July 29: Not-So-Holy Moses

2016/07/29 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1981 Robert Moses died.

When Uncle Dan Burnham said “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood,” he never dreamed of Robert Moses (b. 1888).  (If he had, he might have amended that statement.)  Burnham’s sweeping plan for Chicago looks like a community vegetable patch next to the overhaul that Moses gave Gotham in the several decades that he was virtually in control of the planning and development of the city.  During his reign, the vast, but generally shorter, city of neighborhoods clustered around the first elegant skyscrapers (here’s the skyline in ca. 1910, before his rise to power) was turned into the city of slashing highways, giant bridges, gargantuan tunnels and mile upon mile of drab apartment blocks.

Moses was not the poster child for urban renewal but, rather, its high priest.  From a privileged background, he never lived in the kinds of neighborhoods that he condemned as broken–but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a few wrecking balls and a fleet of concrete mixer trucks.  Neither architect nor planner, he was a policy analyst with a Ph.D. who theorized the perfect city (again, from a very elite understanding of what makes cities good–primarily ease of transport by private car and new, “modern” buildings free of patina) and creatively finagled the city’s administrative system to realize his ideas.  Neighborhoods smashed, homes destroyed and lives uprooted were just so many eggs broken to make the omelet.

Although Burnham’s planning had the “magic to stir men’s blood,” Moses was more likely to make it boil.  After decades of control over the reshaping of the city, done without much deference to government officials and answering to no electorate, Moses finally wore out his welcome in the 1960s.  Once the full price of his utopian planning was felt by the people who had to live with it, his fall from power and grace was severe and sharp.  Maybe Jane Jacobs can’t be credited with his downfall, but she can certainly be said to have given voice to the popular cries against the kind of iron-fisted, car-dependent, modernist-nightmare urban schemes that he forced on the city and from which it  suffers as do so many others that followed Moses’ lead to a modernist Promised Land that existed only in his head.

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You are currently reading July 29: Not-So-Holy Moses at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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