Moses and Modernism: New York’s 20th Century Urban Planning Woes

How city planning innovations in the 20th century affected New York City.

The planning of New York City took a drastic turn in the 20th century, in some cases for the better, and in some, for the worse.

The planning of our cities and urban spaces is a monumental aspect of the cities we live in, as it defines where and how citizens of said cities live. The layout, architecture and style of a city has instrumental effects on its citizens’ culture and way of life for as long as it exists.

Despite this, many cities, specifically American cities, have only somewhat recently developed in the past century, what historians refer to as the “modern era” of city planning. This has led to the implementation of political ideologies of the time into the fabric of the planning of these cities, many of which are visible when we look upon the planning of our cities today.

Traditional cities were not necessarily planned, but rather, simply grew in unorganized fashion as demand and population increased; this is evident in the majority of European cities which date back centuries. However, American cities were developed differently, and, in the 20th century, many existing cities were reformed and re-shaped using modernist approaches.

The beginning of this ideology sprouted in the late 19th century with the emergence of the City Beautiful Movement. At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition — essentially the 1893 World’s Fair — in Chicago, vast (but temporary) neoclassical buildings were developed around the city’s south side, in an attempt to model the future city: one filled with beauty, grandeur, and nature. At the time, cities were polluted, dirty and riddled with waste and disease; the idea was to redevelop this mess into a planned array of parks, boulevards and recreational spaces, essentially eliminating the grimy conditions and amplifying the morality of the city and its residents.

Over the last decade of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century, urban planning underwent vast changes in accordance with proposals and styles of certain planners. The ideology of these newfound political proposals centered around fixing the problems current cities of the time had, including pollution, congestion, and filth, and ushering in a new era of cities.

Along with the City Beautiful Movement, the Garden City Movement emerged which was developed by Ebenezer Howard, and centered around large-scale planning, of which private units were limited in size and consisted of cooperative ownership. Additionally, there was the Radiant City movement, developed by Le Corbusier, who envisioned a city style consisting of uniform skyscrapers, gardens and linked highways.

Most NYC housing developments followed the style of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City movement.

Corbusier’s plan was radical, calling for the elimination of city streets, slums, and tradition, which he thought would in-turn eliminate congestion. These movements were based upon the core elements of modernist city planning, a style which centered around the political ideology of capitalism, and follows simplicity, uniformity, and the elimination of tradition.

Perhaps the closest and most prominent implementation of some of these elements, some of these characteristics of modernism, in our cities is evident in New York City, and this is thanks to essentially one man: Robert Moses. Moses is commonly viewed as the “master planner” of New York City, and he was arguably most influenced by these modernist principles: uniformity, simplicity, the political ideology of capitalism, and the modernist movements by Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier.

Moses never actually held an elected office position, but despite this, he was the head of many offices and authorities in New York City during the mid 20th century. Moses was responsible for the construction of the majority of the city’s parks, beaches and other recreational areas; this development of recreational spaces was a critical element of modernism, which aimed for the expansion of beauty and greenery in cities.

However, modernism of this time held a car-centric view, and the emerging importance of highways took priority for Moses. Moses is responsible for building the majority of New York City’s highways and expressways, including the Belt Parkway, BQE, the Northern and Southern State Parkways, and the infamous Cross-Bronx Expressway. Moses was also responsible for building numerous crossings, including the Triborough Bridge and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, of which he initially pushed for a bridge instead of a tunnel, which would have essentially destroyed Battery Park.

The Brooklyn Battery Bridge would have been built right next to Battery Park, essentially destroying its beauty.

Additionally, Moses developed numerous housing projects in the city, including Stuyvesant Town, which closely mirrored the Radiant City movement of uniform buildings connected by pathways, and a lack of streets or businesses. These city projects elevated the status of New York City and brought it into a modernist light for the first time in its history.

Despite Moses’ projects benefitting the infrastructure of the city, they were not without controversy. In fact, they were riddled with controversy. Of course, the majority of New York City was already developed before Moses entered the picture, which means that many of his projects destroyed the homes, and even entire neighborhoods, of the residents who lived where his projects were to be built.

Moses essentially viewed the city as a place to exercise his infrastructure ideas, viewing much of the city as outdated or inefficient, and ignored the views of the citizens whose lives he would affect to make his plans a reality. This is evident in his commissioning of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which tore through The Bronx and devastated neighborhoods.

Marshall Berman, lifelong Bronx resident, author and philosopher, had his neighborhood destroyed by the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway. In his work ‘Robert Moses: The Expressway World’, he describes this as:

“…vistas of devastation stretching for miles to the east and west as far as the eye could see…our ordinary nice neighborhood [was] transformed into sublime, spectacular ruins.”

According to Berman, when asked about the destruction of homes and lives of countless residents to pursue his projects, Moses said:

“…There’s very little hardship in the thing. There’s a little discomfort and even that is exaggerated.’…the only difference here was that “There are more houses in the way . . . more people in the way — that’s all…When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.”

Essentially, Moses could care less about the citizens whose lives he was destroying to create his master plans, which would benefit those at the top, and leave those who had no say about their lives being destroyed at the bottom, which ultimately reflected the capitalist view of modernism, of which Moses took plenty of inspiration from.

Fortunately for many, another hero emerged in the fight against Moses, and this was the journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. Jacobs moved to the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan during the Great Depression, and took on journalism, initially as a freelance writer. Jane Jacobs was against government urban planning and promoted an alternative vision of citizen-based decisions, where the people would actually have a say in the city projects that would affect their lives.

Jacobs viewed the essential spatial components of healthy urban life as togetherness, where citizens of a neighborhood can define a neighborhood based upon their very own culture, essentially defining a city not by its civic projects as Moses thought, but of its unique blend of cultures. Jacobs uses the sidewalk as a primary example of this: in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she argues that the sidewalk unites people and cultures of a neighborhood, encouraging interaction, socialization, and the overcoming of racial and class segregation.

“The point of both the testimonial banquet and the social life of city sidewalks is precisely that they are public. They bring together people who do not know each other in an intimate, private social fashion and in most cases do not care to know each other in that fashion.”

Jacobs was openly opposed to many of Robert Moses’ projects, viewing them as destructive, especially to those whose homes and neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for his projects. At one point, Jacobs was in a similar position to many of those at the bottom, whose lives were devastated by Moses’ projects: the Lower Manhattan Expressway, or LOMEX, was planned by Moses to cut through Lower Manhattan, dividing and destroying the neighborhoods of SoHo, Tribeca, Greenwich Village, and others, and the lives of their residents.

Jane Jacobs fought against the construction of the LOMEX, and was successful.

A resident of Greenwich Village, Jacobs organized rallies and campaigns to stop the building of the LOMEX, and she was successful, as the project was canceled. Of this, Jacobs stated,

“Greenwich Village, where I live, was waging an interminable and horrendous battle to save its main park from being bisected by a highway. During the course of battle I undertook…to deposit in stores on a few blocks of our street supplies of petition cards protesting the proposed roadway.”

Chiefly, thanks to Jacobs’ courageous determination and organization, the neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan remained intact, allowing for the unique culture of those areas to survive and thrive to this day.

The planning of our urban centers is instrumental in the function of those urban centers. By studying the history of how our cities were planned, as well as recognizing the political, economic and social ideologies of the time which drove these plans, we as citizens can gain a further understanding of the city we live in, how it functions, why it functions the way it does, and why the cultures blend the way they do.

In a diverse city such as New York City, where it is said that every culture on Earth resides and blends, the properties of modernism during the mid 20th century, its political ideologies, and its influence and eventual implementation by Robert Moses, is fundamental to this concept.

However, it is important to recognize that although Moses ultimately shaped the way the areas around his works developed, such as the areas around the Cross-Bronx Expressway, he did not shape the initial elements of the city which his projects avoided, including Greenwich Village, of which the efforts by Jane Jacobs helped to save that area from destruction and ultimately preserve that area’s unique architecture and culture, which is a snippet into the pre-Moses era of the city, and remains to this day.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.

Native New Yorker. Pizza, Sports, Games, Life. Writing about whatever my heart desires. Follow me for more articles!