The New Deal in New York, Revisitedby Nicholas Gamso
Reading the May 2017 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, I was surprised to find an article arguing that the New Deal “lives on” in New York City. The article’s author, Richard Walker, an eminent geographer and urban historian, lists dozens of local projects erected under federal programs in the 1930s, emphasizing a commitment to the “public” and even arguing that achievements claimed by the notoriously calculating and manipulative Robert Moses were primarily New Deal initiatives for which the planner had merely been “hogging the credit.” The situation is considerably more complicated. And the conspicuous ruins of the New Deal suggest as much.
Walker’s article ran in the Rail to accompany a show at the Museum of the City of New York, a friendly and progressive institution. It warrants critical comment on these pages. The legacy of the New Deal is pertinent at a time when colossal public works have returned to the center of the American imagination but when the political purchase of such efforts reflects the mere debasement of our politics. If we are to take seriously the power of today’s propaganda, we must look squarely at the myths of midcentury liberalism as they appear in the present—considering especially their failure with regard to racial inclusion and equity.
While New York was, of course, a showcase for Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Public Works Administration (PWA) projects, and while Moses and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia worked hard to exploit FDR’s spending programs, the city had a contradictory relationship with the general tenets of public welfare. The public was not, at that time, conceived as an arena of participation—and was certainly not imagined as an expansive or diverse plurality. The concept of the public was, on the contrary, a theoretical terrain for the exploits of planners and their experiments in social engineering. As historians Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar argue, Moses’s coterie of bureaucrats “claimed a new kind of authority as professionally trained experts who would manage the public according to abstract principles of efficiency and rationality.”1 This belief was in keeping with principles of the reform and progressive movements, which promoted stable personal development and strong social relationships through the standardization and securitization of American urban spaces.
For Moses, the public was more an alibi than a motive. As FDR’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, described him, he saw the public as a “great amorphous mass” to be excoriated for littering and vandalism—nearly always with great displays of racism and xenophobia.
Public works themselves reflected these attitudes. The overpasses on Moses’s roads to Jones Beach—initiated in the 1920s with additional routes devised throughout the New Deal period—were too low to accommodate the buses that carried working-class (often black and Latino) New Yorkers.2 Moses later vetoed a proposed extension of the Long Island Railroad to Jones Beach, arguing that it would threaten a public space intended to welcome the middle class without what newspapermen called the “honkytonk” of Coney Island and other areas accessible to the poor.3 These practices continued in New York City. Out of 255 playgrounds built by Moses during the 1930s, only one was located in Harlem. According to Robert Caro, Moses’s biographer, Moses segregated city pools by hiring only white lifeguards and (citing a theory that black residents didn’t like cold water) left pools in minority areas unheated.4 Moses was, moreover, relentlessly cruel to his laborers, whom he considered “bums, jailbirds, and riffraff.”5 He forced workers to toil through the night in extreme conditions and hired private contractors to intimidate “agitators”— all while cultivating a large planning bureaucracy made up of friends and personal acquaintances.
These practices served middle-class whites, diverting money from the neediest communities through a preference for cars and an emphasis on leisure. Moses used federal money to construct highways around Manhattan and Brooklyn so that wealthy and middle-class residents of the region could circumvent dense urban space altogether.
This was part of a broader program of consensual corporate governance that predated and has outlived the New Deal. While federal money and the municipal bureaucracy provided the resources to actualize transportation and construction projects, the works themselves were conceived neither by the feds nor by Moses. Rather, such efforts followed the edicts of New York’s 1929 Regional Plan, which was authored and financed by a small group of industrialists, bankers, and landholders. This group included members of the Rockefeller, Morgan, and Pratt families and a number of prominent real estate developers. They were joined by leading planners, social scientists, and transportation magnates like Frederic Delano, FDR’s uncle and an owner of several railroads.
As the journalist Robert Fitch shows in his incisive account, the 1929 plan laid the foundation for the city’s deindustrialization and thus shaped the many financial and social crises that followed.6
The Rockefeller family was particularly instrumental in deciding the geography of New York’s economic future, drawing highway lines along the city’s West Side, where the family owned undeveloped properties. According to stipulations laid out in the plan, these areas were rezoned to eliminate manufacturing and generate a new real estate market, which could in turn be plundered by the Rockefellers for a great financial windfall. The plan called for the city to move its port from Manhattan’s West Side to Elizabeth, New Jersey, which eventually led to cuts in shipping. While the construction of early West Side development through New Deal expenditures provided low-wage, short-term jobs, they came at the expense of long-term losses in shipping and manufacturing. Some of these projects were not completed during the 1930s, for, as Fitch argues, few of the plan’s authors foresaw the impending stock market crash. But other projects, including the Lincoln Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge (construction of which began, and stopped abruptly, in 1929 before it was resurrected by Moses and the PWA), were flagship initiatives of the federalized labor movement.
My point is not to impugn Moses or Roosevelt—though it should be added that their tumultuous relationship originated in partisan rancor and bald egoism. Nor is it to claim that the gains of the New Deal were not significant—indeed more significant than any large-scale social welfare programs since. It is merely to suggest that the promises of the New Deal often faltered when actualized and that they did so, predictably, along the lines of race and class. This was true throughout the country, where there was little investment in social infrastructure across racial barriers; national New Deal programs like Social Security, for example, denied benefits to domestic and agricultural workers, who comprised 90% of the African American work force at that time.7 And, because under Moses and LaGuardia New York City received the lion’s share of public money, some four-fifths of the earliest disbursement of WPA funds, many other parts of the country suffered. This had, again, to do with consolidating authority among a class of experts and administrators and stripping the public of its diverse needs.
As Michael Woodsworth argues in his recent book on the history of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the New Deal failed poor, black communities because it made little effort to democratize government.8 Unlike subsequent grass-roots efforts associated with the civil rights period of the 1960s, the New Deal produced no plan for full minority citizenship, no plan for participation in civic life or public administration, no plan for integrating labor. Nor did it attempt to engage the very radical debates taking place in black civil society. It thus left minority communities ill-equipped to mitigate the deadening effects of slum clearance and redlining. The federal government’s preference for these kinds of “urban renewal” programs over structural changes in administration led to wide-scale displacement and the shuttering of countless small businesses in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Harlem. The flight of capital from cities through incentivized programs of suburbanization also had disastrous effects. They are among the most lamentable programs to emerge from the New Deal, both in social and political terms, for they created a vast plane of segregated, highly-manipulable resentments across geographies.
While reforms that followed the New Deal—efforts that coincided with the demise of Moses’s authoritarian planning regime—may have resolved many of these problems, they were of course stalled by the city’s seismic 1975 bankruptcy. At that time the very elites who determined the use of federal spending to entrench segregation by writing the Regional Plan foreclosed upon the city’s economic autonomy once and for all. The creation in 1975 of a creditor oversight committee through the Financial Emergency Act is widely considered to be the founding event of global neoliberalism, which is starkly opposed to the mid-century welfare state in the popular imagination but which, as I have suggested, was never far from the minds of influential businessmen and their surrogates in Washington, Albany, and Tammany Hall. Within a few years of New York’s bankruptcy, governments around the world would relinquish control of spending and planning to banks—very often Chase Manhattan, led by David Rockefeller—effectively fulfilling the aims envisioned by the authors of the Regional Plan.
In short, New York has proven less an embodiment of the New Deal than its utter degradation. Relics such as Brooklyn College, which Walker mentions as an outstanding artifact of New Deal spending, have been systematically defunded and marginalized for decades, and regularly ridiculed by (even Democratic) administrators who, in concert with committees of bankers set up during the 1975 crisis, now oversee the city’s budget. (The effects are perfectly obvious to anyone who has spent time at CUNY.) So have the public K-12 schools and hospitals that comprise the serious achievements of the mid-century welfare state suffered by the leaders of today’s Democratic party.
This matters in part because of a galling tendency in liberal discourse—the implication that cities are more humane, progressive, or evolved than other areas in which people live. This is an overfamiliar conceit disproved by the obviousness of white supremacy and class warfare in even nominally progressive urban spaces. It has, paradoxically, validated the latest renewal projects, gentrification and industrial redevelopment, which have proven as disastrous with regards to racial and economic justice, as well as to civic participation, as those of the past. While cities can be marvelous places to live, they should not be consecrated or mistaken for level playing fields. New York does better without the mythology of liberal progress, which bears little resemblance to its richly problematic and still developing history of injustice.
1.Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People (Cornell, 1992), 462.
2.Robert Caro, The Power Broker, (Vintage, 1974), 952.
5.Rosenzweig and Blackmar, 461.
6.Robert Fitch, The Assassination of New York, (Verso, 1996), 59-65.
7.Adolph Reed, “Race and the New Deal Coalition,” The Nation, March 20, 2008.
8.Michael Woodsworth, The Battle for Bed-Stuy, (Harvard, 2015), 42.
NICHOLAS GAMSO teaches in the department of Social Sciences & Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.