This is one of 125 photographs demonstrating "slum conditions" according to the Committee on Slum Clearance in the 1950s. This photograph represents a commercial area in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


Excerpt from the Conclusion

Despite his successes in winning federal funding and completing difficult projects, Moses’s design and execution of urban renewal was controversial and destroyed his reputation. Many observers pointed out that in his slum clearance projects, Moses targeted mixed-race or minority workingclass neighborhoods and replaced them with callous modernist structures. Caving in to criticism, in 1960, Mayor Robert Wagner disbanded the Committee on Slum Clearance and installed a new redevelopment team. Although Moses remained in various public posts until 1968, his power steadily declined after 1960 and his legacy was questioned. For decades, Robert Caro’s 1974 classic The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which blamed Moses for employing inhumane methods and contributing to the decline of New York City, remained the dominant perspective on the master planner and his actions.

In recent years, the reputation of Robert Moses has been improving, and this includes his standing among scholars. In Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York edited by Hillary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson in 2007, a number of prominent historians sought to rethink Robert Moses and his legacy. This volume was published in conjunction with three museum exhibitions about Moses and his accomplishments, and it is more than certain that this revisionist activity will continue in the years to come. Still, this volume can hardly be considered a celebration of Moses’s projects despite the fact that many of its essays have moved away from the interpretations advanced by Caro. This underlines the problem of trying to create a balanced historical account while completely rehabilitating Moses’s image.

This essay focused on the brochure photographs that Robert Moses incorporated in his slum clearance brochures during the 1950s. The photographs underscored the paradigm under which Moses’s slum clearance organization operated. Certain areas that could attract the interest of private developers were designated as slums. After this designation, the Committee on Slum Clearance tried to represent these areas as substandard, uneconomic, disorderly, and obsolete. When it became difficult to continue using the term slum, given that conditions in the clearance sites were not that extreme, Moses and his staff members argued that these areas were ‘‘blighted’’ and that sooner or later they would become slums. The nature of the remedies applied to these designations of blight was important because the way of constructing blight shaped the remedies. The photographs and aerial views assisted in the framing of what urban blight was and what was suitable to replace it. Moses’s paradigm was also influenced from the federal government guidelines, which sought the wholesale redevelopment of areas characterized as blighted. This meant that portions of these areas were not blighted in any ordinary sense and that the photographs had to focus on blighted conditions if such a possibility existed.

Regardless, many of the photographs failed to consistently represent the slum conditions that were important in the discourse of the slum that Moses relied and this contributed to the new characterization of sites as blighted. It could be that the photographers deployed in these areas did not do a great job. Or that the photographers and the editors of the brochures wanted to present a balanced photographic account of the slum areas, and this included both positive and negative aspects of them. However, both of these explanations are unlikely. The failure of the photographs to demonstrate consistent slum conditions reveals the fact that the slum was an ideological rather than a scientific construct. Even after the change in the name, the way that blight was defined attempted to satisfy the political–economic structure of New York City, and this had little to do with the actual condition of the areas. Moses acted as the coordinator who sought to accommodate the wishes of politicians, developers, builders, large landowners, real estate interests, and government officials. Moses and his staff did not attempt to make objective decisions as to what constituted blight because such decisions would alienate a substantial portion of the holders of power involved in the slum clearance process. There were definitely alternative sites whose built environment had deteriorated much more than that of areas proposed in the brochures; however, these areas were uneconomic and would fail to attract redevelopment sponsors. Moreover, the city government wanted to redevelop areas in strategic areas of the city that had experienced undesirable demographic changes, rather than just areas where low-income people had lived all along. This is why Manhattan included the majority of slum clearance projects with Brooklyn being a distant second. Whatever the case, the problem with defining blight in a way that accommodated political and corporate powerholders is that besides being problematic, it excluded small landlords, existing tenants, or independent store owners. Furthermore, this definition had no place for racial diversity or working-class culture. Early court decisions assisted Moses’s paradigm, since efforts to legally define what constituted a slum failed.

Historical debates about Robert Moses and his impact are likely to continue. However, if the areas that were designated as slums (or blighted) were not the worst in the city, but the Committee on Slum Clearance selected at least twenty-six of them for urban renewal, then the claim that Moses’s actions benefited the city is difficult to establish. The destruction of sound urban neighborhoods cannot be characterized as beneficial.