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Published John Wiley & Sons - 2001
CHAPTER 2 - Orders ::
The essential architecture of New York emerges from three distinct structures: the grid, the climacteric of the 18th-century republican enlightenment; the park, the grandest demonstration of bourgeois sentimentalism; and lastly, the highways, bridges, mass transit and mass housing of 20th-century progress. In an exact sense these are products of changing political and social orders as the emerging republic seeks to manage reality.
Imagine three maps superimposed one on the other. At the first level are the patterns of the streets that form the five boroughs of New York: the rigid grid that covers most of Manhattan. Created by a public decree, it imposed itself on the borough through the 19th century until it slowly gave way to the more random orders of streets driven by private speculation. At the next level are the parks: the mothering figure of Central Park and formal parks and cemeteries in all the surrounding boroughs which give way to vast stretches of undeveloped land acquired by the city in the late 19th century, both for recreation and to receive the dead. And lastly, overriding all, are the broad bands of highways that ring the water's edge round all five boroughs and cut latterly through the Bronx and Queens, running the full length of the eastern edge of Queens to divide it from Long Island. Just as the grid forced the leveling of Manhattan, these highways recognise no natural barriers as they bridge rivers and bays and ride high and roughshod through neighbourhoods.
Manhattan: The Commissioner's PlanBetween 1811 and 1821 a team of men laboured to place 1,647 markers in the earth and rock of Manhattan, at the intersecting points of a precise grid that would give order to the island's future. Their task took them through the extensive wilderness in the interior of the island and on to the many private estates and farms that had grown along the water's edge for 100 years and more. Across the fields and forests they carried, and drove in, 1,549 white marble markers, 3 feet 3 inches long and 3 inches square, engraved with the numbers of the intersecting streets and avenues that would cross these points and define the city. And when they came upon rock they hammered order into the bare stone with 98 iron bolts, the street numbers forged on to the metal. They were led by a young surveyor, John Randel Junior, who was the author of this most radical of city plans.1
Imagine the conceptual force of this act. The colonial city with its late medieval street pattern ran barely a mile north of the fortified southern point of the island. By the mid-18th century the city, as it expanded north, became increasingly rational in its form. The 10 miles and more of Manhattan Island north of the colonial town was a mixture of forests and rocky ridges, with ancient farms and small settlements along the shoreline. The hills and dales of the interior formed many small valleys whose streams flowed into ponds and extensive marshes. Forcing a marble and iron trace of order across a rural and wild landscape had to be done with axe and scythe, in the face of persistent hostility from landowners, hunters and squatters.
It is too easily forgotten that this ruthless marking of a new order was the product of the modern world's most successful revolution. The signatories of the Declaration of Independence immediately faced the problem of devising the means to achieve social cohesion in the new republic. They were all children of European monarchies which maintained order from the top down through the structures of rigid class systems, reinforced by standing armies and by a Church that recognised the divine right of kings. The new republic had no such structures. It had to invent arrangements that would be driven, with equality, from the bottom up and expected its citizens to take up arms to defend their country and sacrifice private desire for the public good. Such reliance on the moral virtue of their citizens made republican governments fragile. The only lessons from history came from small republics that were almost continuously in arms; such a model was not inappropriate for this grand mercantile project. The answer would lie in the application of just and neutral law to all things.
The need to plan for the future of the city was recognised in the first decade of the century with the feverish rise in its expectation of commercial growth. In 1804 the New York Common Council gave instructions that a plan be prepared 'for new streets to be laid out and opened'. In 1807 the state legislature appointed a streets commission to propose a plan for laying out 'streets, roads, public squares of such extent and direction as to them shall seem most conducive to public good'. It was to do so in such a manner 'as to unite regularity and order with Public convenience and benefit, and in particular to promote the health of the city' by allowing for the 'free and abundant circulation of air'. The recommendations of the Street Commission, which included Gouverneur Morris and Simeon De Witt, surveyor general of New York State, would have the force of law. In the light of what is to follow, note that 'Public' is an idea of such significance that it must be capitalised; it has replaced the Crown as the ruling authority.
The first task was to carry out an accurate survey of the island. The person chosen to do this, John Randel Junior was still in his early 20s and had been surveyor to General Simeon De Witt. He aimed not only to produce a survey 'with an accuracy not exceeded by any work of its kind in America', but also one that blended with Manhattan's topography. He wrote, 'I superintended the surveys with a view to ascertain the most eligible grounds for the intended streets and avenues, with reference to the sites least obstructed by rocks, precipices, and steep grades and other obstacles.' This suggests he was initially considering a plan which would sit gently on the rocky landscapes of the island; the results could not have been more different .
Randel reported regularly to the commissioners, for whom the form of the plan was a matter of deep concern. The record reflects their discussion as to 'whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some of these supposed improvements, by circles, or ovals, and stars'. Randel's survey was completed in 1810. It provided a scientific mapping of the coastline and a detailed delineation of the topography and water flows of the island. It showed an island essentially unchanged since the Ice Age, a rocky and forested wedge, 4 miles at its widest and 12 miles long. The commissioners determined, with Randel's advice, that a hard and constant grid would be the appropriate order in which to lay out a comprehensive and permanent system of streets on the island. Their reason: 'They could not but bear in mind that a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight sided and right angle houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.' They determined that this future city would consist of 12 north-south avenues, each 100 feet wide and, at intervals of 200 feet, 155 cross streets, each 60 feet wide. The Act that had created the commission made its decision 'the final and conclusive law unalterable except by state action'. The grid, though vastly disruptive, was accepted without debate. Thus New York City became bounded by 'one grand permanent plan'.
Forming cities on a grid has ancient history reaching back to the beginnings of civilizations, and in the Unites States the setting of both Savannah and Philadelphia was as much an affirming social order as ana ct of convenience. Though the Colonies may have seen a liberating element in the order, it is salutary that the grid that defined the aristocratic suburb on the west of Berlin was laid out in the same years as Savanna the 1730's. However the commissioner's concept of the city is in marked contrast to the theatrical Romanization that Schinkel was adding to Berlin in the same years. Berlin and Europe continues to retreat to historical realities while the planning of New York would deny history.
Randel was requested to engrave this sweeping rational order on to the plate of his just completed survey. The resulting drawing, 106 inches by 30 inches, was printed in 1811 and henceforth was known as the 'Commissioners' Plan'. In the months that followed its publication each permutation of the 12 by 155 grid was carefully carved into marble posts and forged into the iron bolts that Randel forced into the land to establish the new order. Forcing this abstract order of reason on to the natural skin of the island seems a dramatically modern act. Nature mastered without compromise. Man's intellect dominant - projecting on to the island an utterly rational absolute future. The commissioners' order to stake out the ground with the coordinates is a measure of how firmly they believed that rational order would determine the future, setting the boundaries for freedom within reason. They were not unaware of the force of their proposal. They wrote that the plan provided space enough 'for a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China'. Its ruthlessness still shocks. The vast composite structure which fills the island of Manhattan was ordained at the beginning of the 19th century in the absolute conviction that it was right. It continues to exert its compounding intensity and strangeness on the culture of the city.
At the time of the Commissioners' Plan New York had lost all political power, yet even before the clear emergence of the Industrial Revolution in America the city's leaders believed it capable of powerful commercial growth. The increase in the city's foreign trade after 1790 led one newspaper to predict that New York's population could grow to 700,000 by 1850 and reach three million by the end the 19th century. The plan was necessary to control a city that would evolve through commercial enterprise and speculation. It was realised that a city based purely on commerce - a new idea - should be formed free from distortions of political, religious or aristocratic power to provide the appropriate field for commercial action. Indeed, Randel was later to write that his plan heightened opportunities for 'buying, selling and improving real estate'. The commissioners, though, argued that to have taken the grid beyond 155th Street would have led to speculation beyond reason!
Conceptualisation on such a scale has no parallel in the history of cities. In 1803 Joseph Franćoise Mangin and Casimer Goerick had developed a plan for the future Manhattan which, unlike the commissioners' plan, proposed clearly distinct densities of grids for the various needs of the emerging city - health, recreation, commerce, and community - but the commissioners would have none of this. Like the proposed Erie Canal, the development of Manhattan was seen as 'internal improvements ' that gloried in the supremacy of technique over topography. The same rational determination that drove the building of the canal was present in the grid, the same men and the same revolutionary spirit.
Because the city, had lost political influence the plan made no attempt to anticipate future centres of power. In the new republic neither gods nor kings would command any special place. For the first time a city was conceived as a decentred and univalent field of enterprise. The only power in its future would be commerce. The plan, however, did have two specific designations of use. One plot of land high on the west side was, in enlightened fashion, 'concentrated for the purpose of science'. And the largest clear area in the grid, just north of Greenwich Village, was designated The Parade. This was a nation still under constant military threat from Britain.
In their epic work Gotham, historians Edwin G Burrows and Mike Wallace offer engaging insights into the Commissioners' Plan:2 The grid established Republican as well as realtor values in its refusal to privilege particular places or parcels. All plots were equal under the commissioners' regime and the network of parcels and perpendiculars provided a Democratic alternative to the royalist avenues of Baroque European cities. The shift from naming streets to numbering them, beyond promoting efficiency also embodied a lexicographical leveling; no longer would families of rank and fortune memorialize themselves in the cityscape.
The plan asserted republican order over lingering Tory tendencies among the old families, and the royalist landscapes along the river's edge. It forced equality not only by the discipline of the grid but by the small size of the lots. It was the pressure of ambition on the small lots that forced Manhattan into the sky. The plan was a new beginning with all evidence of the past removed.
The configuration of Manhattan Island allowed for a plan that was wholly internal to itself; there were no major roads crossing it and no favoured link to any of the surrounding lands. The attempt to remove the only major historic route north through the island, now named Broadway, failed: usage proved more powerful than the law, but only in this one case. With the increasing pace of street openings Broadway alone resisted submersion beneath the gridiron, and continues to this day to give complexity and texture to the monotonous walls of the grid.
The gridiron has lost none of its control on the reality and on the political, social and economic forces that led to its adoption. These remain embedded in its continual evolution. Place yourself in the minds of those commissioners advocating in public a plan without charm, without centre, without bias. In this, and consciously so, it is the antithesis of the European city: the city as a field of free enterprise and speculation within reason versus the city of power centres and vested interests. The European city reinforcing and flattering the powers of Church and Crown, structured to demonstrate hierarchies of power; structured to resist change. The new American city ordered to allow continual change in a structure of constant order, a neutral field for the public pursuit of commercial enterprise; structured to constrain all ambition in a frame of reason. The neutrality, the lack of emotion are almost painful. This city is a tough place.
Randel engraved the final Commissioners' Plan in 1821. It is beautifully drawn with faint echoes of Piranesi. It depicts three superimposed maps. At the top it is a small map of New York State, across the centre is the great grid plan and across the bottom, in a trompe l'oeil effect suggesting an unrolled drawing dropped below the main work, is a small plan of Philadelphia. Randel is not recorded as having any involvement in the survey of that city, but offering its venerable plan as evidence of the historical use of the grid could have been designed to diffuse criticism. Randel would have us see the new Manhattan as a direct descendant of Penn's noble plan for Philadelphia.
The plan has never ceased to be attacked. Clark More, philosopher and author of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas', wrote in 1824 that, 'the great principle which governs these plans is, to reduce the surface of the earth as nearly as possible to dead level. The natural inequities of the ground are destroyed, and the existing watercourses disregarded. These are men - who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome'. He may have resented the plan but he willingly developed his own property within the rules of the grid, to become the area that is now Chelsea. Edgar Allan Poe complained that the grand plan limited the picturesque development of the city because 'streets were already mapped through areas that may have different potential'. All land, irrespective of its formal quality, became town lots. Poe was much concerned with the plan's levelling effect on the society. 'The great uniformity in the breadth and circumstances of the streets' failed to produce a variety 'which is necessary for the adequate habitations of classes, differing extremely in opulence, but must be found united in the population of a great city'. The overly democratic or neutral character of the grid was a persistent concern. Burrows and Wallace quote citizen William Duer who complained that the commissioners, 'had swung the scythe of equality across the island replacing the country estates of the privileged classes with block after democratic block, no one necessarily better than any other, each equally exposed to the ebb and flow of the market.'
The architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote in recent decades that the 'implacable gridiron' created a frame to support the American tendency towards private luxury and public squalor. John Reps, the most passionate recorder of the American city, wrote that, 'the fact that the gridiron served as a model for later cities was a disaster whose consequences have barely been mitigated by recent city planners'. Lewis Mumford, the wise defender of social democracy, wrote that Randel 'with a T square and a triangle - the municipal engineer, without the slightest training as either an architect or a sociologist could “plan” a metropolis'. He summed it up as 'civic folly'. Given the plan's radical egalitarianism, this is a very bourgeois view from such an old lefty. Why does this most substantial observer of the culture of cities not offer more insight into the political force of the proposition - why blame it all on the surveyor?
The grid would provide the frame within which this new democracy would advance commercial enterprise; a neutral field that would protect, but not interfere with, individual rights. The grid would unify ambition within a frame of reason. The grid would manifest Public order. It would bind all ambitions and anxieties and oppositions into a coherent whole. The grid would be both the least and the most public interference with private enterprise. The grid would be in the exact sense the public realm. Such political conceptualisation suggests a desire either for unity or intellectual dictatorship. As the result of a tactic designed to produce uniformity of opportunity, New York has become a city of factions or fiefdoms, each centre of power playing out a highly idiosyncratic game exaggerated by the constraint of the grid.
The Commissioners' Plan was directly paralleled by the national plans that not only determined the boundaries of states but also laid the virtual reality of a grid over thousands of miles of undeveloped heartland, which it subdivided to structure the commercial, educational and civic order of community. Even now, as can be seen from the air over the Midwest, this desire for order marks lines for miles across the cornfields, and most roads are on the Cartesian grid.
With Randel's marble stakes as a guide the geometric pattern of streets was slowly engraved on the land. There was ample compensation for landowners whose property was being brought within city order. They were free to speculate in the development of the newly arranged parcels of land but not to retain any vestige of past order or use. An observer wrote in the 1830s that none of Manhattan's ancient hills, dales, swamps, springs, streams, palms, forests and meadows would be permitted to interrupt the fearful symmetry of the grid. The Common Council, entrusted with establishing the new order, was empowered to demolish and remove any streets that stood in the path of the gridiron. Thus the Bowery village laid out in 1779 on a true north-south grid was slowly removed as Third Avenue cut through the city. The exquisite Colton engraving from 1836 captures reality in transition, in which the grids lies merely as an idea over the natural landscape.
The rule of law did not last long and, predictably in a great commercial city, the development of land became an increasingly competitive commercial enterprise. It was driven by the rapid growth of road and rail links east through the independent cities of Brooklyn and Queens on to Long Island and north into the Bronx. Gradually, the unity that was demanded by the grid faded as the public realm became the commercial realm. This was a gradual shift and, as it evolved, the need to give significance to an American idea of society became more emblematic.
Central ParkFifty years after embedding the grid into the soil of Manhattan the city forced into it a new element: Central Park. Central Park is a miracle that gains its grandeur from being both a complement, and an opposition, to the grid. Its natural-seeming landscapes are made glorious within an intense and rigid frame. Although the essential difference between grid and park is a product, in some measure, of the random forces of history, it is a beautiful reflection of both, a shift in the politics of order and in the metaphysics of the Western cultural imagination: 18th-century reason, cold and disciplined, ensuring order through the force of law; 19th-century civic society trusting in human nature and sensibility to maintain social harmony - the park would bring out the best in people and can be seen as the most sympathetic stage on which to enhance the natural harmony of society. Both aspects seem present in Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense (1776). While government promotes our happiness only 'negatively by restraining our vices, society promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections'. Grid as government and the park as society are exquisitely thesis and antithesis: one could not have been created without the other.
The first important public expression of a major inadequacy in the Commissioners' Plan came in editorials by William Cullen Bryant in the New York Evening Post. Although the matter had been long in his thoughts it was first publicly expressed in July 1844: 'If the public authority who spend so much of our money in laying out the city would do what is in their power, they might give our vast population an extensive pleasure ground for shade and recreation.' The commissioners had admitted that their plan made little provision for public space: 'It may be a matter of surprise that so few vacant spaces had been left [open in the plan] and those so small, for the benefit of fresh air and consequent preservation of health.' The note continued: 'Certainly, if New York had been situated alongside a small stream, such as the Seine or Thames,' it might have needed more ample public space. 'But those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island render its situation, in regard to health and pleasure, as well as to the convenience of commerce, peculiarly felicitous.' Not so, thought Bryant.
The leaders of mid-19th century New York culture were deeply impressed by the parks of Europe, particularly those in London. Bryant used the Evening Post persistently to promote the need for a great public park and landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing took up the cause in his magazine The Horticulturist. The effect of the lobbying in the press was such that in 1850 both candidates for mayor strongly favoured establishing a city park. In April 1851 newly elected Mayor Kingsland presented to the city council a clear and strong concept
Such a park, well laid out, would become a favoured resort of all classes …There are thousands who pass the day of rest among the idle and dissolute in porter houses, or places more objectionable, who would rejoice in being enabled to breathe the pure air in such a place, while the ride or drive through its avenues, free from the noise, dust and confusion, inseparable from all thoroughfares, would hold out strong inducements for the affluent to make it a place of resort.
It is a statement with a healthy spirit of egalitarianism. Downing, too, encouraged an egalitarian vision for the park. The New York Times, however, was not so sure. It loathed the notion of giving the very poor, the Boweryites, free access:
'As long as we are governed by the Five Points [the poorest, roughest part of the city], our best attempts to elegance and grace will bear some resemblance to jewels in the snouts of swine. Rather the park should never be made at all if it is to become the resort of rapscallions.'
Inspiration came from London. Dominating the Great Exhibition of 1851 was the vast and glorious Crystal Palace. It not only presented tangible evidence of the fruits of industry, but created the most compelling artificial destination for all the people of Britain, rich and poor alike. The nationwide network of railways brought to its gardens the greatest cross section of the population ever assembled. The grounds of the exhibition were truly the most egalitarian of landscapes and were expanded into extensive pleasure gardens when the Crystal Palace was moved to south London. Downing seems to have been impelled by visions from the Great Exhibition when, in August 1851, he wrote in The Horticulturist of a future where, 'in such a verdant zone would gradually grow up, as the wealth of the city increases … winter gardens of glass like the great Crystal Palace, where the whole people could luxuriate in groves of palms - while at the same moment that sleighing parties glide swiftly and noiselessly over snow covered avenues'.
Locating the park would take several years and much political and legal wrangling. The major competition was between a site on the East River and the central site where the park now lies. All the debates took place against a background of the city growing more rapidly, and with more prosperity, than anyone could have predicted. The strongest opposition came from those who saw such a use of land as limiting the open field of enterprise that the grid provided. In November 1853 the State Supreme Court appointed commissioners to take the land in the central part of the island, much of it rocky ridges above marshes and woodland. The competition to prepare designs for the park was announced in October 1857.
Frederick Law Olmsted had been a farmer and a journalist. The journal recording his travels through the South conveys a dread of slavery and foresees troubles ahead. During a journey through England he found great pleasure in the new parks being created by Sir Joseph Paxton: his excited report of a visit to Birkenhead Park near Liverpool delights in the mixing of the classes dashing for shelter from the rain. It was Paxton who conceived of the Crystal Palace and it was Paxton's example that led Olmsted to become America's great landscape architect and artist of civic life. However, although Olmsted overshadows all the others who contributed to making Central Park, it was formed as much by the forces of history and circumstance as by any one imagination. The formative influence on the design was the thorough mapping of the topography and watershed by Lieutenant Egbert Viele who was appointed engineer in chief for the new park in 1854. Olmsted was appointed park superintendent in 1857, just before the competition was announced. Olmsted later claimed that he had no intention of entering the competition until invited to partner the English architect Calvert Vaux. What definitely changed his mind was Viele's attitude: 'I'm completely indifferent whether you enter or not,' Viele told him. On 28 April 1858 the commission determined that Greensward, the submission from Olmsted and Vaux, should receive first prize. The animosity between Viele and Olmsted never faded and Viele subsequently won a lawsuit in which he claimed Olmsted had stolen his design.
In his writings Olmsted conveys the sense of statesmanship and grandeur of vision that he embodied in the park:
The whole island of New York would, but for such a reservation, before many years be occupied by buildings and paved streets; that millions upon millions of men were to live their lives upon this island, millions to go out from it - and that all - would assuredly suffer - from influences engendered by these conditions. The time will come when New York will be built-up, when all the grading and filling will be done, when the picturesquely varied rock formations of the island will have been converted into the foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of a few acres contained in the park.
At a time when the street grid had barely reached the middle of the island, Olmsted saw clearly in his mind's eye the city that would arise around the great park. In a letter to William Robertson in 1872 he wrote, 'I wish to present to you that it was designed as a park to be situated at the precise central [point] of the city of two million …There is every reason to believe that the park will [one day] be enclosed by the compact town the borders of which were a mile away when it was laid out.' He foresaw a time when an artificial wall would surround the park, as high he wrote, 'as the Great Wall of China'. Here he gives us a glimpse into his imagination.
He states clearly in his report to the park commissioners that his park would be 'an antithesis of objects of vision to those of the streets and houses' of the grid-bound city. The many picturesque moments offered in the shifting landscapes of the park - these objects of vision - were drawn mainly from the English landscapes of the 18th and 19th centuries, the landscapes of Capability Brown and Joseph Paxton. There is a distinct similarity between the splendid balloonist's view of Central Park and a similar view of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in London: both landscapes are filled with different events animated by a profusion of movement.
Looking at the plans of a European city it is easy to recognise the centres of power. They present a palimpsest of shifting layers of order as culture moves from the power of the Church to the power of the king, then to merchants and then industry. Then come marked changes in the organic texture of the city as its population expands, dramatising the distance between wealth and poverty. City form and fabric are the direct residue of the political, economic and social project. Manhattan from the air shows none of the conflicts and power plays reflected in the European city. It is marked by one dominant opposition - park and grid - an exquisite juxtaposition in the metaphysics of reality. The grid, formed to govern freedom within reason, frames a great park designed to be a natural enhancement of social harmony. In the park the spiritual has primacy over the material and the expedient. In the grid the streets are continually reformed in expediency and speculation. Yet the juxtaposition is filled with paradox: the naturalness of the park is achieved by the absolute control and manipulation of nature. It is the city that represents nature's more basic forces in the survival of the fittest: God in reason versus the illusion of God in nature.
There is a more profound political dimension in the contrast between these realities, between the mercantile republicanism at the turn of the 19th century and the romantic conservatism at the mid-century. The park is European, a bourgeois infection that reflects a weakening of the egalitarianism of the republic. An attempt at creating a crucible of social harmony, the park in ways served to dramatise difference. In effect, although offering highly intricate events and vistas and the much-celebrated separation of traffic, the Greensward plan was distinctly unfriendly to the working classes. As the authors of Gotham point out, recreations like dances and picnics were forbidden, as were the rituals of working-class Republican political culture; military displays were banned, along with civic processions and public oratory. Instead the tree-lined mall was reserved for genteel activity: promenades and polite, but not political, exchange, the middle class in its carriages and the working class on foot.
The creation of Central Park disrupted some of the poor of the city more directly. Over 1,600 residents in shantytowns in the area were displaced including Irish farmers and German gardeners. Seneca village, a black settlement at Eighth Avenue and 82nd Street which had three churches and a school, was levelled. However, well into its second century the park is the great public forum of the city, fostering social harmony within a more complex society than would have been conceivable in the 19th century.
By 1850 rational idealism had been replaced by a belief in the power of social harmony. By 1890 the spirit of egalitarianism was being eroded by harsh competition, and by 1920 the city's growth was merely another manifestation of laissez-faire speculation; until Robert Moses. (Central Park remains the most powerful assertion of public life in New York and still the only place where New York comes together in all its diversity. Contrary to rumour, it is relatively safe. Since 1980 the park has been in the hands of the Central Park Conservancy, a private agency that has taken on the responsibility for its upkeep and restoration. Maintenance was a rather passive affair in the postwar years and severe budget cuts in 1970 led to a visible decline in the park's landscape and buildings. This neglect led to the formation of the conservancy with the specific mandate of restoring the Olmsted and Vaux Greensward plan. Many structures such as the Belvedere castle and the dairy have been restored and in some cases partially rebuilt. Olmsted's picturesque monuments, such as the sheep meadow, have been restored and new turf has recovered the Great Lawn. Throughout the year, but particularly in the summer months the park is a gathering place of every age and culture that forms the city. No other work of architecture is even remotely as affective. It is in theater formed by the crowds on a weekend afternoon that one feels the exceptional energy that is possible from when there can be unity among such diversity.)
Robert MosesNo other individual in the 20th century has so changed a city as Robert Moses has New York. For 44 years, from a complex base that rested at its core on a concept of 'public authority', he wielded power, in many ways absolute power, over all the major elements of the city's infrastructure, parks, parkways, highways, bridges and public housing. And those he did not control he diminished. 4
As the map illustrates, his projects affected every borough. In 1968, when he surrendered his last base of power - chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority - he had administered the creation of much vaster landscapes than Central Park, forming almost 10,000 acres of new parks including the Lido at Jones Beach on Long Island, and caused more than 416 miles of highway and 13 bridges to be built within the five boroughs. His highways fragmented and eviscerated neighbourhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn, yet the extensive road and bridge network opened the metropolitan area to unprecedented development. His clearance of the slums on Manhattan strengthened neighbourhoods and created new wealth for the middle classes, yet the displacement of more than 500,000 people who were forced into public housing still seems irrecoverable. In the almost 200 years during which public order was defined only Robert Moses succeeded in subverting the grid of Manhattan. He fused blocks together in many of his smaller developments, but in building Stuyvesant Town he removed the roads from 18 city blocks.
Moses was 36 when he entered public life in 1924, appointed chairman of the State Council of Parks and the Long Island Parks commissioner. He remained the major power in the city until 1968. In 1934 Mayor Fiorello La Guardia made him New York City Parks commissioner and from there Moses moved quickly to expand and consolidate his power base, eventually gaining control of 12 major public offices in the city - an unequalled and quite irregular achievement. Using all his influence and assets he pursued a ruthless paternalistic policy aimed at imposing what he viewed as a progressive transformation on the infrastructure of New York. Appointment to the city's planning commission in 1941 gave him the revenues from the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to finance his desire to modernise the city. Named the city construction coordinator in 1946, he set out to rebuild New York for the automobile. In quick succession he pushed through the construction of the Brooklyn Queens expressway, the Gowanus parkway, and the Cross-Bronx expressway. Wilfully, it was felt, he planned the paths of these highways through the tenements and apartment buildings in some areas he considered undesirable.
His public posture was as a man with a passionate commitment to progress, to making the city healthy. Yet his actions, more than those of any other, are the root cause of some of its worst slums. He eradicated areas that he saw as diseased tissue, clearing the land for healthy development. The process was applied to many areas of Manhattan and the clearances were often several blocks in extent - Corlears Hook, the Lower East Side, south of Washington Square, the Upper West Side. There were also half a dozen smaller pockets of development. Over time his actions led to the forced removal of tens of thousands of poor black and Puerto Rican residents to public housing projects constructed to receive them in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Manhattan was far less racially polarised before Moses. There were street demonstrations and large-scale public protest but such was the strength of his power that for a while he was unstoppable. Over 15,000 people were removed from Manhattan's Upper West Side and the land was cleared for redevelopment for the white middle class. Public protest was, however, successful in halting his plan to drive a highway across the city through Washington Square - but did not stop the removal of several thousands from south of the square. These actions actively created racial division.
Moses' racism was expressed not as some vague animosity, but as an active project and he used his power to avoid mixing between the races. Some of his actions were remarkably petty. Under his direction, in the late 1930s, the parks commission built 10 new community swimming pools within the city. Moses had been, briefly, a member of the Yale swimming team and remained a powerful swimmer throughout his life. Creating new settings for swimming either by developing beaches or constructing new pools were favoured projects for him and, despite the Depression, he managed to create buildings of the highest quality. Only one of the new pools was in Harlem. However, there was a second pool, the Thomas Jefferson, in East Harlem between 111th & 114th Street. East Harlem was a white neighbourhood and had been home to Mayor La Guardia, but it was only two blocks from Spanish Harlem and within walking distance of the black community. Moses was determined that the pool would remain white. He employed only white lifeguards to staff it and, in addition, as he later confided to a colleague, he gave instructions that its should remain unheated in the belief that Puerto Ricans and blacks avoided cold water. Judging by the memories of those in the neighbourhood the strategy appears to have been effective.
On a grand scale his actions were equally divisive. Jones Beach was a magnificent achievement with splendid facilities including changing rooms for over 50,000 people. Under Moses' direction the bridges over the highways that served it were deliberately built too low for buses and attempts to run rail or subway connections to the park were discouraged, making it accessible only to those with automobiles and inaccessible to the poor, a large percentage of whom were black. He went further, instructing his staff not to issue parking permits to buses carrying blacks that managed to get to the park on local roads. As with the Thomas Jefferson pool, he employed only white lifeguards.
The expensive and extensive highway network he forced through the dense city could not help but bring conflict. In building the Gowanus parkway in 1941 there was total rejection of appeals by the residents of Sunset Park in Brooklyn to change the route to avoid destroying the heart of the community. Sunset Park was a modest neighbourhood, mainly Scandinavian, just south of Greenwood Cemetery. The community pressed to have the parkway run alongside the docks rather than through their main shopping street. Without any clear justification Moses held to the original plan with the result that more than 100 stores were eventually destroyed and 1,300 families were dislocated. Eroding the edge eventually weakened the whole neighbourhood.
Every mile of highway that he forced into the city created similar confrontations, nowhere more so than in the building of the Cross-Bronx expressway. The neighbourhood of East Tremont in the centre of the Bronx was a modest, mainly Jewish, area which by 1950 had a population of 60,000 of which more than 18 per cent were black or Hispanic. By the 1950s the borough was beginning to show signs of those forces that would lead to decades of urban blight, landlord neglect, increasingly poor tenants and abandoned buildings. Though poor, East Tremont was the kind of neighbourhood where a tolerant acceptance, however fragile, of race and class diversity was evolving. To its south Crotona Park protected it from Morrisiana and Melrose, neighbourhoods in rapid decline. East Tremont had the potential to demonstrate that racial and class integration were possible. In 1952 the residents in the area just north off the park received a letter signed by Robert Moses, telling them that their property was in the path of the Cross-Bronx expressway and they had 90 days to vacate. The neighbourhood quickly resolved to fight the plan, and had strong political and legal support from the beginning. As in Sunset Park, there was a simple alternative that would spare the neighbourhood at apparently no cost to the plan. This involved moving the route of the expressway just two blocks south of its proposed path, allowing it to run at the north end of Crotona Park and thus preventing the destruction of 1,530 apartments and the displacement of thousands of people. After fighting their case for many months the community believed they had won approval for the changed route only to be defeated, inexplicably, at the last moment. Later evidence suggested that Moses had some kind of hold over the influential deputy mayor, who had publicly supported the community, and forced him to change his vote. The only explanation for this senseless destruction was that the alternative path would have affected the properties of one of Moses' political cronies.
The Cross-Bronx expressway was pushed through with brilliant engineering, exceptional management and devastating results. Forcing over 6 miles of multilane highway through the dense tissue of neighbourhoods that were themselves in the middle of adjusting to complex ethnic changes resulted in a path of social dislocation much broader than the width of the road. The management of the construction was superb; the treatment of the families affected was abusive. Neighbourhood relocation offices were rarely open and offered little help when they were. Contractors began to strip buildings that had families still living in them. People felt, with justice, persecuted. An anecdote describes Moses touring the edges of the construction and coming upon a protest march against the highway. At its head the marchers carried a stuffed dummy of him which they proceeded to burn. In speeches he was compared to Hitler and Stalin. Moses was said to have enjoyed it all thoroughly. In his book Public Works: A Dangerous Trade (McGraw-Hill, 1970) he wrote, 'You can draw any kind of picture you like on a clean slate, and indulge your every whim in the wilderness laying out New Delhi, Canberra, or Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis you have to hack away with a meat axe.' Moses was convinced that future generations would be grateful. 'You can't,' he frequently said, 'make an omelette without breaking eggs.'
There is evidence that he made occasional attempts to ease the impact of road building on the people affected, but no such evidence in his management of the Title 1 housing programme - slum clearance. This federal programme, introduced in the 1950s, allowed for the condemnation of houses, blocks of houses and even whole neighbourhoods that were seen as irrecoverable slums. These were, in the main, rental properties occupied by the poorest in the city. The process of condemnation was often undertaken with the encouragement of developers and in New York City the major targets were black neighbourhoods, throughout Manhattan and extensively in Harlem. What followed condemnation was a process of forced removal of tenants, many of whom simply disappeared from official records. Many moved into already overcrowded housing with the result that the neighbourhood deteriorated even further. A vivid account of the process is recorded in the report of the Woman's City Club in 1953: 'Manhattantown looked like the cross section of bombed-out Berlin right off the World War II. Some of its tenements were still standing, broken windows gazing sightlessly at the sky, basement doors yawning uncovered on the sidewalks, and surrounding them were acres strewn with bricks and mortar and rubble. The wreckers and bulldozers had been at work.' People were still living in these buildings.
Moses' actions propelled large sections of the poorest neighbourhoods into desolation and abandonment. The most fortunate people were condemned to live in the bleakest of public housing ghettos, developments controlled by Moses and stretching across the five boroughs from Corlears Hook on Manhattan's Lower East Side to the shore of Long Island and into the old towns on the north end of Staten Island. This strategic restructuring of the population required the construction of more than 140,000 public housing apartments. Among many lessons to be learnt from the great model of the five boroughs which Moses had built for the New York World's Fair in 1964 is the vast scale and total penetration of the multiple projects with which he changed the basic order of the city. The model was one of his last and most attractive projects, and it is not unreasonable to presume that he conceived it to demonstrate his achievements. Essentially, every structure in the five boroughs is represented on the model. Within the simple colour-coding system all public housing projects are painted the same colour of brown. It offers graphic evidence that the process of relocation into public housing moved the poor and the black population into marginal neighbourhoods far removed from centres of social or commercial activity.
In the late 1960s, reflecting on the difficulties he had faced in slum clearance, Moses felt that his greatest failure was in not providing enough new apartments for the displaced population. The solution, he concluded, could lie in the construction of large-scale, isolated apartment complexes, such as the 40,000 units of Co-op City. He helped organise and for this development, and one may see in this extensive assembly of undistinguished apartment buildings part of his vision for the city. It is completely encircled by his expressways, the Whitestone Bridge and Bruchner, and flows at its southern end through a tangle of interchanges into the Moses-created Pelham Bay Park. In a discussion, the senior planner in the New York Transit Authority told how his family had been affected by the building of Co-op City, his aunt moving into the new complex from the Grand Concourse to get away from the instability in the area. He said the Cross-Bronx expressway and Co-op City together destroyed many strong neighbourhoods in the Bronx. The first drove people out, the second provided a haven for the most mobile. Why, he asked plaintively, was Co-op City never connected to the subway system?
Public transport generally, and subways and trains in particular, were not only neglected during the Moses years but actively diminished. Around 1952, there was a move in the legislature to have the Triborough Bridge Authority take over the subways with the bridge tolls providing funds for the renewal of the system. The bridge was the one 'public authority' over which Moses had absolute control. He aggressively blocked the move, arguing that the authority could never become involved in a deficit-producing operation. Where his highways directly competed with railways the railways suffered, none more so than the Long Island railroad. Although never explicit, there is frequently a connection between Moses' opposition to public transit and his attitude to race and poverty. In 1964 he vetoed attempts to strengthen the subway connections to the World's Fair.
His most impressive public projects were the landscapes and structures in his parks and parkways. Jacob Riis, in Queens, and Jones Beach are great works of public theatre. The great curving pavilion at the southern end of Orchard Beach in Pelham Bay would not have seemed out of place in fascist Italy. The landscapes shaped by Moses are totally lacking the metaphysical reflection of nature that guided Olmsted's vision. For Moses, the park was a place to display the largesse of a public authority more concerned with social solidarity than social harmony. The Olmsted landscapes allow the individual to contemplate his or her relationship with the natural; the parks of Robert Moses seem to demand an enforced communality. The vast highway and bridge construction programmes of the 1950s are as brutal and oppressive as the means by which they were established. But nothing is more brutal and oppressive than the public housing apartments. They are out of reach in the forgotten margins and edges of the city, created by the highways and trapping over half a million people in ghettoised structures whose very nature denies enterprise. Moses in violently imposing a modern infrastructure on the city was more extreme than his 2oth century counterparts in Europe. (not more extreme however than Baron Haussmann) They seem in retrospect to have been more interested in the image of progress than the substance.
It is a troubling reflection on the distance between myth and reality in New York City that this most epic symbol of freedom and democracy should have allowed major parts of its administration to fall under the absolute control of a single individual. Moses began his career as a brilliant lawyer who prepared well for the role of great public servant. His doctoral dissertation at Oxford was a study of the British Civil Service: he was impressed by its continuity and relative freedom from party political influence. As he moved into public life in New York in the 1930s, he realised that few came close to rivalling his knowledge and understanding of it. It became clear to him that new institutions would have to be created to deal effectively with the problems of his great and complex city. He, like others of his generation, would not have been unaware of the prediction in the writings of Nietzsche that this new century would demand the emergence of Lords of the Earth; supermen who alone would have the will, courage and vision to prevent that most dreadful possibility the collapse of the West.
Moses readied himself well to be the ideal public servant. His grounding in the law and his ability to create legislation were unequalled and no one was ever more thorough in using every aspect of every law and entitlement to the greatest advantage. To become public servant and Lord of the Earth he needed to find a way to corner the market in public power. Two elements would be vital: a base of authority outside any political influence; and access to limitless resources. Moses achieved the first by creating a new public institution, the Triborough Bridge Authority. And resources came from the bridge tolls, which were completely within his control. Moses was a public servant in the mould of JP Rockefeller Senior; his control of the Triborough Bridge was equivalent to Rockefeller's control of the railways.
As Moses increased his power base the city administration became more corrupt. Though this was much less blatant than it had been under Boss Tweed, the majority of public works programmes involved cronyism and kickbacks to the extent that most projects initiated by the city were compromised. The parks department, for example, offered sylvan gifts to the ward healers and their families. Moses discovered that lots of little houses in out-of-the-way corners of the parks were homes for the party faithful. One woman who camped out in a building in Central Park not only decorated the interior to her taste, but had a grand piano moved in. In his formative years he would have had every reason to believe that the scale and character of the power base necessary to manage this great and dreadful city had to be inversely proportional to the depth of corruption and incompetence in its administration - conditions made much worse by the Depression.
It is of interest to note that The World Trade Center was characteristically a Robert Moses project. Though he had no direct involvement in its formation and it came to fruition as he was losing power, it was an urban renewal project of a scale and ambition that he had cultivated for the city. The super-block created to house it destroyed not just the old street order but the old neighborhood, neglected though it was. Its scale and dictatorial, single-mindedness was very much in the kind off conceptualization of new realities that he gave the city, and the client the Port of New York Authority was in many ways, Moses most potent creation. While Rockefeller Center, from thirty years earlier, was as ambitious, and single-minded, and equality aimed at the erasure of past order, it managed to make the family business into the much loved civic center of the city. The difference lay partly in the times and in the architecture, but mainly in the influence of the caring paternalism off John D Rockefeller Jr.: the Port of New York Authority had no such mitigating presence to soften the elegant fascism World Trade Center. (The Port Authority remains the master client for the rebuilding and its nature has hardly changed.)
Moses was elitist, racist and utterly convinced, without much need for evidence, of the rightness of his actions. He was a vigorous anti-Communist, but otherwise gave little indication of a grander political vision. What choices had he? Had he possessed a different ambition, his exceptional abilities could have given New York a vital and all-embracing public transport system. Instead, his actions have left it with the least effective and distinguished system of any major metropolis. Had he believed that the city's future would be healthier only through tolerance of the disparity between the races and classes, and used the resources and the legal power of his public authority to advance such a cause, New York would be profoundly different today. The divisiveness and conflict caused by his road building, his slum clearances and the harsh pragmatism of the public housing projects are all as painful now as when they were built. His influenced finally came to an end in 1968 when Governor Rockefeller, declined to offer Moses any role in either the Metropolitan transit Authority or the Triborough Bridge Authority beyond that of consultant, thus ending 44 years of control of the city is most powerful institutions, many his own creation. He was to live for many more years without power, obsessed with the ingratitude of the public toward great men.
Opposing OrdersWhat, then, do the multiple orders of Moses contribute to this elegantly balanced urban play? They are at their best in his parks programme - he secured for posterity thousands of acres of natural land to be reformed to the sensibility of future ages. They are at their worst in the highways and in public housing which, unlike any other aspect of this continually evolving city, cannot change or be changed. The grid and the park are always in a state of becoming; they are open to endless enrichment. The highways and the housing projects seem even now absolute and intolerant, unable to change and weave into the texture of the city.
The republicanism of the commissioners' grid was meant to offer equal power and opportunity to all who chose to operate within it. The transcendentalism of the Olmsted parks sought to offer, in the experience of nature, a more profound reality than that defined by mercantilism, but like the grid this reality was tolerant and always in a state of becoming. Moses' constructions are in total contrast, even opposition, to the grid and the park in that they are closed instruments which construct an unchangeable reality. Through his 'public authority' he was able to act as the dictator of the state, rising above the incompetence and corruption of the elected process. He is not unlike Mussolini both in his methods and his achievements. After a daylong discussion with Moses about involving him in the development of public works in the Dominican Republic, the island's dictator, Trujillo Molina, concluded that he could not use him. His reason, Moses later reported, was: 'You'd want my job.'
There is a precision and clarity to the sequence of social ordering in New York that must be due, for the most part, to the fact that the republic was able to make Manhattan a clean slate for a new society. It is hard now to appreciate the extent of the dilemma facing the initiators of what was a dangerous experiment at the end of the 18th century: the formation of a democratic republic, of a scale and ambition unequalled in history. By what means would this new government establish and maintain public order? Structures covering all aspects of social performance had to be rapidly devised and put into effect, not only to govern future behaviour, but to neutralise the persistent power structures of the colonial aristocracy. The new republic took from Greece the concept of an individual's right to bear arms as one key mechanism to achieve this, but it was through the all-embracing power of a just law that it sought to establish control. The gridding of Manhattan was the most complete application of the rule of law to the physical structure of the city. Its ruthlessness matches the revolutionary zeal of the first decades of the republic.
However, by the mid-19th century it was widely felt in both Europe and America that cultivating civic sensibility in the citizenry could develop a social harmony that would maintain control while enriching the culture. It is within this context that Central Park must be seen, as a precisely formed gathering place where the many different strands of race and wealth that were forming the new republic could be woven into a meaningful cloth. The belief led to the emergence, for over half a century, of powerful centralising institutions formed from the convergence of the intellectual and cultural ambitions of New York's citizens: museums, opera houses, cemeteries, botanical gardens, libraries - all housed in, or housing, temple-like structures and built to last for ever.
In the 20th century civil society gave way to Modernism and mechanisation. The sprawling accretion of grids that order the towns and neighbourhoods of the five boroughs is forcibly united in a linked network of highways that brings the speed and freedom of the automobile to the structure of the city. Orders in reason, followed by order in nature, followed by the intrusive order of the machine are all compounded into the fabric of New York. It is still a city governed by the rule of law, but since the 1920s the unifying ethos of civic sensibility has faded, hastened by corruption and dictatorship. With its passing the role of architecture, and indeed the character of the city, have become increasingly diffuse and uncertain. Today, what is replacing reason, nature and the machine, not only in maintaining social control but in creating the context for shared democratic ideals? In all the diverse towns and neighbourhoods that make up New York's five boroughs it would seem that two forces control and maintain order. The first is consumerism, the second is the factionalism in the city's countless divisions of wealth and ethnicity. It is against these forces that the architectural project should be judged. Architecture can be the most concrete object of cultural desire.
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