Build and Be Damned

Every motorist is aware of the monotonous new communities, the clusters of little pastel houses, which have mushroomed up overnight within a thirty-mile radius of most American cities. Have they been planned with forethought or simply with a rich profit in mind? Robert Moses, who puts the question, is an authority on parks, highways, housing, and municipal and state planning. In his thirty years of participation in New York's city and state governments, he has served every governor since Al Smith and both Mayors La Guardia and O'Dwyer. He has recently completed a report for the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on its needed public improvement.
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As the recent Census shows the continuing trend to suburbs from the city, and from suburbs to near-by country, we pause in our busy rounds to contemplate the horrors being perpetrated by uncontrolled boom building. It looks as if we may have a short breathing spell due to defense preparations and temporary slackening of demand for home construction, in the course of which the rage to subdivide may be studied, recent bad and indifferent projects analyzed, and steps taken to save what is left of the landscape and to stop destructive practices which in many cases amount to sheer vandalism.

Let us begin at the beginning with the countryside as God and Nature gave it to us. Historically every populous community is the result of the breaking of big holdings into smaller and yet smaller pieces—whether the original lands belong to Indians, pirates, colonial governments and companies, patroons, manorial landlords, grantees through royal patents, railroads, prospectors, churches, grubstakers, ranchers, farmers, or plain squatters.

The idea of control, in the public interest, of size of lots, streets, sewers, drains, landscaping, was at first regarded as a nightmare of madmen and then, after bitter recriminations and litigation, was reluctantly and grudgingly accepted by more progressive communities. It is still fought by stalwart conservatives as an outrageous and essentially unconstitutional exercise of the police power by busybeaver bureaucrats intent on expanding swollen civil service forces.

Our overbuilt cities with their congestion, their trend to high office buildings and apartments, their complete indifference to the most elementary principles of civilian defense, their slums representing past neglect and greed, can to a considerable extent be rebuilt on better principles if we are smart enough to look the facts in the eye and brush off the Babbitts who hold that wherever the dirt flies there is progress. On the other hand, cities can not be revolutionized and turned into garden villages or green belts. In the suburbs and near-by country, however, we still have a chance to do the right thing without stultifying compromises.

Subdivision of old family estates, farms, and other large holdings is brought about by owners; by what is known in the trade as "heirs and assasins"; by lawyers, trustees, bankers; and last but not least by auctioneers, promoters, and developers operating under the title of realtors. Change in the heart of cities is, of course, inevitable and there is no use beefing about it, but the process can be orderly, gradual, and conservative instead of devastating. We must accept with a sigh of regret the extinction of roomy old mansions well set back from Main Street where the Magnificent Ambersons and their counterparts rejoiced in shaded lawns and iron deer, and in their place the substitution of Daisy's Diner and Lizzie's Lubritorium.

To young couples with one or two small children fed up with life in a city sardine can or goldfish bowl, often with elderly in-laws, any house or apartment of their own in any subdivision looks like Heaven—and it is this craving for a home and bit of ground that the shrewd realtor counts on for quick sales and a big return on very little equity.

Let me say in passing, and without invidious implications, that you do not make a professional man out of every real-estate agent merely by calling him a realtor, and that state licensing does not automatically produce professional standards or restrain fly-by-night promoters. Land speculation began when the pastoral age ended, and only honest regulation will control it. As Secretary of State of New York some years ago, I had charge of real-estate licensing, and I speak therefore with some knowledge on this subject.

The sentimental interest of estate owners, as distinguished from developers, in the preservation of the scenery is, I regret to say, often pretty thin stuff. As head of the park systems of the City and State of New York, a lot of woozy drip has been poured on me by these folks. They love the land if it doesn't cost them anything and until they decide to sell and move away. The big estate owners were the bitterest opponents of the state park and parkway program on Long Island. They said they would fight to the death to keep their ancestral acres intact and to exclude the riffraff from town, but they sold to developers who in most cases literally hacked the estates to pieces.

One of our leading philanthropists, long since gone to his reward, begged me to save a point of unique unspoiled beauty jutting out into the ocean, and within a month sold his holdings there to a ruthless developer whose aim was to blow down the dunes, tear out shrubs which had taken root after ages of conflict with wind and storm, and rebuild the point in his own image. My philanthropist friend explained that his hard-boiled brother had forced the sale. The same developer chopped down eleven hundred stunted white oaks on state land to make way for a power line. In this case, however, we made his agents apologize publicly and pay a heavy fine which went toward replanting, but it will take thirty years to repair the damage.

We have in our state park system a beautiful unspoiled salt meadow with a beach, a brackish creek, and sand dunes overrun by beach plum, cedar grass, bayberry, and stunted pines, and with a forested ridge running into it. We sought to protect it by zoning. The neighbors, who professed to love it, tried by every means to break down the restrictions and to fill, level, and minutely split it up. When we condemned more of it, they based their claims in court on what they would have made if their subdivision plans had succeeded.

The typical real-estate subdivision brochure contains distorted maps, claims that distant places are within easy commuting range, and pictures kitchens replete with shining gadgets, living rooms which look like Hitler's Chancellery, and gardens reminiscent of Marie Antoinette and the Tuileries. These folders, which aim to create a romantic atmosphere, are labeled Rocky Mountain View, American Venice, Marmaduke Manor, Phoenix Park, Pacific Shores, Aztec Village, Wampum City, Quahog Beach, Casabianca, or Capri. Their streets are named after fruits, Presidents, ballplayers, movie stars, Indians, Eskimos, departed local celebrities, Scotch clans, and Riviera resorts. There are usually guarded references to a magnificent community clubhouse where good old Crestfallen Manor still stands, and to murmuring hemlocks, vast expanses of sandy beach on salt or fresh water, and so forth.

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