Failure can often be attributed to inaction–“failure to plan,” the overused saying goes, “is planning to fail.” But sometimes, even forthright goals can lead to actions with calamitous results–commendable efforts to curb society’s ills can cause more problems than they hope to solve.
In the case of Robert Moses, New York City’s proclaimed “master builder,” the man responsible for reshaping America’s largest city with massive bridge building and infrastructure projects, it would take decades before the true cost of “progress” could be assessed.
Moses didn’t suffer from a failure to plan. Far from it. While Moses never served in an elected position, instead seizing power of numerous New York municipal authorities and commissions during his half-century tenure, he nevertheless wrought huge change on the city’s landscape. His plans for massive public works projects manifested themselves in a state-wide parkway system, in the Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone and Verrazano-Narrows bridges, in vast urban renewal programs including the “towers in the park” style Stuvyesant Town housing project, in the 1964 World’s Fair and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, in Shea Stadium and Lincoln Center. Moses influenced the destiny of even the United Nations, exerting his influence and power to secure, prepare and ultimately build the international organization’s world headquarters on 44th St.
Moses never failed to plan. Instead, he planned on a grand scale. Conspicuously missing from his plans, however, were the people they intended to serve.
While Moses never obtained a driver’s license, like Le Corbusier, his work often turned to considerations for the automobile, and planning for its use in society. He envisioned transforming the city landscape with limited-access expressways, some winding through skyscraper-lined canyons. At the southern tip of Manhattan, Moses’ plans called for a massive Battery Park bridge and a bowl full of spaghetti-like access roads. Similar proposals were designed to criss-cross the island. According to critics, his plans were deaf to stakeholders–in Battery Park, plans would have destroyed the park’s historic value.
Moses’ plans lavished millions on major infrastructure investments and engineering feats–with little consideration for the people living in those places. Highway and bridge projects made open spaces accessible for city residents, but conversely, made New York’s core accessible from previously isolated areas.
Once implemented, the glossy plans for bucolic roadway and parks projects drafted by New York’s so-called “master builder” often had unintended, insidious consequences. Including and especially, as the quarter-billion-dollar Cross-Bronx Expressway project revealed, for New York’s historic neighborhoods.
As detailed in Robert Caro’s seminal Moses biography, The Power Broker, Moses’ Cross-Bronx was a colossal feat. Slicing below-grade between rows of existing buildings, an army of workers cut “a deep gash in the earth 120 and more feet wide and a mile long,” wrote Caro. Residents of East Tremont, just one of the diverse working class neighborhoods of the South Bronx subject to Moses’ scalpel, described a life during the construction process as nothing short of living in a war zone. Coupled with Moses’ power to build great freeways was a largely unfettered authority for eminent domain–the Cross-Bronx Expressway drove residents out of East Tremont as fast as it could truck new asphalt in.
“As they left,” reports Caro, “the chief reason for staying in the neighborhood left with them. ‘To me, East Tremont was friends,’ Cele Sherman says. ‘When there was a Jewish holiday, you met your neighbors on the street, walking. Well, one Rosh Hashanah, I walked down from my house down Clinton Avenue to Southern Boulevard, crossed over and walked back, and didn’t meet one person I could say ‘Hello’ to. What was the sense of staying?'”
Thousands of families were displaced to make way for the Cross-Bronx corridor. Neighborhoods were permanently destroyed. The true costs of the project were never weighed against its benefits. Moses did not, perhaps could not, factor the social costs (the value of strong families, strong neighborhoods) or cultural costs (the value of strong religious, cultural and social traditions) into the overall equation. Robert Moses once said: “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize.” Residents of the South Bronx were powerless to do either.
How could Moses and others behind massive public improvement projects have equitably incorporated the thoughts of residents into decision-making? Can the intangible benefits of a thriving community be weighed against the marketable value created by a freeway? These questions went largely unasked in the city planning practiced during Moses’ career–in New York and elsewhere.
The Cross-Bronx Expressway was not the last of Moses’ projects. However, as Caro notes, it marked a turning of the tide. Moses would encounter formidable opposition–including the legendary urban advocate Jane Jacobs–as he approached later projects.