Building and Rebuilding New York


For nearly half a century, urban planner Robert Moses wielded unprecedented power over the city and state of New York. He built highways, bridges, parks, pools, public housing, Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center, and the United Nations—and he wasn't averse to seizing private property in the process, sending bulldozers, wrecking balls, and detonation crews to displace entire neighborhoods. In her engaging new book The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, the journalist and urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz chronicles Moses' reign and the unlikely resistance it sparked from the writer and activist Jane Jacobs, author of the landmark 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Associate Editor Damon W. Root spoke with Gratz in February.

Q: How did Moses and Jacobs each view urban life?

A: Moses is big, top-down, a lot of clearance, very automobile-centric. Jacobs is respectful of neighborhoods, a transit advocate, an advocate of the civic voice. By my calculation Moses displaced probably close to a million New Yorkers out of a population of 8 million. With his departure in the early '70s the city had an opportunity to organically regenerate. That was an organic regeneration along the lines of what Jane Jacobs wrote about and advocated. 

The city we have today emerged in that process. The most popular neighborhoods and the most livable neighborhoods in New York today are the ones that Robert Moses never touched, and the weakest and least desirable are the ones he did.

Q: How much power did Moses have?

A: He controlled essentially all the construction in New York City and a good deal of New York state in terms of roads, housing, and urban renewal. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority—that was the key source of Moses' funds. He could spend all the money from the tolls on the highways and bridges. When the federal urban renewal program was developed in Washington, he was first in line for the big bucks. And the press loved him. There was no real spotlight on the kind of abuse he practiced. He called the people "animals" when they opposed him.

Q: What was Jacobs' impact?

A: First and foremost, she was a very important thinker. Secondly, she was an important activist, and her participation in the fights against Moses inspired people all over the country to do the same. She articulated what a lot of people instinctively thought but did not have the courage to act on because they were told they were standing in the way of progress. She empowered people to recognize that they knew what was best for their neighborhood. She understood that the economy doesn't grow if you bulldoze the small businesses that together form the foundation of an urban economy. So much of today's understanding and appeal of urban neighborhoods was found in her book in 1961.

Q: You say that New York's current use of eminent domain on behalf of Columbia University and the Atlantic Yards stadium is "Moses redux."

A: The Moses approach is a total clean slate. In the Columbia situation, it's basically total demolition of a functioning and in fact regenerating neighborhood. It's displacing businesses and residents and reusable buildings. In the case of Atlantic Yards, it's abolishing buildings that by no stretch of the imagination can be called "blighted." You cannot call a building "blighted" that has apartments that sell for $600,000 to $1 million. That is the most absurd definition of blight imaginable.

Q: Moses once said, "If the ends don't justify the means, what does?"

A: It is the antithesis of the democratic approach to getting things done. We are a country in which process is as important as the goal. We don't set the goal above the process. We don't set aside democracy in order to achieve a goal —at least that's not what we stand for.