In 1966, New York's new mayor, John Lindsay, launched a series of far-reaching plans to transform the city, most of which were never realized. The authors recover that vision and its lessons for the present day.
IN JANUARY OF 1966,
in the midst of a debilitating transit strike, the recently inaugurated mayor of New York, John Lindsay, vowed to take on the city’s “power brokers.” He defined them as “a group of special interests...who for long years have sought to control the engines of government,” and while his target that day was the Transport Workers Union, New York’s “master builder” Robert Moses was in close range. Moses, cardinal among Manhattan’s civic elite, had for the past four decades shaped the metropolis after his own dream: a city of high-rise public housing projects set back behind unpeopled, litter-strewn lawns, a city of public pools and redbrick play centers in the shadows of blue steel bridges—all of it connected by vast and teeming highways. Lindsay abhorred this vision of the city, and his mayoral campaign had included a frontal attack on Moses, which decried the funding of bridges and tunnels at the expense of mass transit. In turn, Moses responded to the photogenic young politician’s electoral victory with a strident prediction: “If you elect a matinee-idol mayor, you’re going to get a musical-comedy administration.”
At the time, Moses was still New York’s most celebrated planner and the chairman of the mighty Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. The highways that snaked through Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island were his chief endowment to the city, but they were also his curse. As the ’60s waned, and as the city slipped into economic and social turmoil, it became apparent that Triborough’s legacy would be a metropolis with a decaying physical plant and a declining quality of life. In place of Moses’s racially partitioned New York, Lindsay had promised a new city that would be integrated and equal, dense in population and activity, accommodating to people as well as to automobiles.
Every citizen would be entitled to every patch of public land, and every new housing project, park, and highway would be considered as part of a comprehensive renewal plan. Freeways would tunnel under enormous new housing towers, which would in turn punctuate the famous skyline while still abetting traditional street life. It was an urban vision at once radically futuristic and reverent of the dynamism of New York’s past. And it was time, Lindsay felt, that old man Moses made way for it. Moses did, after a fight, step down from Triborough in 1966, but not before making a final bitter pronouncement: “That goddamned whippersnapper...will come and go; Triborough is going to be around for a long time.”
The prediction today seems clairvoyant. “Fun City,” as Lindsay’s vision was sometimes called, came and went with the mayor who championed it, while the Moses legacy lives on. After suffering a long period of disrepute following the publication of The Power Broker
, Robert Caro’s damning 1974 biography, in 2007 Moses was given a qualified rehabilitation in three concurrent New York exhibitions. The shows and their accompanying book, Robert Moses and the Modern City
, by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson, found much to like in the man and his work, and they placed the capstone on Moses’s return to favor after three decades of infamy.
But in their recuperation of Moses, Ballon and Jackson also recapitulated a long-standing, and dubious, narrative about midcentury New York, pitting Moses against foil Jane Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities
of 1961 rejected top-down technocratic urbanism in favor of an organic poetics of the neighborhood and the street. As the received history would have it, the recurrent crises of the 1960s and ’70s exposed the fatal flaws of insensitive city-scale planning; Jacobs’s community-driven localism gained the ascendant, and Moses’s metropolitanism was routed from the field. The personal enmity between Jacobs and Moses—he called Jacobs and her fellow protesters “nobody but a bunch of mothers”; she referred to his planning methods as “taxidermy”—dramatized the opposition of anti-planning and master planning, neighborhood and metropolis, that has become an assumption underlying so many discussions of urbanism, Robert Moses and the Modern City
In addition to making Moses the sole individual capable of grasping “the city as a whole,” as Ballon and Jackson put it, the conflation of the man and his methods obscures the long, varied history of metropolitanism in New York. The first wave of “metropolitanism”—a combination of political culture, planning strategy, and architectural style—occurred during New York’s turn-of-the-century Banquet Years, with a host of initiatives and societies that aimed to consolidate Manhattan and the outlying counties into one political entity. As in London and Paris, planners imposed a consistent aesthetic in the design of subways, public parks, and civic architecture in order to establish an image of the Greater City that would take hold in the popular imagination.
Moses’s work was the second iteration of metropolitanism: The objective was to move beyond forging a metropolitan identity, toward the integration of New York into the landscape beyond its borders. While first-wave metropolitanism stressed symmetry and historical detail in public buildings (as in McKim, Mead & White's wedding-cake-esque Manhattan Municipal Building), its successor’s design vocabulary highlighted stripped surfaces and asymmetry (as in Philip Johnson’s spacey New York Pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens). Most significantly, midcentury planning employed “the cut” as its signature technique: The urban fabric was sliced and even eviscerated by throughways channeling rush-hour traffic; the residuum, particularly housing, was displaced and relocated to the periphery.
While successful by its own measure, inserting the city into a regional and national highway network, this metropolitanism produced social divisions that would fester over coming decades. Its failings would prompt a remarkably cogent, if less wildly prolific, response in the reforming urbanism of Mayor Lindsay.
The confrontation between master planning and anti-planning that played out over the 1960s engendered an arresting image of the metropolis, one that took cues from Moses and Jacobs but refused to merely triangulate them. The Lindsay interval has been largely forgotten, in no small part because of the painful memories of the social upheavals that marred his tenure—the Columbia student occupation, the Brownsville teachers’ strike, the Knapp Commission on police corruption—as well as the popular perception that Lindsay’s urban approach failed to address those upheavals adequately. Yet it remains pertinent to anyone interested in how New York and other major cities throughout the country might be improved in the future.
Immediately after assuming office, Lindsay sought to establish a third-wave metropolitanism. He would remedy the ills of the cannibalizing urbanism undertaken by his predecessors and by then discredited—not by curtailing planning projects, whether housing developments or highways, but by dramatically expanding them. During his eight years in office, various organs of his administration put forth a series of proposals that, taken together, reveal a singular planning ethos and architectural sensibility commensurate to that of previous brands of metropolitanism (if less politically viable).
Remarkably little scholarship has been devoted to the Lindsay program. With the exception of an exhibition five years ago at the Municipal Art Society on a few Lindsay-era housing projects, our study is the first to attempt to identify how much of his urban program has been realized, and the first to consider his entire planning and building apparatus in terms of a legible urban strategy. Our present moment of economic crisis and nascent federal response, with all it portends for the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, would seem an ideal one to look back to a time when the dire need for the government to renew its compact with citizens compelled it to cast aside ideological and reactionary models alike, in favor of an ambitious program to remake New York and ensure its future.
Just as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society offered federal support for sweeping renovations of American cities, the administration of Barack Obama has pledged to advance projects that will help insure the sustainable growth of New York City and other metropolises across the country into the twenty-first century. But perhaps most pertinent of all is the story of a young, cultured, and charismatic politician, as confident in the power of the people to effect change as in the ability of government to keep pace with their needs, who promised to usher in a new era for a city plagued by political gridlock, institutional malaise, and an insurmountable deficit, and who was elected under the banner “He is fresh and everyone else is tired.” It is a story that should serve as both a generative lesson and a cautionary tale.
JOHN VLIET LINDSAY,
the 103rd mayor of New York, and only the second Republican in thirty years to assume the office, was elected in 1965 as a reform candidate against the Democratic political machine. Lindsay’s victory was the product of a skillfully orchestrated media campaign, the main theme of which was urban reform. In the months leading up to the election, the city’s papers published exposé after exposé on a city in crisis, with crime on the rise and a decrepit housing stock—including Moses’s own failed experiments—incubating extreme poverty, while the editorial pages urged a swift and dramatic intervention.
It wasn’t difficult for the dailies to convince their readership of the need for action. The past decade had seen the first population decline in the city’s history. Previously thriving neighborhoods in the western and southern Bronx, northern Manhattan, and central Brooklyn were stymied by economic depression, gripped by racial tension, and rent by major roadway projects. Something had to be done, and the attractive, vigorous Lindsay, whom many could hardly refrain from comparing to John F. Kennedy, seemed the man to do it.
The principle objection to the second wave of metropolitanism lodged by Jane Jacobs and her adherents had been its destruction, in neighborhood after neighborhood, of delicate “urban ecologies” through the imposition of housing projects and highways. Lindsay’s new approach would respond to this critique, but without rejecting planning outright. It aimed to thread infrastructure around the urban fabric, rather than having it cut through the tenements, markets, alleyways, and parks that were the warp and weft of New York’s neighborhoods. Citizen participation would defuse the generally fraught planning process, granting a sense of empowerment and autonomy to previously disenfranchised communities. The focus of the planner was no longer to facilitate the movement of the automobile, or to kowtow to Jacobs’s almighty pedestrian, or to engender a harmonious social order through the construction of green-fringed civic monuments, as the City Beautiful movement had done around the turn of the century. It was to open up the city for residents whose proper habitat was the entire metropolis.
In the four spheres of Lindsay-era planning discussed in depth here (among a multitude of other projects influenced by City Hall or executed in collaboration with private developers), one can glimpse the receding horizon of the late-modernist avant-garde in architecture, as reflected in Megastructuralism, New Brutalism, neo-Futurism, Linear Cities, and, most significantly, the revisionist modernism of Paul Rudolph and Louis Kahn. The two major unbuilt proposals in Brooklyn and Harlem recall the visionary tendencies of much 1960s experimental studio work. But whereas many of these projects bordered on the fantastic, Lindsay’s strategy on the ground was formulated and implemented by an array of decidedly grounded bureaucrats.
Ed Logue, former head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, responsible for the city’s Government Center, was an early Lindsay adviser, and he imparted a penchant for statistical and cartographic analysis. He also convinced Lindsay that the structure of the bureaucracy had to be reformed, which led to the creation of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in 1967. The DHPD staff included Woody Klein, a housing expert and onetime Lindsay press secretary who was an early advocate of substantial increases in public housing construction. Thomas Hoving, Lindsay’s parks commissioner, made the city’s green spaces more accessible to a broader range of New Yorkers, including the growing number of citizens who counted themselves among the counterculture, producing “Hoving Happenings” that gave rise to the unlikely Lindsay slogan “Fun City.”
Planning Commissioner Donald Elliott shared Hoving’s vision of a participatory society and attempted to plan new projects in concert with the communities that would be most affected by them. He also brought four young men, three of them graduates of the Yale School of Architecture and all habitués of New York’s cultural elite, into the Planning Commission, so that the design of public buildings would reflect the latest currents in architectural thought. These men, Jacquelin Robertson, Myles Weintraub, Jonathan Barnett, and Richard Weinstein, would form the influential Urban Design Group, which came to epitomize the administration’s metropolitan complexion, its belief in progressive architecture as an agent of urban improvement, though one tempered with a sensitivity to the city’s traditional character.
Proposal for Linear City, Brooklyn. McMillan, Griffis & Mileto, 1967-69.
Lindsay’s charisma and intellect brought these personalities together under one roof, but it may also have stymied their plans. Lindsay and many in his inner circle were plagued by a peculiar variety of cultural provincialism, having never lived or worked in (or thought too much about) bedroom “white ethnic” commuter communities in the outer boroughs. Lindsay endorsed a plan for Greater New York but took little interest in the facts on the ground anywhere outside Manhattan. Even with all the “contextually sensitive” and “vest-pocket” projects—small constructions on vacant lots in otherwise built-up blocks—proposed and built by Lindsay’s planners in mid-rise, middle-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, the intricacies of those communities often seemed lost on them. The plan for a Linear City in central Brooklyn was killed by local opposition when funding for an attached educational complex disappeared; a low-income public housing project proposed for Forest Hills, Queens, was altered beyond recognition by angry middle-class neighbors, who preferred that it be a retirement home for financially solvent seniors.
The local opposition to these proposals came in direct response to the perceived elitism of the Lindsay cadre—either by minority groups who resented the intrusion of white interlopers, as happened in Brooklyn, or by white ethnics who felt the liberal administration favored the interests of minority groups and the poor, as happened in Queens. Ironically, local opposition was often facilitated by the administration’s insistence on community involvement in the planning process. For all Lindsay’s moral uprightness and commitment to the impoverished and oppressed, his understanding of social conditions was limited; his breezy liberalism earned him derogatory nicknames such as Mr. Clean, Captain Marvel, Sir Galahad, Prince Valiant, and the White Knight.
Lindsay’s character aside, the mayor’s urban program might have been more fully realized were it not for the wretched state of the city’s finances. Well before October 29, 1975, when the front page of the Daily News
accused President Ford of telling the city to “drop dead” after it asked for a federal bailout, the municipal coffers were alarmingly depleted. In 1973, President Nixon declared a moratorium on federal public housing expenditure, effectively ending New York’s program of public housing construction. The situation was not improved by Lindsay’s relatively poor understanding of the machinations of state government. He was routinely outmaneuvered by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who channeled state money toward his own pet projects in the city, such as the World Trade Center, Battery Park City, and Roosevelt Island.
The money dried up at almost the same instant that local opposition, strengthened by the popularity of Jacobs’s anti-planning philosophy, gained the upper hand. Lindsay’s planning apparatus had tried to respond to Jacobs’s criticisms of second-wave metropolitanism, but the mayor’s technocratic idealism was ultimately quashed by communities that had, by nature of living with the consequences of Moses’s projects, become resistant to the very idea of urban planning. The promise of John Lindsay went unfulfilled, and his departure from City Hall sounded the death knell of large-scale planning.
Nevertheless, that promise lives on, however buried under the patina of late-’70s urban decay, the vulgar commercial projects erected en masse in the ’80s and ’90s, and the more recent vogue for speculative luxury condos and gaudy renovations of older tenements and townhouses. In examining a few of the projects built under the Lindsay administration, it is possible to discern the traces of other, unrealized proposals, the palimpsest of a master plan, and the enduring impact of a partially realized metropolitan vision—elements of which might well be resurrected to address our own needs.
The second part of this article elaborates on the four spheres of Lindsay-era planning, detailing a number of realized and unrealized projects, all illustrated with sketches and photographs.