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.

The history of the American Interstate before President Eisenhower

An excerpt from a new book, The Big Roads by Earl Swift, suggests the link between President Dwight Eisenhower and the American Interstate System is limited as the plans had been laid during the FDR administration and Eisenhower simply helped put together the Federal financing.

There is little doubt that the Interstate Act of 1956 was important as the Federal government promised a large percentage of the funding for new roads that would connect metropolitan areas. But students of American highways already know that highway planning and construction had already taken place before Eisenhower signed this bill:

-The Long Island Motor Parkway was a private highway opened in 1908 and later transferred to the State of New York.

-Robert Moses is renowned for his efforts to introduce highways to the New York City area.

-The Pennsylvania Turnpike was built across the state (with the first part opening in 1940) and other states, such as Ohio and Indiana, built roads to connect to this.

-In the Chicago area, highway planning had begun in the 1930s and several of the major highways, including the Congress Expressway (now I-290), the East-West Tollway (now I-88),  and the Tri-State Tollway (now I-294), were primarily built by the state and completed before 1960.

-There was a motorways commission formed in 1930 that that produced a framework for American highways.

Regarding highways, there was a lot that took place before Eisenhower became President and I may have to check out this book to see how it tells this story.

Turning Robert Moses’ life into a musical

Among American planners and builders, Robert Moses is a towering figure. In much of the early 20th century, Moses exerted a tremendous amount of power in the New York City region and had some impressive achievements. What better way to honor him than to turn his life into a musical?

This Saturday the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra is offered a sneak peak of “Robert Moses Astride New York,” a musical about New York’s infamous infrastructure czar. In honor of the event a reporter from the New York Times watched a recent rehearsal in the company of Robert Caro, author of the Pulitzer-winning and iconic biography of Moses, The Power Broker. Caro, it appears, enjoyed the performance:

Mr. Caro said he was particularly pleased by the musical’s last section, which recalls Moses’ dedication of a bench in Flushing Meadows, one of the parks he’d built. It is the poignant scene that concludes “The Power Broker,” in which Moses wonders why he wasn’t sufficiently appreciated.

Turning infrastructure into song. I would be curious to read the lyrics to the other songs to see how Moses, a polarizing figure, is portrayed.

How many people outside of New York City are aware of the legacy of Robert Moses?