisis that placing an interstate highway link along the San Francisco waterfront just to give cars access to the Golden Gate Bridge was unacceptable. “I wouldn’t let them complete it,” Alioto recalled. “I said tell everyone to slow up and enjoy themselves in this beautiful town. . . . There isn’t a view like this in the world. You don’t have to zip through it.” Alioto had wrestled long and hard with strong-arming highway builders. “That crowd would put a freeway through the Vatican if they had a chance and could save space or money,” he said.

Pittsburgh, Detroit, Portland, New Orleans, Hartford, Baltimore. These were significant cities in the 1940s. The country watched them, along with New York, and followed the path being forged by Moses. “In 1964, when Robert Moses completed his major highway building . . . no other metropolitan region in America possessed 700 miles of such highways. . . . Even Los Angeles, which presented itself to history as the most highway-oriented of cities—which was, in fact, not a city in the older sense in which New York was a city but a collection of suburbs . . .—possessed in 1964 only 459 miles of such highways. No city in America had more than half as many miles. . . . But nothing about his roads was as awesome as the congestion on them.”34


In June 1955 urban critic Lewis Mumford wrote in the New Yorker, “Before we cut any more chunks out of our parks to make room for more automobiles or let another highway cloverleaf unfold, we should look at the transformation that has taken place during the last 30 years in Manhattan.” This, of course, did not happen.

But equally significant, Moses and the highway lobby starved the subways, bus, and railroad systems of funding. Even before the war, Caro points out, the realization emerged that more roads breed more traffic, that building more roads would not solve traffic congestion, and that the only answer was coordinating mass-transit improvements with highways. Moses adamantly opposed this idea in every way possible and controlled all possible funding to thwart it. Worse, he designed every road in such a way that transit cannot be added either on the highway median or parallel to the road, as many planners advocated, even passing up the opportunity to cheaply buy the land adjacent to highways for future transit.

City planner F. Dodd McHugh, working on a master plan for New York airports in the 1940s, urged Moses to provide space along the Van Wyck Expressway to JFK. In the 1950s, Moses ignored studies demonstrating economic value by providing mass transit along the Long Island Expressway. When the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, under Moses’s firm control, piled up surplus after surplus, Governor Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay tried to spend some of that surplus on mass transit. Instead, Moses refused to let that happen and instead just planned another road.

The Moses image of being above politics was a myth; he fed the political machine with lucrative contracts, fees, and all kinds of favors to ensure support for his projects, especially, as Mumford wrote, from the well-placed “real beneficiaries of the system to whom it means jobs and prestige, contracts and profits.” As Joel Schwartz points out, “Behind closed doors, he handed choice locations to redevelopers, allowed them to occupy sites at their leisure, and encouraged them to build luxury high-rises without regard for city plans. At Manhattantown, Moses allowed redevelopers with Tammany ties to squeeze rent from the black occupants of condemned tenements. Manhattantown showed Moses’s consort with the powerful, his contempt for the helpless, and his racism.”35

If anyone deigned to oppose or seriously question one of his projects, those contracts instantly dried up. He so mesmerized the New York press for decades that it turned a blind eye to his ruthless manipulations and the scandals and inequities his policies fostered. He conducted government in secret and by fiat and showed nothing but contempt for critics. He often did more than that. As Caro discovered:

And if Moses possessed no derogatory information at all about an opponent or his forebears, this was still no guarantee against attack. For Moses was an innovator in fields other than public works. He practiced McCarthyism long before there was a McCarthy. He drove Rexford G. Tugwell out of his City Planning Commission chairmanship—out of New York, in fact—helped drive Stanley F. Isaacs out of his borough presidency and destroyed public careers of a dozen other officials by publicly, and falsely, identifying them as ‘Pinkos’ or ‘Planning Reds’ or ‘followers of the Ogpu,’ the Soviet secret police.36 There were two widespread Communist witchhunts in New York City, one in 1938 and one in 1958. Both relied heavily on ‘information’—much of it innuendo and outright falsehood—leaked to newspapers by Moses.37

He went after Joe Papp, trying to cancel his already extraordinarily popular Shakespeare in the Park. In 1958 Papp had been called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He refused to say whether he had been a communist but denied he presently was one and refused to identify friends who were or had been. Moses only learned about this a year later through one of his key assistants. He sought to cancel Papp, spreading lies that Papp was a “communist of long-standing” who “took the Fifth Amendment again and again.” But, as Caro points out, the Senate hearings that brought McCarthy’s downfall were in 1954, and this was 1959. Papp was a street fighter and knew how to play to the press as well as Moses and, in this case, better.


But as much damage to urban America that I believe Robert Moses wrought, I, too, long for a new Robert Moses. Why? Because then we would have an easy target to fight as new oversized, heavily public-financed, isolating “demolish and rebuild” projects are proposed and continue to erode our cities.

In New York, if Moses or a look-alike were in charge, it would be a lot easier to fight such plans as the oversized Atlantic Yards development with thirty-three hundred parking spaces at one of the best transit hubs in the city,38 new Yankee Stadium parking garages replacing local parks, the Ground Zero separateness, the shopping mall and office-park mentality, and the Willets Point and Columbia University clearance plans. What we actually have is the ghost of Moses haunting the “system.” Most big schemes—including new waterfront parks and big developments—bypass the local review process. Instead, they proceed under the auspices of the Empire State Development Corporation, a state authority that makes all decisions and holds public hearings but is not subject to the same local approval standards, just as Moses invented.

Private developers now get public dollars and tax incentives with impunity. Eminent domain—or just the threat of it—is used more for private profit than legitimate public purposes; Moses used it for what he, at least, defined as a public purpose even if his definition of “slum” was self-serving. Planning departments today are powerless in the face of well-placed developers, assuming those planners even object to the oversized and inappropriate development overwhelming all corners of the city today. Often those planners seem to see their mission as expediting new development, confusing development and planning. Some projects exhibit design appeal, but a well-designed, wrongheaded project is just that—a wrongheaded project well designed. Good design is never enough to overcome inherent urban weaknesses.

Except where public opposition succeeds, citizen participation is a mirage. Scores of public hearings occur, and negotiations are well publicized. In the end, final agreements reflect what the developer and politicians wanted in the first place, with givebacks built in as sops, creating the illusion of compromise. The final plan has no relation to what a complex, organic addition to a particular place might have been. And the public participation never comes until the plans and designs are set, not in the beginning when the agenda is formed. At that point, public input can only tinker, not really shape, any plan. In fact, the process today might just as well be designed by Moses. “We have a development czar in New York State now who can override any local control issue,” says Kent Barwick, former president of the Municipal Art Society, referring to the Empire State Development Corporation. “Robert Moses would be deeply jealous of that authority. It has the power to go in and do what it wants with the vague requirement that it consult with local officials with no public input required.” Now, if Robert Moses were here leading all these movements, what a field day we critics would have.

Despite what Moses believed, the end does not justify the means. “Getting Things Done” in a democracy is not as important as what gets done and how. And on both counts, alternative methods and programs to Moses’s would have done New York better, along with the cities that followed its course. Revisionists view him as more constructive than destructive, more builder than demolisher, more a creature of his time than the shaper of his time, and the man we have to thank for the modern city. I disagree.

The physical achievements, whether judged good or bad, are undeniably mighty in breadth, scale, and obstacles overcome. But the danger in a revisionist view of history is that it takes on a life of its own. That life often becomes myth, like the incorrect belief that Mussolini “at least got the trains to run on time.” Two questions are critical: Did the damage he wrought outweigh the good? My answer is yes. Were alternatives available to meet the city’s need for infrastructure, transportation, and neighborhood repair? My answer again is yes. Without Moses, those alternatives had a chance; with Moses, they did not.

If you want to put Moses in a positive light, then favoring the car-centric, lower-density suburban vision of the city goes with it. Fortunately, many understand that under that scenario, cities are doomed. The reviving cities today, in fact, are redensifying; rebuilding local transit; revaluing existing assets like traditional neighborhoods, historic and plain architecture, and shopping streets; and taking down elevated highways and sky-ways. A good observer can’t miss seeing this.


Moses’s own view of his era and rationale for his actions was that the city needed saving, but the question should be, “From what?” After the war, cities had problems that needed to be addressed. The infrastructure of existing roads and transit needed repair and expansion. Deteriorated buildings needed upgrading and some replacement. Public facilities needed renovating and additions. Slums were a problem, but how to define the problem and the solution was open to question and debate that Moses would not permit. No consensus existed that wiping out whole working-class neighborhoods was a solution to real problems nor that the towers-in-the-park were the answer to anything. Social and economic challenges cannot be met solely by physical creations.

Urban vibrancy had dimmed when resources were directed to the war effort, but the solution was definitely not to demolish whole swaths of the urban fabric and hope that what remained would not fall apart. The value of social and economic networks was greater than the new structures to be built by dispossessing them. Mending the urban fabric, repairing and replacing different pieces around the whole city, could have included many new projects, large and small, but never on the ripping scale of what Moses proposed and never at the same staggering social or financial cost. For example, investing more in the neglected public transit instead of just the convenience of the private car would not have precluded vehicular access, just not made it the priority. Today we struggle to re-create a transportation balance.

Was the city better off after Moses? We had thirteen expressways to help people get in and out of the city, but we had less mass transit to get people around the city. We had some celebrated new projects like Lincoln Center, the United Nations, the Coliseum (now gone, replaced by Time-Warner Center), and a money-losing 1964 World’s Fair that gave the city Flushing Meadow Park. But we still had a crumbling infrastructure and a maintenance burden for the new projects that continue to cost dearly. And as investigative reporter Fred J. Cook wrote about Moses’s slum-clearance program in a 1956 exposé in the World-Telegram and Sun: “It is a system under which neighborhoods actually have deteriorated; it is a system under which the number of apartments, already inadequate, has been reduced for years to come. It is a system . . . beginning again the cycle of overcrowding and bad housing that creates slums.” And as architect and planner Robert Goodman observed, “The inhabitants of our dormitories for the poor have all the ‘symptoms’ of poverty as those living in adjacent tenement areas, without even the consolation of the corner stores, storefront churches, street life and lack of bureaucratic administration of their old ‘slum.’”39


Moses and many planners since made the fundamental mistake of thinking density was the problem, failing to distinguish between density and overcrowding. Diminishing density, which almost all urban renewal and slum-clearance projects did and still do, does not diminish or solve problems. Problems are just shifted elsewhere and, in fact, exacerbated as new units built are rarely in the same quantity as those destroyed. Fewer units mean more chances of overcrowding.

Density is critical to vibrant urbanism. Mass transit, local retail and the jobs that go with it, well-used public spaces, and other elements of genuine urbanism can’t survive without density. Car-based neighborhoods in a city function like suburbs out of the city. They are holes in the urban fabric, undermining the whole by weakening specific parts. There are, as the late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp described, “projects physically located in a community but contributing little value to it.” And as Jacobs explained, “Densities are too low or too high when they frustrate city diversity instead of abetting it.”40 They can’t be determined by the formulas and ratios planners favor.

Moses diminished both density and the number of affordable dwellings, thus guaranteeing continued overcrowding. He also guaranteed inflexible projects that stood like islands apart from areas of the city that would eventually dynamically and organically rebuild themselves around those islands. The real causes of slums were unaffected and in many cases made worse.

Ironically, today people assume that high-rise means high density when, in fact, the modest low-rise mixture of individual buildings bulldozed for urban renewal was higher in density than the tower replacements that were purposely less dense than what was demolished.41 Three- or four-family modest-scale houses built close together with tenements and slightly higher but still small apartment houses in between provided the density of once vibrant neighborhoods. That is what was lost. Today, this same density is so admired and expensive in Brooklyn.

The myth of density was so promoted that today the idea remains pervasive that density causes crime, poverty, and other urban ills. Ironically, in communities where density has either been thinned or resisted, overcrowding is often the result.


Moses dismissed all suggestions of alternatives to total clearance and to the misery caused by displacement. “No one has yet suggested a way to clear slums without dislocating people,” he said. He was correct. Clear slums without dislocation, no; regenerate slums with minimum dislocation, yes. One is strictly physical and simple, the other organic and complex.

But what were the causes of slums? Redlining, racism, blockbusting, land speculation, disinvestment, rent gouging by slumlords, migration of rural Southerners into the city, and the gradual departure of the middle class all undermined healthy urban neighborhoods across the country. Slum clearance solved none of these problems and, in fact, exacerbated many of them, especially land speculation, racism, and poverty.

Urban renewal and highway building reduced the number of low-income housing units, dislocated between five hundred thousand and one million people in a city of approximately eight million, and increased rents for many, all while providing a financial bonanza for private interests. Those interests profited from slum-clearance land sales, construction loans, and subsidies. The kind of societal damage described earlier by Elizabeth Yampierre was the result. Much of the social dysfunction created by such dislocation led to so many of the social problems that peaked in the 1970s. “Indeed, when the construction was done, the real ruin of the Bronx had just begun,” wrote author and CUNY political science professor Marshall Berman, who as a child was displaced by the Cross Bronx Expressway.42

The impact of serial displacement was already a citywide issue in 1958. Only Caro has focused on the human side to a notable extent and only in the one case of the Cross Bronx Expressway. The dimension of the problem and its lasting impact were and are citywide. Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia, wrote a revealing book, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It, analyzing in excruciating detail the social and psychological effects of the displacement caused by urban renewal and highway construction in cities. Her study covered several cities, with similar patterns appearing in each. Referring to the effects of all the cataclysmic disruption, serial dislocation, and the shattering of the critical web of social connections and familial relationships, she wrote:

It was in a state of overwhelming injury that black people faced a series of crises: the loss of unskilled jobs, the influx of heroin and other addictive drugs, the slow collapse of the family, and the incursion of AIDS, violence, asthma, and obesity. Each disaster increased the impact of the next, and the spiral of community disintegration began to spin faster and faster, just as the last domino seems to fall much more quickly than the first. The present state of Black America is in no small measure the result of “Negro removal.”

That is a powerful conclusion, one that most officials ignore or reject rather than take seriously. “We have had a series of policies that continue to displace people,” Fullilove noted, “and no real policies to stabilize places.”43 The poor are just placeholders for the next development plan, she observed. The value of the places they are relocated to is destroyed and then can be bought cheap when the time is right. Any genuine stabilization plan or policy, Fullilove argued, echoing Jacobs’s articulation of “unslumming,” would include investment in an area while keeping the people in place. This preserves the social networks and all the other components of a stable urban neighborhood.

The bottom line is that social dislocation, whether in small numbers or large, is a primary cause of urban instability, costly to the people affected, and costly to the larger city. This is not just logical, an assumption easily understood by anyone who recognizes the authentic urban process. But it is also shown to be true in clinical studies that Fullilove and others have conducted. Between 1991 and 1995, for example, Fullilove interviewed people living in randomly selected households in Harlem. Of those interviewed, twenty-five reported that they had been homeless at some point in their lives. An astounding 25 percent had come from dislocated homes and had been separated from their parents for at least a year prior to the age of eighteen. Some experienced both. “This geographic area,” Fullilove points out in conversation, “experienced dramatic disinvestment where familial and social bonds had come apart.” What keeps people healthy, she adds, are the “social connections and social solidarity that come with dense social networks.”


The city hit bottom in the 1970s. The spiral of urban decay had descended pretty low, following the massive disruption caused by the Moses era. The worst damage was done. The rest was left to burn through most of the 1970s.

Between 1950 and 1975, the city lost one million people. The federal money for big clearance projects eventually either diminished drastically or went dry. Forced to change course, government leaders found new, creative solutions, often following citizen-led efforts. The natural organic process that was taking root around the city finally had a chance to take hold and grow. Where successful, that process enhanced rather than displaced the rich assortment of people, culture, and economy we now celebrate. The unarticulated strategy was to improve conditions and lives where they lived, not try to move people around, what Jacobs described as “unslumming.” Unslumming comes not when new people are moving in but when people choose to stay, make their own neighborhoods. This is distinguished from gentrification.

What has evolved organically since the 1970s is exactly what was advocated by Moses’s critics, first led by attorney and housing activist Charles Abrams and later Jacobs, Whyte, and others. Demolish judiciously. Replace the unrepairable strategically. Leave standing viable buildings ranging from modest apartment houses to structurally sound tenements to run-down brownstones in need of remodeling. Discourage erosion of industrial space. Invest in transit. Respect and enhance existing schools, community services, and social institutions, all of which contribute to the critical social fabric necessary for stable neighborhoods and cannot be created from scratch. This strategy—Urban Husbandry was how I described it in The Living City—left plenty of room for needed demolition of the hopeless tenement or commercial building. But the basic stability of socially cohesive neighborhoods was not further destroyed. And a good deal of the city’s wide variety of economic activity was not massively dislodged. (Studies have shown that one-third of dispossessed firms went out of business—a rate significantly above normal business failures.)

Revisionists argue that Moses did what he did because of his love for the city. Even that is questionable. He didn’t love New York City as much as he loved his view of what it should be, how it should function, what should replace it. He reshaped New York in his image and with it cities near and far. As Lewis Mumford points out, “In the 20th century, the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.”

Of all the harmful urban strategies Moses perpetrated, none is as long-lasting and economically destructive as the idea that industry was either dying or dispensable or that its location is easily manipulated. As we will see next, Moses’s thinking on this subject remains fully ingrained in the thinking of New York’s city planners with the power to continue what Moses unleashed.

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