September 23, 2007

Moses Revisionism

The new "revisionist" exhibit of Robert Moses in New York seemed interesting enough, and after reading Nathan Glazer's review in The New Republic, I figured, hey, maybe historians are pointing out things that Robert Caro's famous 1000-page biography missed. But now comes Thomas Bender in Democracy Journal insisting that the new Moses revisionism doesn't revise all that much; it mostly just fills out the portrait Caro already sculpted. In particular, Bender offers this, which I don't know nearly enough to judge one way or the other:
[T]he claim that Moses’ work is the foundation for the city’s revival after 1975 cannot be proven by empirical evidence. Are the Moses projects the basis for the city’s recent flourishing? To some extent, of course, yes, the parks, bridges, freeways, and parkways are important building blocks for metropolitan New York. But the immediate engine of change in New York since 1975 was not anything that can be associated with Moses.

In my view, it was the massive rehabilitation of the subway system under the strong but not dictatorial leadership of Richard Ravitch, and the political development of zoning regulations and city ordinances that allowed and promoted the conversion of old factory buildings, in places like SoHo, for residence. The latter not only reinvigorated a de-industrializing New York but also transformed the meaning of urban living around the world, making loft living a real estate slogan and a marker of contemporary urbanity. Both mass transit and those old buildings were, of course, objects of Moses’ scorn.
Much of the new revisionism, it seems, comes from various architects, historians, and city planners who believe some form of the idea that "twenty-first-century city-making requires a strong hand." Bender's basically saying, no, look, New York's planners aren't actually that paralyzed, Moses' approach (as Moses proved) lends itself to serious abuse, it's a good thing that more and more (though certainly not all) urban-planning endeavors get community input these days, and the main thing to worry about is that the mechanisms for public participation are still clumsy and need be improved, not abolished. Intuitively, that seems right, although again, it's not something I know heaps about. Fascinating essay all around, though.
-- Brad Plumer 11:35 AM || ||