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  • Henry Christensen

Building Utopia

Perhaps New York City’s most physical sign of a utopia-turned-dystopia, its most dramatic architectural fall from grace, is its public built environment. Beginning in the 1930s, the newly progressive city government sought to use its powers and New Deal funds to measurably improve the lives of the citizens, and building projects for the public was a clear place to start. By this time, the tenements which millions of New Yorkers called home had brought the city international embarrassment for their subpar living conditions, despite having improved considerably since a low point around 1900. Although early zoning laws had lowered density and required access to air and light, tenements were seen by many as a blight in need of renewal.

The end of World War II served as a worldwide impetus to rebuild, and New York took this opportunity in stride. It was at this point that Robert Moses came to the fore, having established himself as the gatekeeper of the city’s access to New Deal funds as well as the tyrannical head of the city’s Planning Commission and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. Equipped with these broad powers Moses began to inflict his vision of a car-centric New York on the city’s residents. He championed the construction of the Cross-Bronx and Brooklyn-Queens Expressways, which cut across the existing urban fabric and displaced over 60,000 residents for the dubious benefit of reducing traffic for drivers from the then-segregated suburbs. These projects promised a bright, automobile-centric future of speed and efficiency but pointedly did not serve those from the areas they were actually built in. This brought with it pollution and separated the residents of these primarily minority neighborhoods.

Discontent with the city’s housing also continued after the war, with large areas considered blighted due to their older architectural styles or higher densities. Moses’ solution was the wholesale replacement of these areas with something entirely new, residential projects following the “tower in the park” typology. This idea had been introduced by architect Le Corbusier in the 1920s to densify cities by building upward while freeing up the land around the resulting towers for use by the people. This was meant to replace the dense, unplanned urban fabric which defined cities of the time and which many blamed for disease and social ills. It is probably clear to any reader today that these issues could not be solved solely by rebuilding cities in this mold, but to the average mid century tenement dweller the gleaming white towers surrounded by lush parkland shown in architectural drawings of that era would have seemed like a perfect society, a utopia.

Over 300 public housing projects were along these lines in New York, but cost-cutting by the government and unethical developers curtailed their built quality. The promised verdant utopias between the towers ended up as concrete parks, or often as car parking. The car-centric future of towers in the park and endless bands of highway imagined by Robert Moses came to pass, and New York is still living with the utopia-turned-dystopia this wrought.




Art by Jade Law


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