There's a striking passage in The Power Broker, Robert Caro's epic biography of New York City's master planner Robert Moses. Actually, there are a lot of striking passages, as you might expect from a 1,200 page book that won the Pulitzer Prize. But this excerpt struck me in a particular, a "here's another fine mess you've gotten us into" kind of way.You might think this book is nothing more than the remarkable story of Moses, but it's also tantamount to a biography of the modern New York City, for you can't really tell the story of one without also telling the story of the other, and you can't really tell the story of the United States in the post-war era without understanding both of those stories. The excerpts are lengthy, but if you'll bear with me I think you'll find it's worth it.
Therefore, unlike a public work on Long Island, a public work in the city had to be planned not only in terms of itself but in terms of its environment, the neighborhood in which it was located. It had to be judged not only in physical terms – highway as highway, park as park – but also in social terms: in terms of its effect on the human beings who had to live around it. If in creating public works on Long Island, one could paint on a clean and empty canvas, in creating public works in New York City one had to paint over an already existing mural, a mural whose brush strokes were tiny and intricate and often, when one looked closely, quite wonderful, lending to the vast urban panorama subtle shadings and delicate tints and an endless variety, so that if it was crowded and confused and ugly it was also full of life and very human, so much so, in fact, that while the painting as a whole might lack beauty, order, balance, perspective, a unifying principle and an over-all effect commensurate with its size, it nonetheless possessed many charming little touches and an over-all vitality, a brio, that made it unique and should not be lost. If Moses attempted to employ on the canvas of New York City the same broad brush strokes that he had used on the canvas of Long Island, he would be obliterating the city’s intricacies indiscriminately instead of working around those that were worth keeping and preserving them – and while this method might result in the creation of something beautiful and good, adding to the mural new values, it would also almost certainly destroy many existing values. A public work in the city might in terms of itself – Moses’ terms – be an excellent public work while in broader terms being a poor public work: a highway, for example, that, however magnificently designed, was damaging either to the adjacent neighborhood – shattering its essential unity, cutting its homes off from its playground or from its churches and shopping areas, filling its quiet residential areas with noise and gasoline fumes that made them no longer nice places to live and to bring up children – or to the city as a whole: a highway, for example, through a hitherto sparsely inhabited area that initiated a sudden influx of subdivisions and apartment houses, loading it with people, before the city had provided the sewers and subways and schools those people needed, and that by boosting land costs made it immensely difficult for a financially hard-pressed city to provide such services – services which could, if installed before the highway was built, have been installed at a price within the city’s means. (Emphasis added.)
And the only way of knowing and understanding it was to study and learn about it, to find out how many children lived in it and how old they were, what games they liked to play, what games their parents liked to play with them on weekends, what games their parents liked to play among themselves, to find out whether the parents liked to play games at all or simply to sit quietly and talk, whether the neighborhood’s teen-age boys wanted a place to walk after dinner and watch the neighborhood’s teen-age girls walk or whether they wanted to spend their time after dinner playing basketball, to find out which streets the neighborhood’s mothers considered safe enough so that their children could cross them alone and thus use a playground on the far side whenever they wanted and which streets the mothers considered too dangerous, to find out exactly how far the children were willing to walk to get to a playground in the first place. 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 architect designing the specific playground in question – he simply wouldn’t, couldn’t, know enough about the neighborhood to satisfy its needs.
This might speak to you about the abuse of power, of the bureaucrat run amok, the arrogance of the ruling class, the growing loss of power by the ordinary citizen. All this is true, but what struck me in this excerpt is the story of the neighborhood. What is truly radical to modern sensibilities is the concept of a neighborhood as being self-sustaining, with its own playgrounds, its own churches, its own shopping areas. There's so much to this one concept, it's almost too much to go into in this small space. It's true that in many major cities you can still find vital neighborhoods where people think of themselves as residents more of the neighborhood than the larger city. But as the size of cities as increased, the distance between them has decreased, thanks to the evolution of the car as a virtual appendage, for example - we think nothing of driving miles and miles to jobs, to church, to shopping. The very idea of neighborhood schools is one that disappeared long ago.
Perhaps more striking, but hardly unrelated, is the concept of a neighborhood as a living, breathing entity. A place where people knew their neighbors and socialized with them, where children were known to all and watched by all. No doubt the idea of "all for one and one for all" can be romanticized to absurd extremes, but it remains true that in our mobile and rootless society, in a culture where we barely speak the same language let alone share the same values, we have suffered greatly from this tear in the social fabric.
For it's harder and harder to say that we belong to anything, other than to ourselves. This too is hardly a new concept, as Robert Putnam pointed out in Bowling Alone. We go wherever we have to in order to get what we want, because we can. We live wherever we want, because we can. Builders construct new neighborhoods out of undeveloped land, miles and miles away from any central business district, and people move there and put up with the commute because it's the only way they can afford the lifestyle they want. We live in our own little sanctuaries within our ever-increasing homes; we use Tivo to create our own television schedule; we walk down the street plugged in to our iPods, blissfully unaware of our surroundings.
I was most struck personally by the idea of the neighborhood church. Nowadays, we're so used to going to extremes to find a church that satisfies our needs that we think nothing of a 30 minute commute to church, often driving by two or three others on the way. We have to watch movies like Going My Way to recall a time when the parish was truly seen as a guardian of the neighborhood. And this is far from unrelated to the topic, for the divisons that wrack so many denominations today can trace their roots back to social upheaval - perhaps not the upheaval that resulted from Moses' unique brand of social engineering, but it came from that same bolt of cloth - the challenging of accepted norms and ideas, the tearing out of the very roots that had keep us in place for so long, leaving everyone just a little uncertain about everything, past, present and future.
Caro concludes this section with the tragic story of Sunset Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood that was devistated by Moses' construction of the Gowanus Parkway. Had Moses been willing to listen, to work with local residents, to put value into the opinions of anyone but himself, he might have built the Parkway one block over, where it would have run through a part of Sunset Park that was truly in need of renovation. Instead, incorporating it as part of Third Avenue, the neighborhood's main street, he created a monster, a street too wide and too busy for families to cross. Half of the retail disappeared due to the widening of Third Avenue; the rest suffered from lack of business as more and more shoppers turned to stores that were more easily accessible. As Third Avenue started to fail, the blight that the neighborhood had sought for so long to hold off made deeper and deeper incursions, and the residents who had for so many years provided stability to the neighborhood began to move out.
Drugs, homelessness, crime, people searching for identity and looking in the wrong places. You can create a grocery list of the problems plaguing society today, problems that increasingly aren't limited to the inner cities. You can make all the lists you want, including lists of possible solutions, solutions that too often fail for lack of funding, lack of dedication, lack of thinking. This isn't the place to debate those solutions, not really. (Although it seems folly to suggest that values wouldn't play a part in it, or a sense of belonging, or a recreation of our neighborhoods and urban areas through sensible planning - and perhaps a reining in of our more materialistic, more individualistic tendencies.)
But what is clear is that without understanding the past, without appreciating the many elements that conspired to change the world that was (this barely scratches the surface, I'm afraid), we can hardly lay claim to understanding the world that is, let alone the world that is to come. It's true that we can't turn back the clock, not completely. When the genie is out of the bottle, it's no use trying to get the cork back in. But if we don't at least try to understand what it was about the past that seems so appealing today, what it was that we had and lost, then how much hope can there be for tomorrow?