Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The elements are the same: build more roads; more highrises for the wealthy; clear out the poor.

Triumphalists argue Michael Bloomberg's makeover of Manhattan as a billionaire's playground proved Robert Caro's 1974 masterpiece, The Power Broker, wrong.

Indeed, one reviewer notes, as the book enjoys a new anniversary edition in the UK, the glitz of modern New York is just the re-enactment of the beginning of Robert Moses' career. The results will play out in the coming half-century:
Robert Moses was a modernist pharaoh. Over the forty years from the early 1930s to the late 1960s, he became a virtual dictator of public works in all five boroughs of New York and much of its suburban surroundings. Almost singlehandedly, through chicanery, fraud and bullying, he created the modern infrastructure of the New York City area: expressways, tunnels and bridges, but also parks, beaches, swimming pools and high-rise housing projects. He envisioned an American version of Le Corbusier’s ideal city, cleansed of disorder and unpredictability, focused on cars rather than pedestrians, committed to an idea of urban public space as empty plazas dominated by glass towers. He aspired to be a master builder, and his achievements ranged from the elegant – the Art Deco bathhouses at Jones Beach on Long Island – to the catastrophic: the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which destroyed thriving neighbourhoods and displaced thousands of people.

By 1968, when Moses was finally forced from power, the catastrophes had become impossible to ignore. The bridges, tunnels and expressways had intensified traffic jams, not relieved them; the public transport system was perishing from neglect; the destroyed neighbourhoods and high-rise housing projects were all boarded-up windows, broken glass and drunks marinating in their own piss. Moses was becoming a symbol of everything that was wrong with modernist urban planning: its hostility to street life, its indifference to neighbourhood cohesion, its infatuation with cars and the comparatively well-off people who drove them. 
The collapse of modernist grandiosity accelerated a swerve in urban planning towards the view articulated by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which promoted a new emphasis on protecting vital neighbourhoods and allowing for unpredictable social encounters in public spaces. This was a turn to a different modernism: the sort embodied in Stephen Dedalus’s definition of God as ‘a shout in the street’; the sort that celebrated spontaneity, improvisation and play. For half a century, Jacobs’s humane perspective has leavened the discourse of urban revitalisation while at the same time unleashing a flood of preppy bars and cleverly themed emporia – the benign but by now predictable markers of gentrification. Still Moses’s monuments remain: swooping ribbons of steel, clogged with cars; futuristic fantasies of speed, stuck in traffic; concrete embodiments of his modernist hubris. 
While Moses’s utopia was crashing and burning, Robert Caro was writing The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It was first published in 1974. New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy, social breakdown seemed imminent. Elite institutions manifested a siege mentality: on a visit to Columbia University’s Butler Library in the early 1970s, I remember noticing that the floor lamps were chained to the radiators; anything not secured, it seemed, was liable to be carried off. No wonder Caro connected Moses with ‘the fall of New York’. The master builder had become the architect of urban collapse. The Power Broker showed, in overwhelming detail, how Moses’s overreach led to disaster. In the dark days of the 1970s, the book was celebrated as a shrewd diagnosis of the city’s ills; now, when the city is leaking capital out of every pore, New York triumphalists have taken to questioning Caro’s critique, claiming it’s time to revisit Moses’s work. But in the end the revisiting does little to alter the critique.

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