July 17, 2024

finding robert moses

a view of Manhattan, NY from Brooklyn, NY
photo caption: a panoramic photo of new york city looking out from a rooftop in brooklyn. from here you can see a big chunk of manhattan island and governors island to the left. the sun is setting with a gradient from dusky blue to vibrant yellow-orange. it’s the city that looks a little sleepy.

New Yorkers and urban planners will know Robert Moses without thinking. For the rest of us, Robert Moses designed and built public works for decades in the New York metropolitan area. Jason Haber summarizes his impact in the New York area like so:

His accomplishments bestride New York: 416 miles of highways, 13 bridges, 658 playgrounds and housing for 150,000 people. He constructed parkways, tunnels, beaches, zoos, parks, Shea Stadium, the New York Coliseum, the United Nations, Lincoln Center and much more. Yet, too many of his grand achievements are either tinged with racism or scorched by it.

His legacy is incomplete without taking to account his net negative impact on Black and brown communities that still exist in New York. He razed Black and Latino neighborhoods to build his grand visions of a city for the upper class. He designed his parks and parkways to benefit car owners, by and large wealthy white families.

These stories and more fill the pages of Robert Caro’s biography The Power Broker. Daniel Kolitz explored the impact that he had, not just in New York, but in cities across the country. Even still, there’s debate about just how racist Robert Moses actually was. For me, the final word on this is his 1964 revival of minstrelsy at the World’s Fair. Pretty racist! Regardless of the man, it doesn’t matter what his personal beliefs were. His work bolstered a racist system that he both inherited and left behind. We all play a role in cleaning that up.

how stuff works

Sarah Schindler placed Robert Moses’ work as among the clearest examples of architectural exclusion. Architectural exclusion is the practice of using laws and structures to prevent a group of people from being in a place. It doesn’t have to be intentional or overt to have an impact. Dr. Schindler describes five components of architectural exclusion that discriminate and segregate. I’ll focus on three of those principles.

the built environment regulates our behavior

The spaces we’re in have an influence on how we act. Hostile architecture, like putting a bar armrest in the middle of a bench, make it harder for a person to nap there. All around us are signs that prohibit loitering, parking without a permit, or walking on the grass. These rules and obstacles appear in so many spaces it can be hard for some to even notice them. But if you are the person the signs are for, you can feel unwelcome without even knowing it. If you need a place to sleep, that park bench tells you that you’re not welcome. If you need to kill time while waiting for a friend, that ‘no loitering’ sign says you can’t stay there. Building the environment in this way can tell people that even public spaces aren’t for them.

architecture as a means of exclusion

Excluding a person or group from a space does not have to be overt, but it often is. In Detroit, Eight Mile Wall isolated a Black neighborhood to make a nearby white neighborhood more desirable. Extra-legal regulations like ‘no parking’ signs are the more subtle form of exclusion. Kolitz describes how inaccessible Rockaway Beach is to people who don’t live there. Even the ‘no parking’ signs on a road near the beach are fake: a wealthy local installed them to appear legitimate. These signs made it harder for people to use the beach if they didn’t live nearby. They don’t ban people of color outright, but they don’t have to. Architectural exclusions survive because they often feel like they’ve always been there. They can feel natural if you’ve never noticed them before. Because they don’t ban anyone outright, it’s harder to prove racism or discrimination.

infrastructure is enduring

Architectural exclusion is not an outright ban. Outright discrimination like race-restrictive covenants and redlining is easy to understand. Say someone put up signs to prevent tourists from parking to see the trees changing color in the fall. Would a court see the “no trespassing” signs posted in English and Mandarin as racially motivated? What if the property owners nearby said that most of the tourists were “mainly of Chinese origin“? This type of discrimination is harder to prove in court, and even harder to remedy.

People today have some awareness that interstates in many cities destroyed BIPOC communities. But even with that knowledge, how do you undo it? Removing or lidding a highway would cost billions of dollars. Most people are content with living with it, or saying “that’s the way it is.”

where in the world is robert moses?

Robert Moses weaponized his racism for decades in the New York metro. He was also a human being. He wasn’t a monster; I’d argue that it’s harmful to think he’s anything worse than a human. He might have been very good at racial exclusion, but he wasn’t a racist unicorn. Anyone could have done what he did. People still enact racist programs and policies without even having to know they did it. He used vision, infrastructure, and endurance to cement this legacy. I’m not an urban planner, but I do know public health. We don’t have to look far to see his methods used in other realms.

vision in architecture

Who did Robert Moses imagine would be using his roads? Even his defenders say he designed his spaces for cars, and the people who could afford to drive them. New York in his era was majority white, but he saw immigrants and people of color moving into his city. Robert Moses kept the pool in East Harlem unheated because he believed Black people didn’t like the cold. Critics say this can’t be racist because that pool was in a majority Italian neighborhood at the time. The effect is similar whether you design for an intended user or an undesired user.

vision in public health

No public health program can include every demographic, perspective, and need. But often programs designed by people reflect the needs and priorities of only those people. Without outside input, it’s easy to forget factors that prevent people from equal use of the program. Say we’re developing a program to vaccinate people against the flu. Most people receive their flu vaccine at their local physician’s offices or at a pharmacy. A pharmacy down the street from me advertises “Free Flu Shots” with a big sign. They’re only free if you have insurance. Across the nation, people who are Black are twice as likely not to have health insurance. The program’s messaging encourages people to call their doctor if they have questions. If we tell people to call their doctor, what does someone do if they don’t have one? People who speak a language other than English have a harder time seeking care when they are sick. What do we do if they’re afraid to talk to them? How do they receive equal care? In what ways did we consider their needs when we designed the program?

In recent weeks there’s been a huge surge in demand for rapid COVID-19 tests. People visiting their loved ones, especially elder relatives, want to make sure they’re not spreading a deadly disease. When I needed to get tested, I made an appointment with my local clinic. I drove through the testing site and got my results back in a day or so. How would this program work for someone who couldn’t get an appointment? How would a person without internet access make an appointment in the first place? Over the counter tests aren’t free, though you can apply for reimbursement. Who is likely to be able to afford purchasing the test today? Who will be able to read and correctly fill out the form, or wait for a check? Who do we exclude with these programs that are “available to everyone”? Wanting to get tested for covid is a near-universal desire. But the system designed to deliver those tests appears to benefit the same people who enjoyed Robert Moses’ parkways back in New York City. Wealthy and affluent white people have had a much easier time getting their needs met during covid. Even two years into a global pandemic, that dynamic hasn’t changed much.

infrastructure in architecture

Robert Moses designed parkways with bridges crossing low to the ground overhead. Cars could pass through easily, but public buses and large trucks could not. Jones Beach is an hour’s drive from the city by car, but impossible to access by public bus. If you didn’t own a car, the beach could have just as easily been on the moon. Moses’ design of the public roadways let some people in while keeping some people out. It didn’t have to be explicitly racist to have that impact.

infrastructure in public health

The built environment plays a role in every part of our lives. Budget cuts to social services reduce healthcare budgets, too. Hospitals and doctors move closer to the patients who can easily afford them.  Low-income and uninsured patients have to travel further away to receive adequate care. During COVID, many health agencies used pop-up vaccine clinics in areas with no access. These clinics can help fill the gaps in an underfunded system, but they’re temporary by design. A pop-up clinic in a poor neighborhood may do a lot of good for people in the area. When that clinic leaves, they will have done nothing for their long-term health. A city’s unequal distribution of hospitals and grocery stores can happen without racist intent. That doesn’t mean it’s not racist or unfair.

endurance in architecture

Regardless of their impact on communities, many of Moses’ designs stand to this day. People in cities across the country still feel the effects of racial segregation. But most people can’t agree what gentrification is or if and how it’s okay. Few people agree on if cultural appropriation is acceptable and under what circumstances. These debates endure while schools become more segregated than they were before busing. The present feels “natural,” and it’s so hard to convince people that natural doesn’t have to mean normal. It doesn’t always mean safe.

endurance in public health

Public health institutions are like any institution that is decades old. There’s an adherence to the status quo. There’s a far-reaching bureaucracy with various levels of resistance to change. White supremacy embeds and normalizes practices like urgency, power hoarding, and paternalism. These and other practices make it hard to stop and retool outdated racist programs.

being aware

Racism isn’t hidden in modern society, but it doesn’t look like what most people think of as racism. Racism and inequality is something from history books, not what’s happening today. I challenge us all to reflect on how we reinforce racism in our daily lives. A person’s intentions can be good and still perpetuate racism. A person can mean no ill intent and still create lasting harm.

A person can also harbor racist feelings and act on them with a clean conscience. These are the people who call the police on a neighbor while recoiling at the thought that what they did was racist. In their minds, they are just protecting their property, enforcing their use of what they see as their space. I think Robert Moses had a clean conscience, too. In his deepest of hearts, he may have believed he had nothing against Black people. Nothing against the poor, the immigrant, the less fortunate. He still had the power to build structures and policies that erased them from his field of view. That’s a practice that continues in every industry to this day.

photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space