The Troll of NYC

February 17, 2018

The creation highway system was racially charged but understanding the actual impacts of how that manifested itself can be much more nuanced. I am not using the word incorrectly when I say that literally every metropolitan city in the United States was heavily impacted by the Interstate Highway Act, but nowhere shows the racial and economic injustices more clearly than New York City. In this section we will be discussing how the Interstate Highway Act impacted American cities using New York City as a case study.


“Over the great bridge, with sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world”. --F. Scott Fitzgerald


The city of New York is a ever evolving; O. Henry once said, “It'll be a great place if they ever finish it.” This ever evolving nature of New York allowed it to prosper in times where it needed to adapt quickly. One thing that makes New York politically unique is that is structured remarkably similar to how the federal government is structured. The Mayor's office acts as a executive branch, the courts act as a judicial branch, and the city council acts as legislative force. Similarly to the federal level, New York City’s executive branch started to hold more and more power mostly through the executive agencies (NYC Data). This is interesting because the people who run executive agencies are unelected. They are merely appointed, and on a local level like New York City their power is mostly unchecked. Now normally, this is hardly an issue as individual agencies don't have much power at all; however, twelve agencies combined with a common goal have substantial power. So what happens when one man controls twelve separate agencies and has near unlimited funding?

That precisely the situation that we find ourselves in with Robert Moses. Moses is an interesting man to say the least. He was born to wealthy Jewish parents who had immigrated from Germany and grew up in New Haven quite privileged (DeWan). He went to Yale and later was introduced to New York City politics while getting a PhD at Columbia University. From there he quickly rose through the ranks of bureaucracy until he was eventually appointed Secretary of State for New York once the position became appointed rather than elected. He was appointed by Al Smith, the governor of New York at the time, who was a close friend of Moses (DeWan). Something you need to know about Moses before we begin is that Moses’s legacy has largely been defined by his white supremacism and a anti-semitism (Caro). While working as a bureaucrat in NYC he eventually rises through the ranks, achieving unprecedented amounts of powers, eventually becoming the head of twelve New York City government agencies. With this much largely unchecked power, Moses was able to shape the city in his own image-- all he needed was the funds to do so. It is worth noting that at the time of his own rise to power, he was paralleled by a man who had only recently became the president of Colombia University, Dwight Eisenhower. Moses was a notable alumni and donor to the university and interacted with Eisenhower on multiple occasions while he was the President of Colombia (Colombia Archives). Both men shaped one another’s views on the city, and their definition of “blight” and how to control it. So when Dwight Eisenhower became president, his administration was known for looking for a way to control what they considered blight (Eisenhower). They quickly discovered that by having control of the roads and means of transportation in an age dominated by cars, they could start to control entire populations. With funding to build highways from Eisenhower, Moses was able to use those resources to carry out an agenda to, in his eyes, “purify” NYC. He sought to disenfranchise minority and Jewish residences, and as the head of twelve separate agencies simultaneously, he had unprecedented power. For example, when he was commissioner of the Long Island Parkway he built tunnels on the highway to the downtown area where better paying jobs were. He ensured that the tunnels only had a clearance of eight feet, knowing that most minorities, in particular African Americans, relied heavily on public transportation. At the time, this was mostly buses, which were eight and a half feet tall.


He built tunnels that he knew most African Americans would not be able to use (Caro). He used his power as as Brooklyn’s City Planner to completely carve most of Brooklyn and the Bronx’s with the Kings Highway and the Interstate 278 (Tuna) and he used eminent domain to forcefully evict entire populations. Just while looking at a map of the Kings Highway, one can see that the highway is so meandering because Moses would try to avoid property that belonged to friends and colleagues while using the highway to remove what was in his eyes blight (Stromberg).


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