Alex Egol: Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, and the Lower Manhattan Expressway

Alexander Egol

Urban Studies: Comparative Cities

Ms. Pillsbury

10/25/19

Inspiration, Generation, Resistance, Resolution: “Lomex”: An Ideological Story

Streets and stores saturate with sounds and stories. Piers pulse with plenty of people, playing, peering, and pondering. As I journey across Lower Manhattan, by foot and car, I feel the metropolitan magnetism pulling me in. I see the Hudson River, Canal Street, Delancey, Chinatown, the Williamsburg Bridge, and Little Italy, internalizing each area’s individuality and appreciating the diversity and dynamism dancing before me. I start by the Hudson River, packed onto a pier that looks distinctively new, before moving onto a more traditional and established area of Canal Street. I get into a cab, and drift from the cultural, commercial chaos of Chinatown to a calmer, more controlled area of culture, Little Italy. The journey ends at the Williamsburg Bridge. As I look back, I imagine having journeyed across an expressway littered with malls and projects. A sense of confusion rises within me as I wonder why in the world anyone would ever want to tear what I just saw down. Then, I think back to Urban Studies, and the ideologies I have learned about.

In class, watching American Experience: New York, I found the conflict over the Lower Manhattan Expressway to be excitingly dramatic. Previously, urban planning ideologies seemed abstract to me, words on the pages of manifestos, such as “Death and Life of Great American Cities” and “What is a City?” Learning about the battle over the Lower Manhattan Expressway plan made me realize that these ideologies came to conflict in the real world, had real implications on the lives of actual people (including me), and were still visible in my city today. Through this research project, I wanted to explore 1960s urban planning ideals by focusing on a tangible ideological manifestation. In short, I wanted to understand how abstract ideological distinctions became real urban planning conflicts.

One such conflict was the battle over the Lower Manhattan Expressway in the middle of the 20th century. The idea for a Lower Manhattan Expressway was first conceived by New York City’s most powerful planner, Robert Moses, in the early 1940s (1). Over the course of more than thirty years, Robert Moses had largely unchecked power over city-planning authorities. Wielding this power, Moses reformed the city’s infrastructure and enforced his urban vision, which was largely economic and mechanical. In the specific case of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, however, Moses’ power became checked, not through city bureaucracy, but through a collective neighborhood resistance led by an urban thinker and affected New Yorker, Jane Jacobs.

It is no wonder that Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses firmly disagreed on the Lower Manhattan Expressway, for they had diametrically opposed ideologies, and the Expressway sought to advance one ideology at the expense of the other. Namely, Robert Moses saw the Expressway as a vehicle for the further implementation of his “pragmatism,” whereas Jane Jacobs saw it as a wrecking ball aimed at neighborhoods worthy of preservation.

Robert Moses had a mechanistic approach to city-planning, which was motivated by a vision for traffic reduction and economic development. As New York City’s master builder, Robert Moses was forced to take on the congested traffic systems of the post-War American automobile boom (2). Despite the difficulty of that, Moses embraced the challenge, famously declaring: ‘the postwar highway era is here.’ (3) And Moses acted upon this declaration, dedicating decades of focus to New York’s crowded traffic systems, and allowing his ‘files’ and ‘floors’ to ‘[ooze]’ and ‘[spill]’ with ‘blue-prints’ of ‘further plans…about street congestion.’ (4) Moses was obsessively traffic-minded, but it went further than that. Moses’ commitment to implementing “traffic-moving [machines]” and resolving “the city’s overall traffic-moving problem” was the “particular, limited” objective of his “philosophy and tactics.” (5) To borrow landscape geographer Donald Meinig’s phrase, Robert Moses viewed the city landscape “as system:” he saw traffic systems, and traffic problems. (6)

Robert Moses also formed his urban vision around economic systems. To Moses, urban planning and the economy were inextricably bound: city-building created thousands of jobs in construction, engineering and contracting, efficient highway systems mobilized goods and people, and housing and infrastructure revitalized slums and slum clearance sites. (7) In short, Moses practiced city-planning with economic intentions. According to Moses’ conception, slums had to be raised to his economic standard, neighborhoods had to be incorporated into his arterial, economic system, and New Yorkers had to buy into his conception of economic geographical expansion into the suburbs. (8) Moses was all about his vision. His philosophy was, in a sense, fundamentally arrogant and paternalistic. However, to Moses himself, the idea of fixating particularly on traffic and the economy was “common sense to [others’] revolutionary theories.” (9)

The Lower Manhattan Expressway (nickname: “Lomex”) was born out of this Mosesian common-sense pragmatism. In a report by his Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority about future arterial programs, Robert Moses and company diagnose the condition of Lower Manhattan according to two unsurprising categories: the economy and traffic. In his economic assessment of Lower Manhattan, Moses presents unscrupulous landlords, widespread poverty, and a half-century of deterioration. (10) Also, in typical fashion, Moses saw in Lower Manhattan a traffic problem which only an expressway could relieved. (11) Through the financial “impetus” and “traffic problem…[relief]” brought on by the Expressway, Moses believed “new life” would be brought to Lower Manhattan. (12)

The planners envisioned the Expressway looking in the following ways:

Figure I: Lower Manhattan Expressway, project New York City, New York Perspective to the east

Figure II: Lower Manhattan Expressway (Future Arterial Program, 20)

Figure I depicts architect Paul Rudolph’s plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The image shows the Expressway at street level, surrounded by multi-leveled slanted constructions. Rudolph envisioned these constructions becoming new plazas, residences, and extensions to the transportation network. But Rudolph’s vision went further. Through the construction of these Y-shaped slanted “corridors,” built around the Expressway, and out of existing infrastructure, Paul Rudolph and his ideological companions believed they could change the perception of expressway-building. They wanted expressway-building to go from being seen as a tearer of economies and divider of communities to an economic booster and community unifier. (13) By building on existing social, commercial foundations, Paul Rudolph, like Robert Moses, thought his Expressway would only bolster economic and cultural life in impacted neighborhoods.

Geographically, as shown in Figure II, the Lower Manhattan Expressway was intended to connect the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. The project’s financial cost was projected to be $250,000 in city funds and $39,250,000 in state and federal funds, this lop-sided distribution a consequence of Eisenhower’s 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. (14) There was also a more significant, tangible cost, that neither Robert Moses, nor Paul Rudolph, saw or chose to see. This was the physical and cultural damage. According to the Triborough Authority’s plan, “Lomex” would have cut through Greenwich, Canal, Kenmare, Delancey, Broome, and Spring Street. Therefore, “Lomex” would have permanently damaged modern-day Soho, Chinatown, Lower East Side, and Little Italy, and would have to a lesser extent affected Tribeca, East Village, and Two Bridges. (15) These neighborhoods were not only collective centers of culture, but they were also vital pieces of the larger urban interdependency of New York City. Without these neighborhoods, the city’s entire web would have been at least altered and at most destroyed. Yet, Robert Moses was certain that his imposition of financial and communal benefits upon these centers would outweigh any potential losses, both strictly communal and broadly urban. Through projects such as Lower Manhattan Expressway, Robert Moses, like Paul Rudolph, thought he could manufacture neighborhoods’ social and economic lives for the better.

In contrast, Jane Jacobs, a Greenwich Villager and urban reformer, believed cities became successful through organic and autonomic social and economic organization. In her famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs illustrates the power of that kind of collective autonomy, using Boston’s North End as an example. In 1941, when Jacobs first visited, the North End was enduring systematized impoverishment: ‘very, very few’ mortgage loans, ‘a very large number of foreclosures,’ and “official apathy and financial opposition.” (16) Today, historians would recognize this government-sanctioned neglect as reminiscent of the 1930s-1960s practice of redlining, the Federal Housing Administration’s way of systematically segregating socio-economic and racial groups through the housing structure. Unsurprisingly, North End was “officially considered Boston’s worst slum.” (17) Then, in 1959, Jacobs encountered a renewed North End, which she described as an “atmosphere of buoyancy, friendliness and good health,” “a marvel,” and “a good place.” (18) The North End’s urban renewal was not of the Corbusian, Mumfordian, or Mosesian variety; rather, North Enders recovered by “rehabilitating (using)… earnings within the district,” by “[bartering]…skilled work…among residents,” and by “[uncrowding] themselves.” (19) Jacobs admired this self-sustenance; to her, the North End was an exemplar of economic self-sufficiency and advancement.

However, the North End, for Jacobs, was also “the healthiest place in the city” because it possessed a unique social collectivity, shown both in the street and the tenement house, that allowed it to transcend the “[impossibility]…of mortgage money” and the “delinquency, disease and infant mortality” of a typical slum. (20) Jacobs believed that the North End was safe, sanitary, and prosperous because of the “[heavy and constant use]” of its streets, as well as the “constant mutual support” and “close-grained diversity” that defined its “good health.” (21) Jacobs prized social and economic collectivity because, fundamentally, she cared about people. Whereas Moses and others saw traffic problems, ‘terrible [slums]’ and “oversimplifications,” Jacobs saw people, “of every race and background.” (22) Jacobs’ commitment to understanding people, and their day-to-day urban relationships, is what made her special and admirable.

To Jane Jacobs, Moses and Rudolph’s argument proponing a productive and connective Lower Manhattan Expressway was a myth; the reality was that the plan, by destroying jobs and homes, would unleash an economic and communal destructiveness that would undo the neighborhood’s collectivity and vitality. Jacobs saw a destructive plan, a ‘ridiculous…product of stupid, incompetent minds,’ that would ‘wipe out more than 10,000 jobs,’ displace ‘about 170 commercial firms,’ and ‘make over 2,000 people homeless.’ (23) Yet, Jane Jacobs did not just object to the destructiveness; she fervently opposed the dishonesty of the Expressway plan. She saw the planners making false promises about housing relocation, fabricating alarmist images and statistics, disobeying legal procedure, and orchestrating ‘phony’ hearings for affected residents. (24) At one such hearing, at Seward High School, her response was civil disobedience. At Seward that day, six days after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Jacobs marched with her fellow audience members through the center aisle onto the stage. (25) Her demonstration was peaceful. However, not unlike like Dr. King, Jacobs was punished unfairly; she was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. (26)

Although the arrest frustrated Jacobs and her supporters, the Seward story actually helped the fight against “Lomex.” (27) Amidst the chants of ‘We want Jane! We want Jane!,’ powerful leaders, such as New York City Mayor John Lindsay, underwent critical ideological shifts. (28) Previously, Mayor Lindsay had been proud of the “Lomex” project, calling it “the most dramatic break-through the nation [had] yet seen in the planning of highways through congested urban areas,” and boasting it as a solution to the city’s “desperate need for economic development.” (29) However, Lindsay eventually changed his position. Seeing Jacobs’ popularity and the size of the anti-“Lomex” movement, Lindsay realized that the people would never relent, and that the “public-relations damage” was “irreversible.” (30) Subsequently, Lindsay declared the Lomex plan dead ‘for all time,’ explaining that ‘the philosophy of his administration [was] to build only on the basis of community consultation.’ (31) Lomex was done, mostly thanks to Jane Jacobs, whose resistance had convinced those in power of the danger of the plan, and whose ideology had successfully bulwarked that of the invincible Robert Moses.

In these ideological terms, Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs were fundamental opposites. Throughout her career, Jane Jacobs rejected Mosesian ideology as fallacious and destructive, and, over the same period, Robert Moses referred to Jacobsian ideology, and ideologies like it, as “revolutionary,” subversive and radical. (32) Jane Jacobs used “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in order to full-on rebuff Mosesian ideas. For example, Jacobs directly affronted Moses’ obsession with traffic, saying that: “a growing number of planners and designers have come to believe that if they can solve the problems of traffic, they will thereby have solved the major problems of cities.” (33) Jacobs believed that cities were too complex to be understood as mere traffic problems. Then, later in the book, when referring to “forceful and able men, admired administrators” — also known as: Robert Moses and company, Jacobs talks about these men “swallowing…initial fallacies” and “[going] on…to [great] destructive excesses.” (34) In short, Jacobs thought that Moses was delusional and dangerous. Furthermore, Jacobs’ thesis — that “the entire concoction” of orthodox city planning “is irrelevant to the workings of cities” and that “cities have served as… victims” — can be read as a direct reference to Moses. (35) The cities can be understood as being “[victimized]” by Moses’ “[destructiveness]” and “the entire [concoctions]… irrelevant to the workings of cities” can be assumed to be Moses’ “initial fallacies.” (36)

Undoubtedly, Mosesian and Jacobsian ideology are, as Robert Moses would say, in a traffic jam. Moses saw individuals as cogs in an economic wheel, whereas Jacobs saw individuals as individuals within communities. Moses prized traffic efficiency. Jacobs did not believe traffic was worth obsessing over. Moses called Jacobs an agitator. (37) Jacobs called Moses’ ideas fallacies, and his actions destructive. Moses was powerful undemocratically. Jacobs was powerful because of her voice; she was powerful democratically. Fundamentally, Moses and Jacobs were each other’s anti-theses. Therefore, their conflict should be understood as a fight between two ideas, not just two people. That is why the battle over the Lower Manhattan Expressway should be read as an ideological story.

Photographs from visit

Interview Notes

  • Did you know that Soho and Washington Square and Greenwich Village were all almost destroyed in the early 1960s because a city-planner named Robert Mosese wanted to connect the Holland Tunnel and the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges? Can you imagine New York without these neighborhoods? Discuss your relationship with the neighborhoods. Imagine the alternate reality where the plan had been implemented.

    • Jose, lives in the area: born and raised in the area. “Gentrification has changed the area drastically. None of this was here growing up as a kid. Jaded over the fact that it’s changed so much. Great thing, but something bad. Merchants on Orchard St. are gone. Rents going up. A lot of tourists now. Lost sense of community. Cabs used to not come down here. New York City would lose so much if Soho or lower east side didn’t exist. It’s part of nyc. Adds a lot to the city. So many people came here at a time when no one would, because it was cheaper. Although the crime rate at that time was high, New York City would have been lost if Soho had been erased back then.”
    • Jose Sanchez, doesn’t live in the area: The area is good for the economy. The location is convenient for the city. Amenities. He comes to the area to work. He was surprised to find out how alive the environment is.
    • Paul, Lives In the area: His thoughts Paul did know about Lomex (Question: Did you know…?). He called the plan “A complete and total disaster in every way.” His relationship- He spends a lot of time in the affected areas. He was a little kid when Lomex battle happened. Has been going to Soho since high school in late 70s. Doesn’t go much now. Soho is just another shopping mall. It was valuable. What bushwick is now: artists, artisans, cheap, musicians. 20 years ago since Soho was that.
    • Edward, NYU student: “Those downtown areas are staples to not only commercial and big label store locations but also small independent businesses and restaurants, as well as neighborhoods students and a lot of “younger people” live so I can’t really imagine what it would be like if there was an expressway right in the middle of it all.”
  • Are there any good reasons in your mind for replacing parts of a neighborhood (or entire neighborhoods) with expressways? What are the pros and cons? Which side are you on?

    • Jose, lives in the area: has heard of Robert Moses. Housing Projects he knows are named after Moses. More on the side against building expressways, doesn’t like breaking apart authentic communities. “No authenticity anymore.” Now they’re trying to get rid of beautiful architectures for condos. Highways can break up urban culture…now it’s lost.
    • Jose Sanchez, doesn’t live in the area: “Not sure how an expressway would affect a city. The expressway has a good and a bad. The bad part is it’s gonna build more traffic, but the good part is it’s gonna create jobs.”
    • Paul, lives in the area: He read The Power Broker. “We need expressways to move cars efficiently of course. A lot of cities have been ruined by Expressways (BQE in Brooklyn).” “We should minimize (their presence) in cities if possible.” He mentioned the Carbon footprint issue as well. Expressways “Put them on the outside of cities if you have to. You don’t want to destroy old neighborhoods.”
    • Edward, NYU student: “I am not a huge fan of building highways because of how much construction goes on and then also the eyesore and noise it ends up causing, I side with Elon Musk’s boring project, or at least the idea behind it, where tunnels underground help connect point A to B. But that also requires a lot of work, but might wind up more convenient in the future.”

Bibliography

1. “Interstate 78 in New York.” Wikipedia, last modified September 22, 2019, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_78_in_New_York#Notes.

2. Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, Future Arterial Program, (New York: Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, 1963), 3.

3. Robert A Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, (New York: The Bodley Head, 2019), 897.

4. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 895.

5. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 669.

6. D. W. Meinig, The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 13.

7. Anthony Flint, Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2011), 140, 141, 173, 161.

8. Flint, 137, 139.

9. Robert Moses, “Mr. Moses Dissects the ‘Long-Haired Planners,’” New York Times, June 25, 1944, 16.

10. Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, Future Arterial Program, 20.

11. Ibid, 20.

12. Ibid, 20.

13. Paul Rudolph, (Artist), American, 1918-1997. Lower Manhattan Expressway, project New York City, New York Perspective to the east. Drawing date: 1972, Project date: 1967-72. Artstor, library.artstor.org/asset/MOMA_4330003.

14. Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, Future Arterial Program, 32, 26.

15. Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, Robert Moses and the Modern City: the Transformation of New York, (W.W. Norton & Co., 2007), 125.

16. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 11, 185.

17. Jacobs, The Death and Life, 8.

18. Ibid., 9, 185, 10.

19. Ibid., 11, 9.

20. Ibid., 9, 10.

21. Ibid., 33, 14, 9.

22. Ibid., 10, 13, 33.

23. Leticia Kent, “Persecution of the City Performed by its Inmates,” New York Times, April 18, 1968, 2.

   Mike Pearl, “Jane Jacobs Charges a ‘Gag’ Attempt,” New York Times, April 18, 1968, 1.

24. Kent, “Persecution of the City,” 1, 2.

25. Ibid., 2.

26. Ibid., 2.

27. Flint, Wrestling with Moses, 176.

28. Kent, “Persecution of the City,” 1.

29. Flint, Wrestling with Moses, 169, 170.

30. Ibid., 176.

31. Maurice Carroll, “Mayor Abandons Plans for Expressways Across Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan,” New York Times, July 17, 1969, 51.

32. Moses, “Mr. Moses,” 1.

33. Jacobs, The Death and Life, 7.

34. Ibid., 13.

35. Ibid., 25.

36. Ibid., 13.

37. Flint, Wrestling with Moses, 172.

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