Monday, March 19, 2007

All For the Public

In the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, a thoughtful journalist asks a daring question: Does America need another Robert Moses?

Those who say “yes” seem to feel that reconstruction failures in New Orleans call for a new era of imperious extralegal maneuvering by power-mad thugs. As the article notes:

[Moses] ran roughshod over his opponents, dug up dirt on adversaries, and bulldozed hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes.
Sounds like a nice change of pace, alright. But Moses still has some detractors, especially among our ivory-tower elitists:
Reed Kroloff, dean of Tulane University's architecture school, admits that he wakes up some mornings feeling "desperate for any action."

But he resists the idea that a "benign dictator" is the answer.
He does, eh? Well, with all due respect, it sounds like Kroloff needs to lay down the Derrida and the crack pipe, and start living in the real world.

Kidding aside, it’d be interesting to know how Moses might qualify as a “benign dictator,” even if we were to accept for the sake of argument that such a creature could exist. It seems pretty obvious that bullyboy authoritarianism isn’t a reasonable corrective for democracy’s faults, any more than knocking someone’s teeth out with a crowbar is a reasonable corrective for poor dental hygiene. More to the point, democracy’s most serious fault is precisely this tendency to devolve into authoritarianism, which is not an alternative to weak leadership, but a symptom of it.

In an earlier article concerned with rehabilitating Moses’ reputation, several experts express awe at what he accomplished:
“The grandeur of those buildings — all for the public,” Ms. Ballon said. “He executed 17 urban renewal projects in nine years. That’s staggering.”
Love him or hate him, ya gotta love him!

It's true that a wiser, more compassionate, and more competent person might’ve been able to execute these projects without putting architecture in the service of segregation, or crippling public transit for generations. But who cares? Moses was decisive; he got things done.

Granted, we probably wouldn’t praise a surgeon who saved patients' lives by murdering bystanders and harvesting their organs, no matter how confidently he wielded his scalpel. But urban renewal is a much more complex issue; it deals with confusing, abstract concepts like “public housing” and “infrastructure” and “urban populations.” There’s no room for sentimentality here (unless you’re talking about aesthetics, or the erotic thrill that certain people get from contemplating the insouciant abuse of power).

Maybe I’m oversensitive, but as we enter the fifth year of a disastrous illegal war - whose architects ran roughshod over their opponents, and dug up dirt on their adversaries - I think it’s kind of unseemly to speculate, however politely or tentatively, on whether we’d be happier if we turned our collective decision-making over to an unelected “benign dictator.”

(Photo at top shows construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, circa 1957.)

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