The Design Observer Group

Posted 02.04.10

Timothy Mennel

Working for the People

Robert Moses, 1938. [Image credit: via Fortune Magazine]
A Coordinator Is What Is Needed
Limited objectives are best, especially when one has limited means. The city planner who presents for action a two-hundred-year program is inviting a ride out of town on a rail in a coat of tar and feathers. [1] There's a peril in dreaming. You can begin to believe your own publicity. It doesn't take much to draw a six-level tunnel, traffic separated by purpose, running the length of Manhattan island, leaving the sidewalks free for the easy contemplation of display windows and the leisurely sipping of a Cel-Ray tonic. But without the means, the economic common sense, and the grasp of the overall state of the city, what's the point? It can never be built. [2]

I am now master of all those things — the means, the sense, the grasp. But I do not collect responsibilities the way others collect stamps or marbles. [3] I am no elemental force of benevolent nature. I cannot solely change the course of rivers, nor even dream of moving stars. [4] I restrict my sprawl to related matters. I am a coordinator, and coordination is but the first step toward the redemption of the city. [5]

There is little separation of public and private now, for there is no development free from every other. The war united the disparate factions of this patchwork country, and we Americans are rewarded now, as we float in an ocean of shared assumptions and purpose, driven to produce and perfect. We rise as on a directed tide, each person’s hope and joy intermingled with the next, every wave motion conspiring with the others, compounding force. The weaknesses and shame of the past are clear, and we strike as a nation toward a brighter future. America is no longer a flooded meadow but a joyous, virtuous, motivated mass.

I believe in human potential. I believe in what can be accomplished on a grand scale. We have the tools and the will to turn our great economy to wondrous ends — new products, more convenience, fresh vistas of leisure. All we need do is focus the public will in union with private ends. We compete with one another only as Spartan athletes did: fairly, honorably, and toward a shared goal of communal virtue. And if a manageable, neat home and a recreational automobile and a job in advertising on Madison Avenue are not the groundwork of a happy life and the summa of human potential, what I ask you is? [6] Even that home is secondary to the dream of it, and the pursuit of order. What vast potential we have, what tremendous resources, what hope.

Cross-Bronx Expressway.
We are entering an age where public and private are no longer at odds. That was the futile battle of the good-government crowd — they tried to regulate business rather than work with it, put it to beneficent ends. A man who wants to make a profit is not a criminal, not in this country. Free enterprise is no tool of fascism but rather the cure of both that disease and the Red one.

But the don’t-tread-on-me crowd needs to see that working in the public interest is to its benefit, not merely some ideological burden or a grotesque obligation, like passing wind. Why, without public enterprise and public works, as well as public law and regulation, all private enterprise would be as healthy and about as attractive as rotting Lazarus before the miracle. Surely we need no phalanx of Harold Ickeses nitpicking every program in sight, but government nonetheless remains the very guarantor of order, the creator of the level playing field. [7]
There is no speculative building without streets, parks and utilities; no shipping without publicly dredged channels and public docks; no railroad without publicly acquired rights-of-way; no airfield without subsidy; no private river crossings; no pure water, no disposal of waste, no traffic control, no protection against crime or fire, and no preservation of health, treatment of sickness, and care of dependents of one kind or another without public works, which increase in complexity and cost with the growth and concentration of population and with the ever-rising demands and standards of an emancipated people. We have tried privatized versions of many of these services in our sooty past, with grim results: firefighters battling one another instead of blazes; mercurial tolls charged on simple spans; and let us never forget the scandal of water provision led by the traitor par excellence, Burr, late of Mexico. [8] How many died for that engorgement of private interests?

Nonetheless, public administration poses its own perils, overreaching and waste foremost among them. The Interior Department alone is such a cacophony of poor definitions as to drown out the sensible work that its minions might in spite of themselves accomplish. Federal money and influence are powerful, tidal forces, and for this reason we need considerable breakwaters and mighty dams against them to channel their power to positive local ends. And if the feds won't take control of their own administration, it needs fall to we local bridge builders and marsh drainers, who must live with the results of profligacy, daydreaming, and malingering. [9]

A coordinator is what is needed, and a coordinator is what I am. I never did like the title "commissioner." The public weal commissions what it needs to suit itself; I am merely the expedient, and I can do no more than what those who provide the funding allow. There is no ego involved here, simply process. [10] More than ever, things need to get done. A walk through any of our slums, shame of the city, can show you that. [11] But no slum can be fixed in a vacuum — each redevelopment is also a transportation issue, and a parks issue, unless we are to simply replace an old tenement with a new one, equally doomed. [12]

We are making progress. The machine is starting to hum, all the parts in place. [13] It’s about time we got back on track. . . .

Left: Robert Moses, 1939, with model of proposed Battery Bridge. [Image credit: Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Photographer: C.M. Stieglitz] Right: Frank Lloyd Wright, with model of the Guggenheim Museum, circa 1947. [Image Credit: Library of Congress. Photographer: Margaret Carson]
Touring the Bronx by Motor Car
"Mobility!" cried Robert Moses as he and Wright watched the fluttering pennants on the Columbia sculls heading north on the Harlem River, "have I got some mobility to show you, Frank. The first steps toward it anyway. We'll never build Broadacre in the Bronx, but we will get the circulation flowing in this old town yet."
Moses and Frank Lloyd Wright were motoring north on the streets of Harlem. [14] Heading past the Polo Grounds, [Moses's driver] Riley could open things up and induce a breeze, all the more so as the road met the shoreline and became simply Harlem River Drive.
“Is this another of your voracious parkways speed-snaking in from the counties?” asked Wright.

“May as well be,” replied Moses, though this particular stretch of limited-access speedway had formerly been a horse track, not fresh construction.
Since becoming construction coordinator, it had been easier for Robert Moses to secure funding for new roads than for all the new housing he had in mind, but that would be coming soon enough. He also now headed the Commission on Slum Clearance, and in that capacity he was drawing up plans that would make the very most of the anticipated federal program for public housing. "We’ve been wringing every dollar of city and state resources possible since '38,” said Moses, "but as soon as next week we could be living in a world where the feds pay for the write-downs needed to bring in private money. [15] Now that is opportunity. We don’t have to rely so much on new land anymore, we can rebuild on what we have."
Wright required an explanation of this. It transpired that the federal government in its wisdom was about to pass a bill that would abet cities in their plans to encourage private development of new housing stock. Slums were everywhere, and they did not suit the times. For the moment, slums were enemy number one, a threat to the body politic, and a sight unworthy of this great land for which so many had sacrificed so much, from blessed Abraham Lincoln onward. Therefore, cities would now use eminent domain to take decrepit private property and resell it in large packages to developers who could rebuild whole blocks; the feds would make up most of the difference between what the property cost the city and what the developers would pay for the privilege.

"And if there is one thing the federal government has always been good at, it’s hurling money at a problem,” Moses concluded. “My only role is to have quick reflexes and sticky fingers, so New York can benefit in proportion to its importance, which is unparalleled." [16]

"If you believe the city is indeed of merit and not unalterably outmoded in a new age," said Wright with a sniff.

"Oh, millions do, millions do. You’re turning your nose up at how people like to live, Frank. Under this new program, we humble locals identify the cancerous slum areas, take eminent domain on them, clear the site, and then sell it at a considerable discount to a private firm — making up that discount is where the feds come in."
Wright wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. And there was such a surprising amount of green and water around them at the moment that it seemed also lunacy to be discussing high-density housing for the poor. “Suppose no private firm wants the site?”
“Only a man who detests the city could imagine that even a square foot of this place might be undesirable, let alone at a 70 or 90 percent reduction. But you make a point, one that I’ve addressed: once this goes through, we’ll be selling the sites outright, let the private firms handle the demolition, too — keeps the property on the tax rolls that way. [17] Clearing the people who live in them now is the part of the job no one wants to talk about. I expect you’d agree with me that plenty of these places have nothing left to love in them, but you never know about small-minded locals, glued to their stoops, incurious about the rest of the city or the world. They have strange, soft ideas. But we can’t have them persist and so blunt the thrust of the project, which is to obliterate every cell of the noxious old and hope for some better result in future. [18] And only private and public money in tandem can both clear the field and construct a wholly new environment, which is the only solution there is for some of these places.”
Mid-Manhattan Expressway (proposed), looking east, circa 1959. 
[Image credit: MTA Bridges and Tunnels Archive. Renderer: Julian Michele]
“Other forces can conspire in that direction,” said Wright. “I found that the chestnut blight at Kaufmann’s estate had left a thoroughly blank canvas. I had to envision the effects of future growth over which I had no control.” [19]

Moi aussi,” said Moses. “I have no control. I’m merely the coordinator. But even so, the situations are not the same. You want to raze the city and not build anything in its place! I should take you to the Brooklyn Civic Center, downtown Brooklyn,” continued Moses. “That’s as clear an example as I have of how this works.” [20]
Not far past the High Bridge, which in the years after hygienic cities had come into vogue had been a crucial crossing in the network that provided Manhattan with fresh flushes of mountain water, the old Speedway path came to an end. Riley slowed, weaving uphill and to the left, creeping through another construction site.
“Well,” said Wright, “what are we to see here? More dreary apartments for rats and vermin? Another concrete tombstone from the pen of Aymar Embury? [21] Tell me, does he do his drafting in embalming fluid? I know you, Mole, cannot help but fall prey to seconds and culls, but surely you could trust the judgments of those with eyes to see.” [22]
“You’ve been seeing what we’re doing already,” said Moses. “The roadway along the shore, the greenery, the water to row in. And here, a revitalized Washington Bridge, with tunnels under 178th and 179th linking it directly to the George Washington. But this is just a freshen up — I don’t need the genius of the Whitestone Bridge for this.”

“Two bridges named Washington mere yards apart? [23] Why must this region be so impoverished in its nomenclature?”
The reconstruction of the Washington Bridge over the Harlem River — a more modest affair than the behemoth spanning the Hudson from the other side of the mid-Manhattan ridge that was here at its spiniest — had only just begun, as part of a far larger undertaking than some trees and a road along a river.

“We’re beginning the Cross-Bronx limited-access road here,” said Moses. “Here and at the other end, in Soundview, in the marsh. Most of it is just lines on a map still, but we can strengthen this bridge, begin to build the connections we’ll need. This bridge has a lot of unused capacity. We’re adding lanes, removing some sad plants — where is a root structure to go on a bridge, I ask you? But this is an easy preliminary. There’s no one to displace here, only traffic, and that stream always comes back stronger for being diverted. Look at it, Frank.”
The tiny old man craned his head out of the puttering car to see the enormous double-arched underside of the bridge across the Harlem. It wasn’t hard to imagine endless trickles of cars poking across it. (Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers, Wright thought, wondering as he had all his adult life how a soul such as Walt Whitman’s could have survived, let alone embraced such a place.) [24] Wright had no mental picture of the rest of the projected journey across the Bronx, however, and assumed Moses would find a way to make it much like the Harlem River Drive and Henry Hudson Parkways: smooth, wooded, and at one with the environs.

Cross-Bronx Expressway (lower left) leading to the Washington Bridge, over the Harlem River, and the George Washington Bridge, over the Hudson River (at right). [Image credit: Ajay Tallam; via Flickr, Creative Commons]
“I thought I heard you say some time ago that the cost of a road across the Bronx would be prohibitive. Has the Mole become inconsistent as he ages?” [25]

“Not a bit. The road will be blindingly costly. But not building it will be the death of this city. Anyway, personal preference doesn’t enter into my responsibilities. Do you think I want to build such a road? Why do you suppose I am upgrading that speedway Riley just tore along if not in the fond hope of routing New England–bound traffic onto it and then onto an improved Bruckner Boulevard? [26] Those roads together make a V around the Bronx, using low-lying water spaces and industrial lands, instead of a hashmark across it. We’re trying the same thing in Brooklyn — going around it on the Belt rather than hacking across. But that’s no longer enough. That mobility you need in Broadacre means more traffic. Here, too.”

“Is that why I hear of your plans for expressways across Manhattan? Well, anything to tear out some of the senseless piles of money-turned-brick, but surely those don’t qualify as easy either.”

“No, no, but any fool can see how crucial they are. To fly through the Hudson tunnels or across the East River bridges only to be met with the very congestion and cantankering traffickism that those projects were meant to deny is an insult to man’s ability to surmount even the worst problems that his own ingenuity can cook up. Some simple elevated runs on Broome and Thirty-first and eventually 125th will speed things up so well that people will wonder how they could have lived without them.”
At this, Wright shook his head the smallest bit. “Can it be that the city’s prisoners would venerate a highway? No true church, that. Horrible to envision.”

“We have to make the space back, of course. We’re saving the city with traffic, Frank, not emptying it out. [27] Possibly we’ll build atop the roads — well-ventilated offices, and some towering parking ramps.”

“Please make me not ill,” said Wright.
They had crossed the Washington Bridge and were now returning southward in the Bronx. Very soon, at 169th Street and University, Riley pulled to a reserved spot. “Oh, hell,” said Moses, looking out, “I don’t think the mayor’s made it here.”
Moses and his cousin stepped from the car and into a dedication ceremony for the City of New York’s 517th playground, overseen by Bronx Borough President James Lyons. This day — more accurately, the wading pool and sand pit that were dedicated on it — had been long awaited locally, and the event was now being witnessed by scores of residents who hung from the windows of their tenements, hot and talkative. [28]

“That,” said Frank Lloyd Wright, peering up at the crowded facade of the apartment block, “is disgusting.” [29]

Moses introduced Wright to Lyons, a jolly shoe salesman who, much as Benjamin Franklin impersonators did with photocopies of the Declaration of Independence, made the Bronx community newspapers vivid with incident, gesture and word. He was, in short, the Bronx’s biggest cheerleader, and about that smart. [30]

“Welcome to the Colossus of the North!” he cried. [31]

Playground dedication, New York City, circa 1940. [Image Credit: New York City Department of Parks & Recreation]
Lyons had crossed Moses before in spats during the La Guardia years, and too often he acted as if he had some say in how authority and federal funds were to be used in his domain. Even worse, he had once implied he was a better swimmer than Moses. [32]

“This man,” said Moses to Lyons of Wright, “is nothing less than a constructive iconoclast, a native original, a courageous and admirable senior citizen who refuses to go meekly at the end of the day. [33] You could learn an extraordinary amount from him, though in part that is because of your preexisting deficiencies.”

Lyons gave Moses a sour smile and said nothing — what was the point? Wright’s face had creased at this eulogy, but he was graceful enough about it. He looked about at all the people and functions crammed into this tiny lot. It was quite difficult for the man who had built a house in a river to imagine any engagement with nature on this hypermanaged spot of dirt.

Lyons didn’t know who Wright was, but he told an assistant to put another chair in the row behind the lectern.

“Listen, Bob,” said Lyons, “what’s the word on the bus strike?” [34]

“Jimmy, focus on the important stuff. Where’s the ribbon? Got the scissors? I’ve got a few scores to settle in my speech. You know, when I started in this racket —” Lyons, who had been Borough President exactly as long as Moses had been Parks Commissioner, nodded along to the familiar conclusion of the sentence, “— there were just 117 of these playpens.”
Just once, he thought, I’d like to hear him say something nice about the borough.

The city controller got up to introduce the dignitaries present. “Robert Moses’s career, in all of its essential details,” he said, “accentuates the positive.” [35] This tiny playground was but another hopeful step toward a better future.

Soon, celebratory balloons were released into the heavy air of the Bronx, and they drifted slowly to the east.