Emerging Issues: Debating Redevelopment by Proxy: Getting Past the Past

June 28, 2010

by Bill Barnes

When Robert Moses died in 1981, his reputation was already, at best, ambiguous.

As Shakespeare's Marc Antony said of Caesar, "the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." So has it been with Moses. Robert Caro set the standard for Moses-bashing in his 1974 book, "The Power Broker," a harshly critical, hugely entertaining, and Pulitzer Prize-winning account of Moses' career.

For half a century in New York, Moses built things. In various roles and from his main power base at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, he led the creation of public works that shaped New York City and environs - 13 bridges, 637 miles of highways, 658 playgrounds, 17 state parks. The list goes on (and on).

His impact and legacy are still fiercely debated in New York and by people across the nation who care about the quality of life in America's communities. They are debated because the past is not a foreign country; we are obliged to understand and cope with the events and ideas that brought us to where we are today.

On the one hand, Moses got things done, especially big projects and especially slum clearance/urban renewal and highway projects, and lots of people like what he got done. On the other hand, his work destroyed viable communities; he wielded his powers autocratically and didn't much pay attention to anyone else's views, especially the people who lived in neighborhoods he proposed to tear down; and he seemed to care more about the movement of cars than the well-being of people and communities. Lots of people don't like all that.

Struggle for City Futures

The Moses story mirrors what happened in many cities, large and small, around the nation. From the 1950s, redevelopment leaders could spend oodles of federal urban renewal and highway money; some had grandiose visions; and they wielded great power to carry out their plans. Communities in the path of these juggernauts increasingly mounted fierce opposition, and other factors intervened. It is not too much to see the ensuing decades as a nation-wide struggle for the future of cities.

The struggle about city redevelopment is often caricatured as Moses vs. Jane Jacobs, "the imperious planning czar versus the tireless public advocate." (Jacobs' widely influential book, "Death and Life of Great American Cities" vigorously presented the case against urban renewal and highway projects in cities. She also joined the community resistance to Moses' plans in Greenwich Village. (See related story, "Emerging Issues: Wrestling With Jane Jacobs," Nation's Cities Weekly, June 21.)

The set-up for these caricatures includes gargantuan projects vs. NIMBYism; dictatorial secret planning vs. endless community deliberation; clearance vs. "organic" or market-based development; cars vs. feet as transportation modes; and, often, wrong vs. right.

These are neat sound bites and great fun. It's an argument about cities and redevelopment carried out by proxy. But it's the wrong debate: this is not all about Bob and Jane; the issues are not only about New York; the either/or options are false choices; and the self-righteousness and tough guy realism are both tiresome.


Nonetheless, recent studies pay homage to Jacobs and continue the polarization and the caricatures. There's also been an effort to reconsider Moses' accomplishments.

In "Wrestling With Moses," for example, Anthony Flint sketches Jacobs' life and her roles in three tumultuous struggles over Moses' destructive plans for Greenwich Village and lower Manhattan. The subtitle - "How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City" tells you what you need to know. "Beach reading for the urban affairs set" sniffed one critic.

Similarly, "The Battle for Gotham," by Roberta Brandes Gratz, examines redevelopment controversies in New York City over the past few decades. She sees everything through the bad/good "Moses vs. Jacobs lens."

These paeans do not serve us well. Nicolai Ourousoff commented, in the New York Times after Jacobs' death in 2006, that Jacobs' legacy has been most damaged by those who treat "Death and Life" "as a sacred text." He pointed to the "New Urbanist" movement as among "the most guilty."


In contrast, three New York museum exhibits in 2007 offered reappraisals of Moses and his works. The general approach was that Moses did a lot of good stuff and that we need both infrastructure (the Moses bit) and community building (the Jacobs bit.)

Many reviews of the books about Jacobs made similar "we need both" points. Probably; but that's just a start and not a very stimulating one at that.

Reflecting on the exhibits, historian Robert Fishman suggested that the Moses revisionism reflects an underlying "concern about the decline of authority in the public realm." Alan Ehrenhalt observed that people seem to want someone "who can assemble civic power and use it benignly rather than arrogantly and destructively." He declared himself "not optimistic" about that happening.

We do need a more careful discussion in many communities about the legacies and ideas inherited from "redevelopment" and its opponents. To do that requires an acknowledgment that the question of power - by whom? for whom? - lurks at the heart of any public issue. The struggle over the futures of cities and towns continues, and the past is very much a part of it.

Bill Barnes (barnes@nlc.orgis the director for emerging issues at NLC. 

To read previous columns, visit the Emerging Issues Web page at www.nlc.org (in the menu for "About cities").