Robert Moses wove enduring racism into New York's urban fabric


#1

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2016/08/22/robert-moses-wove-enduring-rac.html


#2

But at least he never ran for president.


#3

“Jacob Riis Park . . . placed out of reach of the poor”

No tiny irony there.


#4

Moses did this work a century ago. Has nothing improved since?


#5

Speaking of irony, a guy named Moses fighting for the oppression of a people who were imported for slave labour?


#6

I guess it’s that where you plant trees, the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree…

(okay I was shoehorning that in, but when I hear Bob Moses I will now think of institutionalised racism…)


#7

Oh I’m not disagreeing. But I think plenty of other people build and maintain that racist system, and still others work to make things better, and in the end, is a plan laid out one hundred years ago really the city’s biggest problem?


#8

Well, that’s the thing with initial structural biases–they tend to influence subsequent structures that are then built on them over time. Heck, look at computer programming–how many pieces of utter BS are there in coding systems right now because some coder in the 1980s kludged together some piece of shitty code that was then propagated? Founder effects on systems can have massively disproportionate effects due to that kind of inertia and influence.


#9

[quote]the one pool built anywhere near a black or Hispanic neighborhood was kept at a “deliberately icy” temperature, because “Moses was convinced that Negroes did not like cold water.”[/quote]I’m confused as to how an urban planner’s powers should extend to the choice of whether or not to install a water heater.


#10

Moses was given carte blanche to do what he considered necessary. Since then we have acknowledged there needs to be public overwatch and budgets established for similar activities.

We’ve also been spending money to fix other issues, like public housing or more local parks. The overpass issue to Jacob Riis has been fixed and buses can now travel there easily, but most of his most damaging work was in the 40’s and 50’s.

We’re trying, but he caused a lot of damage that people are reluctant to take away because of the destructive nature revisiting those neighborhoods again. The Big Dig in Boston has resulted in a very engaging downtown but at the cost of 22 billion and ten years of overrun to dig a four mile tunnel. People watch that sort of thing with interest and horror.


#11

Because he extended his powers over such things. I mean, it seems nuts now, but you need to know that he was in his role for decades and decades, taking on things that didn’t have anything to do with large scale planning.


#12

When the effects are as far reaching as his, yes. Demapping the WTC was a direct result of his superblock concept that gave us Lincoln Center. Lincoln Center has just finished a large renovation to make that entire plaze much more pedestrian friendly as a result of actions from fifty years ago. The WTC has put the streets back in with an acknowledgement that they will increase people actually using these buildings.

New York is totally still suffering from Moses’ actions and is still striving to increase street use to more than just vehicles to link neighborhoods together again. His use of highways at the expense of parks and trees has a major impact on the quality of life, especially for the poor who have to live above or adjacent to these roadways and suffer the negative impacts to their health and safety.


#13

It has, but the scale of of Moses’s work is astounding. Take the much debated parkway bridges. Replacing each one is a multimillion dollar project. Things like the exit ramp for one of the busier bridges in the country are an even bigger project. Couple that with the fact that the people hurt by the current status quo are the traditionally powerless and those helped by it are some of the biggest power brokers around and you have a recipe for a continued problem. Then you get to things like the severing of the South Bronx and a multi decade disinvestment in public transit, which really can’t ever be fixed in a meaningful way. The guy shaped the infrastructure in the nation’s largest city during a period of some of the largest infrastructure investment we’ve seen. We probably have another century or two before we really get out of his shadow.


#14

It might help to understand that little of what he did came out of the paper definition of a city planner. He wielded a lot of his power through back room politics and his official title changed rather frequently. For example, he was on the City parks commission, while he sat on the Triborough Bridge Authority.


#15

Much of it was built to prevent improvement. The example of The Long Island Motor Parkway is one, but that’s not the half of it. Moses built a good lot of the highways heading out of the city out towards and through Long Island. All of them were built with those characteristic low over passes. But it isn’t just the height of them that’s an issue. They’re fantastically over built. Low, wide arches built of solid reinforced concrete and stone. Taking up far more room than they need to. The intent was to prevent buses and freight trucking from ever using these roadways. To that effect the overpasses are prohibitively expensive and impractical to remove. So the roadways can never be expanded. You can’t add lanes to these things without spending more than would be wise. And AFAIK the intent wasn’t exclusively racist. Aside from preventing blacks from taking public transport through these areas, he wanted to prevent other sorts of poors from doing the same. And on the other LI roadways the intent was to prevent working people from commuting in and out of the city, regardless of race. These were peaceful country roads for the well off to enjoy as they headed out to vacation homes.

A lot of the buildings, parks and other structures have similar restrictive weird. Moses was involved in building Stuyvesant Town and Cooper Village. Manhattans weird borderline gated communities. Big chunks of otherwise normal urban communities. City Streets, businesses, and vibrant ethnic communities. Were bulldozed. In their place you have over built apartment housing, college quad like private park land, and no commercial space what so ever. The city grid was removed, and replaced with narrow private “loops” that simply hit a central park and loop back onto the street they came from.

You can’t really re-introduce, or reconnect to the city grid in the expect way. There are apartment buildings where the streets should run. You can’t really add commercial spaces or additional housing, as the extent buildings are all placed in very weird ways to prevent any available empty space from being used as anything else but empty space. Its all very creepy in Stuy Town.

That was Moses’ “genius” he build things in a way that was specifically designed to prevent them from being altered, improved, integrated into the city. He used architecture and infrastructure to force the hand of future generations. Anything he touched you basically have to tear entirely down and start from scratch if you want to fix the issues its causing. And even when there’s another option. Its always more expensive than simply working on something else. Limited resources mean that much of Moses’ worst contributions still linger.


#16

I’ve seen similar problems before, and it always makes me wonder if the billionaires are expected to hire millionaires to clean their mansions? Who does the low-wage jobs?


#17

Billionaires have live in servants! Your woefully adequate financial standing is showing.

More seriously I think in Moses’ case the deliberate under service, poor development, and other shit shows seated on the Outer Buroughs was the answer to that. Keep out lying areas full of the poors (but poor whites! Like those filthy Irish). But don’t expend any money or effort there if it can be avoided. The Moses road ways go to places like beach communities outside the city. They’re intended to connect ritzy folks to amenities not available in Manhattan and richer/whiter parts of Brooklyn and Queens, or to wealthy bedroom communities outside city limits. Those communities and amenities were likewise segregated and restricted from public access. The… unique innovations Moses came up with were intended to make them impractical for any other uses. Buses and trucks couldn’t fit. They take long, often strange routes through wooded areas, so they take much longer to drive from point A to point B than they should. They’re only 4 lanes (2 in either direction) so they cant cope with much in terms of traffic volume. They can’t be expanded to compensate for commuter traffic. All the overbuilding (seriously his shit is often build like a fucking bunker) and weird positioning made them future proof.

None of this stuff was intended to eliminate poor neighborhoods or tenements. Or to exclude any particular ethnic group or the working class from the city as a whole. It was all intended to keep all it all suitably separated. The poor folk are over there and I could give a shit if they rot. So long as they take their 3 hour commute to pour me my coffee in the morning. Its just base segregation, but baked into the landscape and driven most significantly by race, but also by ethnic biases and class biases.


#18

Well, originally Lexiington and Madison Avenues were where the poor servants lived, just behind the mansions. Then the subways arrived and now the poors could be shipped off for their hour commute and the back quarters could be rented out to a nice middle class couple instead.

The subway was for the poor, not the highways. It’s not like they own cars after all! [clink-clink my good man!]


#19

Well not in New York City - who would?


#20

I know some people, mostly Brooklynites. Definitely Bronxers. A few in Queens. Nobody in Manhattan. Staten Island… if I knew anyone on Staten Island…