Downtown Frankenstein: Robert Moses and Haydon Burns

August 16, 2007 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

This site led the explosion of controversy over the appointment of Brad Thoburn to the position of Planning Director. We devoted a lot of typestrokes to the basic unfairness of appointing a person who did not (and still doesn't) posess the basic qualifications to hold the position. Most of the public and all of the local media felt this was simple cronyism and unwise.

While this site in particular repeatedly made the point that Brad did not have the background or education to competently direct the planning of a major american city, Brad's supporters  repeatedly asserted that Thoburn, after all, was a very nice guy with experience working for Tilly Fowler (famed Silkstocking Goes to Washington) and an expert in the mysterious circles from which flow federal funding.  And he is a very nice guy.....oh yeah, we already said that.

For our troubles we did find out that Brad is indeed a very nice guy.  In fact, he is a regular Prince, and showed a lot of personal dignity and composure in all of his dealings with our admittedly agressive editorial board.  Protesting the nomination of Brad Thoburn, at least to his face---would have been about as awkward as smacking around a struggling widow with two orphans and a great recipe for apple pie that she shares at charity dinners had she been nominated for the position.  (Although as we have proven on several occasions, if the old biddy can't plan worth a crap, we can at least count on our alarmingly frank Kevin Conner to lob a bomb or two over the barricades at her.)
And to be honest, neither we nor anyone else in the city has been able to ascertain whether or not Thoburn is any more qualified to boldly lead the city out of the nightmare of its current awful planning, disastrously expensive sprawl and lack of basic sustainable infrastructure than the hypothetical widow with orphans.

He has, by all accounts, proven to be a fairly smooth personell manager, and a great process untangler.  That is, by all available accounts.  But make no mistake about it, there still remains a job to be done besides the laudable goal of employee relations and paperwork simplification.  The challenges which loom over the current quasiprosperity of the City of Jacksonville are literally gargantuan and need to be addressed while the outcomes of decades of horrible and misguided planning can still be cured by decisive action now.

During the entire lugubrious process that we now refer to as 'The Brad Affair"  we yammered on alot about political patronage, cherry picked insider hiring, political savvy, and 'going along to get along'  The point was made (weakly) that there isn't even an ounce of fairness in hiring underqualified people who happen to be friends of the administration while savagely requiring that everybody else be strictly held to qualifications (and even higher standards if the applicants coincidentally happen to be black), but in retrospect we did not discuss the basic issues of Planning nearly enough.  Perhaps we here at Metrojacksonville were just subject to the same national weariness with modern semicorrupt political it the "Heckuva Job, Brownie!" Effect.

But the Planner is probably the most important position in the real life working of a city.  They have enormous power because they literally determine the future.  Good planners make life better for hundreds of thousands of people.  Bad planners can make it unbearable.  And believe it or not, there can be such a thing as morally bankrupt or evil planning that has the power to create more than just easy traffic or aesthetically pleasing intersections.  This city has had a mixture of all three over the past 80 years and we are even today reaping the stunning consequences of their motivations and the sometimes sordid goals that they hoped to achieve. 


JTA's decision to convert the increasing vibrant Adams Street into a bus transit mall, which does not comply with the Downtown Master Plan, illustrates the lack of good planning and coordination in Jacksonville between various governmental entities.


But before we get ahead of ourselves, it is time to discuss what issues or effects of urban planning are really at stake here after all?  What mish mash of plans and developments are we pinning our hopes  of solving onto the mellow shoulders of even a very nice guy like Brad Thoburn?  And just as importantly, what mistakes have we made that are still operationally causing harm to the city's growth, economy and culture?

Well first of all, the 'science' of urban planning is only about a hundred years old, the readers of Metrojacksonville should know.  Now, certainly there have been planned cities over the millenia, dating back to Egypt, Rome and Greece, but the current practice of using planning and regulation in order to control long term development, economic activity and growth is relatively new. And urban planning is a living science.  It is still developing and there are as many theories as there are proven solutions.

Obviously some things are self evident:  The idea that compact layout is less expensive than sprawl and low density layout is an example.  The idea that drainage has to be taken into account when building housing development is another.  But other things are not so clear cut.

The Americas (north and south) and Australia probably provide the best examples of diverse planning idea for modern cities, as many of them have been built within the past 150 years and the majority of their growth happened during the area of 'managed' planning.

We have described the state of Downtown Jacksonville as 'Downtown Frankenstein' here.  Its an easy metaphor that describes the mismatched pieces of abandoned plans and programs, with competing features and goals that have created a monster.  A sometimes deadly, brutal monster.  This is where we discuss the science that created the chimera.  We shall start with the mad scientist, whose powerful intellect and flawed character set the stage for our modern age.  Robert Moses.


Robert Moses

Perhaps there is no greater icon of City Planning in the United States than the legendary modernizer of New York City, Robert Moses.  It is to him that many of the massive readjustments to the urban landscapes of the last century may be attributed.

From wikipedia:
Robert Moses (December 18, 1888–July 29, 1981) was the "master builder" of mid-20th century New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County. As the shaper of a modern city, he is sometimes compared to Baron Haussmann of Second Empire Paris, and is one of the most polarizing figures in the history of urban planning in the United States. Although he never held elected office, Moses was arguably the most powerful person in New York City government from the 1930s to the 1950s. He changed shorelines, built roadways in the sky, and transformed neighborhoods forever. His decisions favoring highways over public transit helped create the modern suburbs of Long Island and influenced a generation of engineers, architects, and urban planners who spread his philosophies across the nation.

However, his works remain extremely controversial. His critics claim that he preferred automobiles to people, that he displaced hundreds of thousands of people in New York City, uprooted traditional neighborhoods by building expressways through them, contributed to the ruin of the South Bronx and the amusement parks of Coney Island, caused the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and precipitated the decline of public transport through disinvestment and neglect. Moses's supporters, however, believe he made the city viable for the 21st century by building an infrastructure that most people wanted and that has endured.

The work of Robert Moses helped lead to the decline of South Bronx during the mid-20th century.

It was Moses who purposefully retooled the entire city to accomodate the automobile.  It was Moses who purposefully used public recreation structures to develop or enclose a neighborhood.

And it was Moses who began the wholesale process of eminent domain to raze entire neighborhoods and then replace the destroyed housing with high rise maximum density residential structures.

There is no doubt that Moses was a visionary.  From the vantage point of the 1920s, when the automobile was still an expensive playtoy for the very wealthy, he already began envisioning a future which catered to them.  He began with scenic parkways and eventually demolished whole sections of the city he transformed in order to accomodate their movement through the buildings.

In many ways he was an almost mythical figure, applying ideas and theories about how buildings and people interact with each other in real time onto the canvas of one of the largest and most powerful cities that Western Civilization has ever known.

His ideas and the techniques he used to use the physical environment to control the choices and growth of an entire city were copied all over the nation and his ego and the force of his brilliant ideas were as collossal as the projects that he oversaw and built.

But they were not all good ideas.  And by 'good' the connotation here is moral rather than intelligent.

And they were not all healthy ideas.  Especially not when viewed in the long run, as was the case with his utter enablement of the car to dictate the development of the city.---and due to the widespread copying of his ideas, the development of most modern cities, including our own.

Particularly immoral was his practice of using municipal projects and simple engineering to seperate the races and classes into physically and functionally seperate worlds.

As noted by the biographer of his life and career, Robert Caro,   Moses pioneered the use of small details in city planning to quietly reinforce segregated public spaces.  Sadly many of his ideas spread like wildfire throughout the racist south.

Especially here in the Bold New City of the South, Jacksonville Florida.


The destruction of East Jacksonville and Fairfield for the creation of the Matthews Bridge is an example of Robert Moses' planning theories.


Tomorrow: Downtown Frankenstein: Robert Moses and Haydon Burns - Part 2