Holy Moses! City Development Liberals Can Love?


“Is it time for another Robert Moses?” asks Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times. Development-wary New Yorkers, and readers of Robert Caro and Jane Jacobs, may rejoin, “You gotta be kidding.” But Lee is serious. She points to the speed with which developers transformed “a small fishing community” in China into “a world-class manufacturing center with a population of 13 million,” and asks why we can’t do as well.

Her source is an article from the Center for an Urban Future. Lest you worry, from the Center’s Randian name and from its paper’s endorsement of the sort of quick growth that we normally associate with China’s horrible pollution, consider that the Center is aligned via City Futures Inc. with the good-government advocates of City Limits magazine, and its authors have previously addressed gentrification and soup kitchens in ways that might not outrage the tender-hearted. And if it means anything, its director, Jonathan Bowles, has written for the Village Voice.

Lee compares the Shenzhen expansion unfavorably with public development practice in New York, where, she writes, “in the face of shrinking state and city budgets, expanding a single subway line can seem like a heroic act.”

Since most of our recent experience of local development has been the private kind that supplants charming buildings with monstrosities, and since Moses gave ambitious public works a bad name in this City, New Yorkers may shudder at Lee’s and the Center’s big ideas.

But their emphasis on manufacturing is interesting. Brownstoner today reports that, thanks to rezoning that has turned many industrial areas residential, “New York City has lost 37,000 industrial jobs since Bloomberg took office.” This is of course only the tail end of a very long decline that has been disastrous for workers with limited white-collar options, and for the unions that serve them. We have to ask ourselves: could we support big City projects if they brought back some of those jobs? And if Moses’ dreams were dreamed again, would we again have to fight the consequences?