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No. 16 - Prospectus - Issue No. 7 - Autumn 2019 - In Between Robert Moses and Jacob Riis.

Updated: Aug 25, 2019

Photograph by Alexandra Bildsoe

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August 10th, 2019


If one tried to plan public works in New York City by the same simplistic formula by which the public works of Long Island had been planned, the public works thus created might well destroy what was good in New York even while it was supposed to be improving the city.


Part of Moses’ Long Island formula –––– the vision and the viciousness, the imagination and the ruthlessness, the drive, the urgent, savage thrust, the instinct for the magnificent and the jugular that overrode purely selfish opposition, shortsightedness and red tape to turn vision into reality ––– was needed to build parks and roads and bridges ––– or, for that matter, housing or hospitals, sewers or schools –––– on the scale its citizens needed. But Moses’ formula could be successful in the city only as the basis of a new, vastly more complicated and subtle and sophisticated formula, one that would turn public works into a far truer reflection of the subtle and complicated human needs they had to serve in the city. A whole new input ––– a factor of humanity ––– would have to be added.


And Moses would not allow it to be added.


Moses had a genius for grasping the needs of people in the mass, of people in the tens and hundreds of thousands, of a city and a state as a whole, and for devising ways to meet those needs. But that genius could not help him grasp the needs of a specific city neighborhood in which he was building a small park of playground, for those needs might be shared by no other neighborhood in the world.


In the first place, the people in the mass that he understood were people of a particular social strata that his own background enabled him to understand: the classes he called the “upper” and “comfortable middle.” He had never had any interest in ––– and therefore had little understanding of ––– classes he considered beneath his own, the classes who made up so many of New York City’s neighborhoods. Moreover, even a genius couldn’t deduce the needs of a neighborhood ––– any neighborhood ––– until he knew and understood it . . . And there was only one way to learn about a neighborhood: listen to its people, discuss their problems with them. Unless Moses did that ––– not Moses himself necessarily, his lieutenants or the architects designing the specific playground in question ––– he simply wouldn’t, couldn’t, know enough about the neighborhood to satisfy its needs.


Robert Caro - The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974).

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On August 2nd, 2019, I quoted from the eleventh chapter of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974); wherein Caro sets up the events that make it feel nearly impossible that Long Island would ever be filled with parkways and expressways and highways. This evening, I’ve returned to The Power Broker, and have jumped ahead from the book’s first chapter within Part IV “The Use of Power,” “The Majesty of the Law,” to its last, “Driving” (chapter 24 of 50).


In “Driving,” Caro begins setting out the issues that Moses, or anyone else, would face when attempting to build highways and expressways and housing projects in New York City: you can’t use the same simple formula as you would use across a mostly deserted mass of land; a mass of land like the then mostly open and unpopulated Long Island.


As I re-read the passage, above, I thought of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1890). The passage below closes the book’s introduction. And this evening, things are beginning to sink in: the formula that we’re creating, the goal that we’re working toward, in order to help answer the question presented within Riis’ introduction, which is the same question that Caro identifies in the passage above from The Power Broker: what happens when we add the humanity factor to decisions about our city that have soaring and enormous economic implications?


And what happens when a company, a real estate brokerage with the capital and power and economic strength to work with the upper and middle classes begins studying places and neighborhoods where the greed of man has outweighed the necessity for humanity, compassion, and creative expression through literature, poetry, stories, and community?


- Isaac Myers III

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What are you going to do about it? is the question of to-day. It was asked once of our city in taunting defiance by a band of political cutthroats, the legitimate outgrowth of life on the tenement-house level. Law and order found the answer then and prevailed. With our enormously swelling population held in this galling bondage, will that answer always be given? It will depend on how fully the situation that prompted the challenge is grasped. Forty per cent of the distress among the poor, said a recent official report, is due to drunkenness. But the first legislative committee ever appointed to probe this sore went deeper down and uncovered its roots. The “conclusion forced itself upon it that certain conditions and associations of human life and habitation are the prolific parents of corresponding habits and morals,” and it recommended “the prevention of drunkenness by providing every man a clean and comfortable home. Years after, a sanitary inquiry brought to light the fact that “more than one-half of the tenements with two-thirds of their population were held by owners veto trade the keeping of them a business, generally a speculation. The owner was seeking a certain percentage of his outlay, and that percentage very rarely fell below fifteen percent, and frequently exceeded thirty . . . The complaint was universal among the tenants that they were entirely smeared for, and that the only answer to their requests to have the place put in order by repairs and necessary improvements was that they must pay their rent or leave. The agent’s instructions were simple but emphatic: “’Collect the rent in advance, or, failing, eject the occupants’” Upon such a stock grew this upas-tree. Small wonder the free is bitter. The remedy that shall be an effective answer to the coming appeal for justice must proceed from the public conscious. Neither legislation nor charity can cover the ground. The greed of capital that wrought the evil must itself undo it, as far as it can now be undone. Homes must be built for the working masses by those who employ their labor; but tenements must cease to be “good property” in the old heartless sense. “Philanthropy and five percent” is the penance exacted.


If this is true from a purely economic point of view, what then of the outlook from the Christian standpoint? Not long ago a great meeting was held in this city, of all denominations of religious faith, to discuss the question how to lay hold of these teeming masses in the tenements with Christian influences, to which they are now too often strangers. Might not the conference have found in the warning of one Brooklyn builder, who has invested his capital on this plan and made it pay more than a money interest, a hint worth heeding: “How shall the love of God be understood by those who have been nurtured in sight only of the greed of man?”


- Jacob Riis - How the Other Half Lives (1890).

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