The West Village: Let There Be Blight

The West Village: Let There Be Blight

The Housing and Redevelopment Board has replaced Robert Moses’s Slum Clearance Committee, and a new order has been proclaimed for the on-going work of tucking in New York’s residential shirt tails. Robert Moses, who now deals only with sovereign nations, has been declared the villain of Title I, and his successors, previously his assistants, have announced themselves the heroes of Urban Renewal.

A solution to the housing emergency in New York has two complicated parts that must first be separated in order to describe the problem itself: first, how to go about it, and second, what to end up with. This article is meant to describe how neither part has been fundamentally changed from the original destructive program, whatever the good intentions that have been declared.

With slogans that everyone can understand, James A. Felt, the City Planning Commissioner, promises an end to bulldozing first and questions later. But bulldozing is not a method, it is an inevitable result of bad planning. Nor did Moses’s crimes begin and end with bulldozing. His way of getting things done involved manipulations of the City Charter, the Municipal Code, and federal and state regulations; his objective was arrogantly monumental architecture, and his method was expressed in contempt for obstacles—he had help. The chief obstacles were the people and their laws; but in a curious way the opaque waters of the law offered Moses protection: no one, apparently, underderstood the law as well as he did.

Briefly, the procedure by which eligibility for federally assisted renewal is established involves first the City’s Master Plan and Map. A public hearing and Board of Estimate approval must precede any map change whereby an area is officially listed as blighted. Once on the map, an area may be designated for renewal only after a second hearing, required by state law. Only then may the City Planning Commission direct the Housing and Redevelopment Board to request permission of the Board of Estimate to ask for federal study funds with which to decide how to renew.

The actual plans for renewal are subject to further public hearings. This may seem like a cumbersome pros cedure; certainly it did to Moses. But the lifetime of residential construction is long, the space it occupies valuable, and its effect within the fabric of the city profound. Moses was able to condense nearly all these operations into one session, and make the map change retroactive. Opposition never had a chance. Neighborhoods disappeared not so much by bulldozer as by fiat.

So the days of Moses are past. Yet the waters which he parted to lead his children out of bondage remain congealed from the very force of his passage, and the willing riff-raff of smaller prophets skip along dry-shod in his wake.