The war on drugs is a far greater monument to racism than the statue of any Confederate general. But now that much attention has been paid of late, to Columbus Circle, here’s an excerpt of a piece that .  I am writing about Robert Moses and “superblock” public housing developments in NYC.

History tells us that they were all built in in the 1960s. Records do not document the fate of the communities, the bones of which they were built upon. Fifty years later, “super block public housing developments like “The Polo Grounds Towers, Mott Haven and Bernard Baruch Houses are home to five to ten thousand people each living in densely packed apartments, stacked up as high thirty stories.

As demonstrated by the Million Dollar Blocks project (see map), these communities also have some of the highest incarceration rates in the City.

“Superblock” epidemiology studies show a five times greater prevalence of asthma than aver- age. Seventy percent of the community is living in poverty with unemployment rates that are twice the City average. Over one half of families living in the community, run single parent homes. Pictured below are the Mott Haven Houses in the South Bronx.

Eighty-five percent of adults do not have a HS diploma. NYC Dept. of Education records further indicate, that a significant number of teenagers are truant from school. Going a little further downstream, eighty-three percent of third grade students are already behind in reading, with sixty-seven percent behind in math.

Superblock Urbanism

For context, let’s go back to 1949, when the federal government launched a massive program to rebuild declining cities. In NYC, Robert Moses was appointed Chairman of the Mayor’s Com- mittee on Slum Clearance. He believed that “only large-scale clearance would change the char- acter of a neighborhood.” He wasn’t interested in rebuilding communities by dealing with the systemic racial, social and political inequities undergirding their decline.

Moses fine-tuned a top-down approach to city-planning that prioritized “superblock” urbanism. By getting rid of the slums (which he thought to be a “cancer”) along with its “back alleys” and “problem families”, he could realize his vision of tall modern gleaming structures, set upon newly opened grounds in park-like surroundings. The community’s main thoroughfares and roadways that once provided access to neighboring communites and was lifeblood of social, commercial and cultural life, now became dead end streets and cul-de-sacs. Although described as the height of modern living, free from the hustle and bustle of commerce and automobile traffic, it was in actuality he latest interation of the subjucation of Black and Brown people.

Robert Moses, was indeed, the champion of the white middle class, building countless high- ways and bridges leading out of the City, helping to create the modern suburbs of Long Island, Rockland and Westchester County. He built Lincoln Center as a world class cultural hub on the bones of San Juan Hill, the largest Black and Brown communities in the city. He is also credited with building the the monumental Columbus Circle Plaza, a pleasant oasis to gather and meet with friends. Moses also created Jones Beach and the New York State Park system for the enjoyment and recreation of those with automobiles, only accesible via his newly constructed network of roads.

His plan for the urban poor, was quite different. Health and wellness were no longer front and center in his designs. The public housing developments he built were densely populated and isolated from the mainstream. The building of public institutions and other community resources essential to thrive, were absent from his plan.

Instead of opportunities to achieve upward mobility, the urban poor found few life-affirming work opportunities available to them, limited access to adequate health care, lack of knowledge of existing technologies, abject spaces for leisure activities and a disregard of public safety or posi- tive relationships with social institutions.

Orwellian Doublespeak

Now, “superblock” urbanism is an interesting example of Orwellian doublespeak. While posing as a higher ideal as represented in these contemporary Spanish developments, the reality of Moses’ program, is that it necessitated tearing through the heart of communities where real people lived and not just existed. Moses sold his ideas on the premise that it was for the public good, and especially so, for the very same communities being ripped apart.

pologrounds1964
The Polo Grounds Towers under construction in 1964

In the end though, those who bore the brunt of displacement, rarely benefitted at all, having spiraled, even further downward economically, socially and politically in the five to ten years that ensued before the development was completed. Some moved on to other public housing projects, where they were assigned price tags and became fixed, bodiless statistics, movable at will to be grouped together later and according to Moses’ will. Others simply found other “slums”, where they were displaced again and again. As for the rest of the community, no one really knows.

Moses’s was finally forced to resign in 1960, not because his prejudicial attitudes fell out of favor, but instead because he was wielding to much power, but not before he built 17 massive public housing developments — leaving a behind a trail of tears and destruction.

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