December 23, 2019

IF YOU UNBUILD IT THEY WILL COME:

This Is Why Your Holiday Travel Is Awful : The long, sordid history of New York's Penn Station shows how progressives have made it too hard for the government to do big things--and why, believe it or not, Robert Caro is to blame. (MARC J. DUNKELMAN, 11/29/2019, Politico)

I first encountered Penn Station as a college student in the mid-1990s. Back then, a stream of stories promised that the station was about to undergo a transformation. A decade and a half later, the station had barely changed at all. Having spent years in and around Democratic politics, I wanted to understand why going into Penn Station was like walking through a time warp.

So I began calling friends who'd had senior roles in state and federal government, and then sought out some on the long list of people who had spent a portion of their careers working on the project. No one had ever traced the full sweep of the efforts to remake the station, and why they always failed. Trying to make sense of the swirl, I built a timeline on a spreadsheet, which grew to nearly 600 entries. After years of research, a picture began to emerge--one that, beyond the scope of any given anecdote, told a dispiriting story about the futility of present-day American government, and reshaped my view of progressive politics.

The story of Penn Station's halting redevelopment comes in three separate waves of effort that rose up to replace the current squalor--and then, in the first two cases, crumbled into nothing. Pundits and editorials have tended to blame a rotating cast of characters for the rot--the railroad that owns the station, the state bureaucracies that have neglected it, the private real estate interests that have hemmed it in. But Penn Station has actually languished at the hands of another simple reality: No one has the leverage to fix it. The sad state of America's most important train station stems more from a failure of power than a failure of leadership. And shockingly enough, that's not by mistake--it's by design.

The roadblocks that prevent projects like Penn Station from quick completion were erected after a quiet but enormously consequential shift in progressive thinking--a transformation that began in the 1960s and still reverberates today. For the previous century, reformers ranging from Teddy Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson had sought to combat the pernicious influence of political machines and corporate trusts by consolidating public power in the hands of expert technocrats, men (and, to be clear, they were mostly white men) driven to pursue the broader public interest. But by the early 1970s, the old progressive vision had shattered. No single event may have pointed the new way more clearly than the publication, mere months before Richard Nixon's resignation, of Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

Caro's 45-year-old masterpiece, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, is often billed as a biography of New York's most important 20th-century builder, an unelected official who remade the city's landscape between the mid-1920s and the late 1960s. But the 1,296-page book was also an indictment of government power that has since become a core tenet of progressive thinking. Since the 1970s, even as progressives have championed Big Government, they've worked tirelessly to put new checks on its power--to pull it away from imperious technocrats who might use government to bulldoze hapless communities. And it's that impulse to protect the powerless from the abuse of public power that is most responsible for the morass that is Penn Station.

Since the mid-1960s--really since the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island--no major new piece of public infrastructure has been built within the five boroughs of New York City. New York has managed to rebuild when bridges and subways failed and, in the case of the World Trade Center, when buildings were destroyed by terrorists. A handful of new subway stops have opened on Second Avenue, and the 7 Line was extended into Manhattan's Far West Side. Gov. Andrew Cuomo managed to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. And he's rebuilding terminals at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. But those changes are a pittance of what New York once built year upon year, and just a fraction of the public infrastructure a booming city demands. The subway system is falling apart. Entire neighborhoods are transit deserts. Century-old tunnels that connect New York and New Jersey are beginning to fail.

Why aren't there new subway lines connecting impoverished corners of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens? Why does freight traveling from New Jersey to Long Island travel by truck across Manhattan and not by rail? Why does the Port Authority Bus Terminal languish amid calls for an upgrade? Why does luxury housing sprout like weeds while institutions that serve the middle and working classes are left to languish? Why, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a letter to Gov. George Pataki in 1995, does it seem as though America has "lost the touch for famous things"?

Penn Station, like so much of the region's infrastructure, remains in tatters today not because men like Robert Moses are no longer on the scene, but because the system in which Moses operated has been replaced by an entirely new, and remarkably dysfunctional, architecture. Beneath America's deep frustration with government is something else: a deep-seated aversion to power. Progressives resolved decades ago to prevent the public from being bulldozed by another Robert Moses--and the project to diffuse power to the public has succeeded. But the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. The left's zeal to hamstring government has helped to burnish the right's argument that government would mess up a one-car parade. The new protections erected to guard against Moses' second coming have condemned new generations to live in civic infrastructure that is frozen in time.

The Big Dig was a spectacular success, by getting rid of or hiding Mosesian infrastructure and making the city more livable. And New Yorkers love High Line Park.  How about tearing out more ugly infrastructure in exchange for redoing the train station?

Posted by at December 23, 2019 6:11 PM

  

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