Apologia’s Halfway House

What was most surprising about this spring's Moses shows was that though they sought to overturn this derisive attitude towards their subject, they made no attempt whatsoever to recharacterize the historical significance of his building programs.

On the Robert Moses Exhibits

A real estate developer working in New York City surely finds two aspects of Robert Moses’s built legacy particularly exasperating. Most obviously, there is the very existence of all that lower-income public housing—roughly 400,000 units, built upon hundreds of city blocks, most of which Moses seized and cleared to defuse contemporary criticisms of the mass-displacements wrought by his expressway building. Then there are the expressways themselves, which, much like the public housing, tend to bring down the property values of surrounding blocks, scaring off potential high-end tenants and consumers.

“My goodness!” our landholding entrepreneur might cry, upon learning of Moses’s grandest plans for the city. “What if the man had actually had his way with the Mid-Manhattan Expressway? All those corporate skyscrapers that would never have been built! All those financial consultants and temp labor agents with nowhere to set up shop!”

Hand now pressed over forehead, he endures in his musing: “Or what if he had built the Lower Manhattan Expressway? All those SoHo manufacturing floors that would never have had a chance to be converted into the luxury condominiums where, thank God, the CEOs of Midtown consulting firms and temp agencies are now able to live!”

Reflecting upon what jewels of the here-and-now were almost aborted at their fetal stage, our development devotee experiences an epiphany—or, rather, a kind of “Robert Moses sublime.” He thinks not of the unbuilt Moses projects (of which there are few), but of unbuilding the built ones (of which there are many). Slowly, at first, and hesitatingly, he allows his thoughts to migrate from project to project, reimagining each as a potential real-estate bonanza. But then he dares to think bigger. If there were no public housing projects in New York, and no expressways spoiling lucrative waterfront real estate, why then, the whole city—every inch of it!—could be redeemed, in the image of absolute luxury.


Last season’s series of museum exhibitions (the Queens Museum’s “Road to Recreation,” the Museum of the City of New York’s “Remaking the Metropolis,” and the Wallach Gallery’s “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution”), seeking, quite openly, to recover Robert Moses’s reputation and legacy, did not emphasize this particular antagonism, between many of Moses’s built structures and the current spatial ambitions of the city’s real estate interests. The Moses of the exhibits, which were unusual both for the artfulness of their display and for the openly opinionated quality of their explanatory plaques, was not the Moses whose expressways and housing projects are currently preventing New York City from gentrifying as thoroughly as, say, central London or Paris. Instead, it was the “middle-class” Moses—the builder of middle-income housing complexes like Morningside Gardens and Washington Square Village, of Lincoln Center and the United Nations, of soaring suspension bridges leading to suburban parkways, of Jones Beach, the Astoria Pool, and two world’s fairs.

Such a Moses, of course, did actually exist. Moreover, this particular Moses, this mighty champion of middle-class values, has more often been the source of commentators’ collective condemnation than he has of their esteem. Jane Jacobs was already criticizing this Moses, in her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, for importing suburban spatial norms into her city of sidewalks, stoops, and corner shops. By this time, Lewis Mumford, an admirer of Moses during the 1930s and 40s, and usually an adversary of Jacobs’s, was attacking Moses on similar grounds. He found infuriating the “car culture” Moses built for so exclusively, and, along with many other city-planning advocates of the time, Mumford derided the great bureaucrat for neglecting mass transit.

The impact of these criticisms, however, remained during their time fairly local. It was Robert Caro, publishing, during the nadir of the city’s fiscal crisis, the magnificent and damning The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, who made Moses into a widely reviled figure, shunned by both right and left (albeit for different reasons). Caro laid the entire horrific train wreck that was New York in the 1970s squarely at Moses’s feet. By Caro’s account, Moses, who had started out in the 1920s and ’30s as an idealistic reformer, had by the ’40s and ’50s become power-crazed and egomaniacal, blind to the city’s looming bankruptcy, hell-bent on imposing his automobile-oriented vision upon the region, condescending and hostile towards the urban poor. Caro’s literary treatment of Moses, as modern Gotham’s Faust, has had amazing staying power. Subsequent prominent discussions of Moses have differed slightly in tone or emphasis—Marshall Berman, writing in 1982, and David Harvey, writing in 1990, both placed less emphasis on the tragic aspects of Moses’s hubris and more on his role in facilitating the creation of bourgeois regional space—but all have drawn on The Power Broker in both substance and spirit.

What was most surprising about this spring’s Moses shows was that though they sought to overturn this derisive attitude towards their subject, they made no attempt whatsoever to recharacterize the historical significance of his building programs. The vision of Moses as a tyrant attempting to remake the city in his—or his social class’s—image went unquestioned. The exhibitions’ overall “argument” (for they were too coherent and editorialized to claim any kind of argumentative neutrality) was not at all historical. There was no claim that “we got Moses all wrong.” Instead, the argument concerned aesthetics. It was the look of Moses which the shows chose to reexamine and celebrate. Thus, Moses’s stylized, or “pretty” projects, such as his parks and bridges, figured prominently, while his non-stylized, or “ugly,” projects, such as the city’s many elevated expressways and lower-income housing complexes, did not. This bias was most conspicuous at “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution,” where, in the main hall, Hugh Ferriss’s stately charcoal rendering of an early proposal for the United Nations brooded magisterially astride photographs of Moses’s genial middle-income housing developments. Moses’s lower-income housing projects, though also “superblocks,” and also the result of slum clearance, were almost entirely absent from the gallery (perhaps, in the show organizers’ thinking, such projects failed to meet the requirement imposed by the final word in the exhibition’s title). And, though the exhibition “Remaking the Metropolis” featured a large model of one of Moses’s proposed expressways, as a well a stylized aerial shot of his still-controversial Cross-Bronx Expressway, documentation (whether stylized or not) of how Moses’s urban expressways actually appear to people on the ground was nowhere to be found.

For the purposes of getting the Moses history right, this kind of exclusion, of realities that defy aestheticization, raises an important point of inquiry: If Moses the middle-class aesthete did not build the city’s ugly expressways and its ugly public housing, then which Moses did? There is, of course, the dualistic explanation favored in much of the condemnatory literature—that Moses was both an aesthete and a pragmatic technocrat, who in each guise championed the tastes and interests of suburban commuters. Such an assessment fits comfortably with our current understanding of the historical significance of both expressways and public housing: expressways undermine the city and benefit the suburbs; public housing marginalizes an urban underclass. Yet the assessment does not cohere with the actual scope of Moses’s building programs. If Moses really was championing the interests of white-collar, suburban commuters, why didn’t he build any parking structures in the city center? Why did Moses turn a deaf ear to those actual suburban commuters who were demanding railway improvements? Why did he so often antagonize the interests of the major financial firms headquartered in the city, as, for instance, when Moses and Wall Street business leaders butted heads over his proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge?

To understand just what our man was really up to, it helps to consider the origins of the infrastructure typologies he aggrandized across the urban landscape. The world’s first urban expressway was the West Side Highway viaduct of 1929—a New York structure, as it happened (one not to be confused with the surface-level thoroughfare which New Yorkers today refer to as either “West Side Highway” or “West Street”), and one that slightly preceded Moses’s ascendance to power. At the time, all observers thought the advantage of this elevated structure rather obvious: it would benefit manufacturing and small industries on the West Side, by pulling cars up out of city traffic and opening up the avenues for trucks. That was it. No one mistook the structure for a commuting channel between suburban homes and urban offices. Certainly, no one thought of it as an “invasion” into urban space of suburban values. This sort of interpretive confusion was not to emerge for several decades, when the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 homogenized all limited-access roads into a single national form.

Public housing has a history with somewhat deeper roots, of course, mostly notably in Britain in the early 19th century. But with public housing, too, whether in Western Europe or the United States, the idea was always to maintain and perpetuate the apparatus of urban manufacturing and urban industrial labor. Only in the 1970s, with the shift in global economic structuring, would commentators begin to omit the industrial relevance of urban public housing, and focus instead upon the projects as evidence—or allegories—for the shortcomings of centralized social planning.

The point here—utterly lost on the museum shows’ organizers (who were attempting to redeem Moses!)—is that Moses himself, like so many of his contemporaries, whether architects, bureaucrats, politicians, or fellow power brokers, was attempting (among other things) to salvage New York City’s manufacturing base. It is, certainly, only with manufacturing in mind that Moses’s expressway building ambitions start to make real sense. Urban manufacturing workshops need trucks. Moses (along with, I suspect, every other urban expressway builder that was his contemporary) knew this. Such knowledge is quite discernible in a rendering of Moses’s unbuilt Mid-Manhattan Expressway. This artifact, which was featured at the Museum of the City of New York, was produced by artist Julian Michele in the mid-1950s. It portrays a six-lane expressway barreling down some stretch of Midtown blocks, hoisting overhead a series of identical, blocklike, airborne buildings, presumably added into the drawing so as to downplay the amount of valuable floor space the proposed expressway would annihilate.

The traffic on this imaginary thoroughfare seems to be flowing smoothly enough—not exactly uncluttered, but not bumper-to-bumper either; a more or less realistic portrait of New York motor traffic, when it is actually moving. But then there are the streets down below. They are completely clogged—full of nothing but trucks! At first the image makes no sense. Why would the artist, who is of course taking his cues from Moses, and is presumably trying to sell us on the project, want us to think that the expressway is going to cause congestion on the city streets (and truck congestion, at that)? Then it sinks in. This is the Garment District. Not the current, so-named “Garment District” to which tourists are today directed, but the real Garment District—the Garment District that at one time provided thousands of unionized, blue-collar jobs; the Garment District that was just one small part of New York City’s vast industrial base. This is the main point the rendering wants to make about the potential benefit of a midtown expressway: not that the expressway would clear away traffic from city streets; not that the expressway would allow white-collar workers to commute to their midtown offices (for no parking structures are included as part of the proposal); but rather that this expressway, and more like it, would be necessary if manufacturing was to stay in Manhattan.


That a Moses critic—especially a leftist one, unhappy with the fate of organized blue-collar labor in the great cities of the West—would choose not to articulate this particular history (or attempted history) is unsurprising. In order to vilify Moses as thoroughly as Caro did, such a critic would really have to altogether ignore the important relationship between Moses’s building program and New York’s ill-fated manufacturing industries. Moreover, that Moses defenders overlooked this same history—that they ignored the economically beneficial aspects of Moses’s aesthetically “ugly” constructions—this, certainly, is politically revealing.

Both sides, it would seem, suffer from their own neuroses. The critics are troubled by the whole top-down spatial apparatus that Moses perpetuated on a grand urban scale, even though this apparatus provided many of the institutions—unions, social welfare, politically contestable public space, affordable housing, the right to work—that these same critics call for today. The defenders sense that this apparatus was and still is necessary for the development of an urban class consciousness. But the particular class the defenders have in mind is entirely white-collar—it is not even the middle class of the Keynesian economic context in which Moses operated; it is rather the college-degree-holding class of the neoliberal, service sector economic context operative today. Thus these defenders must consistently ignore those aspects of Moses’s legacy that facilitated the relevance of blue-collar labor to urban space.

The difference here is that while the critics’ neuroses are, at present, conceptually confused and politically directionless, the defenders’ neuroses both reflect and lend an intellectual coherence to development activities currently taking place on the ground. In cities throughout the United States, inner-city public housing is gradually being dismantled, either in the spectacular fashion of the famed Pruitt-Igoe housing implosion in St. Louis, or through banal legal channels that auction off the public realm to private developers. Interwoven into this history of public housing’s gradual demise have been sporadic appendectomies of urban expressways. The West Side Highway viaduct itself collapsed in 1973—precisely as Caro was finishing his New York opus, and as the city was in the throes of its agonizing transition from a manufacturing-based to a service-sector-based economy. A testament to the onetime industrial vigor of New York’s West Side, the highway was never repaired, its ruins ultimately razed in the 1980s. Since this obliteration, urban expressways have come down in postindustrial cities all over the world: in Milwaukee, Portland, and San Francisco; in Seoul, in Paris….

In New York City, ambitious developers now look to South Brooklyn and envision it without Moses’s Gowanus Expressway looming overhead. With this structure out the way (or at least hidden underground), the real estate possibilities for the district are vast: luxury condominiums and grassy lawns along the waterfront, firms and cafés up and down Second and Third avenues, a high-end shopping complex at the mouth of the Gowanus Canal, a privately financed rapid-transit station for Red Hook, fourfold rent hikes in Carroll Gardens. To all this, those residents of the area who see in the expressway only the displacement it wrought a half century ago, but who will themselves become displaced if the expressway is demolished in the here and now, have yet to learn a consistent political language in which to cry foul.

No tangle of concrete expressways, or skyline of public housing towers—indeed, no city planning—could have kept a solid political core of organized blue-collar labor in New York. The pressures that drove urban industries to the suburbs, and then to the Sun Belt, and then overseas, have been, simply, too global and too imposing. Yet—by neither intention nor fluke—these anachronistic urban infrastructures have turned out to do something: to resist the total co-optation (which has assumed such names as “redevelopment,” “gentrification,” and “architectural renovation”) of urban space by a hegemonic class. At stake is the only space—the city—in which confronting this class has ever been possible.

It now seems a foregone conclusion that, unlike many generations that have come before, the present one will not have its urban revolution, wherein a wayward coalition emerges between the city’s exploited laborers and its educated but dissatisfied youth. This is lamentable; wasteful, even. Now, ironically, if it seeks any redemption at all, such a generation must hold on to the ugliest constructions of Robert Moses (or of his counterparts elsewhere), to these lingering artifacts that symbolize the unbending pitilessness of a former authority, but that also maintain, in their palpable misplacement, the possibility of a spatially contestable political future.

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