The sponsors of campus speakers like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, Young America’s Foundation took on Pete Buttigieg, thinking that they were delivering trenchant criticism. Instead, they’ve revived the critical history of urban planning and design, now articulated by the Trump-jungend.
Anyone who’s encountered urban elevated highways has experienced the social divisions made manifest by infrastructure. Northern infrastructure was much more segregationist in ensuring urban land policy enforced color barriers. Robert Moses was after all, a Republican. YAF = TL;DR
In an exclusive interview last week for the Black news and opinion site theGrio, Buttigieg said the president’s $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan focuses on roads and infrastructure in Black communities because those are the very communities purposefully shut out of desirable areas through transportation planning. “Often this wasn’t just an act of neglect. Often, this was a conscious choice,” Buttigieg said. “There is racism physically built into some of our highways, and that’s why the jobs plan has specifically committed to reconnect some of the communities that were divided by these dollars.”
Technically, Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker is a biography of urban planner Robert Moses, but that description feels laughably inadequate on multiple counts. For more than four decades, this particular urban planner was the most powerful man in New York, an unelected emperor who dominated the mayors and governors who were supposedly in charge, and who physically reshaped the city through sheer force of will. Caro’s enormous book, meanwhile, is less a life story than an epic, meticulously detailed study of power in general: how it’s acquired, how it’s used to change history, how it ultimately corrupts those who get it.
You needn’t care especially about New York to be awed by the changes Moses wrought there: during a 44-year reign, he built nearly 700 miles of road, including the giant highways that snake out of the city into Long Island and upstate New York; 20,000 acres of parkland and public beaches, plus 658 playgrounds; seven new bridges; the UN headquarters, the Central Park zoo and the Lincoln Center arts complex, racking up expenditures of $27bn, dwarfing any previous run of construction in US history. “In the 20th century,” wrote Lewis Mumford, “the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.” Around 500,000 people, who happened to find themselves in the way of Moses’s vision, were evicted from their homes. Did he drag New York into the modern age, forcing through much-needed public works and eradicating intolerable slums, against opposition from corrupt politicians and landowners? Or did he nearly destroy the city, subjugating its human inhabitants to the sovereignty of the car?
Masterfully, Caro shows how Moses transformed New York in ways both progressive and backward, benign and cruel. Many of the slums he removed were horrendous, and their residents got better homes; he really did break the power of Long Island’s robber-baron estate owners, finally permitting hundreds of thousands of cooped-up middle-income New Yorkers to drive to the beach at weekends. Then again, he so hated the idea of poor people lowering the tone at the seaside that he built bridges over his parkways with insufficient headroom for buses, so only cars could make the trip. Convinced that African Americans had a special dislike of cold water, Caro alleges, Moses kept temperatures in one Harlem pool deliberately low to keep them away. An exceptional chapter, entitled “One Mile”, charts the destruction of a close-knit community by a single, mile-long curve in Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway – a curve added to the route, Caro strongly suggests, to steer clear of property owned by an influential acquaintance.