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.
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.
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."
It is a curious fact that thus far, in most of the older cities, more slum clearance has been accomplished indirectly than directly -- that is, through clearance not for public, semi-public, or private housing, but for parks, playgrounds, parkways expressways, boulevards, and other public improvements. I have made the statement a number of times in New York, and it has never been refuted, that my particular little group of demolition and building demons have without fanfare and social worker abracadabra pulled down more old rookeries than all the housing experts and authorities put together. And the best thing about it is that we have substituted nothing for the rookeries but broad highways lined with landscaping and recreation facilities, open to the sun and the elements, and affording the very best incentive to further slum clearance and improvement on their boundaries.
It took the greater part of twenty years to persuade reactionaries, mossbacks, rural-minded legislators, sharpshooters for taxpayers' organizations, and legalistic comma-chasers that an arterial improvement, whether it be a parkway for restricted travel or an express route open to mixed traffic, is not simply a strip of pavement in a gasoline gully, but a genuine shoestring or ribbon improvement of the entire area through which it passes. It brings with it benefits not only to those who travel in cars, but to the thousands who live along it or do business or seek recreation there.
The same problem arose when I sought to put this idea across in connection with railroad grade crossing eliminations. It took three state constitutional amendments over a period of twenty years to accomplish this result, the last being one which I drafted as chairman of the Committee on Highways, Parkways, and Grade Crossings of the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1938. Even today the Public Service Commission is doing every human thing it can to ignore, negate, and interpret out of existence the mandate adopted by the people at a popular referendum, on the theory that so long as intersections at grade between the highway and the railroad are eliminated, it doesn't matter whether the community is ruined or benefited in the process.
NEW housing to take the place of slums must be completely subsidized with public money for persons of the lowest income; partly subsidized for the next higher income group; aided in other ways for a still higher income group, through limited-dividend schemes, FHA guarantees, or other similar devices; or left to private capital substantially encouraged if not actually financially helped by public capital. Usually a constitutional amendment is required to permit states and municipalities to enter this field. Most of the recent state constitutional amendments to clear the way for public, semipublic, and publicly-aided private housing have been vague and verbose; they reflect, no doubt, the complexity and novelty of the problem, the mental confusion of the authors, and the ingenuity of the opponents who slip in those little interpolations known to the bill-drafting fraternity as "sleepers." The "sleepers" are the gremlins who wake up at the right time to show that the intent of the law is not what it was popularly supposed to be.
Completely subsidized government public housing was going up all over the country on an accelerated scale before the war with the use of Federal, state, and local loans and grants, the exercise of the power of condemnation, and complete tax exemption. A curious feature of this public housing was that it became the common practice of all public housing agencies to omit wholly or partly the recreation, street, school, police, fire, utility, and other incidental and related improvements which should have been taken care of. These were left to chance or to subsequent municipal appropriations out of other funds.
I am a strong believer in subsidized public housing within proper limits, and have worked hard to support it, but I intend to be honest about it. The object of such housing is to have the government give the family of small income, at a rental of from three eighths to one third of what an ordinary owner would have to charge and at half what a limited-dividend or redevelopment company would need to pay its way, an apartment built according to the highest standards and wholly beyond the reach of the next higher income groups. A subsidized tenant merely pays for the janitor. Stripped of tricky bookkeeping the situation is that he contributes nothing toward amortization, interest, and taxes. The public pays these bills so that the poor in a dislocated economy may have decent housing.
Enthusiastic housing reformers have attempted to dispose of this problem by neat little formulas. For example, the late Councilman B. Charney Vladeck, distinguished East Side New York editor and member of the City Housing Authority, figured it out for New York this way: "Follow me closely, readers; the mind is quicker than the eye. There are one and a half million people who must be rehoused by means of government loans and subsidies. Each requires a room; each room costs $2,000. Multiply $2,000 by one million and a half and you have $3,000,000,000. Now for the solution of the problem. If you have $4.00 to meet interest and amortization you can borrow $100.00. Therefore, if the federal, state and city governments each will contribute a subsidy of $4,000,000 a year, $300,000,000 can be borrowed annually. If you keep this up for ten years you have the $3,000,000,000 we asked for." Mr. Vladeck was a fine man but here he fell into an error of oversimplification.
Obviously there is a limit to completely subsidized public housing, and we are rapidly approaching it. You cannot rebuild all the slums for the persons of lowest income. This class must be taken care of, but we should not encourage more prudent and capable families to join it. The definition of persons of low income must not be constantly expanded and more and more liberally interpreted. Favoritism, bad politics, and a dozen other evils will crop up if this remedy is not kept within bounds.
One of the great difficulties with public housing subsidized by the Federal and state governments is the tendency of distant opinionated bureaucrats to insist that if they pay the piper, they must call the tunes. This hurdle is by no means insurmountable. The best evidence to the contrary is afforded by the Federal highway system and the matching of Federal and state highway moneys -- a process which has been carried on without attempts at Federal domination over a period of more than a quarter of a century. The Federal government has set standards but has not attempted to dictate details. Whether such self-denying ordinances can be applied to housing still remains to be seen.
Everything possible should be done to encourage semi-public housing and the investment of funds of fiduciaries such as insurance companies and savings banks, as well as private capital, in slum clearance. The difficulty here lies in the fact that the land is almost always too expensive and building costs too high to keep the rent down to a figure within the reach of the second and third income groups. Another difficulty lies in the impossibility of acquiring numerous parcels of land in private ownership at anything like reasonable prices. As a few lots are bought and the existence of the project becomes noised about, prices rise, speculators intervene, promoters get busy, and selfish individuals figure that they can make a killing if they only hold out.
In this situation the power of eminent domain is the only salvation. Condemnation must be exercised for the private limited-dividend or redevelopment company by the city, state, or Federal government. As soon as this happens the tendency of politicians and pressure groups is to impose all manner of restrictions on the company, not only on rentals but on the selection of tenants and on freedom of operation. All sorts of extraneous issues are injected into the problem.
These maneuvers frighten timid investors -- particularly ultra-conservative trustees of fiduciaries, who are not keen on assuming ownership where it is safer to take a mortgage. Private capital is discouraged from entering a field which at best is unexplored and highly speculative. An insurance company, bank, or limited-dividend company which wants to own, and not merely to lend, can buy a big piece of undeveloped land in the suburbs from one owner or institution at a low price and build attractive garden apartments on comparatively small coverage rather than venture into an old slum, where it must pay enormous prices for land which is usually overassessed and for buildings which are worthless and have to be torn down.
For several years I have represented the mayor and governing authorities of the city, as well as the City Planning Commission of New York, in tiresome and protracted negotiations for slum clearance with officers of large fiduciaries. After months of work and argument, projects have been developed which have collapsed either because, as the companies said, they were "too thin" or because of obstacles put in their path by other public officials, laws, or hypercritical extremists.
We finally persuaded the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to undertake the greatest slum clearance project in the country, known as Stuyvesant Town in the heart of the old East Side of Manhattan, and another to be known as Riverton in the Negro section of Harlem. Only the farsightedness, courage, and influence of Frederick H. Ecker, Chairman of the Board of the Metropolitan, brought about this achievement, and it is still a source of astonishment to me that the second-largest corporation in the United States, with endless opportunities for easier investments, ran the gamut of savage mudslinging to risk some sixty-five million dollars on these ventures. I have no doubt that these investments will pan out. The point is that they represent a complete departure from conventional practice.
THERE remains another method of improvement of substandard and unsanitary areas, and that is rehabilitation. Rehabilitation has its dangers. It can easily become a slogan to attract landlords whose only object is to break down tenement-house and multiple-dwelling laws and to bring back into use rookeries which have been condemned as unfit for human habitation. Here again the old conflict between the perfectionists and the practical men breaks out.
The perfectionist does not want old buildings made sanitary and fireproof without changing their essential character. He says this move perpetuates the slum and gives it a new lease of life when it is about to die a natural death. He favors rehabilitation only if every third house is torn down and the two remaining ones are completely rebuilt; and he can show that this process is so expensive that it is hardly worth while. Yet it is a fact that in most cities plenty of old tenements and other houses can be made safe, sanitary, and fairly comfortable for a number of years at reasonable cost.
Many of these old tenements are going to be lived in anyway -- because there just cannot be enough public and semi-public new housing to take their place. This situation can be measurably improved by cutting through new streets and pedestrian lanes and by establishing small neighborhood parks and playgrounds. The average brick tenement has a good deal of life left, and people can live decently in crowded quarters if they have heat, hot water, bathrooms, fire escapes, as well as light and gas.
Another reason why these old houses will have to be used is that they constitute the only practical temporary quarters for those who are tossed out into the streets to make way for new public and semi-public housing projects. Obviously, tenants of buildings which are about to be razed must go somewhere, and they often represent families which are either not eligible to go back into the new public housing or do not have sufficient income to move into semi-public projects when they are completed.
Some idea of the complexity of this problem may be gathered from the fact that in New York at least sixty thousand people are living in houses about to be demolished for public and private slum clearance projects to be constructed immediately after the war; and if Baltimore adopts the arterial program which some of us recommended recently, some twenty thousand people, mostly living in run-down rookeries, will have to be rehoused there. Under these conditions the natural tendency of public housing authorities is to delay projects or to schedule them over a long period following the war in order to minimize the difficulty of rehousing and to avoid facing it frankly.
A serious obstacle in the way of financing slum clearance lies in the unwillingness of organized labor to cooperate in any program which does not preserve its inalienable rights to hourly wages, jurisdictional disputes and strikes, and resistance to inventions and improvements in the building field. The notion that every effort to reduce building costs, every advance in building technique, is an attack on unionism and a conspiracy against the laboring man is so deep-seated that there seems no possibility of dislodging it. This attitude makes no sense, but it will not change until we deal with another generation of union officials educated in a better school.
It is unfortunate that in New York and many other cities public housing has pre-empted not the worst but the best of the acknowledged slum areas -- that is, those favorably located on parks and waterfront, where values were comparatively low because of stables, junk shops, garages, and other cheap low buildings. The public housing experts have picked up the best and cheapest land at the lowest price. They have built up or planned there new communities on these favorable properties, leaving just behind them slums which will often have even less light and air than they had before and which in many cases constituted the areas on which the public housing should have been built. In other cases the so-called public housing experts have established projects in outlying sections where there were no slums at all, and have attracted there tenants from slum buildings. These old buildings have been left not empty but in many cases half filled, not quite bankrupting the owner or tossing the property into the hands of the bank or other mortgage holder.
THERE is another thing to think of, and that is the prevention of more slums through the decay and degeneration of residential properties which are being shifted from single-family to multi-family dwellings. These potential slums are being overbuilt because of zoning standards purposely kept low and inadequate by real-estate promoters and their cronies in the architectural profession, in banks which have made imprudent loans, and among the ranks of the builders, Chamber of Commerce members, and other building strategists who feel it in their bones that there will be a big boom right after the war. They all want to cash in on every nickel's worth of land which can be traded, bought, or actually built on.
In New York City we adopted our first zoning ordinance twenty-eight years ago in the face of the most bitter opposition and at a time when the attitude of the courts as to its constitutionality was not known. In order to establish the principle of zoning, the proponents of the plan accepted almost every crippling amendment proposed by those who were determined that if the courts upheld this monstrous invasion of their prerogatives the ordinance would be as feeble and ineffective as possible. A few cities were ahead of us; many followed. I know of no zoning ordinance with adequate and proper standards in any large city in the United States. All of them represented enormous concessions to powerful interests like those made in New York in 1916. In many cases the execution of these ordinances was placed in the hands of officials so timid, uncertain, or even corrupt as to ensure that no speculative builder on expensive land in congested areas would have much to worry about.
At the end of twenty-eight years the present City Planning Commission of New York has finally taken courage and has proposed a conservative raising of standards covering height and area -- that is, bulk requirements. One would think from the cries of rage and anguish which have been raised by the real-estate people that we had proposed to ruin the city. What we have done is simply to raise the requirements in each class one peg. For example, in a so-called "one times height" district, where at present the height of a building at the curb is restricted to the width of the street, the new standard calls for a height only seven-eighths the width of the street. Similarly, in a "one and one-half times" district, the new height will be one and one-quarter times the width of the street. As to area, our lowest class, A, is given the standards of the present class B, class B is raised to class C, and so forth.
All this is characterized by powerful reactionary groups as confiscatory, socialistic, and an outrage. The leader of today's opposition is the son of the leader of the opposition to the original plan adopted in 1916. These people have even attempted to prove to organized labor that there will be no building after the war if our amendments become effective, that business and industry will leave town, and that we shall have a ghost city in a few years.
The real-estate opponents of the pending New York zoning amendments follow the usual technique. They demand more time for consideration and an embargo on changes for two or three years after the war. To show that they have affiliations on the side of the angels, they advocate studies of thoroughgoing, comprehensive plans to reduce scientifically the bulk of future buildings. This last gesture is an invitation to extreme reformers with whom they really have nothing in common. The spectacle of hard-boiled promoters and long-haired planners riding together in one omnibus toward perfection, with orders to stop at no way stations, has its humor.
I am glad to say that five out of six members of the City Planning Commission were completely unimpressed by this ballyhoo. The new standards have been adopted by the City Planning Commission. I think our explanation will be accepted by the general public in spite of the confusion opponents have skillfully sought to create. The amendments now go to the governing body of the city, the Board of Estimate, for final action. They will become effective unless twelve out of sixteen votes in the Board are mustered against them. I am sufficiently convinced of the integrity, public spirit, and courage of Mayor La Guardia, Comptroller McGoldrick, and the President of the Council, Newbold Morris, who together have sufficient votes to uphold the City Planning Commission, to believe that by the time this article appears the new standards will be the law. If so, we shall have done something to prevent future slums.