The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

pale vapors

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Lower Manhattan’s FDR drive, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Just prior to this shot of Manhattan’s FDR Drive being captured, a humble narrator had walked across the East River via the Williamsburg Bridge from the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg at Meeker Avenue. One enjoyed a brief sit down and contemplation of the past at Corlears Hook park on Cherry Street before continuing on. Cherry Street on the East Side is one of those spots in NYC which is writ large in the historic record, and even Jacob Riis mentions it (during its degenerate period).

According to contemporaneous reports, the absolute worst tenements of the 19th century were not found at the famous Five Points but here at Cherry street. Additionally, a gang whose specialty was river piracy operated out of this area – they were called the Swamp Angels – and it’s because of their infamy that the NYPD ultimately created the Harbor Unit. After resting for a few minutes (it’s important to give your lower back an interval of downtime on a long walk, since it’s actually doing most of the work) I crossed one of the pedestrian bridges over the coastal parkway and entered “The House of Moses.”

from wikipedia

In 1785, the four-story mansion at 3 Cherry Street was leased by the Continental Congress to serve as the Executive Mansion for Richard Henry Lee, President of the Congress under the Articles of Confederation. It continued to serve as such for the next three Presidents and, in April and May 1789 served as the first Executive Mansion of the President of the United States and Mrs. Martha Washington.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Another term of my own invention, “The House of Moses” is appropriately used when you find yourself on Borden Avenue in LIC, or Meeker Avenue in Greenpoint, in certain parts of Astoria, or even here along the East River coast of the Shining City itself. Wherever NYC’s master builder Robert Moses felt it was appropriate to eliminate vast swaths of residential or industrial real estate in order to make way for a high speed road (distinguished by zero grade crossings, mind you), you’re in the “The House of Moses.”

from wikipedia

Robert Moses (December 18, 1888 – July 29, 1981) was the “master builder” of mid-20th century New York City, Long Island, Rockland County, and Westchester County, New York. As the shaper of a modern city, he is sometimes compared to Baron Haussmann of Second Empire Paris, and was arguably one of the most polarizing figures in the history of urban planning in the United States. 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. One of his major contributions to urban planning was New York’s large parkway network.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

“The House of Moses” had a tendency to blight the areas surrounding it. The sections of Sunset Park and Red Hook which the Gowanus Expressway casts its shadow upon have never truly recovered, for instance. For generations, this East River waterfront was generally verboten to residents of surrounding communities, due to stink and crime. For most of my lifetime, this area was a de facto parking lot for Municipal employees, and a homeless camp. Ummm, ok – it is STILL both of those things, but there’s a lot less of the foreboding and sense of imminent doom or threat of arrest than there used to be.

The same process played out along the Hudson, and is currently underway on the western coast of a Long Island – the so called Brooklyn and Queens Greenways. The modern motivation for improving these littoral areas is that parks aid real estate development, of course.

from wikipedia

The East River waterfront in Lower Manhattan was known for heavy maritime activity, with over 40 piers in operation by the later 1950s. The busy waterfront provided easy access to New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean in the south, the Hudson River on the west, with a connection to the Erie Canal. However, the rise of truck traffic and the transfer of port activity to the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal drastically reduced maritime traffic on the river after the middle 20th century. With many piers now defunct, ambitious plans have been made to reclaim and reuse the pier space. The north-south arterial highway, the FDR Drive, was moved to an elevated location to allow convenient access to the piers. In the 1970s, the Water Street Access Plan was drafted to extend the confines of the traditional Financial District eastward and create a new business corridor along Water Street, south of Fulton Street. Noting the success of the World Financial Center, the East Side Landing plan was created in the 1980s to add commercial and office buildings along the waterfront, again south of Fulton Street, similar to Battery Park City. This plan never materialized.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The process is quite far along in the tony sections of Brooklyn’s Gold Coast like DUMBO and Williamsburg, as well as in Hunters Point. The eventual goal on that side of the East River will be a contiguous pathway which will allow you to walk or ride a bike through a modern residential corridor extending from Red Hook all the way to Astoria Park with just a few interruptions offered by obstacles like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and certain unpleasantries – such NYCHA housing projects or Newtown Creek.

On the Manhattan side, the river walk currently extends (contiguously, I mean, as it does travel quite far north with interruptions) from 23rd street all the way south to Wall Street in the financial district and connects into Battery Park nearby the Staten Island Ferry.

Saying that, some sections of the promenade seem better used than others.


The East River waterfront has developed over the past 350 years as a central place in the city’s maritime history. The city began here, and as it grew and developed, the island expanded into the river. As population expanded, the city promoted the infill of waterfront lots to serve the growing demand for land in Lower Manhattan. As a result, the current shoreline is more than three city blocks from the original shore. The present location of Pearl Street is in fact the original East River shoreline of Lower Manhattan. As the city’s position as the premier port for trade on the east coast grew, so did the need for new piers to service the vessels coming and going out of the port. At its peak in the 1950’s there were over 40 piers along this two-mile stretch of waterfront; today there are fewer than 10 remaining.

With the decline in maritime activity over the past 40 years, various master plans have been developed for this waterfront. The Water Street Access Plan in the 1970’s envisioned Water Street as a commercial spine for modern office buildings and the expansion of the financial core. In the 1980’s, the plan for East River Landing, inspired by Battery Park City, proposed new office development on the waterfront south of Fulton Street. In the 1990’s, a new outpost for the Guggenheim Museum was proposed on the waterfront at the present location of piers 13 and 14 at the foot of Wall Street. Aside from some components of the Water Street Access Plan, none of these waterfront schemes have been realized to date.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Part of the planning and construction offered to the 20th century by the “House of Moses” included not just highways but block after block of “slum clearance” projects. Hundreds of acres of walk up tenement buildings were razed to make room for apartment houses whose footprint could encompass an entire city block, something you see a lot of in the eastern section of Chinatown. These apartment complexes were financed and built using Federal monies that filtered through carefully chosen banks and insurance companies. His allies in finance and government were fiercely loyal to Robert Moses and urban renewal was how he paid them back. Author Robert Caro called Moses “The Power Broker.”

It’s fantastic that those days are long over, and there isn’t some moneyed clique of real estate, insurance, and construction interests that colludes with Government officialdom to displace and eradicate whole waterfront neighborhoods. That would be awful, wouldn’t it?

from wikipedia

Caro’s depiction of Moses’s life gives him full credit for his early achievements, showing, for example, how he conceived and created Jones Beach and the New York State Park system, but also shows how Moses’s desire for power came to be more important to him than his earlier dreams. Indeed, he is blamed for having destroyed more than a score of neighborhoods, by building 13 expressways across New York City and by building large urban renewal projects with little regard for the urban fabric or for human scale. Yet the author is more neutral in his central premise: the city would have been a very different place—maybe better, maybe worse—if Robert Moses had never existed. Other U.S. cities were doing the same thing as New York in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, for instance, each built highways straight through their downtown areas. The New York City architectural intelligentsia of the 1940s and 1950s, who largely believed in such prophets of the automobile as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, had supported Moses. Many other cities, like Newark, Chicago and St. Louis, also built massive, unattractive public housing projects.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s actually in Chinatown where you’ll notice how thoroughly a community can embrace one of these waterfront esplanades installed by the House of Moses. Unfortunately, there are no signs installed by the State DEC cautioning against regular consumption of East River fish and crabs, and not once did I notice a bit of signage from the City DEP advising of the presence of a combined sewer outfall. Those pipes you’ll notice traveling down the supports of the FDR drive drain the elevated highway and feed directly into the East River.

Any who, that’s the House of Moses for ya.

from wikipedia

Large scale urban renewal projects in the US started in the interwar period. Prototype urban renewal projects include the design and construction of Central Park in New York and the 1909 Plan for Chicago by Daniel Burnham. Similarly, the efforts of Jacob Riis in advocating for the demolition of degraded areas of New York in the late 19th century was also formative. The redevelopment of large sections of New York City and New York State by Robert Moses between the 1930s and the 1970s was a notable and prominent example of urban redevelopment. Moses directed the construction of new bridges, highways, housing projects, and public parks. Moses was a controversial figure, both for his single-minded zeal and for its impact on New York City.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Upcoming Tours –

September 3rd, 2015
Newtown Creek Boat Tour
with Open House NY, click here for details and tickets.

September 20th, 2015
Glittering Realms Walking Tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, click here for details and tickets

Written by Mitch Waxman

August 31, 2015 at 11:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. Luv your commentary on Robert Moses, clearly the most powerful man in New York for 50 years. When ever a new state agency was created Moses wrote the legislation and installed himself a chairman. At one time he was the head of at least 12 “authorities”. He moved about the state with unbridled power until he met his match in Nelson Rockefeller. Not bad for a guy who didn’t even possess a drivers license.


    August 31, 2015 at 5:46 pm

  2. […] in “victoriously swept,” and led to another visit to the House of Moses in “pale vapors.” The House of Moses is citywide, and Greenpoint’s iteration was explored a bit in […]

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