Robert Moses and Haydon Burns - Part 2

July 15, 2010 24 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

By the luck of the draw, exactly as the era of Robert Moses was at its greatest power and influence, the city of Jacksonville found itself in the hands of an odd and ambitious Good Old Boy Network of politicians and powerbrokers led by the development and growth minded Haydon Burns. The irrascible mayor was not only an admirer of the great reformer from New York City but one of the most infamous good old boy politicos in the city's history.

Check out the first Part of  Haydon Burns and Robert Moses

It was under Burns that the city initiated its great leap forward into modernity and it leaped right into the mold established by Moses.

Why is any of this relevant?  What nebulous 'city planning' could the Cracker Mayor of Jacksonville have insidiously adopted from New York City (of all places)?

Well that is the awesome and subtle power of planning.  It is really pretty amazing what huge effects a careful planner can get from seemingly insignificant details of public architecture.

A detail as minor seeming as an extra lane of traffic down Southside Boulevard for example:  It allowed explosive growth all the way down that traffic corridor in the space of only 10 years.

Now the reader of MetroJacksonville can easily see the cause and effect of such a detail.  Maybe not so clear to a person deciding to add a lane in order to relieve traffic congestion, which was why Southside Boulevard was widened in the first place, but after all the infill has already happened, it is simple enough to understand how easier traffic access made the growth of areas like Tinseltown possible.  

And this process is a simple illustration of the dynamics involved with modern planning.  A simple engineer widens a road to solve an immediate problem like traffic congestion.  An urban planner knows that there are long term consequences besides easier traffic flow and uses that simple extra lane to encourage business corridors.

In the modern discipline of urban planning there are literally thousands of little ways to influence crowd behavior using small details.  Even smaller seeming than an extra lane of traffic.

Moses was the master of such details in his development of New York City. 

According to Sidney M. Shapiro, Moses's General Manager,and chief engineer of the Long Island State Park Commission, who worked for Moses for forty years, the construction of low overpasses on parkways were made purposely too low for buses to clear, and the veto of extension of the Long Island Rail Road to Jones Beach, was to prevent the poor and racial minorities (largely dependent on public transit) from accessing the beach while providing easy car access for wealthier, white groups.

Shapiro was the man who carried out Moses's instructions to build the bridges on his parkways too low for buses. In his notes on sources Mr. Caro writes: "It is thanks to Shapiro, more than any other source that I came to understand Moses' attitude towards Negroes...."

One small detail.  The height of newly built overpasses.

Moses built a hugely waterfront parkway that led to his beautiful beautifully designed recreational parks and beaches.  But he built overpasses over the roads that led to it.  Just a foot too low for buses to pass underneath.  Oops.

He then used his position as the ciy planner to argue that an extension of the public trains was too expensive. 

Small passive details that deliberately kept 'undesirables' out.  Nothing visible.  Nothing blatant.  Just a slightly too short overpass and a tight transportation budget.

Moses also built public structures that slightly discouraged traffic over them.  Nothing that would actually prohibit movement, necessarily but just a slight barrier.  Perhaps a line of hedges combined with a set of steps.  Or blocking off several cross streets with a public swimming pool building that was built with a park that stretched for several blocks on either side and making sure that the entrances to the facility opened up onto the wealthier white district and logically with solid walls and hedges that fronted the poorer disctrict---forcing anyone from the lower income area to have to walk blocks in order to enter the facility.

He once bragged that he could keep Negroes out of the public swimming pools by keeping the water cooler by three degrees Farenheit.

This is the power of Planning.

One of the negative side affects of Robert Moses' theories, was the relocation of the Brooklyn Dodgers from Ebbets Field to Los Angeles. 

At the time he seemed a genius.  He was the very cure for 'urban blight'.  Where slums existed, he built highways, overpasses, and bridges directly through, over or around them, in most cases cutting them physically off from the rest of the city when not outright demolishing them.

In every circumstance he favored the needs of cars coming in from the suburbs to the needs of historic neighborhoods or the people who lived in them.

In short the giant works of this revolutionary man were often used to literally build segregation and bigotry into the landscape of the city itself.  And you could say that Robet Moses pretty much wrote the book.

All other writings on the subject at the time were reactions to his work.  The reader of MetroJacksonville is encouraged to Google the name of Lewis Mumford.  His theories that cities should be planned so that people could interact with each other were dismissed as socialist nonsense.  An interesting bit of trivia for Ayn Rand fans.  She based the character of Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead partially on Mumford.

The only other significant voice in those early years was that of Jane Jacobs, whose brilliant works on Cities are still among the most important volumes ever written for Urban Planners.  She was an early advocate of the Garden City concepts that are the backbone of New Urbanism.

But one can see how appealing Moses approach would have been to old style good old boys at a time when unrest over Civil Rights was omnipresent.

Which brings us to Jacksonville in the 1950s.


The Haydon Burns Administration

Haydon Burns and his legendary group of cronies came to office in 1948.  That year, parking meters became universal downtown.  They went from an experimental fundraiser backed by the Jacksonville JayCees not tolerated near the Courthouse to blanketing the entire downtown, backed by legal fines and penalties for not paying. 

The downtown was in the middle of a perceived slump, having to deal with the same automobile induced problems that every other city was dealing with---most people driving into downtown with very little room to store their parked vehicles--- and a newfound cultural zeitgeist for 'progress' and renewal.  Onto this stage Haydon Burns stepped up with "The Answers" and initiated a program of modernization and infrastructure building backed by a citizenry ambitious to join in the prosperity of the times.

The execution of Moses style Infrastructuring was like greased lightning.

The international trade (and crime) district surrounding the Wharves and running down Bay Street was first up on the chopping block.  The Wharves were demolished and the riverline itself was cemented over and turned into convenient parking lots.  The New City Hall and Courthouse were built on riverfront property along surprisingly modernist architectural lines that looked out over the newly cemented riverfront.

Under the Burns Administration, the waterfront was demolished in favor of modern surface parking lots.

Two new bridges were commissioned connecting Downtown to the southbank of the river, curiously sidestepping any of the established residential areas in favor of the sparsely populated Arlington and Southside areas.  In fact the Matthews Bridge was the original 'Bridge to Nowhere", so dubbed because of the undeveloped nature of the county property it touched down in.

The Hart Bridge exit ramps were built along classic Moses style lines.  Although the Bridge touches down not far from the shore line, the exit ramp literally flies completely over the traditionally black Eastside business district, touching down onto Liberty Street safely in the primarily white district around the courthouse.  All traffic from the prosperous downtown district to the northeast part of downtown slowed down to a trickle and the businesses began to starve to death. 

The Hart Bridge elevated ramp shortly before its opening.

Finally there was the establishment of the Jacksonville Expressway Authority, the predecessor to the our BRT evangelizing Jacksonville Transportation Authority. (JTA).

Most people today don't know that the 95 expressway was not originally part of the federal highway system.  However it was one of the few cases in the country where the interstate system took over a large highway originally built by a city.

Before the road was called I-95, it was called (with a bold stroke of originality) The Jacksonville Expressway.  It was built to facilitate trucking traffic to and from our port and railroads for out of state commerce.  In routing the huge highway, The Jacksonville Expressway was built perfectly down the middle of the color line separating the white and black neighborhoods of the Northside.  White Springfield, Brentwood and their northerly neighbors were separated by a multi-lane highway crossable only with elevated walkways and flights of stairs encased in cages from historically black Durkeeville and the African American neighborhoods west of 95.

In the downtown, the transitional neighborhood of LaVilla was bisected by the highway and Sugar Hill, the city's historic upperclass black neighborhood was completely demolished, uprooting some of Jacksonville's most prominent black families in the process.

The new Expressway created an elegant and devastatingly effective physical block that separated the races without the need of separate but equal signs or even policemen or security guards to enforce it.  It simply became an organic part of the landscape.

Construction of highways like the Jacksonville and 20th Street Expressways cut once vibrant neighborhoods off from each other.

All of these reforms were undertaken during the Haydon Burns Administration against a backdrop of events like the Florida Avenue Race Riots and later on Ax Handle Saturday and were directly influenced by the national dissemination of the newfound 'science of urban planning' as practiced by its first master, Robert Moses.  They had (in hindsight) predictable results.

Jacksonville mimicked the Moses philosophy that cities should plan on being regional centers of business by locating transportation joints centered in the city center.  Transportation routes that connected the downtowns with all directions.  At the time it appeared that the construction of such massive highways and interchanges were themselves a social good because they necessitated so much demolition ----which could be located in the traditional slums and high crime areas. 

However in the process Jacksonville also extended and impoverished whole districts like the Eastside and tore down significant parts of its historic fabric.

As in Harlem and the Bronx it also isolated whole districts one from another and separated their development into separate unconnected processes.

The demolition of Sugar Hill was a huge loss for the city, and the bisecting of LaVilla eventually ended in its complete demolition.

As a result of the Hart Bridge flyover, over 25 percent of the downtown area was practically transformed into a ghost town, rapidly devaluing the property which was sold cheap and over which the Gator Bowl, Colliseum and Baseball Park were constructed.  Today the entire area is deserted except during special events or scheduled games.

At the same time that this huge area of land was being rendered useless except as recreation, the traditionally lively riverfront wharves which had brought generations of commerce and trade downtown were also closed down, taking with them a massive chunk of the traditional downtown economy.

This effectively removed shipping and industrial use as major parts of the City Core economy.  But this was widely considered an improvement because it also removed a huge portion of international merchant marines and black people and the shiny new parking lots on the riverfront were immediately filled with (primarily white) housewives and families coming downtown in order to do their shopping.

This little bubble might have lasted forever, as long as downtown was the only large retail district in the region and people were willing to pay for parking (a policy which also discouraged poor people from visiting the downtown) in order to shop there

But as it did everywhere else in the United States, the very vehicles for this urban 'renewal' process planted with it the seeds of complete urban collapse instead.

Easy access and bridges to the Arlington and southside area meant that people with cars and disposable income (if only for the tolls) also had easy access to cheaper land just outside the downtown core.

When Regency Mall opened, with its free parking and the unspoken guarantee that it would be nice white and upscale,------ since after all, only people with cars who were willing to pay tolls would be shopping in them.---- the downtown retail economy that was supposed to fill the vaccuum left behind in the elimination of shipping trade, black retail, and industrial businesses was totally unprepared to compete.

So the early apparent successes of the Moses style urban 'renewal' gave way to the later after effects of the Moses style restructuring.  A collapse of the urban center, loss of the neighborhoods and sense of community that had been the original source of its daily life, and the resultant spread of economically disassociated slums throughout the former core.

It was a pattern that was repeated many times throughout the US, but which had especially harsh effects in the south as the blight and decay became part and parcel of civic unrest and sporadic violence during the fight for Civil Rights.

It ended in white flight and the rush to the suburbs.  Downtown with its tolls, its inaccessibility and its parking enforcement penalties was simply too much to deal with when combined with racial tension and free parking in the suburbs.

This however did not stop the heavy handed application of more of the same type of 'renewal' programming that had already directly contributed to the rise of Urban Blight.

Article by Stephen Dare