How Robert Moses Put NYC's Poor in Sandy's Path

Recently a destination for luxury development, New York's waterfront has historically been home to the city's poor. When Sandy inundated these vulnerable populations, it "looked like a perverse stroke of urban planning," writes Jonathan Mahler.
dakine kane / Flickr

"How is it possible that the same winding, 538-mile coastline that has recently been colonized by condominium developers chasing wealthy New Yorkers, themselves chasing waterfront views, had been, for decades, a catch basin for many of the city’s poorest residents?" asks Mahler. In an essay for the Times, he answers his question by surveying the history of "accident, grand vision and political expedience," that led to public housing projects sprouting in close proximity to the water in such areas as the Rockaways, Coney Island, Red Hook and Alphabet City.

"New York started building housing projects on the waterfront because that’s where its poorest citizens happened to live. It continued because that’s where space was most readily available. Finally, it built them there because that’s where its projects already were."

Smack dab in the middle of this sequence sits Robert Moses. "It’s impossible to talk about the landscape of modern New York without talking about Moses," says Mahler, "who leveraged his position as head of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance to mass-produce thousands of units of high-rise public housing, often near the shoreline. His shadow looms over much of the havoc wreaked by the storm."

Full Story: How the Coastline Became a Place to Put the Poor



Robert Moses and the Rockaways

This article misses much of the history of the Rockaways, which is told in "Between Ocean and City" by Lawrence Kaplan (Columbia Univ. Press, 2003)

In 1950, a fire destroyed the Long Island Railroad Bridge across Jamaica Bay, which was the commute route from the Rockaways to Manhattan. The city took it over this line from the LIRR, and it took several years to rebuild. The LIRR had connected directly to midtown, while the city subway that replaced it connected with the A train, an indirect route which lengthened commute time to an hour and a half, making Rockaway a much less desirable place to live.

To make things worse, the city decided that, because it was so hard to commute to work, it would house the most desperate welfare cases, who could not possibly work, in its public housing in the Rockaways.

In addition to the public housing that Robert Moses put there, the poor commute transportation after 1950 was also a major factor in the decline of the Rockaways.

The irony is that Robert Moses backed a plan to give the Rockaway subway a more direct, though more expensive, connection to Manhattan. Despite all Moses' success in building freeways, this one major effort to build a better transit line failed.

His failure to build better transit there contributed as much to the decline of the Rockaways as his success in building public housing.

Michael Lewyn's picture

kind of misleading...

Insofar as it implies that the coastline is generally low-income. Staten Island, which suffered more than the Rockaway peninsula, is middle-middle class sprawl, and the South Shore of Long Island (which also suffered quite heavily) is upper-middle-class commuter train suburbia.

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