Thirty-four years after his masterwork “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” was published, author Robert A. Caro addressed a crowd of hundreds interested in the current exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, “Robert Moses and the Modern City: Remaking the Metropolis.”
As Caro explained, his 1,162-page book – which won the Pulitzer Prize and quickly became a modern classic – was not as much about the massive urban projects that Moses “got done,” but about the power he amassed to get them done. As a young Newsday reporter covering local politics, Caro encountered the Moses name on the roads he drove on, the beach he went to, the tennis court he played on: in other words, everywhere. He wondered who Moses was and how he came to do what he did.
In fact, Moses was city parks commissioner and held literally a dozen other titles between 1930 and 1960 that sound far more prosaic than were the eventual uses to which he put them.
“If I could find out where he got his power, how he used it and how he shaped the New York I knew, I would be showing the reality of power, the essence of urban power in the 20th century,” Caro told those assembled on Feb. 11 to hear the writer most responsible for creating the largely critical conception of Moses that the three-part exhibit (also at Columbia University and the Queens Museum of Art) is now re-examining.
As Caro documented so exhaustively, the essence of urban power is about the process through which power is exercised. The process moves either from the top down, which is to say from City Hall out, or bottom up, when actual people affected by built projects participate from the beginning of the process that shapes those projects.
Process is the key word more than power or project, but the three exhibits’ emphasis is on projects. Considering the present, another symposium held by the museum was quite enlightening. On Feb. 1, Dan Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, and Majora Carter, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, among others, discussed process – and by implication, power – in New York City’s development decisions of today.
Doctoroff went to great lengths to distance himself from the famous Moses recipe for making omelettes by breaking eggs. “I believe we have found a new model for getting things done,” he said. “I don’t believe you have to break eggs.”
The question should not be whether his model is a Moses model. As powerful as Doctoroff clearly is, he is not Robert Moses and no one ever will be again. But the “new model” he described is still very top-down. Moses exhibited one form of top-down, but there are many variations.
In fact, this “new model” of the process started even before Mayor Bloomberg’s election in 2001. “We brought into office a fully formed agenda around the Olympics,” Doctoroff said. The process he described involved bringing in “developers, architects, engineers, and planners who worked together” on the “development of underutilized areas of the city along two mass transit lines.” Now, he says, “every area covered in that plan is undergoing a renaissance.” Doctoroff didn’t specify which neighborhoods he was referring to, but the plan for the Olympics covered various areas in all five boroughs.
Doctoroff’s definitions of “underutilized” and “renaissance” are in conflict with the view of many of the affected stakeholders in those neighborhoods who watch viable areas either become classified erroneously as blighted or, at the opposite extreme, watch residents and businesses pushed or priced out as new projects emerge. (How the buildings on the Atlantic Yards site can be classified as “blighted” when investors are paying $600,000 for a condominium across the street has not been explained.) These local people are not necessarily averse to change, but they are averse to alien change that transforms their communities rather than strengthening them.
When stakeholders are part of the process designing the change, instead of only reacting to it after “experts” decide on the content, then the final projects have a better chance of reinforcing neighborhoods – not replacing them. Public acceptance is more likely.
Ironically, such public agreement was the characteristic of the program Doctoroff was referring to when he said: “For 40 years after Robert Moses, pretty much nothing happened … with one exception – Mayor Koch’s housing program that revitalized neighborhoods across the city.”
But the Koch housing program is notable because it was shaped by the stakeholders and community-based developers who were solving the city-owned abandoned housing problem before the city could figure out a solution. Eighty thousand city-owned housing units were renovated and added to the housing stock, mostly through the city’s program, during that period. Wisely, city leaders under Koch followed the stakeholders’ lead, and success was enormous – not a big public project in one place, but many smaller projects making impacts all over town. And this doesn’t even count the impact of what was done in the private sector with privately owned properties.
(And in light of the state of the city and national economy during those 40 years from the late 1960s until now, apart from the housing program, much more than “nothing” happened: creation of the rail link to the airport and Battery Park City, the reclamation of Central Park and many other parks, the preservation and restoration of historic neighborhoods, plus other projects that add up to the renewed city we celebrate today – and, perhaps most significantly, the rebuilding of the subway that was in a near state of collapse in the 1970s.)
It is also instructive to look at the projects that Doctoroff cited as moving ahead since “Bloomberg came into office and everything changed.” Hudson Yards is an area of Manhattan with great potential for redevelopment even though scattered with viable but not-so-visible economic uses. That redevelopment potential was unleashed with the defeat of the stadium and the current booming economy. Atlantic Yards is moving ahead, indeed, against great public opposition. Sadly, it’s a perfect example of a project that could have been a win-win if stakeholders had helped shape it. Its countless flaws could have been minimized and positive potential maximized. The High Line is, of course, a Bloomberg administration victory because in this case, they listened to the fierce community opposition to the Giuliani administration’s plan to tear it down.
The moderator of the Feb. 1 panel, architecture critic James Russell, said it best: “We are still really primitive at the public involvement process … and keep getting surprised by the vehemence of public resistance. …We still rely too much on the one-way public hearing process and buy people off with community benefits packages.”
Few people absorb the true meaning of the term “public participation.” Much is done in its name that is less than participatory. Listening to peoples’ reactions to an already conceived draft plan is not the same as having some of those people at the table participating in drafting that plan. Using the Internet and public meetings to collect reactions to a plan is surely not the same as including the communities themselves in the development of plans for appropriate change in their neighborhoods.
Majora Carter, whose group Sustainable South Bronx is trying to improve life in that area in many different ways, offered another view, generating the only real dissent of the evening. Citing several ways that communities are not genuinely being listened to, or worse, ignored, Carter first praised and then criticized City Hall.
“The Bloomberg Administration should be commended for following environmental justice community leadership on the solid waste management plan,” she said. “And it is a good thing we have a mayor talking about sustainability beyond his term. However, those are exceptions and not the rule when it comes to big trophy projects – whether stadiums, malls or jails – back-room deals are made, then proposed to the public, and when they hear something counter to their pre-determined agenda, say we don’t understand what’s in the best interest of the city.”
Then Carter cited an innovative, community-initiated process that has occurred in recent years but has seemed largely ignored by powers that be: the development of a plan by a community for major change there, a proactive effort to encourage growth and change.
“My agency and our partners have created an inspiring vision for a Bronx Eco-Industrial Park,” Carter said of the Oak Point area, part of Hunts Point at the southern tip of the Bronx. “A collection of businesses that process and use recycled materials with easy rail and barge access – incorporating jobs, citywide solid waste mitigation, fewer trucks, greenway development, and a more healthy future for Bronx residents.”
The plan, supported in part by city funding of $86,000, also called for a small 400-bed retention facility for which the community planned to provide a job training program. “But that vision is under imminent threat from a 2,000-bed jail the city wants on that site,” Carter added.
That drew a response from Doctoroff later. “There are big divisions in that community,” he said, “about jobs on the one hand and environment issues versus more jobs.”
“Not true, Dan,” Carter interrupted. “We like jobs. We also want to breathe.”
To which Doctoroff replied: “We’ve been very sensitive to that, trying to come up with a plan to satisfy everybody. At some point, you have to move forward.”
While the issues of the jail and the community-based eco-industrial park proposal left the audience more confused then enlightened, it did seem that a few eggs were being broken for the Oak Point omelette.
What this exchange did help underscore is that there are still residual Moses-style issues in the exercise of power today worthy of closer scrutiny, along with the re-examination of the Moses legacy. Top-down planning does not need an omnipotent czar like Moses to happen.
As Robert Caro said, referring to the “human cost of the expressways” – we “can’t separate the ends from the human costs of getting there.”
Roberta Brandes Gratz is the author of the books “The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way,” and “Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown.” She is the chairman and founder of The Center for the Living City at Purchase College, established in collaboration with urbanist Jane Jacobs, to build on her work.