TheSandPeople OP t1_j64n9f6 wrote

Hamilton Ave in Red Hook, before-and-after the construction of the Gowanus Expressway and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in the 1940s-50s. Designed by Robert Moses and constituting part of the larger Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (I-278), construction of the Gowanus cut the Red Hook neighborhood in half along two of its central thoroughfares, Hamilton Ave. and Hicks St., requiring the demolition of dozens of blocks and the forcible displacement of thousands. Once completed, the highway divided the community from the rest of the borough with a block-wide knot of perpetually congested vehicular ramps, constantly spewing pollution into the surrounding neighborhood.

Throughout its history, Red Hook had been an integrated, working class neighborhood made up of large Italian and African-American communities, with many working jobs at the nearby docks. It should come as no surprise, then, that Robert Moses chose to route his highway—designed to connect suburban automobile commuters to Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn—through the heart of the neighborhood.

In his biography of RM, “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro outlines a late 1950s report put together by Lawrence Orton investigating the effects of Moses’ projects. By the time Orton’s report was released, over 170,000 New Yorkers had been displaced (a number that would grow to over 250,000 by the end of RM’s tenure), which the report says “was an enforced population displacement unlike any previous population movement in the city’s history.”

Caro continues, “If the number of persons evicted for public works was eye-opening, so were certain of their characteristics. Their color, for example. A remarkably high percentage of them were Negro [sic] or Puerto Rican. Remarkably few of them were white. Although the 1950 census found that only 12 percent of the city’s population was nonwhite, at least 37% of the evictees (Moses’ own figures) and probably far more were nonwhite.” (Caro, 968.)

More on Red Hook and the rest of Brooklyn to come, and more on displacements continued below:

“The manner in which he was throwing them [tenants] out was worth noting, too,” Caro continues. “Because it was so difficult for these people [the displaced] to find decent homes on their own, the government of their city—the government which had authorized their eviction from their old homes—had solemnly promised them help. Its highest legislative body had pledged that ‘tenants will not be evicted from the site of a public improvement unless and until quarters equivalent to those occupied are available.’ Moses, ostensibly the instrument of that government, had, for seven years, created the impression that he was honoring that pledge; he had stated that a ‘minimum of inconvenience’ was involved in relocation. Orton’s staffers found that a substantial number of families had been moved ‘two or more times’ to other buildings “within the site”—had been shuttled from one building about to be demolished to another, and then another, and perhaps yet another. For seven years, Moses had been giving the impression that the bulk of the low-income families displaced by his public works had been accommodated in public housing projects. In reality, [Orton] found, the percentage of displaced families that had been admitted to public housing was pathetically small. Moses had been giving the impression that he had taken great pains to insure every evictee “decent, safe, and sanitary” living quarters. When the Planning Commission staffers obtained access to files on tenants for whom relocation responsibility had been ‘discharged,’ they found that more than a third of the files—for some projects, more than half—were marked: ‘Disappeared—whereabouts unknown.” Disappeared! Moses couldn’t know that the living quarters into which his projects had forced tens of thousands of persons were ‘decent, safe, and sanitary.’ He couldn’t know what the new living quarters were like. He didn’t even know where those living quarters were. (Caro, 968.)

Caro continues, “Orton’s handful of staffers, without sufficient time to trace the individual families involved in relocation, were unable to locate those missing families. But it was all too obvious that they had moved either to other sections of the ghettos [sic], doubling up with other families, causing further overcrowding in those already intolerably overcrowded slums, or to adjoining areas, creating slums out of once decent [sic] neighborhoods. Robert Moses’ slum clearance program might be creating new slums as fast as it was clearing the old.”

“If this picture was disturbing, it paled before the picture of the future. Orton’s staffers had assembled—for the first time—‘statistics on the volume of tenant displacement we may expect in the foreseeable future.’ During the previous seven years, 170,000 persons had been evicted: a rate of about 24,000 per year. But Moses’ slum clearance program was only now [by the late 1950s] moving into high gear. During the next *three* years, 150,000 persons were now scheduled for eviction: 50,000 per year. These people were mostly low-income Negros [sic] and Puerto Ricans. If the future was carried out as past relocation had been carried out, it would increase overcrowding in existing slums, and create new ones faster than before. The city’s relocation practices should be changed—taken out of the hands of the Moses-dominated Slum Clearance Committee and Housing and Triborough authorities—in the name of common humanity, Orton’s report said. And these practices should be changed in the name of the city’s own interest. If they were not, the vast urban renewal programs, the unprecedented expenditure of public funds, which the city was undertaking to improve its future, would wreck that future instead. Orton’s statistics proved that without a doubt.” (Caro, 969).