Fifty years ago this year, the New York City Board of Estimate voted down Robert Moses' plan to build a ten-lane elevated highway across lower Manhattan--leveling fourteen blocks along Broome Street in Little Italy and what is now SoHo, as well as the West Village. Jane Jacobs, a community activist, led the community resistance to the highway.
When it was turned down, Assemblyman Louis DeSalvio said in a speech:
"Except for one old man [reference to Robert Moses], I’ve been unable to find anyone of technical competence who is for this so-called expressway. And this old man is a cantankerous, stubborn old man who has done many things which may have, in their time, been good for New York City. But I think it is time for this stubborn old man to realize that too many of his dreams turn out to be nightmares for the city. And this board must realize that if it does not kill this stupid example of bad city planning, that the stench of it will haunt them and this great city for many years to come."
I'm kind of a NYC history wonk. The other night, I went to a great Brooklyn Brainery talk on Moses. The talk brought up these words, which I had heard before, and gave me a new context for them.
The image of the lone, grumpy old man made me think of the supporters of SOPA--old media, entrenched cable companies and Washington bureaucrats who don't know how the internet works. Meanwhile, no one "of technical competence" could be found to support it.
So it collapsed, just like the dreams of Robert Moses' highway.
What's interesting to me, though, is the parallel between how Moses came to power and this bill. Robert Moses got his start as a Parks Commissioner. And really, who doesn't like a park?
In fact, his early work to put parks in the city was pretty popular--especially in an era when NYC wasn't nearly as green as park-friendly as it is now.
Being "pro-park" back then sounds like the words that Chris Dodd wrote today after the blow to SOPA:
"We applaud those leaders in Washington who have chosen to stand with the millions of hard working Americans all across this nation whose livelihoods are threatened by foreign criminal websites designed to steal. "
Pro-park, pro jobs, anti-people stealing using technology. It all sounds pretty good--until you realize that being "pro-park" somehow leads to plowing a ten-lane highway across New York's most vibrant neighborhoods--killing them off the way highways strangled East Tremont in the Bronx and Red Hook in Brooklyn.
How could things get so far? Centralization of power and broad, sweeping, somewhat vague authority. Robert Moses held over a dozen various government appointments at one time, controlling a huge amount of resources and having little to no oversight whatsoever.
Kinda sounds like this bill the big media companies wanted passed doesn't it? That was the problem with PIPA and SOPA. They were vague in their implementation and centralized authority in a system that could be seriously harmed by one, far reaching authority holding too much power.
It's ok. They just want to build some parks and take down some foreign "rogue" websites--and protect jobs. You see, it's really all about language and marketing. Everyone wants a park, everyone loves jobs. That's how it almost passed.
But we, the people... we knew better than and we know better now.
The end of the Lower Manhattan Expressway was the beginning of the end for Robert Moses and I think it may signal the beginning of the end for current content industry. It will have to change. They'll have to invent new business models to reflect our modern world the same way urban planners had to stop thinking of cities as places you drive around in.