Looking Back at How New York City Was Planned
Brian Lehrer: It's the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYYC. Good morning again, everyone. If you've been in Grand Central over the last few days, you may have seen the big exhibit about the 100 years of the Regional Plan Association in this area. Let's talk about 100 years of history, not just New York City history even, but the whole metro region, so much of the region's landscape emerged from the proposals of this group, which many of you have probably never even heard the name of, The Regional Plan Association, which is turning 100.
To name a few RPA proposed projects, the George Washington Bridge, Triborough Bridge, the Whitestone Bridge, Riverside Park, Jacob Reese and Orchard Beaches, plus the revitalizations of downtown Brooklyn and Newark and Stanford. This year marks 100 years since the Regional Plan Association was born, as I said, and with this nonprofit civic group playing a crucial role in erecting physical landmarks in the city and shaping its growth really regionally over the last century, that legacy has been left for others and the RPA itself to remedy when there were side effects.
Maybe we can call them Robert Moses style side effects, and a new exhibition at Grand Central and Vanderbilt Hall there seeks to tell this story, it's called The Constant Future: A Century of the Regional Plan, and it's curated by my next guest, James Sanders, architect, author, and filmmaker. Some of you know, he was the co-writer with Rick Burns of the Eight-Part PBS series, New York, a documentary film and its companion volume. He was on for the book last year, New York: An Illustrated History. Let's talk about the exhibit, the history of the RPA, and what we might learn from the first 100 years of its legacy. James, welcome back to WNYC, so glad to have you back.
James Sanders: Thank you, Brian. It's always a pleasure to be here. I remember back to Celluloid Skyline days when we did a wonderful conversation back around 2001.
Brian: It's always great to have you on the show. Maybe give people who don't know what this group is a little centennial history of the founding of the Regional Plan Association. Was it new 100 years ago to think of the area in terms of a region rather than individual cities and towns?
James: It was more than new. It was radical. It was something that no city had ever done. New York had emerged from World War I about to become the biggest city in the world. One of the aspects of it was that its growth had already well exceeded the boundaries of the five boroughs. It had a population about nine million people, three million of whom were commuting into Manhattan every day. There was the organic reality of this functioning metropolitan area, but it was not, it was 437 individual jurisdictions all with their own rules.
The realization that if you were going to try to think about the future of this place, you couldn't be limited anymore by municipal boundaries. Now, that sounds like the dumbest most obvious thing in the world, a metropolitan region, what could be more boring, but it was a radical new idea, so radical that the next city to do it, which was London, didn't do the same thing until 1944, a quarter century later.
Brian: Was it primarily a group that was dedicated to a transportation vision 100 years ago and cars were starting to become ubiquitous, but the subway system and rail system was also expanding?
James: Transportation was a big part of it. One of the remarkable things about the regional plan, which what we're celebrating is, in fact, the beginning of the work on the first regional plan, which was published in 1929, took seven years in part because they did this huge survey of the city before they did the plan. Transportation was certainly a big part of it, but what's really remarkable when you look at it today is how broad their purview was.
It includes housing, governance, public health, which you were just talking about, the environment, although they didn't use that term back in those days, they were worried about preservation of natural resources and open lands around the area. Really everything about what life in a metropolitan area was about fell under their inspection. One of the things definitely at the key of it was moving people around and how were you going to get people around this region?
Brian: Who were the planners themselves in those early iterations of the Regional Plan Association? As you look back, and I'm curious if this is one of the things that the exhibit, which I haven't personally seen grapples with, whether the regional planners originally came from different strata of society, did they represent low income communities and individuals and ethnically diverse people, and the disparate impacts of all kinds of policies that may have felt like growth and progress, but may have had terrible side effects?
James: I think the answer is, yes and no, which is to say the committee to create the regional plan was unusually diverse for its time and place in that it included a variety of people from different backgrounds. It had, yes, elite it was brought forth by a man called Norton, who had been a banker, he worked in the federal government. He was the quintessential patrician of the era and the chairman of the committee was a man called Frederick Delano, widely admired banker and reformer, who was, in fact, the uncle of, you can hear it in his name, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yes, there were absolutely classic patrician New Yorkers involved.
One of the other key people involved early on was Lilian Wald, who was a German-Jewish legendary social reformer, social worker. She created the Visiting Nurse Service, she created the Henry Street Settlement. She was a great believer in women's rights and racial desegregation. There was a bit of a cross-section and more of a cross-section, I would say, than many other groups of the day. It was, yes, finally a group of middle class, upper middle class and elite New Yorkers with not quite the diversity that you would see today, but it wasn't done today.
Brian: How much was housing on their minds at that time? These days, of course, we talk about the lack of affordable housing in metropolitan New York, and it seems like it's an issue that has always been with us. What was the case in 1922 and how much did the original Regional Plan Association or the regional plan of that decade take affordable housing into account?
James: It's complicated. On the one hand they really felt strongly by the experience of the previous 20 years or so, or 30 years really, that one answer to the incredible housing problems of the day, which were far worse, of course, than anything we have today. The tenement slums, there were still pretty close to a million people living in the Lower East Side alone jammed into these old law tenements, they felt one of the answers was to give people avenues to live, that had proved very successful with the subway system which had allowed people to relocate to Brooklyn and Queens and live a less congested better quality of life.
And now they were saying, "Let's continue that with new forms of transportation," which included rail, commuter rail, subways, and this new thing called the highway. I would say, and this is something I would say about the show in general, the wonderful thing of working with the regional plan on this, and Tom Wright, it's President and CEO is, he gave me full reign to be completely critical of the regional plan when it had its limitations.
One of its great limitations was that although it showed a lot of drawings of new kinds of housing, very popular in the 1920s to see improved housing, it was really didn't want to propose subsidies for them, which was, "Hyman, how are you going to build this housing?" It didn't want to rile up the real estate industry too much. In that it was pretty much of the day would, it was going to take till the 1930s and the new deal to really start any subsidized housing in New York or the United States for that matter, but it was not its strength, dealing with housing was not its strength.
Brian: Listeners, anybody have observations or questions about 100 years of the Regional Plan Association and really everything about life in this area that it implies when we put 100 year lens on living in this region? 212-433-WNYC for architect, author, and filmmaker and historian, really, James Sanders, 212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692. I wonder if anybody listening right now has stopped and looked at the exhibit that went up on Friday at Grand Central and will be there for a little while as you run through Vanderbilt Hall on your commute.
Has it drawn you in to stop and look at the images and read a little bit and prompted a question you might want to ask James Sanders or a thought about life in our area over the last century. 212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692, or Tweet @BrianLehrer. James, maybe you should describe visually for people what they would see if they arrive by train or foot or any other way to Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central.
James: Sure. You can't miss it. It occupies the entire East wing of the East side of Vanderbilt Hall, and we really wanted to engage that extraordinary magnificent space. It had been the maiden waiting room of Grand Central Terminal till about 25 years ago. You'll come in and you'll see a giant truss structure. You can't hang anything from the walls in Grand Central, so it's a landmark. We built a huge steel truss structure from which we hang a variety of kinds of displays.
At ground level, you'll see display panels which combine archival photographs with captions and introductions and quotes, which walk you through this extraordinary story. Above you, are floating and around you are floating these giant photo murals. Huge things 8 feet tall and is wide, is 20 feet wide, where we have greatest hits of the incredible images. Most of them, in fact, almost all of them from the archives of the Regional Plan Association. That's one exciting sub-note to this beautiful archives of beautiful images.
We also have some marvelous video clips. We show a clip, for example, from the Futurama of 1939, which you see instantly stole most of its ideas for the city of the future from the regional plan. It's a immersive space. The most exciting thing for us is that it's in Grand Central for several reasons. One, it's open to the public for free. It's not a museum. You walk right in, it's open seven days a week from now till October 24th, 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM. We welcome everyone.
We're getting a marvelous cross section of very diverse people, tourists and visitors and students and planners and ordinary people just running for their train, as you say. What's most beautiful of all is that Grand Central itself is the greatest example in a way of regional thinking. It's this one of the great regional hubs of all the world. How could it be in a more perfect place?
Brian: Nora, in Westchester, you're on WNYC with James Sanders. Hi, Nora.
Nora: Hi. I'm not sure about the timing, but I'm wondering if Robert Moses had any role in this.
James: He did indeed.
Nora: What was his role?
James: It's very complicated and it's the dramatic moment of this, what you might think would be, oh, planning very prosaic and policy oriented, maybe even wonky, but no the story of the relationship of Robert Moses and the regional plan is actually a rich and complicated and little known story. He had started building while they were out in Long Island while they were developing the regional plan. A number of their early ideas were inspired by his ideas.
On the other hand, most of what he built for the first 12 or 13 or 14 years, he basically, let's say, politely borrowed from the regional plan. People think of him as a great visionary as well as a great builder. He was certainly a great builder, but you will see instantly that he borrowed most of his ideas of his early ideas from the regional plan.
Not that he ever said thank you, but we have a quote from one of the heads saying-- Had it on his attic door. He said, "I think I'll build that next year." They loved it for a while. They were amazed to watch-- they had proposed all this stuff thinking, "Well, maybe it would be nice if this happened." Suddenly it was happening how almost half of it was built in the first dozen years of the highways. One day he proposed the Brooklyn Battery Bridge and they said, "No, wouldn't a tunnel be better?" It wouldn't impinge on that beautiful skyline, the old great lower Manhattan skyline. He turned on them so viciously that they, as Robert Caro later wrote, "They saw him for who he was." After that it was a much more complicated story.
Brian: Jeffrey in Hell's Kitchen, you're on WNYC with James Sanders. Hi, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Hi, Brian. Good morning. James, thanks for being here. Question about the fact that RPAs legacy of a 100 years is largely seeped in car infrastructure. Today, a 100 years on, we know that a lot of that infrastructure decimated communities across the city. I live in Hells Kitchen, Lincoln Tunnel. Think about George Washington Bridge, my friends in Washington Heights.
That car infrastructure has parlayed into major environmental issues as it relates to how the car dominates the city. Then, of course, traffic violence taking place all across the five boroughs with more New Yorkers dying from vehicle crashes this year than in the past 10. What is RPA doing looking forward and does this exhibition look at any of the issues that have come from the infrastructure that RPA has supported?
James: Absolutely. That's a great way to segue. The first regional plan in 1929 was not the last regional plan. There were three more crucial ones in the late 1960s in 1996 and in 2017. You're absolutely right that the revolutionary idea of the first regional plan was the first highway network of any city in the world. They looked at what Moses was doing on Long Island and they said, "Why can't the whole region be laid out like this?"
There'd never been anything like that before. For better or worse, it was the model of every modern regional highway system in the world. Absolutely, and that's completely true. On the other hand, they were among the first to begin to see the new way by the 1960s. By the time the second plan came out in the late 1960s, they were already well on their way to changing from thinking only about-- they never thought only about highways and that's unfair.
They always supported a balanced transportation system, which would include commuter rail and subways. One of the things was that all Moses was interested in was the highway part, but that was not the plan. Certainly, by the 60's they really began to shift. In the last few five decades, six decades, they have become among the strongest supporters of transit. Was they who helped get first federal aid to the mass transit system.
It was they who arranged in part for the MTA to be able to-- Moses hated this idea to cross-subsidize subway and bus service from the tolls of his beloved bridges and tunnels. That's what, in fact, the final fight was about that he had with Nelson and David Rockefeller. They have been now in the last 60 years, among the strongest supporters of transit and a balanced transportation system.
Brian: We have a few minutes left with James Sanders, who is the architect, author, and filmmaker who has curated the new exhibit that you can see in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal on 100 years of the Regional Plan Association in the greater New York area. James Sanders is also co-writer with Rick Burns of the Eight-Part PBS Series, New York a documentary film and its companion book, New York: An Illustrated History.
James, when you talk about 100 years of the RPA, which would mean 1922, I've been watching the Ken Burns documentary series, The US and The Holocaust, and interestingly it doesn't start with Hitler. It starts in the United States in the period leading up to the 1920s. If the RPA was founded in 1922, two years later, as you well know, 1924 the big restrictive federal immigration law was passed that effectively ended the Ellis Island era.
That was backlash not against the kind of immigrants arriving today or people from the places from which they're arriving today, but against Italians and Jews, and Irish people primarily. I wonder if the RPA grappled with that at all in 1922 when it was founded, immigration and the impact on our region, whether they had pro-immigrant policies, mixed anti-immigrant policies because, of course, there were so many immigrants living in the New York area, relatively newly arrived at that time.
James: I think that's a terrific question. There's not much in the regional plan per-se about immigration. They certainly were aware that it was the giant immigrant base. They saw it largely in economic terms, that you had this enormous labor market unlike any other city in the United States and the world really. It's extraordinary labor market that was part of what made New York what it was.
I would say you're onto something, though. Broadly, the regional plan of 29 and the regional plans as a whole for the first 50 years, tracked the middle classification of New York. Immigration that pushed constantly of poor people coming in year after year after year, eased off for New York. Whatever its ramifications for the world as a whole. The folks who were here now having gone through public school and there was a great push for public school and vocational schools and the Bronx High School of Science and places like that, I went to Bronx science now began to work their way through the system and they made a little more money. Their children definitely made more money.
They could begin to think about moving out to Forest Hills, or even to Nassau County or someplace even possibly in Westchester. They began to be diffuse-- the population grew more diffuse, more people owned automobiles, and the city began to be less congested and pushed out, and the factories as well. That sense of the kind of constant inward focus congestion of New York that we think of from, let's say, 1870 to 1920 began to change, and that whole giant immigrant group that had passed through New York, began to become Americans, for lack of a better word, and I use that term advisedly, but they began to be more middle class and the RPA followed that and tracked that and supported it.
Brian: Last question. Is there a positive and a negative side to thinking regionally at all? There's certainly a positive side rather than letting every city in town in the greater New York metro area compete with each other, let's say, for businesses by a race to the bottom with tax breaks to attract corporations to be in Jersey City instead of New York City or pick your locals, advantages to thinking regionally for the not just the eight million people who are in New York City, but the 20 million people who are in the whole metro area as one big ecosystem and against nimbyism every time somebody has an idea for affordable housing that relates to more density being good for the environment and good for economics, whatever two blocks you're talking about.
The people who live there now are probably going to have a nimby reaction and not want it because they don't want more density in their area, so those are some of the pros maybe of thinking regionally, you get to look at the big picture. On the other hand, if we think regionally without looking really at the details then a lot of communities can get left behind and it can start to wind up in things that look like they're for the greater good, but they really discriminate against people who are probably suffering disparate impacts from all things in the first place. Are there pros and cons to even thinking regionally as we end this segment about a 100 years of the regional plan association?
James: I think you put your finger on one of the great tensions of this whole story, which is that you need citywide and indeed regionwide improvements and transportation improvements and other kinds of things. A rail line has to go through every community it goes through. You can't stop the rail line for a mile and pick it up again on the other side. For those things, you absolutely have to think regionally, and you have to have regional power. You need to be able to tell a community, "No, we're connecting point A and point B and you're in the way and we got to run a rail line through you."
On the other hand, I would say, the RPA has made extraordinary efforts in the last three, four, five decades to think about that as a tension, as a balance, and to realize that there was an enormous cost sometimes, particularly under people like Moses, of thinking just about the big picture and not considering the impact that that has on communities, and to think about the work of people like Jane Jacobs, who argued exactly the opposite, who said that the strength of the city was blocked by community, and that had to be nurtured and cultivated. This is one of those great urban never to be solved problems, but I think I'll give the RPA a lot of credit for trying to balance that situation.
Brian: Just tell everybody when the exhibit is up at Grand Central's Vanderbilt Hall until.
James: It is open every day of the week from now until October 24th including Saturdays and Sundays. It's 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM. It's free to the public. I think everybody knows where Grand Central is, but it's in Vanderbilt Hall and we have a couple of very nice people at all times, at a welcome desk. There's nice good stuff you can get. There's posters and postcards, which are all free. You can actually buy the regional plan, the newest one if you'd like, and there are docents on the floor who will answer questions and we like your responses too.
I should add one thing which is that we put up a QR code at the end of the show asking for your ideas about the future of New York. You'll have an opportunity if you have a smartphone to contact the RPA and be in touch with some of your own thoughts.
Brian: James Sanders. Thanks so much.
James: My pleasure.
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