Robert Moses is Dead. Making Him a Bogeyman Keeps Planners from Understanding RacismBreaking News
tags: infrastructure, racism, Joe Biden, urban planning, Robert Moses, Pete Buttigieg
Roshan Abraham is a writer living in Queens who covers city policy. He tweets at @roshantone.
AT A NOVEMBER PRESS CONFERENCE, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg expanded on comments he’d made previously about the racism baked into American infrastructure. With a bright smile and broad hand movements, as if lecturing a class of kindergarteners, Buttigieg referred to “a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a White and a Black neighborhood,” and referenced a parkway that was built too low to allow in buses carrying Black and Puerto Rican residents.
Buttigieg was promoting $1 billion of new funds set aside for “Reconnecting Communities,” part of the recently passed $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill. The funds are meant to remedy the bisection, devaluation, and decimation of low-income communities, including many Black and Latino neighborhoods, during the construction of the nation’s interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s.
Buttigieg’s comments—which included a disputed anecdote from Robert Caro’s biography of former NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses—were praised by urbanists who largely applauded his analysis. To a generation of urban planners and reporters, Moses symbolizes the destructive, top-down and racist approach to planning that jammed disruptive infrastructure through once-thriving communities, displacing residents—what Moses dismissively referred to as breaking some eggs to make an omelet. Over the years, a knowledge of Moses’s biography has become a kind of cultural marker itself. In the early months of the pandemic, a copy of Caro’s tome on one’s bookshelf during a Zoom meeting was a nod to other professional politicos and urbanists, signaling an understanding of the shadowy nature of municipal power. Invoking Moses is easy shorthand for New York City’s, and the United States’, legacy of racist urban planning—a shameful history but, like legal residential segregation, one many view as consigned to the past.
The problem with this narrow obsession is that while Moses may be the paradigmatic racist urban planner, he was certainly no outlier. He has also been dead for forty years, yet urban planning continues in myriad ways the same racially harmful practices of his era.
Moses was unusual for the scope of his power and how deeply he shaped the landscape of a single city. Many cities saw in Moses’s New York highways inspiration for their own destructive planning. But he was not unusual in his racism: builders, planners, and the federal government had roughly the same disastrous approach to urban planning, as exemplified by the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act that underwrote the nation’s highway system and the hundreds of institutions, including state departments of transportation and elected bodies, that routed them through cities across the country. Portraying Moses as the sole bogeyman haunting American infrastructure downplays these other destructive histories and their legacies.