Robert Moses & Superblock Urbanism

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.

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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.

We Need To Just Say No to Random Student Drug Testing

Trust between teenagers and adults is essential if students are to make optimal use of the educational and social opportunities before them. That’s one reason I am vehemently opposed to Random Student Drug Testing (RSDT) and zero-tolerance policies, both of which erode the confidence required for young people to meaningfully engage with the adults who can most help them.

The impulse to take decisive action to keep our children safe is understandable. But the decision this week by the Zionsville School District in Indiana to approve RSDT promotes a stigmatized view of people who use drugs, without any ultimate benefit to the people it ostensibly protects. This is not the type of education we need.

The Zionsville policy will apply to any students who engage in extra-curricular activities or park on school property. Any who test positive will—regardless of their frequency of use or how their broader lives are progressing—be required to complete a drug counseling program or be excluded from the very same activities that are shown to prevent not only problematic drug use, but also dropping out of high school, delinquent behavior, teen pregnancy and teen-on-teen violence.

Indiana, where around half of all schools now have RSDT, is simply following the path of the 18 percent of schools nationally that already have it. Proponents cite the 2002 Supreme Court ruling (BOE v. Earls) that upheld the constitutionality of RSDT in schools. My read of that ruling, however, is that it’s just for students involved in “competitive extra-curricular activities”—longhand for sports. The initial target was steroid use in athletes. But it’s estimated that up to 40 percent of school districts with RSDT selectively target other groups of students, and in many cases test the entire school.

Regardless of these murky interpretations of Random Student Drug Testing’s legality, RSDT is not only ineffective but produces all kinds of negative outcomes.

The process of urine testing is humiliating for young people. The money spent on the drug tests (Zionsville’s will cost $36 each) is money that can’t be spent on education. Positive test results are rare. But when they happen, the consequences for at-risk youth (particularly of color) can be devastating—including suspension from valuable activities; suspension or expulsion from educational institutions; and even removal from their families and communities due to involvement with the criminal justice system.

You only have to recall the Riverside County, CA high school sting operation of 2012 for an example of how zero-tolerance can run amok. RSDT policies are one of the main contributors to the devastating “school -to-prison-pipeline” —a racially biased phenomenon that damages countless young lives, with many collateral costs for communities.

Even minor violations, such as testing positive for marijuana, which remains detectable for weeks after use, can result in serious consequences. We have to ask ourselves what’s doing more harm in these cases: the drug use, or the sanctions?

As a dad, I know that no parent wants his or her teenager to use drugs, less still for their life to be ruined by problematic drug use. I always urge young people, first and foremost, to steer clear of tobacco, alcohol and other substances. But as a lifelong youth advocate and educator, it has become apparent to me that there is no alternative to a reality-based approach to drug education and prevention—one grounded in science-informed, truthful information.

The reality is that over half of high-school students will try psychoactive drugs before they graduate. The large majority of them will do so without disaster—but they still deserve all the protection we can give them.

So instead of shaming them, “scaring them straight,” or continually presenting the specter of life-altering consequences, we need to implement forward-thinking strategies that emphasize knowledge and safety. We need to say, “If you do use drugs, here are some things that you should know to stay safer.”

Because after all, what do we really care about here? If our child is as safe as possible, meeting their responsibilities and taking opportunities to learn and grow, should we really fixate on experimental drug use to the exclusion of all else?

Talking to our children about drugs is indeed tricky. But when we do it, we must not resort to deploying cynical tropes fueled by ignorance, misinformation and fear—ones that merely reflect society’s mistrust, discrimination and racial prejudice.

One reason to resist doing this is that drug-related stigma can be a real obstacle to a young person reaching out for help.

RSDT and zero-tolerance teach our children to lie. These strategies push kids (and their risky behaviors) underground, where they are exposed to heightened dangers. Rather than marijuana, the real “gateway” to riskier behavior with drugs is the distancing of young people from the adults who care about them.

We know what doesn’t work. But there is still much to do to develop a comprehensive program that does. For example, a wider array of specificevidence-based interventions is necessary to address the needs of youths who don’t neatly fit into categories, and those who are dealing with trauma, gender and identity issues, sexual issues, who are LGBTQ, have family problems, or face poverty and racism.

But a “just say know” approach, emphasizing truth and safety and helping youths to navigate the drug landscape, is a far more fruitful path than “just say no.”

Drug prevention—better framed as the prevention of drug-related problems—should be integrated into a wider social and health policy framework to address environmental influences and provide opportunities for social and life development. At Cre8tive YouTH*ink for instance, we combine a peer-to-peer, “each one, teach one” approach with elements of developmental psychology, attachment theory, social justice youth development, community service and contemporary art to foster the positive and conscious development of our young members.

In this way, we help otherwise alienated and hard-to-reach youth to cultivate a real sense of civic and personal awareness. Through these experiences, our young members increasingly become more conscious and involved citizens—empowered to participate more fully in their own lives and ready to assume leadership roles within their communities.

Effective prevention approaches range from cognitive training to Social Influence models, from youth-led approaches to School Climate Change. These are all reasonable frameworks that offer an assumption, explanation or a theory as to the root causes of problematic drug use and what strategies will have a positive effect on our children. Drug education, however is rarely based on what works, but instead, on stakeholder agendas.

Zionsville School District’s decision, like the policies in many other schools around the country, is a backwards step for which kids and communities will pay.

Instead of attempting to shame or scare children into abstinence at all costs, we need to do everything to ensure their safety and prevent problematic drug use. RSDT is not the way.


Jerry Otero, MA (aka Mista Oh) is the founder and chief troublemaker at cre8tivetyouthink.org. Trained as a psychologist, he has served as the youth policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance, assistant director of helpline and family services at the Partnership for Drugfree Kids and supervisor of NYC public high school drug education programs.

This article originally appeared in the December 1, 2016 edition of The Influence and was selected by the The Aspen Institute as “Best Idea of the Day” 12/8/2016

A Great Discrepancy

The number of young Americans aged 16 to 24 — without a job has exploded to 53.4 percent — the highest ratio of unemployed young people since WWII. That means millions of our children are staring down the likelihood that their lifetime earning potential will be less than we all expected.

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Alternative HS students in Coney Island. A dead end? Or just the end of the line?

Without a clear economic recovery plan aimed at creating entry-level jobs, many of our children face long odds being able to getting a decent start in life.

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What census are you talking about? The prison census?

Experts predict that this generation will fare far worse off than their parents did unless the jobs situation changes. Yet, as hopeless as their future prospects may seem to young people in general, for Black, Brown,  and other marginalized youth, it is indeed an extremely dire situation.

This land is your land. This land is my land. Right?

What is our youth’s lived experience of society’s failure to anticipate their needs and strengths, protect them from harm, support their healthy development, or otherwise help to organize their world to permit a transition to employment, partnership and citizenship?

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Is my Brooklyn, the same as yours? Do we even live in the same borough?