The following is a feature article from the LARB Quarterly Journal: Spring 2014 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $15 monthly level or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com or b&n.com.
I HAVE LIVED within the boundaries of New York City for half a decade, and have spent nearly the rest of my life within its metropolitan orbit. I think it is fair to say that the texture of the city, the entire feel of this place, is defined by the question of space. This makes sense, given that New York City has over 27,000 people per square mile, the highest density in the country. Space is synonymous with luxury. I don’t need to know what a person does, just give me his address. Show me how many walk-in closets he has; I’ll spitball his salary — or, increasingly, net worth — for you.
In Manhattan, there’s nowhere to build but up, of course, so the Billionaires’ Row on 57th Street (where single apartments sell for $90 million — to speculators, naturally) keeps expanding skyward. The structures have grown so tall that they’ve managed to privatize the sun: the shadows cast by some of the larger towers being built will blot out southern stretches of Central Park during the winter months. In the early afternoon, shadows will steal a half-mile of sun from the city’s denizens; by 90 minutes before sunset — which can be as early as 4:30 p.m. that time of year — some will creep a mile inward into the park’s borders. What else can one say? In a (very) Democratic city in a (purportedly) democratic country, we have a new class of sun kings.
There is something cruel in the cognitive dissonance this is bound to produce. The lived experience of New York, even in all its beauty and vulgarity — the dirt, the people, the cost, the noise, the frenzy, the excitement, even the raw moments of grace — simply does not correspond to its foundation myths. Granted, I don’t believe that such a disjunction means that a place like New York can’t actually be extraordinary: when we think of ancient Rome, for example, we are more likely to consider its seminal contributions to political theory and organization, and (no less impressively) its network of aqueducts and roads, than we are to reminisce about the story of two fratricidal brothers raised by a she-wolf.
Still, the divide in New York between what most of us experience, and what we are told we are experiencing, is awfully large. Human lives are necessarily bounded; we all crave some degree of stability and familiarity in our surroundings. But — and here is the heart of the issue — we also have a primordial need for the transcendent. This manifests differently in different people, and varies from culture to culture. But the knot always appears. The question is what happens when the scale of human life is either pathologically miniscule or ineffably grand, but both experiences are inorganic, that is, basically severed from the soil-world. This is a problem for the species, and is certainly not unique to life in New York, but it comes into intense relief here.
Please don’t think I’m making some kind of backhanded exceptionalist argument for big-city life. There’s a common line of reasoning about New York that I like to call the “spinning shit into gold” fallacy. Accordingly, the value of the New York experience is validated by the general difficulty of life here. “Only in New York,” people say, justifying any number of pure insanities. No: for me, the starkness of life here merely provided contrast — I, personally, was never aware of certain fundamental needs of mine until I moved here and those needs were no longer satisfied. Quite simply, I became desperate to be outside: outside the man-made world, not merely out-of-doors and in the street.
So: through the bridges, the roads, the tunnels. The modern problem is the problem of the car. When Walter Benjamin said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” I doubt he could have envisaged a map of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, but, then again, he probably never conceived of a man like Robert Moses. And we can’t really talk about the problem of nature, or the car, or space — any aesthetic question related to New York City or its environs, really — without confronting Moses’s vast legacy. We often speak of a man’s “vision” as if it were metaphorical. In the case of Moses, who was the greatest and most influential builder in the United States in the 20th century, this term can be applied quite literally, especially in New York. His landscape is our own. We see through his eyes.
As Robert Caro reveals in his monumental biography, The Power Broker (1974), Robert Moses shaped the built environment in New York more than any other man before him. He held a long list of titles during his reign: he was, among other things, President of the Long Island Parks Commission from 1924 to 1963, Chairman of the NY State Council of Parks from 1924 to 1963, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Parks from 1934 to 1960, Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (forerunner to today’s Metropolitan Transit Authority) from 1934 to 1968, and NYC Planning Commissioner from 1946 to 1960. It is unlikely, given the crucial period he was in power — from 1924 to 1968 in New York State, and from 1934 to 1968 in the city — that anyone will ever have similar influence again. Between 1924 and 1929 alone he completely reshaped Long Island. And, as impressive as this résumé appears, it does not even come close to conveying the true extent of Moses’s influence or power. Using the budget surpluses gained through toll revenue (on the Triborough Bridge, Battery Tunnel, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and so on), Moses headed a vast patronage network that made him nearly untouchable. He controlled a powerful fiefdom for over 40 years that neither governors nor mayors could control. If Moses wanted a road built, or a bridge constructed, and that road was going to cut your neighborhood in half, or even run right through your apartment building, City Hall and Albany were generally powerless to do anything about it.
With the exception of the FDR Drive, and portions of the Bronx River Parkway, Moses is responsible for just about every major thoroughfare in the New York metropolitan area. The entire parkway and expressway system in and around New York is his creation. He built — at minimum — 16 expressways, 16 parkways (that stretch some 416 miles), and 7 bridges within the boundaries of New York City alone. Moses’s parkways, in particular, were designed to maximize the pleasure of the driver, even if that meant ignoring the needs of pedestrians. In practice, that meant constructing roads as close to desirable aesthetic features as possible; that also meant making those features inaccessible to non-drivers, walling them in, creating dangerous physical barriers between them and the most beautiful parts of their city. Moses perched the Henry Hudson Parkway on the right bank of the Hudson River, which severed the riverfront from the rest of the island; he also rammed the parkway through the heart of Inwood Hill Park, the last piece of ancient forest on the island of Manhattan. He built the circumferential Belt Parkway right smack on the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront, cutting city residents off from New York Bay and Jamaica Bay. Today, on both the Belt and Henry Hudson, you can watch as cars race past panting joggers, who inhale the fumes that drift over to the pedestrians’ meager real estate beside the maw of the highways.
To build on this order of magnitude was no mean feat. For his bridges, highways, and tunnels, Moses demolished whole city blocks, destroyed whole neighborhoods, instantaneously unmade whole communities. Caro estimates that Moses’s highway projects forcibly removed a quarter of a million New Yorkers from their homes — if his “urban renewal” projects (such as Lincoln Center) are taken into account, the number creeps upward to nearly half a million. Five hundred thousand people, all displaced by fiat, in New York City, in the 20th century. We have not even begun reckoning with the social, political, and psychological consequences of this fact. I’m not sure we even acknowledge that it is a fact.
An unreconstructed elitist and a racist, Moses disdained public transportation, although he never learned how to drive. (He had a state-financed limousine chauffeur him from place to place.) Famously, he built overpasses on Long Island just low enough so as to preclude commercial buses filled with (largely dark-skinned) members of the hoi polloi from traveling to his beachfront state parks. He built public pools all over New York City (although, conspicuously, not in black or Latino neighborhoods), instructing that they be kept at a very low temperature, as he believed African Americans did not like cold water. Unsurprisingly, it was African Americans and Latinos who were disproportionately forced out of their homes by Moses’s grand projects: his highways — he built five expressways simultaneously through New York City in the first postwar years — and his “urban renewal” projects.
Moses thought the future of the city was tied to the car, and therefore invested nothing of his vast resources into public transportation; in fact, he actively opposed the improvement or expansion of mass transit. For example, when he built the Whitestone Bridge, connecting the Bronx and Queens, public transit advocates lobbied for a rail track on the bridge, which would have connected mainland New York State with the Long Island landmass via a direct mass transit line. This would have made it possible for someone from, say, Westchester County to get on a commuter train with his family and bypass Manhattan entirely. From the regional transit hub in Brooklyn, he could have taken a train directly out the Long Island beaches. This could have shaved hours off the trip — and offered an easy route to Long Island for those without a car. Moses refused to build the track, and so, to this day, no direct route exists between mainland New York and Long Island, even though three bridges — all built by Moses — connect the two landmasses.
Moses imposed this pattern for the 44 years he held power. It has determined the overall growth patterns of the region ever since, locking us, as Caro noted, into Moses’s vision of New York for decades, if not centuries. For example, when Moses built the Long Island Expressway into what were then the hinterlands of Long Island, rail advocates practically begged him to widen the median so a commuter line could be built in the future, if funding could be procured. While this would have come at minimal cost, Moses refused to do so. Because there was no public transportation built, low-density housing was built in the region. Pedestrian-oriented commercial districts never materialized. Housing developments sprang up around highway exits, not towns. And all of the new residents of these developments drove to their jobs, which were almost all still in the city. When the highways became clogged and full of despairing, alienated commuters, Moses’s answer was to build more highways, which he claimed would reduce congestion on the first thoroughfare. But they never did: highways, later urban policy experts were to conclude, create their own traffic. They fill themselves.
Today, New Yorkers have the longest commutes in the United States. Traffic congestion is among the worst in the country — although not as bad as Los Angeles — despite the fact that over 30 percent of area commuters take public transit to work, the highest such percentage in the country. Four of the 10 worst congested roadways in the country are in New York City; the single worst, the Cross Bronx Expressway, was rammed through the Bronx from 1948 to 1963 by — who else? — Robert Moses, decimating the communities it tore through.
It is dreadfully sad how difficult it is for New York City’s 8.3 million souls — 19.8 million in the metropolitan area by recent estimates — to access green space, since they suffer from such a marked nature deficit, but also because the surrounding region happens to be exquisite. Even though the Northeast is the most urbanized region of the country, one does not need to go far to find moldering leaves, iridescent brooks, stands of sentinel hemlock, the whole irregular curving Eros of forest topography — all of the hushed beauty of the woods. Many city-dwellers would be surprised to discover the extent of the wildness that surrounds us. Southeastern New York State alone is blessed with the scoured gorges of the Hudson Highlands, the ridgetop dwarf pine barrens of the Shawangunks, and the spring-fed trout streams of the Catskill Mountains, where fly-fishing was invented. “In the deep glens where they lived,” wrote Cormac McCarthy of such brook trout, “all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.” We need contact with this world. Nature, ironically, is a civilizing influence.
This becomes obvious if one thinks about the effect a city’s few green spaces have on its populace. In New York, most of these parks are wholly man-made, thus showing the power of even the barest approximation of wildness. Central Park was designed with this imitative flattery in mind: the North Woods section of the park was specifically designed to transport the visitor to an Adirondacks of the mind. Thanks to the humane genius of Frederick Law Olmsted, Central Park’s co-designer (with Calvert Vaux) and first superintendent, the park has become sacred ground; so too has Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, which Olmsted and Vaux also designed. Everyone adores these spaces. They offer respite. They provide common, unpurchasable ground in a city where almost everything is for sale. This makes them seem ahistorical or timeless, which is a grave mistake.
Just look at the history of Central Park. Right from its planning stages, city politicians, led by the corrupt Tammany Hall Democratic regime, sought to undermine Olmsted’s vision for the space. Tammany saw the park as an opportunity for profit, not as a potential public good, and when the two conflicted, the park would always be the loser. In 1854-1855, Tammany politicians, eyeing rising land values, even attempted to expropriate land already set aside for the future park. (The plan would have made 72nd Street the park’s southern limit, and also called for it to be narrowed for its entire length by 800 feet.) This plan failed; other, lesser attacks on the park succeeded. One only need walk through the park today to see that. Olmsted wanted Central Park to offer relief from the “incessant emphasis of artificial objects” that defined life in New York. Robert Moses filled Central Park’s North Meadow with baseball diamonds, converted a sheepfold into the expensive Tavern on the Green (and later attempted to tear down an adjacent playground in order to build a parking lot), and straightened park roads so cars could better speed through them. Olmsted designed great meadows for anarchic merriment, not the enforced monoculture of ball fields. Elitist restaurants such as the Tavern were never meant to exist within the park’s borders, being anathema to Olmsted’s egalitarian ethos. Allowing cars — on high-speed thoroughfares, no less — to cut through the park would have been seen by him as an act of aggression. Pavement is always a holocaust for the natural world.
In New York, as elsewhere, anything good for normal people — anything that increases our felicity or contentment, or somehow ameliorates the barrenness of contemporary urban life, has been fought for. It has to be fought for. In a city where everything can be bought, every inch of public space is subject to potential recolonization by private interests, or capture by the hubris of a few men. There is a Robert Moses State Park in Long Island, accessible by the Robert Moses Causeway. There is a Robert Moses State Park in the Thousand Islands region of far upstate New York, along the St. Lawrence River. There is also a Robert Moses State Parkway in western New York, abutting Niagara Falls. The parkway, which has cut pedestrians off from the waterfall gorge for decades — and is roundly detested — is finally slated to be demolished. No one, to my knowledge, has ever suggested renaming Central Park after Frederick Law Olmsted. Could there be a higher form of tribute? What is truly of all of us never need bear one man’s name.