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Man With a Plan

What Moses did for New York.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By HELEN RITTELMEYER
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The misguided policy of decentralization, which effectively banned manufacturing from Manhattan by means of zoning, was the doing of Moses’s successors on the Housing and Redevelopment Board, not Moses himself. He was explicitly opposed to any “abandonment of the older cities, the creation of satellite towns, decentralization by whatever name.” And to the extent that enthusiasm for highbrow, nonobjective art was a characteristic fault of modernist planners, with their wretched stabiles and mobiles, Moses can’t be tarred with that brush, either. His opinion of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” the Philharmonic’s abstract adornment at Lincoln Center, was skeptical: “Which is Orpheus and which Eurydice? On the other hand, I sure recognize the hell of it.”

Zipp is on firmer ground when he argues that public housing, as built, was impersonal, boxlike, and sterile, but even these objections have been overstated since a great deal of it can be chalked up to bohemian distaste for predictability. Leslie Fiedler wept over “the visible manifestation of the Stalinized petty-bourgeois mind: rigid, conventional, hopelessly self-righteous.” Zipp cites Fiedler; those of us who find nothing inherently offensive about middle-class tastes should ignore him. And keep in mind that the left’s expectations for public housing were always much too optimistic. They expected these rebuilt neighborhoods to yield “a city without slums, where the only difference between the houses of the very rich and the very poor would be the number and size and furnishing of the rooms they live in,” in the words of the New York City Planning Commission’s official report of 1940. Say what you like about Robert Moses, but at least he never bought into anything so transparently unrealistic.

Perhaps the reformers were simply frustrated that Moses had robbed them of an issue. “In the ‘good old days,’ ” writes social worker Ellen Lurie, “we always knew exactly what to do: press for better housing.” Poverty turned out to be more complicated than that. But at least the poor no longer lived in firetraps or in damp and overcrowded rookeries where tuberculosis ran constantly amok. Slum clearance cleared slums, and New York has Robert Moses to thank for that.

Helen Rittelmeyer is an associate editor at National Review.

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