July 26, 2010


Clear and Hold: a review of The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs by Roberta Brandes Gratz (Casey Walker, Boston Review)

Moses often acted as though the meat ax was the only tool at his disposal. Linger on some of his most shockingly misconceived plans and one begins to intuit how tendentious his reading of the city really was, and how many viable, or potentially viable, neighborhoods were lost under his bulldozers. Large sections of the South Bronx, for example, are either gone or have never recovered from Moses’s road-building and blockbusting.

SoHo, once a “blighted” neighborhood, is a counter-example, where Moses’s knock-down plans were defeated. The neighborhood may well be less interesting than it used to be—the artists who crowded downtown Manhattan in the 1980s are mostly a memory, the once-cheap converted warehouse lofts in Cast Iron buildings cost millions, and large retail chains and tourists are ubiquitous—but if Moses had his way, there would be no gentrification or tourist traps to lament. He proposed to bulldoze 45 acres of Cast Iron buildings (this was before the days of Landmark Protection) and give the city, voila, the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Moses is perhaps most famous for the fervor with which he loved his roads. He saw vehicular traffic as the key to New York’s long-term success. He was far from alone in this belief. At least since the dizzying polemics of the Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier in the 1920s, making way for the automobile seemed synonymous with making way for the modern city. Moses had little of Le Corbusier’s flair, but he did seem to share the belief that the decaying, crowded city would not survive without major improvements in its circulation, without more highways and parkways to bring goods and services to it and through it.

Moses’s missing term, of course, was the pedestrian, and for this reason his road-building suffered from chronic overreach. He wanted to put a road through New York’s Washington Square Park and, less often remembered, a highway through New Orleans’s French Quarter. If these mere suggestions boggle the mind now, that perhaps illustrates how far we have come, how successful Jacobs’s vision, among others, has been at inculcating in city-dwellers a historical consciousness, a desire for preservation, a vision of the city as more than a machine for producing efficient car traffic.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 26, 2010 4:13 PM
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