Joel Schwartz, The New York Approach: Robert Moses, Urban Liberals, and Redevelopment of the Inner City, 1993

Robert Caro’s seminal work, The Power Broker, served as the definitive historical work on Robert Moses and New York City’s urban redevelopment for over twenty years. However, recent museum exhibits (three in New York circa 2007 alone) and historical works have begun to reevaluate Moses, NY, and Caro. Caro’s Moses, tyrannically ruled the metropolitan region easily casting aside opponents, reshaping New York single-handedly with the force of a natural disaster despite the lamentations of New York’s liberal populace. Joel Schwartz’s The New York Approach confirms much of Caro’s viewpoint but also modifies several others. For Schwartz, Moses did not rule by fiat, rather, his successes came through careful negotiation and compromise. Moreover, Moses' redevelopment only occurred because of the consent by the liberal establishment that Caro argues resisted Moses much of the way.

Undoubtedly, Robert Moses built a machine within New York government that exerted great influence and power. Both Caro and Schwartz acknowledge this fact, as well both authors begin with the legacy of New York progressives such as Al Smith and others (Caro’s work spends much more time on a variety of subjects as his work runs over 1000 pages). Unlike Caro, Schwartz identifies several themes emerging in Progressive thought concerning redevelopment that laid the groundwork for Moses efforts. As others such as Ewen, Odom, Wright and Clements have noted Progressive reformers viewed working class communities and homes as problematic. Reformers believed the working class home, cluttered, crowded and often externally unimpressive, served as a seed for dysfunction and family trauma. In addition, as others have noted, the informal networks key to working class survival eluded reformers who only saw disorganization and chaos. Influenced by the social sciences of the day, reformers applied scientific and quantitative tests to such communities determining them problematic, thus accepting “the real estate dictum of “highest and best use” the greatest return on investment in urban land.” (16) While many historians have portrayed redevelopment as following the public housing movement, Schwartz argues that “redevelopment went hand in hand with public housing; in New York, the cradle of the housing movement, redevelopment came before it.” (25) Essentially, reformers established dubious standards for “residential decency” that were then marshaled in the name of “urban progress” to clear out whole sections of the city for public housing and similar ventures such as the “city beautiful” movement. Tenants relocation often came as an afterthought if at all. The new housing that emerged in such areas frequently excluded former tenants if not through screening methods then through economics. The idea of reversing urban decay and the broader public good dominated reformers and developers. Progressives such as Mary Simkhovitch even operated as brokers or mediators between neighborhoods, the municipality, and developers. Progressive dedication to development as much as the interests of real estate industry and the city established the general attitude and discourse of mid-twentieth century urban development. Moses simply harnessed dogma to his own ends.

World War II presented Moses with a unique opportunity. Distracted by war and dedicated to a “united front”, Moses took “inventory” of city resources and needs, establishing numerous plans for development. Having priorities and plans prior to the 1949 Housing Act proved key in not only New York but also Chicago in terms of organizing development and the eventual appropriations of federal dollars [see Rossi and Dentler]. Still, Moses also depended on establishment liberals, “It also depended on the grudging approval of a generation of city planners, who could support the ends, if not the means, of Moses style renewal. The times as much as the man shaped the prototype for the redevelopment to come,” writes Schwartz (85). For example, communities targeted for slum clearance and renewal often purposely attracted municipal attention as Schwartz notes “civic groups defined norms of homogeneous community life, which used class and race to measure what was on the discordant fringes. These steps were carried out by self-proclaimed citizens committees, executives acting in plenary sessions, and planners who stamped their sketches “confidential.” (144). Liberals and conservatives alike believed in the Progressive era belief in development at all costs. Though many claimed to be creating stable interracial neighborhoods, such efforts were more class based and exclusive as often large numbers of working class minorities and some whites found themselves evicted, stuck with self relocation due to renewal efforts. Moses did use public housing as a crutch for relocation complaints, which resulted in a skewed racial population in public housing since nonwhites were disproportionately affected by development efforts. Schwartz goes to great lengths illustrating that neighborhoods courted development even brokering it. Moreover, organizations believed to be traditionally left leaning such as Columbia, NYU, Bellvue, and local unions often consented, aided, or in NYU and Columbia’s cases, drove redevelopment. Schwartz even argues that in the case of NYU and its leading advocate Edwin Salmon, Moses acted as a brake on development as Salmon spouted off ambitious redevelopment plan after another.

A general mindset pervaded most active players in development. The idea being that cities required development and tenants needed to be shifted to other parts of the city in order for this to occur. Promises of relocation frequently fell short. Worse, the intellectual disdain that nearly every academic exhibited toward industry along with planners belief that industry took away from cities, led to development that set the “preconditions” for the deindustrialization that would occur in the latter half of the twentieth century. Since no city or federal agency had been assigned the task of monitoring job losses, few took notice as tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs fled New York. With a growing population of working class Puerto Ricans and African Americans whom depended on such employment, New York’s decline began. Finally, Moses' racism though evident failed to pervade all aspects of his thinking, “in Moses mind, the need to clear “colored” slums was distinct from but no less urgent than the need to clear tenants occupied by whites.” (115). As historians such as Kenneth Jackson and others have pointed out, though Moses built few parks, pools, or other public works in minority communities at the time, racial succession altered the communities in which public works emerged. Thus, many of his accomplishments intended for white neighborhoods, now serve predominantly minority neighborhoods. Also, Moses did attempt to follow rules regarding integrated housing and development but met headlong into private resistance which altered his future attempts. Liberals may have been uncomfortable with failed relocation and the appearance of “negro removal”, but nearly all dedicated themselves to renewal such that they believed the good outweighed the bad, throwing their support behind much of Moses’ efforts.

Besides Schwartz’s push back against Caro’s legacy, several overlapping themes concerning urban renewal emerge. First, the liberal consent that led to slum clearance and development in Rossi and Dentler’s The Politics of Urban Renewal appears to an even greater degree in The New York Approach. Both the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference and its New York counterparts wanted to “stabilize” neighborhoods which nearly always meant eliminating at least some minorities from their communities. Second, both cities developed organizations and plans for redevelopment ahead of federal programs, thus, when such programs emerged each could provide plans and details for renewal, facilitating their activity. Third, the Chicago Hyde Park example served as a critical influence on other development projects especially in the case of Columbia and Morningside such that they hired a University of Chicago consultant who advised avoiding vertical restrictions (racially based) but embracing horizontal restrictions (tax breaks, mortgages, subsidies, which essentially established an economic segregation equivalent to a racial version)[Elizabeth Wood formerly of the CHA was also contracted to provide information and studies for New York development]. Fourth, in each case the public interest or public good was often utilized to justify policies that baldly affected certain populations more than others, “liberals formulated the removal of blacks and Puerto Ricans in the language of community.” (162). Fifth, the importance of public relations and the utilization of public interest language served as key tools in gaining community assent which accelerated renewal processes. Failure to consider such aspects led to social and political conflict (SWPK example). Sixth, the public-private nature of development nearly always favored the private sector as tax breaks, incentives, land costs, and numerous other economic tools were employed by both municipalities to gain economic and political support. The private sector often dictated through the appearance of negotiations, the terms, “The private sector forced Title I beyond many of the political and social constraints that Moses accepted for operating in the liberal city … In the city that pioneered constraints on the profit sector in the 1930s, quasi private redevelopers emerged with no guidelines whatever, except for the limits that people of goodwill agreed upon with the construction coordinator. Whatever Congress might propose in 1949, the New York approach had already moved in its own direction.” (143).

Other points to consider …. The use of public spheres and “language of community/public interest/public good” … Gregory, Sanjek look at this in more recent years esp. Gregory who examined how such languages are appropriated by all parties …. Civic groups in NY and Chicago used the public sphere to designate areas as “blighted”: and the like, Schwartz errors a bit here failing to acknowledge that FHA policies and the like encouraged civic associations to identify communities in this way…

The World City Trope – Moses and others pushed the need for development b/c of NY’s global nature … a continutity can be seen here with Gregory and Sanjek who suggest the global city argument is false and second, has been used in recent decades to justify Manhattan centric development policies … Sanjek takes great issue with Sassen’s the Global City in his work

— Critics have noted that though Moses thought little of public housing, under his watch NY built more than it had ever before and he did push back against a business only approach placing the public realm above simple capitalist interests.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License