"CIVIC IMPROVEMENTS": THE CASE OF NEW YORK
Architectural Record 21 (May 1907):347-352.When Herbert David Croly (1869-1930) wrote this article he had recently left the editorship of the journal in which it appeared, a post he held from 1900 to 1906. Born in New York as the son of a journalist, Croly studied in New York's public and private schools and one year at the College of the City of New York before entering Harvard as a special student in 1886. Two years later he left to serve as his father's secretary and then as editor of a real estate journal and on the staff of the Architectural Record. He re-entered Harvard in 1892, spent the next year abroad, returned to Harvard in 1895 for four years, followed by a year in Paris.The sincere friends of the improvement of our American cities in convenience and appearance should not disguise from themselves that the movement is not making as much practical headway as it should. During the past seven or eight years an enormous deal has been written about this subject. The friends of good public architecture in almost every important city in the country have sought to secure the adoption in their own neighborhood of some more or less comprehensive plan of public improvements. Beginning with Washington, many such plans have been carefully prepared, fully published and assiduously discussed in the local papers. Neither has this agitation been wholly without result. Although many stubborn attempts have been made to situate new buildings of the National Government in places which would have blocked the future realization of the plan of the Washington Commission, such attempts have wholly failed hitherto, largely owing to the fact that the influence of President Roosevelt has been consistently used on the right side. Moreover, in other cities, such as Cleveland, a certain amount of progress has been made towards the final realization of a scheme which will add considerably to the better appearance of the city. It must be admitted, however, that on the whole the actual achievements of the new movement have not been proportional to the amount of ink which has been shed on its behalf. Improvements in public art and architecture have created a great deal of interest and enthusiasm as long as they remained on paper, but as soon as it was attempted to transmute the paper into steel and stone, both interest and enthusiasm have very much diminished. Either nothing at all has been accomplished or else only half measures have been adopted. The movement has not had the momentum to override the first practical obstacles which stood in its path. Baltimore, after the fire, widened a few minor streets, but it refused to take advantage of the opportunity to widen the most important business thoroughfare in the city--a thoroughfare which was altogether too narrow for its purpose. The disaster which overtook San Francisco last spring offered that city an extraordinary opportunity to take definite steps towards the realization of the Burn ham plan, but hitherto the advocates of that plan have not succeeded in securing the adoption of a single measure which would constitute a beginning of the Better San Francisco. Perhaps, however, the worst failure of all has befallen the advocates of improved and beautified New York, and the case of New York is at once so important and so typical that it deserves special and serious consideration.
As editor of one of America's most important architectural journals, Croly opened its pages to many writers on city planning. Doubtless he absorbed what they had to say in their articles into his own knowledge of conditions in the U.S. and Europe when he came to write this essay. Although its focus is on the City of New York, the analysis of the difficulties encountered by city planners there has far wider implications. His indictment of "the owners of real estate" as "perhaps the gravest obstacle to the making of the greater and the better American city" foreshadowed his staunchly liberal and progressive stance as the founding editor in 1914 of The New Republic. Among his writings, The Promise of American Life of 1909 was his most important book, a contribution that, with his other works, caused Walter Lippmann to call Croly "the first important political philosopher who appeared in America in the Twentieth Century."
Several years ago the movement for a Better New York culminated in the appointment of a City Improvement Commission. This body was not an unofficial collection of public-spirited gentlemen. It was named by the Mayor under a resolution of the Board of Aldermen, and its expenses were paid out of the public funds. Its functions were, of course, entirely advisory. The only purpose for which it was constituted was that of offering a "pious opinion" as to the means which should be taken in order to make New York a more comely and convenient place of business and residence. Nevertheless, inasmuch as it had been officially sanctioned, its proposals presumably stood on a different footing from those of architectural or municipal art societies. The commission was, in its way, an official recognition of the fact that New York ought to be a better looking, a more convenient city, and that its authorities had decided to make an earnest effort in that direction. The appointment of the commission figured in the maladies of the municipal art reformers as a substantial trample. The idea was that it had started New York on a career which would terminate in a greatly glorified metropolis.
About a year after it was appointed the commission made a preliminary report. This report was received with a certain amount of disappointment by the active friends of a more convenient and beautiful metropolis, because, in their opinion, it was neither comprehensive nor magnificent enough; and, as a matter of fact, it did not make any novel and startling proposals looking towards either a new street lay-out or an original and imposing group of public improvements.
The report did not do much more than recommend a series of new or wider streets and avenues, the need for which was perfectly obvious and had often been pointed out during the past twenty- five years. The proposals made with aesthetic considerations exclusively in mind were similarly conservative, and fell far short of recommending what a loyal New Yorker, who looked forward to seeing his city become the American metropolis in every sense of the word, would like to have accomplished. It was, in short, an extremely moderate and relatively inexpensive group of recommendations, and the commission purposely gave it this character because its members, after considering the matter carefully, thoroughly realized the futility of suggesting any more expensive, comprehensive and magnificent scheme. In spite, however, of its moderation, the report was no sooner received than it became, for all practical purposes, a dead thing. It provoked little interest in the newspapers. The city officials never paid it the slightest attention. No influential and insistent body of public opinion was created on its behalf; and recently, when the final report was published in a handsome volume, its issue attracted very little attention. The final result of the labors of the commission was a book, and even the book, in respect to the popular interest it provoked, has been a failure. There is not the-slightest reason to suppose that hereafter, when the City of New York is obliged to deal with some of the serious problems arising from its inconvenient lay-out, the recommendations of the City Improvement Commission will carry with them any more authority than that, say, of an editorial article in a daily journal. The business of making New York City a more convenient and comely place of business and residence has not been advanced in the least by the agitation which preceded and resulted in the appointment of the commission.
This failure has not been due merely to the character of the commission or the manner in which it performed its work. The members of the commission were individually both public-spirited and competent gentlemen, although it must be admitted that they did not, as a body, carry with them any great amount of prestige. The sense that they did not command much public interest or confidence doubtless made the commission more timid and cautious in its recommendations than it would otherwise have been. None the less, their actual report was drawn up in the proper spirit, because it really sought to make the specific recommendations contained in the document as practicable as possible. The commission took conscientious and intelligent consideration of the obstacles which, in a city like New York, confront even the most necessary and the least expensive street improvements. It did its best to anticipate the really serious objections which responsible public officials must always make when they attempt to arrange the means, both legal and financial, necessary to the consummation of any great scheme of public improvements. But all these precautions did not prevent the commission from failing to accomplish any result proportioned to the amount of labor and agitation which the report had cost. Its recommendations were treated by the daily press in precisely the same spirit as if only the most chimerical and impracticable proposals had been made.
The failure of the commission to accomplish any important result has been due to many causes, the most important of which is undoubtedly the lack of any vigorous, well-informed, tenacious and influential body of supporting public opinion. The residents of New York are, on the whole, more public spirited than they were twenty or even ten years ago; but their public spirit does not as yet express itself in a vehement demand for a comelier and more convenient city plan. The point which should be kept in mind, however, is that even if such a body of opinion did exist, it would be quite unable to express itself effectually, because of the existing legal constitution and financial condition of the City of New York. Let us suppose that at the next election the municipal art reformers could secure the election of a Mayor and a Board of Estimate and Apportionment who were pledged to take immediate and vigorous steps looking towards the adoption of a new, more convenient and better looking lay-out for New York City; and let us suppose that these city officials, after their election, sought to fulfill their pledges with as much energy as the present Board is now seeking to provide an improved system of rapid transit. It can be confidently aserted[sic] that even with the best will in the world, these officials during their four years of office would be unable actually to redeem their pledges. The financial and legal means at their disposal would be wholly inadequate to the realization of such a policy, and before they could accomplish any really important changes in the street plan of New York, they would require the assistance of at least two important amendments to the State constitution.
The financial condition of the City of New York is peculiar. The constitution of the State prohibits cities from borrowing more than ten per cent. of the assessed valuation of the real estate. New York has already borrowed so much money for the liberal policy of transit, dock and other improvements which has been adopted, that the margin for future borrowing amounts only to about $50,000,000. Practically the whole of this sum, and a great many millions more, have been pledged for the purpose of building new subways, bridges and the like, and it has been found in the past that the increased borrowing capacity arising from the yearly increase in the real estate assessments is not sufficient for such regular and necessary purposes as new school- houses. new docks. new pavements, and the necessary street opening on the margin of the growing city. It would be quite impossible for the municipal authorities to make any regular appropriations for street improvements in the older portion of the city which would be sufficient to accomplish one-tenth of the recommendations of the City Improvement Commission. Neither is it relevant to answer this objection by saying that the recommendations of the commission are not intended to be carried out all at once--that its plan merely arranges for a series of improvements, which could be carried out gradually, and the cost of which could be distributed over many years. A comprehensive scheme of street improvements could no more be carried out gradually than it could be carried out immediately. The financial condition, outlined above, applies as much to the future as it does to the present. The City of New York is not competent to spend anything like as much money for improvements of this description as their importance warrants. It could do so only by abandoning the extension to the subway system and other similar public works, which are absolutely necessary to the growth of the city in population and business. A municipal administration elected for the purpose of realizing the ideas of the municipal art reformers would be similar to a government elected for the purpose of declaring a war, but deprived of the means of raising and equipping an army. Under such circumstances a declaration of war could only mean failure, humiliation and disaster.
The constitutional limitation placed upon the borrowing capacity of New York is consequently a formidable obstacle to the realization of any comprehensive plans looking towards a more convenient and better-looking city. But it is not the only obstacle. Let us suppose that the administration pledged to the ideas of the municipal art reformers succeeded in having the State constitution amended. Let us suppose that the money to be spent upon street improvements did not have to be included in reckoning the debt covered by the constitutional limitation. Even with their hands freed in this essential respect, a municipal administration pledged to begin the aesthetic redemption of New York City would be faced by further obstacles equally formidable in character. The worst of these obstacles issues from the enormous cost of real estate in Manhattan and the large number of skyscrapers which have been erected in that borough. Land in the central part of the older city of New York is so high in price that the cost of street widenings on any large scale is absolutely prohibitive. The city can barely afford to buy the few strips of land which are necessary for terminals and approaches to the new bridges. The cost of the three small squares which are to be covered by the new Manhattan terminal of the Brooklyn Bridge will be over $6,000,000. The New York & New Jersey Tunnel Co. have had to pay more than $6,000,000 for the half- block needed for a terminal station on Herald Square. The Court House Commission recommended the purchase of three blocks on the east side of Union Square for the new County Court House, because of the comparative cheapness of real estate in that part of the city. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that these blocks do not contain a single skyscraper, they cannot be purchased by the city for less than $11,000,000. The adoption of any satisfactory plan for a wide and handsome approach to the new Blackwell's Island bridge has been delayed for years, partly because of the enormous expense of purchasing the necessary property between 59th and 67th streets. Under such circumstances the city officials, when confronted by the absolute necessity of condemning land for public purposes, inevitably adopt the cheapest plan which has any promise of being adequate. No matter how much money a municipal administration was empowered to spend towards the realization of a better street lay-out in Manhattan, its members would not dare to commit the city to the expenditure necessary even for the most gradual realization of the projects of the municipal art reformers. A lay-out for New York, really sufficient for the purpose of making it a more convenient and beautiful city, would cost several hundred million dollars. Just how many hundred millions no one can say, but, of course, the amount of money to be spent would increase in even a higher proportion than the actual value of the specific improvements. Thus a new and very desirable longitudinal thoroughfare could be obtained at a comparatively small cost by the extension of Seventh Ave. south to Varick Street, and by the extension of a widened Varick Street to Broadway, but the new avenue so obtained, while useful, would be of minor importance. What New York particularly needs is diagonal thoroughfares cutting through the heart of Manhattan Island and relieving such centers of congestion as Herald Square, Fifth Avenue and Twenty-third Street and the like. But it is just such plans which no matter how useful they would be, are wholly impracticable, because it is in the neighborhood of these congested centers that land is so valuable and the number of skyscrapers so considerable. No clear-headed municipal administration would dare to accept the responsibility of adopting and beginning the realization of a plan which, in the course of its fulfilment[sic], might easily double the municipal debt, and effect an enormous increase in the tax rate.
There is only one way in which the financing of any comprehensive improvement in the street system of New York could be arranged. Some method must be found of making such improvements partially or wholly pay for themselves. Both Paris and London have very largely paid for the street improvements in those cities by adopting such a method of financing. When a specific street widening or extension is decided upon, such as the improvement of the Strand, the municipality condemns not merely the land actually necessary for the new street, but all the immediately adjoining property as well; and after the improvement is completed the land not actually needed is sold off at a profit, which is nearly if not quite sufficient to pay the cost thereof. This method has the advantage of economy of enabling the city to reap the benefit of its own good works. and of preventing the splitting up of land ownership on a new and important thoroughfare into lots, which are too small and too irregular in shape for a large and handsome building. But in spite of these manifest advantages, this method of financing could not be adopted in our American cities. In New York the State constitution forbids it, and it is safe to say that no radical improvement in the street layout of New York will be possible as long as this constitutional prohibition exists. Such is the second respect in which the municipal administration of New York it at the present time legally and financially incompetent to carry out the ideas of the municipal art reformers.
The task of amending the constitution even of a State is always a slow and a difficult affair; but the task of amending the constitution of New York in these two respects would be more than usually difficult. The ultimate effect of the two proposed amendments would be an enormous increase in the powers of the municipal administration. The Mayor and the Board of Estimate would have the authority and the means to embark on what would be a gigantic real estate speculation; and the danger that this authority might be abused would undoubtedly make the conservative public opinion of the State very cautious about authorizing the proposed amendments. Public opinion would want to be very much more convinced than it is that the municipal officials are incorruptible and competent before it could accept such radical changes in the legal constitution of the city; and the only way in which public opinion can be reassured on this score is by means of a considerable improvement in the quality and efficiency of the municipal government. Thus the municipal art reform movement is closely associated with the general movement towards municipal reform. As long as our municipal governments are untrustworthy, public opinion will be loth to sanction any considerable increase in their legal powers; and as long as such increase in legal powers remains unsanctioned the vision of a beautified and glorified future for our larger American cities must remain, to a large extent, impracticable. Of course small undertakings can be undertaken under existing legal and financial conditions; but such undertakings are precisely the sort of thing which will never repair the errors which are retarding the growth and distorting the appearance of cities like New York and San Francisco.
The case of New York has been considered at some length, not only because of its intrinsic importance, but because it is really typical. As other American cities increase in population and business their condition will come to resemble more and more the condition of New York. Many of these cities are undoubtedly still in a position to avoid, in some measure, the predicament which faces the people responsible for the welfare of New York City. They are in a position, that is, to benefit by the warning of New York, and to avoid some of New York's mistakes; but they can only take advantage of this position by obtaining municipal governments like that of Galveston, which is endowed with complete responsibility and large powers, and which is competent to exercise those powers in the general public interest. At the present time such is not the case. The ordinary city government in the United States is so organized that it usually lacks the necessary power to undertake in an efficient manner comprehensive schemes of public improvements. It is either too much restricted in its authority by the State Legislature, or else it is rendered incompetent by the local distribution of power between the Mayor and the Common Council. As we all know, these municipal governments have, in times past, been the willing victims of the local transit and other similar interests, and the agitation for municipal reform has been obliged not merely to insist upon the subordination of the public service corporations to the public interest, but it has in many cases also been obliged to seek the enlargement of the powers of the local government. Only by such an enlargement of powers are these governments placed in a position really to assert the public interest against that of the local corporations. It will be found in the long run that the aesthetic improvement of our large cities, according to any comprehensive plan, will require an analogous reorganization, whereby the municipal authorities will be in a position to assert the public interest in this respect against the special interest, which most insistently opposes almost all such improvements. The special interest which I mean is that of the owners of real estate in our large cities.
A great deal has been written about the subordination of the American municipalities to the selfish and corrupt purposes of local franchise corporations, but when the history of American municipal mis-government comes to be written in its final form, the verdict will be that the interests of the owners of real estate have been perhaps the gravest obstacle to the making of the greater and the better American city. Our cities have been from the start governed in the interest of the owners of landed property. Such property-owners could very well afford to pay the higher cost of corrupt and inefficient municipal government, provided the local authorities left them free to reap to the fullest extent the advantage there was to be reaped from the growth of the cities in population and business. Municipal government in the United States, that is, has on the whole, been subordinated to the interest of a gigantic real estate speculation, which has ignored economy, good looks, convenient planning and all other considerations of general public interest in the effort to encourage rapid and unregulated growth. The existing plan of the old City of New York was designed almost exclusively for the purpose of affording block and lot units, which would be easy to buy and sell; and this purpose was frankly avowed at the time it was adopted. At present the local owners of real estate are always the most stubborn opponents of improvements in the public interest which in any way impair their chances of reaping their unearned reward from the growth of the city. It is their opposition which has prevented the adoption of the Burnham plan in San Francisco, and it will be found in the long run that the radical and comprehensive improvement of our large cities in convenience and good looks will be effected only, as it were, over the dead body of the great American real estate speculator. The interest of the real estate speculator demands congestion and concentration of business and population, which enormously increases real estate values along particular lines and at particular points, while the interest of the whole people in a beautiful and convenient city demands the distribution of population and business in the most liberal manner and according to an organic plan. The local interest of the individual owner of real estate in his particular property outweighs the public interest in a good general lay-out. The conclusion is, consequently, that before the visions of the municipal art reformers can ever be carried out, two vital changes in American municipal government will be necessary. Their powers will have to be increased in several different respects, and these powers will have to be exercised in a manner which makes the individual owner of real estate the public servant instead of the public master. .