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1.3: Ghosts of Urban Architecture

Specter: The Futurama's technocracy, community resistance and the narrative of "urban renewal."

Published onMar 25, 2021
1.3: Ghosts of Urban Architecture

Ghosts of Urban Architecture

Ghosts of Modernity: The Voice of the Polyrhetor

From the very beginning, the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair was haunted. Along with the national pavilions featuring cultural displays from their respective countries, the great technology corporations of the time—AT&T, Westinghouse, GM, and Ford—were developing their own version of a technological future, in which machines extended or even replaced embodied human activities: AT&T’s Voder, Westinghouse’s Elektro the Moto-Man, the farming pavilion’s Rotolactor, GM/Chevrolet’s Roll-Oh, and, in the Futurama, General Motors’ Polyrhetor.

The Polyrhetor was the answer to a technical problem: how to deliver specific sections of a short voice-over narrative to multiple moving chairs in such a way that the narrative synchronized with each individual visitor as he or she moved through the diorama. The solution: a twenty-ton sound machine would pipe individual clips of audio commentary, which was stored on celluloid film, to the appropriate chair as the wheels passed over tracks and triggered playback. But the Polyrhetor also marked the way the Futurama exhibit viewed transportation infrastructure as an integrated phenomenon: nature and culture, working and living, sight and sound. Riding in the plush armchairs of the carry-go-round, visitors could both look at a vision of the future and hear a voice from the future. The voice, like a personalized spirit communicating to each visitor, told the promising tale of a future world in which nature and culture would be reconciled through the grand visual space of a perfectly designed, perfectly controlled highway system.

“GM #F-62, workers on the Futurama sound machine.” Note the drums containing celluloid film. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Image courtesy of the Edith Luytens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

The Polyrhetor’s story was one that visitors to the fair were eager to hear. Urban renewal seemed to the people of the post-depression a welcomed relief. David Gelertner reports that “the depression made the utopian future an urgent and compelling belief” (51), and the onus was on planners and engineers to find ways to create more pleasant urban environments.

Unfortunately, urban planners and political officials often solved social problems with a bulldozer, and they saw urban renewal as a scheme that addressed two problems at once: they could finance highway construction with tax dollars while at the same time removing “outmoded” areas in the central business districts (Rose 107). In other words, they ran new highways through whole neighborhoods designated as “slums,” often with the approbation of the white middle-class public. In the Futurama, the voice of the Polyrhetor tells a tale of urban renewal that would require wiping out existing living and working spaces; in fact, one of the more chilling scenes of the accompanying documentary film, To New Horizons, proclaims this social Darwinist vision:

On all express city thoroughfares, the rights of way have been so routed as to displace outmoded business sections and undesirable slum areas whenever possible. Man continually strives to replace the old with the new.

Reimagining high-density living. To New Horizons. 1940. Handy (Jam) Organization for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

The power of the highway to enact social renewal was symbolic of a more insidious possibility: the total re-engineering of the world of tomorrow by today’s urban planners. Geddes’ dream of the perfectly designed future is haunted by this dark ghost of an “improved” future, speaking through the voice-boxes of the Futurama exhibit.

Ghosts on the Walls

The site of the World’s Fair itself was part of an ambitious personal vision of the world of tomorrow. It was planned and executed in New York’s Flushing Meadows, a grimy, polluted ash dump in the borough of Queens that was rejuvenated under the direction of New York City Parks Commissioner and urban planner Robert Moses. Moses, who arranged for the financing of the fair, saw the event as a means to appropriate Flushing Meadows, a “blank slate” of land that he could later develop into part of the New York City parks and parkway system. While he was not directly involved in the actual running of the World’s Fair, it was in some ways the epitome of his vision. The fair was a shining example of what was possible in city and transportation planning, but it also revealed the dark underbelly of urban development: “when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis,” Moses famously remarked in 1964, “you have to hack your way with a meat ax” (qtd. Caro 849).

While it may not have been solely responsible for the will to modernization so dominant in the latter half of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth, the highway as it was imagined by designers such as Norman Bel Geddes and Le Corbusier and implemented under the iron hand of Robert Moses, had a profound impact on the shape of modern life. Geddes’ plan for the Futurama, featuring designs reminiscent of both Le Corbusier’s Radiant City (a rationalized city based on grids and skyscrapers) and the Garden City movement (which emphasized the movement from inner city slums to a less dense, decentralized suburban landscape), certainly presented a compelling technological vision, but it also hid from view the costs of designing America around the automobile.

Skyscrapers and gardens in the city of tomorrow. To New Horizons. 1940. Handy (Jam) Organization for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

In the early twenty-first century, having endured fifty years of the gutting of the inner city to make way for arterial bypasses as well as the noise and air pollution that came with them, we can now look back with a deep sense of irony at the triumphant presentation of “an American city replanned around the highly developed modern traffic system” (To New Horizons). What was at stake, then and today, as critics of Robert Moses such as Jane Jacobs, Helen Leavitt, Marshall Berman, and Robert Caro so clearly articulated as early as the 1960s, is the recognition that highways are at their most destructive when they are built for the sake of “progress” and at the expense of the communities they supposedly serve.

Jacobs warned of the danger that Moses’ ideas, formed in the 1920s when designers were “captivated by the vision of the freeway Radiant City” (371), would continue to inform a new generation of urban planners:

It is disturbing to think that men who are young today, men who are being trained for their careers, should accept on the grounds that they must be “modern” in their thinking, conceptions about cities and traffic which are not only unworkable, but also to which nothing new of any significance has been added since their fathers were children. (371, author’s emphasis)

For Jacobs, Moses was not only a representative of the destructive force of urban renewal, but also a figure who could reach into the future and forestall the conception of alternative models for city dwelling.

Jacobs’ concern over the dangerous influence of Moses-era “modern” design was well-founded. Looking back from the vantage point of the 1980s, Marshall Berman argued that the remaking of the city around the highway had been a function of coupling “modernization” with the abstract ideals of modernity. Moses, responsible for most of New York City’s parkways and freeways, as well as the clearing of Flushing Meadows, epitomized for Berman the extreme will to modernization that had been embraced by an entire generation of urban planners:

For forty years, [Robert Moses] was able to pre-empt the vision of the modern. To oppose his bridges, tunnels, expressways, housing developments, power dams, stadia, cultural centers, was—or so it seemed—to oppose history, progress, modernity itself. (Berman 294)

In Moses’ destruction of the Bronx to make way for a network of freeways into the inner city, Berman saw the end of any possible synthesis between modernization and modernity. The highway, no longer a road to a brighter future but rather the technological instigator of a hellish inner-city environment, emerged as a massive force of destruction in twentieth-century urban planning. Berman was left to suggest, rather poignantly, that pictures of neighborhoods be painted on the high walls of the highways to serve as ghostly reminders of the displaced urban communities that no longer existed:

The mural might depict cross-sections of streets, of houses, even of rooms full of people just as they were before the Expressway cut through them all. (342)

“3rd Avenue El Above Cross Bronx Expressway, View is Northwest.” 1974. Photo by Jack E. Boucher/HAER. Library of Congress.

Fighting the Future

By the 1960s, cultural responses to the Interstate had changed dramatically. Robert Moses’ “meat-ax” approach to progress was countered by Jane Jacobs’ opus, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a profoundly influential critique of the gutting of the inner city. Her work marked an increasing awareness of the impacts of unfettered technological development that failed to consider the citizens it claimed to help.

Jacobs’ seminal work on the consequences of highway development for urban neighborhoods presents the highway as one element in a larger equation, stating that

[i]t is questionable how much of the destruction wrought by automobiles on cities is really a response to transportation and traffic needs, and how much of it is owing to sheer disrespect for other city needs, uses and functions. (339)

In other words, poor planning of the overall city as a place for individual human habitation is more to blame than the mere existence of the automobile or the highway. In fact, Jacobs predicted that a failure to plan for the diversity and vitality of everyday street life would lead to increased highway traffic and insecure neighborhoods, and would require citizens to retreat to the safety of their automobiles: “In the absence of city diversity, people in large settlements are probably better off in cars than on foot” (349).

“Supports for Interstate 77 stand in space cleared by the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority.” Charleston, WV, 1973. Photo by Harry Schaefer/EPA. National Archives.

Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. Model, wide view with transit hub. Photo by Paul Rudolph/Paul Rudolph Archive. Library of Congress.

In the matter of public perceptions of urban planning, Jacobs’ successful 1962-1968 campaign against Moses’ proposed destruction of West Greenwich Village to make way for the Lower Manhattan Expressway dealt a serious blow to the utopian dream of urban planners and marked a dramatic shift in public opinion.

This shifting public response to highway development continued to gather momentum. One indication of this shift is the eventual defeat of New Orleans’ proposed Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway, a battle that took place between 1965 and 1969, but began in 1946 and would have effects until 1985 when the ill-conceived highway was finally removed from city plans.

When Moses was first approached in 1946 to help the Louisiana Highway Department plan a new downtown express route to ease city congestion, city highways were widely regarded as the solution to overcrowded streets where unpredictable pedestrian traffic clashed with a burgeoning car population. At that time the modern highway, and by extension Moses, was regarded as the hero for a new age of urban planning. Tom Lewis notes that “[N]ewspaper editors across the country praised him for his ability to turn plans into elegant strands of concrete and asphalt that threaded their way into and above crowded cities” (183).

By 1965, however, the general populace was beginning to interrogate the need, not just for superhighways, but for many of the massive projects proposed by planners like Moses:

The technocrats who had spoken with such authority in the twenties, who had flooded into Washington beginning with Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and who had become a standard part of the federal government, suddenly found ordinary citizens asking questions and holding firm convictions about matters that formerly they would have left to “experts.” (Lewis 199-200)

In the first few years following the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956, the combined influences of urban racism and eager highway officials aiming to forge ahead with construction plans before public dissent would result in organized revolt meant that a number of bypasses and arterial highways were constructed in and through minority neighborhoods. Raymond Mohl offers as an example the case of I-95 in Miami, which ran straight through Overtown, a large African American district in the city’s center. Disregarding an earlier highway plan that would have bypassed Overtown completely, state highway officials opted, instead, to use the highway as a means to both reclaim valuable city space for commercial development and to relocate blacks outside of the city limits (683-85). Because the plan was implemented in a southern state prior to the Civil Rights movement, Mohl notes, few citizens were able to organize to oppose the plan:

Miami had few community organizations, most of them property owners’ associations primarily interested in keeping blacks out of their neighborhoods. Although the city was undergoing demographic change with Jewish migration from the north and Cuban migration from the south, Miami was still very southern in orientation in the 1950s and early 1960s, making interracial cooperation problematic. (687)

Such tensions manifested themselves similarly in Louisiana. The fight against the Vieux Carré expressway was eventually won by New Orleans citizens, but communities fractured into splinter groups as they realized that centralized planning had enabled the systematic advancement of corporate and white interests against those of less politically connected black communities. In the case of the Vieux Carré, the predominantly black community across the river was reluctant to join the fight because they had already had a section of Interstate plowed through their own neighborhood—an action which had provoked no protest at all from the white residents of Vieux Carré (Lewis 189).

Plaque for the Treme district on Esplanade Avenue at Claiborne. Photo by Infrogmation. Wikimedia Commons.

The road’s pathway, cutting straight through the middle of Claiborne Avenue in the neighborhood of Treme, impeded local foot traffic while car exhaust, noise, and the blockage of light left the neighborhood, once home to elegant, well-kept art deco-era houses, polluted, dirty, and run down.

Claiborne Avenue was a victim of highway planners’ determination to create clean, smooth-flowing traffic at the expense of livability. “Slum clearance,” an implicit agenda of large-scale urban highway projects aimed at wiping away the more incipient specters of racism and classism that haunted American cities, failed to recognize that these so-called “slums” were often well-established, thriving neighborhoods.

Race finally took center stage in Washington, D.C. where, in the mid-1960s, engineers aiming to plow an Interstate through an African American neighborhood ran up against organized black activists from Tacoma Park who formed the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis to resist “white man’s road thru black man’s home” (Schrag 119).

Poster drawn by Sammie Abbott to protest highway project in Tacoma Park, Washington, D.C., circa 1968. Image courtesy ECTC Collection, D.C. Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

Mike Davis, commenting on the way urban planners used redevelopment of central city districts to break up Black and Latino communities in Los Angeles, calls the resulting areas not the Radiant City or the Garden City, but the “Forbidden City” (228), arguing that corporate interests have used highways and skyscrapers to create a “spatial apartheid” (230), dividing up neighborhoods and denying passage from one space to another (231). The spirit of the genius loci, so compellingly posited by John Brinckerhoff Jackson in Sense of Place, Sense of Time as the benevolent “guardian divinity” of a place (157), had been replaced by a malevolent specter that continues to haunt the concrete overpasses.

“Expressway pillar in Houston, Texas.” 1973. Photo by Danny Lyon/EPA. National Archives.

The Highway That Never Was

Like the social costs of the superhighway, material considerations could no longer be ignored when it came to the actual construction of the highway system. Aesthetically, the grand, curving sweep of the highways and overpasses, the perfect symmetry of cloverleaf interchanges, and the deco-inspired architecture of arterial city highways still bear the stamp of Walter Teague and Geddes, fellow designers for Ford and General Motors. But despite the system’s centralized planning, each section of the Interstate was developed through a complex series of negotiations and compromises between corporations, communities, and state governments. Geddes’ vision of a postwar superhighway did not retain its integrated perfection, even on a material level: different colored stone used in local construction, orange cones, and inconsistent numbering schemes for highway exits all mediate our experience on the road.

Megan Shaw and Rick Prelinger, in discussing the narratives of manifest destiny that were so freely used in the imagination of future highways, note that these narratives fail in the face of everyday use:

[B]orrowing from a pre-twentieth-century paradigm for an understanding of the uniquely twentieth-century road-building technology that freeways represent has left us open to the dissonances that arise from the conflict between the lived experience of freeways in the late twentieth century and the remembered experience of free horizons that we were drawing on when we built them. (“Manifest Congestion”)

The predictions of the Futurama, so dependent on the superhighways running through an imagined landscape that combined Garden City and Radiant City, would not survive the reality of urban and highway development in the 1950s and 1960s, nor did Futurama predict the social and material problems that the increased traffic, further enabled by highways, would create.

Similarly, traffic engineering estimates that the Interstate Highway System would be completed by 1970 were, at their best, optimistic. Our highways must undergo constant repair to address damage caused by weather, natural disasters, and the passage of time. Blown-out tires litter the shoulder of main-line trucking routes; the decomposing remains of deer and other victims of “roadkill” draw our eye like forlorn ghosts of nature cut down by an insidious technology. Sections of the Interstate decay; the bumps, bangs, and rumbles of the degraded roadway rolling under wheel—a different kind of Polyrhetor—remind us of the costly cycles of construction and repair required to keep the Interstate in working order.

Aerial view of damaged Interstate 10 following Hurricane Katrina. 2005. Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA. National Archives.

The Interstate, then, turns out not be a perfect network of freedom and motion overlaid on the American landscape. Instead, it exists as a constantly renegotiated stratum of dynamic variables, both social and physical: urban politics of race and class, traffic patterns, financial distortions, construction, weather, decay. The magical moment at which “the future” would finally be realized never actually arrived.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Eisenhower Interstate System

Perhaps nothing conveys so well the role the Interstate Highway System has played in transforming America as the front page of the United States Federal Highway Administration’s own website:

From the start on June 29, 1956, the Eisenhower Interstate System has been known as the Greatest Public Works Project in History. On this Web site, you will find information about the history of the Eisenhower Interstate System and how it affects each of our lives daily, not just as a means of travel, but as a part of our culture and the American way of life.

This Web site is dedicated to the visionaries and leaders of past generations who created and funded the Interstate System as well as the State and Federal officials, private contractors, and members of national organizations who helped make the United States the most mobile country in the world. As we honor the past, there is no higher calling for those of us in the present generation of transportation officials than to ensure Eisenhower Interstate System continues to serve America for decades to come. (Federal Highway Administration)

Initiated under the presidential authority of Dwight D. Eisenhower, both Houses of Congress approved the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and work on the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways began. The Interstate system, considered by many to be “the greatest governmental construction program in the history of the world” was originally planned to consist of 41,000 miles of road. It took 35 years to complete (Federal Highway Administration).

Although national defense is frequently cited as Eisenhower’s primary motivation for supporting the construction of the Interstate, more domestic concerns were often at the forefront of the decision to push through legislation. Chief among these concerns were economic prosperity, commercial growth, convenience, and safety as the number of traffic fatalities on American roads steadily increased from year to year (Rose 78). In remarks at the White House Conference on Highway Safety in 1954, Eisenhower points ahead to the year 1975 as he speculates about the future need for Americans to drive on a faster, safer, and more extensive interstate system.

In 1944, President Roosevelt signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944, but this Act didn’t make the necessary legislative provisions, such as laying out how road authorities would acquire land for extra wide rights-of-way, to build the interstate highways. In the years between the 1944 Act and 1956, contentious political debates about how to build and fund the interstate intensified. While some industries, such as automotive and steel manufacturers, clearly stood to gain from a federal highway system, farmers were likely to lose both land and access to public roads on which they depended to transport their goods, and so organizations like the Farm Bureau Federation and the Farmers’ Union advocated increased investment in farm roads. Commercial truckers initially resisted any plan that would increase their taxes. Nonetheless, amidst these and other conflicts that plagued the highway debate for over a decade, Eisenhower passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

Further Reading

Rose, Mark H. Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 1939-1989. Revised Edition. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. Web. 25 Jan. 2012. FHWA.

Image Credit

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. “An Act to Amend and Supplement the Federal-Aid Road Act Approved July 11, 1916, to Authorize Appropriations for Continuing the Construction of Highways; to Amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 to Provide Additional Revenue from the Taxes on Motor Fuel, Tires, and Trucks and Buses; and Other Purposes, 06/29/1956.” National Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway

Robert Moses first proposed the Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway (I-310) in 1946. Moses’ plan proposed an elevated highway that would have run through the French Quarter of New Orleans. When the plan was approved and funded by state and federal governments in 1966, city preservationists began to organize opposition against the highway, effectively delaying its construction until the project was finally cancelled in 1969.

Further Reading

Baumbach, Jr., Richard O., and William E. Borah. The Second Battle of New Orleans: A History of the Vieux Carré Riverfront-Expressway Controversy. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1980.

Weingroff, Richard F. “The Battles of New Orleans—Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway (I-310).” Highway History. U.S. Department of Transportation. 5 Jan. 2011.

Image Credit

“Octopus Eye View.” Louisiana Council for the Vieux Carré, Martha G. Robinson, President; artwork by “Darge” or “Parge.” Detail from protest flyer produced by the Louisiana Council for the Vieux Carré. ca. 1964-1969. Wikimedia Commons.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Lower Manhattan Expressway 

The Lower Manhattan Expressway was a massive highway building project proposed by Robert Moses in the early 1960s. The plan involved building an eight-lane elevated expressway that extended from the East River to the Hudson River, connecting the Holland tunnel to the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges in Lower Manhattan, New York City.

The proposed plan, if approved, would have displaced nearly 2000 families and hundreds of local businesses. Though Moses had been successful in the past at ushering through massive public works projects, including dozens of parks, tunnels, bridges, and highways, mounting discontent combined with organized community resistance led by author and activist Jane Jacobs effectively blocked the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, marking the end to Robert Moses’ reign as the most influential “master builder” of the twentieth century. The plan was finally halted in 1962 after city officials unanimously voted down the proposed expressway in response to a series of rallies, protests, and demonstrations that galvanized support to block the project.

Further Reading

Lewis, Tom. Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Image Credit

“Lower Manhattan Expressway, New York City. Model. Long view.” Photo by Paul Rudolph. ca. 1970. Paul Rudolph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, repr. LC-DIG-ppmsca-26450.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Destruction of the Bronx

The Cross Bronx Expressway passes through the borough of the Bronx in New York City. The Expressway was planned and executed by Robert Moses; construction began in 1948 and lasted more than twenty years. The highway was the first major thoroughfare planned through a densely urban area. Consequently, it is still considered the most costly highway-building project in history. The highway is also blamed for the destruction of several low-income neighborhoods in the South Bronx. Community outrage at the destructive nature of the Cross Bronx Expressway led to a prolonged resistance to future highway building projects, including the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was eventually rejected by city officials as a result of community resistance led by Jane Jacobs.

Further Reading

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.

Image Credit

“Truss Structure at 3rd Avenue, Cross Bronx Expressway, View Northeast.” 1974. Photo by Jack E. Boucher/HAER. Library of Congress.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Marshall Berman

Marshall Berman was born in the Bronx in 1940 and died in New York City in 2013. A Marxist philosopher and cultural theorist, he was best known for his humanist examinations of modernity and the modern condition. In the popular All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, first published in 1982, Berman bore witness to the devastating power of the will to modernize—embodied by the figure of Robert Moses—as it played out in his own neighborhood:

So often the price of ongoing and expanding modernity is the destruction not merely of “traditional” and “pre-modern” institutions and environments but—and here is the real tragedy—of everything vital and beautiful in the modern world itself. Here in the Bronx, thanks to Robert Moses, the modernity of the urban boulevard was being condemned as obsolete and blown to pieces, by the modernity of the interstate highway. Sic transit! (295)

Further Reading

Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. 1982. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Helen Leavitt

Helen Leavitt was a D.C. journalist who became involved in the highway controversy in the mid-1960s when a freeway was planned that would have displaced her and her family from their home. Her scathing indictment of inner city highway construction, Superhighway—Superhoax (1970), was to urban freeways what Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was to pesticides. Calling the Interstate Highway System “history’s biggest boondoggle,” Leavitt argued that the special interests of a powerful few—automobile manufacturers, real estate developers, trucking associations, petroleum lobbies, road builders associations—were running roughshod over the public interest.

Further Reading

Leavitt, Helen. Super Highway—Superhoax. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs, born in 1916 in Pennsylvania, was a writer and activist best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), an influential critique of urban renewal policies that ravaged U. S. cities throughout the 1950s. Relying on a street-level view of threatened urban communities, common sense, and irrefutable anecdotal evidence, Jacobs vehemently opposed urban redevelopment plans which, she argued, were guided, not by an informed understanding of “real life” in American urban communities, but rather by “principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities—from anything but cities themselves” (6). Emphasizing a healthy urban community’s “organic” tendencies toward safety, stability, density, and diversity, Jacobs admonished “orthodox” city planners like Robert Moses for designing cities around the needs of automobiles rather than the needs of people, the result of which, she argued, was the creation of unnatural and alienating urban spaces in which inhabitants suffered perpetually from crime, pollution, isolation, and dullness.

Jacobs is equally well known for her community activism, especially her instrumental role in the successful attempt in 1962 to halt Moses’ 100 million-dollar plan to construct the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a massive eight-lane elevated highway that would have extended from the East River to the Hudson River, displacing an estimated 1,972 families and 804 businesses in fourteen blocks of the West Village, SoHo (Hunt).

Jacobs moved to Toronto, Canada in 1968 where she continued her work as an influential activist and author until her death in 2006.

Further Reading

Hunt, Richard P. “Expressway Vote Delayed by City; Final Decision Is Postponed After 6-Hour Hearing.” The New York Times, December 7, 1962. 15 November 2010.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.

Image Credit

“Mrs. Jane Jacobs, chairman of the Comm. to save the West Village holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles Sts.” Photo by Phil Stanziola, December 5, 1961. Library of Congress.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Garden City movement

The Garden City movement was inspired by British urban planner Ebenezer Howard whose manifesto, To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform in 1898 (retitled later as Garden Cities of Tomorrow) and initial efforts to plan and build a garden city in England have influenced a number of urban planning movements, including the New Urbanism in the United States.

Although Howard’s vision of the Garden City was not what today we would consider “suburban,” this has been, to a large extent, the outcome of the Garden City movement. Garden Cities were imagined to be a self-sustaining alternative to rural isolation and urban squalor. Residents would be clustered into small, livable satellite communities but would have quick and convenient access to both a central city and a pristine countryside which Howard called “country zones.” Garden cities, as Howard conceived of them, would retain administrative autonomy and a central core that would offer social and cultural services to residents: museums, parks, hospitals, restaurants, and a public park which included a glass arcade called “The Crystal Palace.”

He writes of the Garden City movement, in the opening paragraphs of his manifesto,

Its object is, in short, to raise the standard of health and comfort of all true workers of whatever grade—the means by which these objects are to be achieved being a healthy, natural, and economic combination of town and country life, and this land owned by the municipality. (10)

As population density increased (30,000 being the maximum number of residents in any given Garden City) more cities would emerge, linked together by rapid rail and separated by large swaths of agricultural land.

Howard illustrated his vision of the Garden City with a graphic he called “The Three Magnets,” shown above:

THE PEOPLE. Where will they go?

Closing out of nature. Social opportunity.
Isolation of crowds. Places of amusement.
Distance from work. High money wages.
High rents & prices. Chances of employment.
Excessive hours. Army of unemployed.
Fogs and droughts. Costly drainage.
Foul air. Murky sky. Well-lit streets.
Slums & gin palaces. Palatial edifices.

Lack of society. Beauty of nature.
Hands out of work. Land lying idle.
Trespassers beware. Wood, meadow, forest.
Long hours, low wages. Fresh air. Low rents.
Lack of drainage. Abundance of water.
Lack of amusement. Bright sunshine.
No public spirit. Need for reform.
Crowded dwellings. Deserted villages.

Beauty of nature. Social opportunity.
Fields and parks of easy access.
Low rents, high wages.
Low rates, plenty to do.
Low prices, no sweating.
Field for enterprise, flow of capital.
Pure air and water, good drainage.
Bright homes & gardens, no smoke, no slums.
Freedom. Co-operation.

As outspoken against the Garden City movement as she was of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, Jane Jacobs criticized such “middle-class projects” for their lack of adequate public spaces (like sidewalks) and diversity, all which resulted, she suggests, from urban density. She writes of Garden Cities, “[t]here is no public life here, in the city sense. There are differing degrees of extended private life” (64).

Modern suburbs, considered by many to be the outcome of the Garden City Movement, lack this autonomy or vibrant city center and instead serve as “bedroom communities” for a commuting middle class. Sprawling, low-density “sub-divisions” made up of cookie-cutter single-family homes, strip malls, shopping centers, and fast food chains have led, inevitably, to a dependency on automobiles, so much so that suburbs are often associated not only with boredom, isolation, and a lack of neighborliness, but also traffic, commuter stress, and increased air pollution.

Further Reading

Howard, Ebenezer. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd., 1902. Prelinger Archives.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.

Image Credit

“The Three Magnets.” Illustration. In Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd., 1902. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Le Corbusier’s Radiant City

Le Corbusier (1887-1965), born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, was a Swiss architect, designer, and urban planner known for his high modern architectural style. Le Corbusier’s architectural and urban designs, which were predominated by rigidly geometric uses of steel, concrete, and glass, were initially regarded as a utopian scheme to cleanse and restore urban slums in Europe. However, his designs, including the modern skyscraper, were later criticized, his work being described as soulless, sterile, totalitarian, and needlessly extravagant.

Perhaps most well known for his plan for the “Radiant City,” a city in which people were densely housed in stacked urban apartments, Le Corbusier’s architectural vision has come to be synonymous with the alienating effects of modern urban architecture.

In his 1933 book, La ville radieuse, Le Corbusier outlines his vision for the Radiant City, which would, in his mind, solve the problem of lower class slums and urban housing crises. His vision was influenced strongly by his visits to Manhattan and his observations of the cheap, dirty existence for the city’s urban masses whom he saw as living in chaos and squalor. Le Corbusier was equally disgusted, though, by the suburbs, which he characterized as “broken, dislocated limbs” (92):

The city has been torn apart and scattered in meaningless fragments across the countryside. What is the point of life in such places? How are people to live in them? . . . Suburban life is a despicable delusion entertained by a society stricken with blindness! (92)

His solution to this dual challenge of the overcrowded city and the alienating, dispersing effect of suburbia was to lift life off the street, to seek serenity in the sky.

The Radiant City, as conceived of by Le Corbusier, would be erected on the cleared site of the existing city and would include fifty-meter high pre-fabricated apartment complexes that were suspended above ground on stilts. Next to these densely packed residential units (what Jane Jacobs would later call “elevator apartments”) would be massive cross-shaped concrete and glass skyscrapers which would serve as the commercial center of the city. Beneath the apartments and skyscrapers would be layers of transportation systems, including arterial highways, trains, and subways, but no sidewalks. Situating auto-mobility at the center of his imagined city, Corbusier envisioned a suspended network of roads that would feed automobiles directly into “auto-ports” on the buildings’ lower levels. Pedestrians were kept off the streets, and instead were expected to amble beneath the roadways in ground-level, grassy parks.

Le Corbusier’s utopian dream was inspired by a paternalistic idealism that depended on those who would live in the Radiant City embracing absolute order and rational- ity, yielding to a higher, benevolent authority (in this case, the architect himself), and eschewing the sensual, the unpredictable, and the irrational. To Corbusier, the collective good that would emerge in and from such a perfectly planned environment would promote rather than squelch individual liberties through technology and progress. He wrote,

But we must not forget a second group of basic pleasures: action, participation in collective work, the realization of which by communal effort is an undertaking that represents concrete benefit for all and the elimination of one of the greatest causes of unhappiness amongst the humbler members of society.
These are the supreme joys that each individual can earn by a spiritual or “maternal” participation in working for the collective good.
That is what citizenship is! (Le Corbusier 86)

Architecture was, for Le Corbusier, a mechanism of control and discipline, a way to structure the private lives of the working classes, putting the principles of Taylorism to work at the level of daily life in the modern city.

In this respect, the Radiant City reveals his faith in what Rachel Kennedy calls “the inevitability of capitalist rationality and the aesthetic of the machine.” (Kennedy) As Jane Jacobs wrote of Corbusier in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, his was a vision of social as well as architectural engineering:

Le Corbusier was planning not only a physical environment. He was planning for a social Utopia too. Le Corbusier’s Utopia was a condition of what he called maximum individual liberty, by which he seems to have meant not liberty to do anything much, but liberty from ordinary responsibility. (22)

Le Corbusier’s original vision was, in his own words:

to bring decent living conditions and a light-filled atmosphere to places where everything at the moment is rottenness, filth, milling crowds, din, disorder, delay, fatigue, wear and tear, and demoralization. To create the nobility, the grandeur, the serene dignity made possible by suitable proportions. To provide a sublime expression (the mature fruit of machine-age evolution) of this century’s strength. To bring back the sky. To restore a clear vision of things. Air, light, joy. (128-29)

Although this may sound like a noble plan, his critics were quick to point out that the subtext of this vision of “decent,” “light-filled” urban living, was massive slum clearance, the destruction of existing neighborhoods and communities, and a deliberate incorporation of class hierarchies into the very architecture of the city. Jacobs characterized Le Corbusier’s fantasy city, in its failure to recognize the very people who would be expected to live and work in it, as a “wonderful mechanical toy” (23) and, consequently, utterly lifeless:

[H]is conception, as an architectural work, had a dazzling clarity, simplicity and harmony. It was so orderly, so visible, so easy to understand. It said everything in a flash, like a good advertisement. . . . But as to how a city works, it tells, like the Garden City, nothing but lies. (23)

Further Reading

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.

Kennedy, Rachel. “Le Corbusier and the Radiant City contra True Urbanity and the Earth.” (Jan, 2009).

Le Corbusier. The Radiant City: Elements of a Doctrine of Urbanism To Be Used as the Basis of Our Machine-Age Civilization. 1935. New York: Orion Press, 1964.

Image Credit

“Model of the Plan Voisin for Paris by Le Corbusier displayed at the Nouveau Esprit Pavilion (1925).” 2016. Photo by SiefkinDR. Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Robert Moses

Robert Moses (1888-1982) is considered by many to be the most politically influential, non-elected public authority in the history of New York. While some, like Moses biographer Robert Caro, have characterized Moses as a corrupt and opportunistic “power broker,” others, like Kenneth T. Jackson, cast Moses as a “dedicated public servant” who was merely “swimming with the tide of history” (Jackson 70, 68).

Moses began his career in New York government in 1913, but it was in 1924 that his interest in parks, parkways, and urban planning gained momentum. Moses drafted legislation in 1924 to create the Long Island Park Commission and the State Council on Parks. He would become the chairman of both and would hold these positions for much of his career. Ten years later, in 1934, Moses was named as the Commissioner of the New York City Parks Department.

One of his first acts as City Parks Commissioner was to reclaim Flushing Meadows, an industrial ash heap, and repurpose the land for the staging ground of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Under his extensive jurisdiction and during his long career, Moses was responsible for the construction of dozens of parks, parkways, bridges, tunnels, as well as an extensive network of highways in and around New York City. The number and scale of these massive construction projects established Moses’ reputation as the “master builder” of the twentieth century, and as the “shaper of the modern American city.”

In the late 1950s Moses’ power began to slip as he increasingly confronted organized opposition to his “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” campaigns, plans that would displace thousands of people, disrupt established neighborhoods, and destroy communities. According to Owen D. Gutfreund, the tide was turning against Moses and his unflinching commitment to auto-centricity:

In New York, Moses had over the years displayed little sympathy for those who were displaced by his highways, nor had he demonstrated much willingness to listen to those who opposed his projects. On the contrary, his heavy-handed and imperious manner had tarnished his once-gleaming reputation. Moses himself fostered the growth of his own opposition. (93)

This mounting opposition reached its peak in 1962 when local citizens, with help from outspoken community activists like Jane Jacobs, effectively coordinated grass-roots opposition to Moses’ plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway which would have cut through Greenwich Village and parts of what is now SoHo.

Further Reading

Caro, Robert. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Vin- tage, 1975.

Jackson, Kenneth T. “Robert Moses and the Rise of New York: The Power Broker in Perspective.” Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York. Ed. Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson. New York: Norton, 2007. 67-71.

Gutfreund, Owen D. “Rebuilding New York in the Auto Age: Robert Moses and His Highways.” Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York. Ed. Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson. New York: Norton, 2007. 86-93.

Image Credit

“Sponsor of Battery Bridge.” New York City Park Commissioner Robert Moses poses with a model of the proposed Battery Bridge. 1939. World Telegram & Sun photo by C.M. Stieglitz. Library of Congress.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


The Rotolactor was an automated, hands-free milking system engineered by Walker-Gordon Laboratories and displayed at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. A 1931 article in Modern Mechanics magazine reported that the “merry-go-round” milking machine could milk fifty cows in a single twelve-minute rotation: “the cows step in turn upon the platform, receive their baths, and are then connected up with the automatic milking machine. At the end of each revolution the cow steps off the platform and returns unguided to her stall in the cow barn” (51). The milk then passed through a series of tubes before it entered the “lactorium” to be sterilized and bottled.

Another 1931 report in the American Journal of Public Health describes how the Rotolactor’s thoroughly mechanized production process improved both cow and milk hygiene through modern technology:

In operation the cows move from their living quarters into a separate building and a room devoted only to milking. This room is especially equipped and designed with one principal objective—cleanliness. Walls and floors are tiled and kept clean. The air in the building is filtered and washed so that atmospheric conditions are nearly ideal; there is a complete absence of dust and objectionable odors. There can be no doubt of the desirability of such a milking room compared to the compromise conditions which confront milk producers in the usual cow stable where there is a continual struggle between factors of stable hygiene, milk hygiene and cow comfort. (Hardenbergh 895-96)

Further Reading

“‘Rotolactor’ Milks 50 Cows in 12 Minutes.” Modern Mechanics. (Feb. 1931): 51.

Hardenbergh, John G. “Hygienic and Sanitary Features of Milk Production by the Rotolactor Process.” American Journal of Public Health 21.8 (Aug. 1931): 895–897. NIH.

Image Credit

The Rotolactor. Film still from White Ammunition. 1942. Prod. Blake (B.K.) Inc. for Borden’s Farm Products. Film. Prelinger Archives.