I have just finished watching the fascinating seven-part fourteen-hour documentary New York, produced by documentary film maker Ric Burns for PBS. (Ric is the brother of Ken Burns, the producer of lengthy documentaries for PBS on jazz, baseball, and the civil war).
In spite of themselves they managed to do a pretty good job of telling the story of the rise and fall of New York. The story of New York city is the story of commerce, then of how central planning destroyed what commerce created.
The last two episodes tell of the rise of Robert Moses, a politically savvy central planner, who almost single-handedly was responsible for the network of highways, bridges, and tunnels that span the greater New York area. Moses succeeded in gaining control of twelve agencies and all of their revenues as well as vast sums that became available from the federal government for “urban renewal” after World War II. The tragedy wrought by the so-called “urban renewal” programs – the destruction of established neighborhoods, many of which were poor, the displacement of large populations of people, the closing of many businesses, and the replacement of small multi-family homes by Soviet-style public housing projects – is told with great sympathy.
The film shows how the central planning mentality espoused by Moses and urban theorists such as Le Corbusier was profoundly anti-trade and anti-human. Cities were destroyed in order to be remade according to the grand dreams of central planners who themselves did not understand and even hated cities. Interview footage with Moses shows the arrogance of this man who believed that he alone knew what was best for the city, and that those who opposed him on the grounds that their homes would be demolished and their neighborhoods destroyed were of no consequence.
After ringing the island of Manhattan with expressways Moses began the last phase of his grand plan – the first of what were to be three expressways through Manhattan itself. The first would have razed a 250 ft wide strip through Chinatown, Soho, and the East Village. Moses was opposed by a coalition led by Jane Jacobs, a market-oriented urban economist. The documentary features a passage from her book (that could have come from Hayek) about how the city streets are a complex form of hidden order that is created through trade and personal relationships between its inhabitants.
The first episode, dealing with the establishment of New York by a Dutch trading company as a business venture is equally fascinating. There are some very interesting comments by a historian about how the New Deal housing administration used racial profiling to drive blacks out of integrated neighborhoods.
Warning: They film makers do overly praise the New Deal. Some of the academics who are featured are rather leftist.
The documentary has its own web site: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/newyork/index.html.
Posted by Robert Blumen