Taking a meat axe to Manhattan for a highway

This retelling of efforts to build a highway across lower Manhattan include this graphic description of what Robert Moses was proposing:

Even Moses acknowledged that his methods were extreme. In fact, he had a term for it: The meat ax. New York, he argued, was already so dense and complex that you had to make cuts somewhere. Sure, other newly-planned metropolises could preserve history and make sure everyone was happy. But according to Moses, New York City needed drastic measures, as he argued in a quote from The Power Broker:

“You can draw any kind of pictures you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra and Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis you have to hack your way with a meat ax.”

Imagine a bureaucrat saying that today! It was a time before preservation and urban advocacy existed in organised form. Preserving the grit of the city was a laughable idea — the city needed to be purged of its dirt, not protected…

This strange, antiseptic mindset can be traced alllllll the way back to Europe at the turn of the century, when academics and architects first started thinking about cities as living networks. The sociologist Georg Simmel, writing in 1903, was the first to really describe how cities affected the mental outlook of their inhabitants — city dwellers, Simmel reasoned, were blasé, even neurotic, because of the impersonal, overwhelming, and money-obsessed demands of the city.

But to the architects of 1920s and ’30s Europe, the city wasn’t just neurotic. It was actually sick. The thinking went that a city’s ills — crime, poverty, you name it — could be linked to its poor design its thoughtlessly narrow alleys and dirty streets, its crumbling tenements and poor plumbing. Le Corbusier described “the Cancer of Paris,” as Andrew Lees recounts in his book about the urbanism of the time.

If cities or neighborhoods are diseased, planners and others can justify all sorts of actions. Urban renewal in the mid 1900s operated on a similar premise: slums (often home to non-whites or immigrants) could not be redeemed and instead should be replaced with land use that would be much more valuable (and make a lot more money for developers and politicians). Why should older buildings or poorer residents stand in the way of progress for the city and region? Thus, many American cities moved forward with plans that did what Moses suggested: used a meat axe to chop away land from existing neighborhoods for highways, high-rises, and other land uses. While some of these projects have since been reversed (think the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco) or others never got off the ground (see freeway protests as detailed by historian Eric Avila), other projects continue to influence city life. In Chicago alone, think the major expressways in the city including the Eisenhower, the Dan Ryan, and the Kennedy as well as the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.

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