Repeal Robert Moses

Highways are a racist legacy. It is time to tear them down. And for once, let communities decide what gets built in their place.

Photo by Paul Sableman

In cities across the U.S. monuments to racists and slaveholders are coming down by legislative decree and activist muscle. As these monuments come under scrutiny after far too long, it is past time, too, to consider the less explicit monuments to racism in our cities. In New York, our highways carry a legacy of segregation and risk exposure, and perpetuate that legacy every day.

Can a Highway Be Racist?

We most often think of a highway as a route for people in cars to travel between A and B. But a highway also acts as a barrier. Run a highway between two neighborhoods and suddenly, permeable space becomes a wall. In cities across America, highways act as physical segregators. This is not a coincidence. Rather, segregation was an explicit goal as highway construction ramped up across the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s.

“The Underwriting Manual of the Federal Housing Administration recommended that highways be a good way to separate African-American from white neighborhoods,” Richard Rothstein, author of Color of Law, told NPR in 2017. “So this was not a matter of law, it was a matter of government regulation, but it also wasn’t hidden, so it can’t be claimed that this was some kind of “de facto” situation.”

Paul Sancya / AP

Funding for building housing and highways came with instructions for dividing neighborhoods along racial lines and incentivized “slum clearance.” At the same time, infrastructure funding for housing and roads was barred from Black neighborhoods. The result was economic devastation. From Buffalo, New York to St. Louis, Missouri, highways were intentionally planned to run through Black neighborhoods.

Today, highways remain more likely to run through Black neighborhoods, a lingering monument to their racist legacy. Of course, living near a highway comes with consequences: More traffic crashes. More asthma. Lower cognitive function. And people of color and people with low incomes remain more likely to live near these places of built-in risk. They are more likely to die there. And, whether behind the wheel, when walking across the street or riding a bike, they are also more at risk from police harassment and violence.

“Throughout the postwar era, vibrant Black neighborhoods had highways torn through them, noxious facilities sited within them, and economic investment and mortgage lending directed away from them,” urbanist and architect Vishaan Chakrabarti told Fast Company. “As a consequence these districts experienced a disproportionate loss of good jobs, schools, transit, parks, and air quality.”

The Racist Legacy of New York City Highways

Highways like these, which serve segregation as much as transportation, can be spotted across New York City. The historic working class neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, for example, is home to the largest public housing complex in New York City, and is divided from wealthy Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Moving between these neighborhoods requires finding the single pedestrian overpass, or crossing a fast eight-lane street on one of very few crosswalks under the highway. This is the legacy of Robert Moses.

Long Island Highway, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Urban planner Robert Moses built just about every highway in New York City. His legacy as a builder stretches well into the hundreds of miles — including a remarkable seven bridges, and 32 express- and parkways in New York City. Moses razed city blocks and disassembled neighborhoods. An estimated minimum of quarter of a million New Yorkers were displaced in his 44-year reign.

Moses’ biographer Robert Caro called Moses “the most racist human being” Caro had ever encountered, and Moses’ bigoted views played out in what he built. Those New Yorkers forced out of their homes were disproportionately Latino. His public pools barely touched Black neighborhoods, while he flooded the same neighborhoods with plenty of traffic congestion. For example, the then-Triborough Bridge makes a sharp right turn as it crosses the East River from Queens to Manhattan, taking the highway out of its way to direct all the highway traffic into Black Harlem instead of the white Upper East Side.

This racism appears in subtler ways, particularly with regard to public transit. On Moses’ Long Island Expressway, overpasses were famously built too low to allow a city bus to pass through the route to the beach. Moses also blocked public transit access to the Whitestone, Throgs Neck, and Verrazano bridges as well as the Van Wyck and Henry Hudson expressways — he even halted construction on the Second Avenue Subway, twice. This all meant longer commutes for people who could not afford a car, largely people of color. Today we know that these decisions engender cycles of poverty, because transportation access is essential to upward mobility.

How We Repeal Robert Moses

These so-called “white roads through Black bedrooms” were not built at the bequest of Black communities. As Caro noted, in New York, “Robert Moses bent the democratic processes and the city to his will.” Rather, these projects steamrolled through communities at a time when people of color had little political power.

And when communities of color did rally against these racist highway projects, protest was met with scorn. As Moses himself put it in a 1959 speech,“Our categorical imperative is action to clear the slums. We can’t let minorities dictate that this century-old chore will be put off another generation or finally abandoned.”

Triborough Bridge, Berenice Abbot

In the intervening years since that speech, Robert Moses has died but his ideas have not. Safe, accessible, infrastructure is still disproportionately built in wealthy, white neighborhoods where people have the time and money to push for it, and the political clout to be heard. The community engagement process is inherently broken in two different ways, as Katherine Levine Einstein, a political science professor at Boston University, told the New York Times: “They’re weaponized by privileged white people. And then when less privileged communities do try to use them, they’re not as effective as a tool for them.”

How do we fix the broken community engagement process? First and foremost, we must not perpetuate the tradition of urban planners and advocates who deliver design from on high. We need to hear, empower, and fund communities to plan for themselves.

Consider the fact that the majority of current rezoning plans, which involve a wholesale change to a neighborhood, are located in communities of color, while community boards, the main community engagement system in New York City, are disproportionately white. As Adrien Weibgen wrote in the Daily News, “Planning that finally centers the needs of low-wealth communities of color is not a radical idea: It’s a necessary and proactive way to address inequities that were put in place by past plans, and have been in place for far too long.”

What does it look like to center communities of color in the planning process? It starts by admitting that there is no universal answer to this question. Isis Ferguson, the associate director of city and community strategy at Place Lab, explains that “designing for everyone” will not help because the experience of public space is not the same for everyone.

“We cannot pretend that all bodies have the freedom to move through, occupy, and enjoy public space. The perception of Black and brown bodies gathering in public space routinely reads as suspect, criminal, or illegitimate,” Ferguson told Fast Company. “The space between who is considered an expert and who is typically on the margins of conversations about public space needs to be collapsed…Public space is contested ground in our country.”

Consider what happened when New York City, in the throes of the COVID-19 crisis, created “Open Streets.” Despite less open space in neighborhoods of color and higher COVID-19 infection rates, Open Streets were largely built in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. At the same time, communities of color were disproportionately policed using that space. In the spring, the New York Police Department was issuing more than 80 percent of summonses for “social distancing” to Black and Latino New Yorkers. By the summer, 91 percent of summonses for drinking in public went to Black and Latino New Yorkers.

This is what happens when public space is built, and even redesigned in a crisis, for and by white people. Writing in CityLab, Destiny Thomas, a planner and the CEO of Thrivance Group, which focuses on dignity-infused planning processes, points out that these outcomes are just the default of our urban planning model.

“If we want to see streets filled with joy and true low-stress access to quality of life, we have to be willing to disrupt what has been the default mode in urban planning — one that centers whiteness and silences Black and Brown people and low-income communities,” she writes, in a must-read piece. In short, urban planning must be rooted in collective decision-making, with a focus on who is not usually in the room.

We are not going to repeal the legacy of Robert Moses in a long weekend. Tearing down segregating highways is not the goal, it is just the first step. The “master planner” was known for his megalomaniacal labor to single-handedly transform New York City into a segregated traffic jam. Tearing down his legacy will take us all working together.

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store