Slums and City Planning

No man in the United States has had more to do with public works than ROBERT MOSES. He has been head of the state park system of New York since 1924, park commissioner of New York City and chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority since 1934. He was Secretary of State under Governor Smith. He is a member of the City Planning Commission. His guiding spirit has trebled the recreation facilities of his state and city, brought into being the great metropolitan parkways and bridges, Jones Beach, and play areas from Niagara Falls to Montauk Point. At the Atlantic's request he speaks his mind on that stubborn problem of slum clearance.
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THE general pattern of the development of slums is almost always the same. They begin with the overcrowding of existing buildings and the addition of tenants built by conscienceless speculators to a considerable height on little land, without reference to light, air, sanitation, and other standards of decent living and safety. The place of a single family in a reasonably comfortable house is taken by a number of families, and in the tenements people are packed in like chickens in a coop. Wave after wave of newcomers inhabits these rookeries. As soon as one generation achieves enough prosperity to get out, it moves on and another with lower standards and income takes its place.

By the time civic and social workers succeed in impressing upon the old-line politicians the enormity of this process, the neighborhood has degenerated to such an extent that it becomes a question of whether anything short of complete clearance is worth attempting. In the meantime local political hacks satisfy the customers -- or at least prevent an open revolution -- by handouts of coal and wood, groceries, and Christmas baskets. Property owners, real-estate developers and their allies, banks, estates, and even churches are content to collect their rents and close their eyes to the implications of their investments.

In this period the conscience of the community lives only in those outposts of civilization known as settlement houses. In these settlement houses Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, Lillian Wald, Mary Simkhovitch, and other pioneers lifted up the tabernacle in the city wilderness and awakened the sleeping conscience of a generation too busy making money and enjoying it to give thought to their less fortunate fellow men. For much of the progress we have made in slum clearance we owe thanks to the early social workers, and it is therefore doubly hard to prove to them that their work is done, that the task is now one of engineering and management, and that they must turn the job over to administrators.

In many cities this process of central decay has been encouraged and speeded up by the building of rapid transit, railroad, road, and other facilities to minutely subdivided farms and estates in outlying sections and the suburbs. The effects of this siphoning of people out of town were either not understood or were tacitly ignored by influential citizens and even the press, not to speak of the promoters immediately interested. If in New York City we had refrained from building so many miles of subways at twenty million dollars a mile and had put some of this money into rehabilitating and making livable and attractive the older and central parts of town, millions of people would not today be crowded like cattle into hurtling trains during the rush hours.

New York's leading real estate operators at the turn of the century have now passed on to what is conventionally known as their reward. I devoutly hope this reward will be adequate, because they were without question the most malignant influence on the city and its surroundings in my lifetime. Their disservice to the community should be noted from time to time so that it will not be repeated. These men perpetuated slum conditions in outlying parts of the city. They created our slums of today by selling small lots for big buildings and by preventing zoning, proper building, and multiple-family regulations. They were diabolically clever in applying to this art the shrewdness of the mule trainer, the persuasive eloquence of Colonel Mulberry Sellers peddling eyewash to colored folks at a Southern country fair, and the complete freedom from compunction of a gambler on a Mississippi River steamboat.

Everywhere these men left a slimy trail behind them which eventually had to be mopped up by public officials with money out of the public treasury. Almost every city has seen them, but I claim without pride that we had the topnotchers in New York. Even the highbinder boys of the last Florida boom were only pale reflexes and imitations of our developers, auctioneers, subdividers, title-searching guarantee companies, surveyors, architects, and other come-on men. The fact that they were often extravagantly admired and praised as pioneers by their own generation and regarded as leading citizens by the next is one of the saddest commentaries on our urban civilization. It is, thank God, an era that is over, but we still have a tremendous price to pay for it -- a price we are paying every day in the form of high taxes, bad living, economic dry rot, humiliation, disease, and crime.

Real-estate operators are only just beginning to recognize their responsibilities. Back in 1927, as Secretary of State, I organized and was head of the Real Estate Bureau of New York. The licensing law was never intended to be enforced. Its aim was to give real-estate operators the status of a profession without the responsibility and standards which are supposed to accompany this recognition. More and more the intelligent and reputable real-estate men throughout the country are concluding that the time has come for statesmanship in place of irresponsible promotion.

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WITH this sketchy diagnosis of the origin of the disease, let me go on to the happier discussion of the cure. It is safe to say that almost no city needs to tolerate slums. There are plenty of ways of getting rid of them. The only exceptions are in cities so decayed, so associated with temporary booms or exhausted natural resources, so lacking in morale and pride, so badly located as to trade, or so controlled by dirty politics, that the situation is hopeless. There are few such places in the United States.

The greatest difficulties today lie not in lack of good will, fine intentions, and public spirit on the part of most citizens, but in endless wranglings over the methods to be employed, over jurisdiction, over constitutional and legalistic interpretations -- wranglings which create stalemates with perfectionists on one side and realists on the other. Slums cannot be cleaned out all at once except in campaign oratory and the familiar literature of social agencies. There has to be a time schedule as well as a program. There must be limited objectives. There must be compromise.

To begin with, those who advocate the abandonment of the older cities, the creation of satellite towns, decentralization by whatever name, and other revolutionary plans which in effect mean tearing up the city and reconstituting it on a different scale, must be eliminated from the picture. The revolutionaries can't win, for the stakes are too large. The vested interests, legitimate or not, must be considered. And finally, habit is too strong; sentiment for the old neighborhoods, which is poohpoohed by revolutionaries, by the pinks and reds who never get their roots down anywhere, will continue to be a great factor in the necessity for gradual and conservative change.

Then we come to the perfectionists who are not revolutionaries but who will agree to no compromise. They say there must be a complete master plan, that everything must fit into this plan, that no piecemeal or experimental work shall be done, that those who favor and achieve limited objectives are merely tacticians and not strategists and that what they accomplish probably will be found not to fit into the great ultimate design. An editorial in a recent Architectural Forum, entitled "London's Little Planners," complained that the City of London is rejecting revolutionary improvements for the rebuilding of the bomb-gutted financial part of the Empire, and criticized the officials responsible for deciding on a conservative program as "choked with guineas and tradition," as "not planners but pessimists." Finally, for no apparent reason, this reference to me was dragged in by the hair: "Short-term realist Robert Moses, the Park Commissioner who has become synonymous with the 'practical spirit' of New York's patchwork city planning, would applaud the work of the 'practical men' of London."

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