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.

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.

Parents are Hard-Pressed

Almost all of the current public discussion around repealing the prohibition of cannabis starts from the self-blinded position that legalization will make marijuana available to kids. Many parents in states that have approved marijuana for recreational use for adults 21 years and older are finding themselves hard pressed to have meaningful conversations with their younger children and teens about marijuana’s changing legal status.

Well, the first thing that parents’ need to realize is, that is that marijuana ’a legal status hasn’t changed for those under 21 years of age and that the same principles that have been shown to help keep kids on a healthy positive developmental trajectory will still work now too.

Parents seem more confounded by the changing social landscape than kids

I sense that teens are less confused about the legal issues surrounding marijuana than they are over the mixed-messages that they are receiving between the reality of legalization as they experience it in their daily lives and the same old “scare tactic” drug prevention campaigns directed toward them to deter underage marijuana use and that vilify all drug use; make no distinction between use and misuse; offer no safety advice or how to avoid misuse. Such campaigns may be catchy public relations stunts that attract attention, but they don’t appeal to young people’s natural intelligence and do nothing to keep our children safe.

Honest conversations about marijuana with our kids are more important than ever.

Now is not the time for the half-truths, mistruths, scare tactics and exaggerations of the past.  Our kids need realistic truthful drug information about drug effects with sound advice about how to reduce the harms of use; they also need adults to model and teach the concepts of honesty, safety, responsibility and moderation in this new legalized drug landscape.

Words of Advice

Be courageous enough to tell them the truth – they’ll appreciate it. Work to educate your children so they understand that the changes in drug laws are the function of a national drug policy based on bad laws that we are working very hard to change.

Set a good example for them, communicate your desire for them to delay their age of first use as long as possible, and if your teen decides to use marijuana or drink alcohol, they should know enough to treat it as a serious decision, avoiding over-intoxication or objectionable behavior.  Below are are some marijuana conversation scenarios tat you can have with your kids.

Explain that many adult activities are inappropriate for children

There are many adult activities that are unsuitable for children. You can cite examples (e.g., driving a car, entering contracts, getting married, sex, drinking, etc.) Explain that using marijuana is one of these “adults-only” activities, and should be avoided until they are old enough to make responsible, adult decisions.

 Make a distinction between responsible use and misuse.

People use marijuana and alcohol in different ways, sometimes on an occasional basis, perhaps monthly or on weekends. People can even smoke marijuana on a daily basis and still be responsible users. The difference is that responsible users integrate their marijuana use with their other activities as a way to relax or enhance their lives.

Someone misusing any drug has a lifestyle that revolves around their use and they don’t seem to get much else done. Responsible users are people with full lives, and accept responsibility for their own decisions and actions without having to pass off blame to others. Make clear your values to your kids, i.e., you are not going to accept laziness or excuses for dropping grades — you expect them to live full and productive lives, whether they use cannabis or not. If they cannot do that, they should leave cannabis alone.

Emphasize that cannabis is not like other illegal drugs.

Adult use of marijuana has little or no negative health effects except for the irritation from its smoke. That is not true of other drugs, so emphasize that pills and powders are inherently different than plants. That is the simplest line to draw. But, they need to know that all “drugs” are not the same — they have different effects and risks. However, since we do not yet fully understand the impact of marijuana use to the developing teen brain, we recommend that teens wait as long as possible before starting to use marijuana or alcohol.

Get to the bottom line – what you want/expect. Don’t beat around the bush.

Be clear with your expectations. Remember: more powerful than any lecture is your active participation, interest, and supervision in your child’s life.

Why was it illegal and now legal?

The growing acceptance of cannabis use in our society is because voters felt that it should be legally available for adults 21 and older to use marijuana similarly to how some adults use alcohol. It doesn’t mean it’s safe for you to use, especially as you start driving. As a young person, your brain is still developing, and substances like marijuana and alcohol may have a negative effect on your learning, memory, coordination and decision‑making abilities.

What about the children? Legalization can’t be good for them. We’ve been told for so long that marijuana was bad.

Rather than protecting the young and vulnerable, the war on drugs has placed them at ever greater risk – from the harms of drug use, the harms of zero-tolerance policies in schools and the risks of being caught up in the violence and chaos of the criminally controlled trade on the streets. We want a market legally regulated by responsible government authorities, combined with the redirection of enforcement spending into evidence-based health and prevention programs aimed at young people.

Parents should go slowly

Focus on having conversations with their teens – not confrontations. It’s easy to understand how parental shame, denial and guilt are common reactions to potential drug use – but parents need to work through these reactions to figure out how to best help their children to ultimately learn to make the best decisions for themselves.

 

Go To Sea Once More

When first I came to Liverpool
I went upon a spree
Me money alas I spent too fast
Got drunk as drunk could be
And when my money was all gone
‘Twas then I wanted more
But a man must be blind to make up his mind
To go to sea once more

I spent the night with Angeline
Too drunk to roll in bed
My watch was new and my money too
In the mornin’ with ’em she fled
And as I roamed the streets about
The whores they all would roar
Here comes Jack Rack, the young sailin’ lad
He must go to sea once more

As I was walkin’ down the street
I met with Rapper Brown
I asked for him to take me in
And he looked at me with a frown
He said “Last time you was paid off
With me you jobbed no score
But I’ll take your advance and I’ll give ya’s a chance
And I’ll send you to sea once more

I hired me aboard of a whaling ship (note 1)
Bound for the Artic seas
Where the cold winds blow through the frost and the snow
And Jamaican rum would freeze
And worst and bear I’d no hard weather gear
For I’d lost all my money ashore
‘Twas then that I wished that I was dead
So I’d gone to sea no more

Some days we’re catching whales me lads
And some days we’re catching none
With a twenty foot oar cocked in our hands
From four o’clock in the morn
And when the shades of night come in
We rest on our weary oar
‘Twas then I wished that I was dead
Or safe with the girls ashore

Come all you bold seafarin’ men
And listen to my song
If you come off of them long trips
I’d have ya’s not go wrong
Take my advice, drink no strong drink
Don’t go sleeping with no whores
Get married lads and have all night in
So you’ll go to sea no more