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On the Vision — and Limits — of a Century of Grand Urban Plans

What might have been along the East River, by Francis Swales circa 1930. Illustration: Courtesy of Regional Plan Association

From sidewalk level, New York looks like an accumulation of the haphazard, organized according to impenetrable rules. Its pieces jam next to, beneath, and on top of each other like a litter of kittens. Any snatches of gracious order seem accidental or the product of some wild contest among builders. Yet some of that energized jumble is deliberate — great chunks of it mapped out in a vast, all-encompassing strategy of almost inconceivable hubris. In 1922, a handful of mandarins (including banker Charles Dyer Norton, Henry Street Settlement founder Lillian Wald, and Manhattan borough president George McAneny) decreed that the city was too chaotic to be trusted to evolve on its own. What New York needed was a plan — a big one. To draft it, they formed the Regional Plan Association (which today remains a collection of civic-minded do-gooders with no official power aside from the persuasiveness of their ideas), The document they came up with seven years later was not an abstraction: Along with the 1916 zoning resolution, the 1929 Regional Plan was the founding document of modern New York.

“The Constant Future: A Century of the Regional Plan,” an exhibition that occupies Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall, October 7–24, tells the story of the ongoing effort to discipline the metropolitan area’s growth. The show, produced by architect James Sanders (who wrote the great Celluloid Skyline and collaborated with Ric Burns on New York: An Illustrated History), is aptly located in a building that predated the planning effort but symbolizes both grand-scale thinking and private initiative. Once a national-rail node, it now serves a fractured region at a time when the relationship between city and suburbs is being renegotiated yet again.

Even if you’re speed-walking along 42nd Street or trying to make a train, it’s worth popping into this show — if only for its unexpected visual allure. What might have been a wonky slog is, instead, a compact illustrated epic. That’s partly because the RPA sold its ideas with visions of a future city that mingled Haussmann’s Paris, Wren’s London, and Caesar’s Rome, and the display is given the glow of imaginary majesty. Among the central images in the exhibition is Francis Swales’s painting of a palace complex of indeterminate use along the East River — complete with cupola, twinned turrets, an obelisk, colonnaded wings, and formal gardens.

Planners of that era (virtually all of them white men) saw themselves as followers of a noble calling — even an art. This provided a way to tame the future, a tool with which to channel the torrents of chance toward desirable destinations. They gazed on the city from the lofty perch of their expertise. They huddled around maps, diagrams, and aerial views — rarely venturing into the streets they proposed to wipe away or talk to the people they expected to displace. Yet it would be facile, in our era of six-hour hearings over parking spaces and regular protests against rezoning, to dismiss their achievements as the work of arrogant technocrats hacking away at the city’s fabric. The RPA’s visionaries were blinkered by the social arrangements of their times — as are we all — but even so, it’s astonishing to see how much of their fantasy metropolis was eventually realized and how we continue to live off of their investments and imagination.

The show is alternately heartening and horrifying. On one hand, it reminds us that the city has always been a work in progress. Those with a long-enough view and a long-enough life get to see ideas evolve into plans and plans transformed into concrete and steel. The RPA observes the city at what Richard Powers in The Overstory calls “the speed of trees” — a timescale so slow that it looks like stasis — until you look back and see events rumbling along. But New York’s timescale is a disorientingly inconsistent pattern of long torpors, sprints, and stutter steps intercut with eons of procrastination. A text panel reports that, just over a decade after the first plan’s publication, “thanks largely to the unstoppable determination of Robert Moses, nearly 40 percent of the 1929 Plan’s 2,548 miles of proposed highway had been completed — along with the Triborough Bridge, Henry Hudson Bridge, Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, Marine Parkway Bridge, Riverside Park, and Jacob Riis and Orchard beaches.” Then there was the Second Avenue Subway, coming to fruition 97 years after the RPA first suggested it.

On the other hand, lofty intentions and visionary schemes yielded appalling results: decades of urban renewal, slum clearance, sprawl, tenacious segregation, and immense savannahs of parking. As that roster of roadways suggests, Moses was most interested in one part of the RPA’s transportation agenda: the car-friendly stuff. He laced the region with parkways and expressways that the plan had mapped but showed no interest in its proposals for an integrated commuter-rail network.

All these decades later, Moses remains ensconced in the popular imagination as the singularly Mephistophelean figure of planning, a potentate whose legacy continues to shape our days. We gambol in his playgrounds, drive on his highways, stroll in his parks, inhabit the remnants of neighborhoods he sundered, and live with the disastrous consequences of his faith in the automobile. This fall, Ralph Fiennes plays him in David Hare’s play Straight Line Crazy and Moses reappears as a character in A Marvelous Order, an opera by Judd Greenstein, Tracy K. Smith, and Joshua Frankel that has its world premiere at Penn State. And now, here he is again, staring at us from the walls of Vanderbilt Hall with that Mussolini sneer, a map of his domain at his shoulders.

The RPA broke with Moses in 1939 over the question of how best to link Brooklyn and the Battery. (He wanted a bridge; the RPA fought for the tunnel.) But in many ways, they shared a vision that the RPA has since spent decades trying to correct. “The Constant Future” chronicles the plan’s sequels. In the 1960s, even as it looked back on a record of big projects drawn up and executed, the organization concluded that “a Second Regional Plan was needed, in part to address the Pandora’s Box the first plan had opened.” Specifically, the authors decided they needed to ask non-planners for input. Released at a time when so many white middle-class New Yorkers were using all those lovely roads to get the hell out of Dodge, Regional Plan II had to contend with a domestic cold war between suburbs and core. Sections covering the third (1996) and fourth (2017) iterations continue tracking the evolution of conventional wisdom from Olympian schemes to surgical interventions, from an obsession with grandeur to anxiety over climate change, from planner-knows-best decrees to whaddaya-think consultations.

Despite the show’s celebratory tone, it’s disheartening, in 2022, to look around New York and see how the spirit of ’29 has dissipated. Decrepitude is everywhere, and small thinking reigns. Even something as dinky as widening sidewalks has become a bigger job than the bureaucracy can manage. The city is battling climate change by handing out inflatable-dam kits. Periodically, the pivoting Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River seizes up and commuters have to sit in Penn Station for hours until someone comes along with a sledgehammer to unstick it. (It was built in 1910. A new one is supposedly in the works.) Penn Station is so far gone that the governor claims the only way to fix it is to turn over the surrounding blocks to private developers (Vornado, mostly), which will put up office towers we may never need. And the city is addressing the affordable-apartment drought by measuring housing out in coffee spoons. That’s not because the future will be softer or the challenges more modest, but because we have compensated for the hubris and abuses of power of the past by deferring to obstructionists and letting developers fill the vacuum. The RPA’s powerless advocates keep gazing into distant decades, while our officials can barely tinker with tomorrow.

On the Vision (and Limits) of a Century of Grand Urban Plans