The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 1.

Daniel Kolitz


The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 2.

Aymann Ismail



Cover Photo: Aerial view of traffic on the Robert F. Kennedy (Triboro) Bridge at 125th Street and 2nd Avenue in New York, November 21, 2015.


New York City was famously shaped by the powerful urban planner Robert Moses who, along with being a visionary, was demonstrably racist. Hopes&Fears takes a look at how his decisions, and those of his successors, still affect access and opportunity for minorities today. NYC is just one example of how systemic oppression affects the planning of cities across the country.

The fair housing laws passed in the last half-century have forced racists to devise whole new methods of discrimination, subtler but serving the same purpose: to keep people of color out of "white" spaces. The villains in these cases—landlords, brokers and neighbors—are often tough to identify, but, once exposed, are easy to loathe. It's harder to find fault with a sidewalk or a highway; when some feature of the city has seemingly always been there, you can lose sight of the fact that it was once new, conceived and constructed by people with their own inbuilt prejudices. But a city's landscape can exclude as effectively as any policy or person, in subtle but sinister ways.


The power broker

Sarah Schindler, a law professor at the University of Maine, recently took up the subject in a paper for the Yale Law Journal. In it, she cites The Power Broker, Robert Caro's vast, obsessively researched biography of the builder Robert Moses, a man whose grand vision and ruthless drive shaped huge portions of New York State in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. Moses was, without qualification, a racist. As Caro writes, "Moses had always displayed contempt for people he felt were considerably beneath him," such as the "colored 'subject people' of the British Empire." Caro also says that Moses considered African-Americans "inherently 'dirty'." 

His prejudice methodically informed New York's present-day geography, most glaringly in the case of Long Island parks like Jones Beach. "Moses was interested in maintaining these Long Island beaches as pristine places for the people he wanted to be there," Schindler told Hopes&Fears. Moses' solution, in Caro's telling, was to intentionally build the Long Island Parkway overpasses with clearances as low as 7’7”, ensuring that buses would never be able to go under them. (In contrast, the minimum vertical clearance for overhead structures on the Interstate Highway is 16 feet in rural areas and 14 feet in urban areas.)

Ariel video of the Long Island Overpass on southern parkway near hempstead Lake state park, November 21, 2015. This is one example of a bridge being built too low for public buses. The clearance is 7 Feet 7 inches.

"Poor people and people of color are much more reliant on public transportation to get around," Schindler said. "The effect, of course, is that anyone's still allowed to go there—if they can get there." The overpasses' present-day effect on potential urban beachgoers has never been closely studied, but as recently as 2014, the New York State Department of Transportation recorded 64 bridge collisions on Long Island owing to the low overpasses. (One particularly harrowing example was recorded for posterity just a year and a half ago and viewed nearly two million times; the driver survived.)

Moses's discriminatory activity wasn't limited to Long Island. As Parks Commissioner of New York City, he imported his racist building methods to an area dense with people of color in need of relief from overcrowded neighborhoods. Almost all of Moses's public works projects—among them Jacob Riis Park, Alley Pond, and Riverside Park, as well as 255 of the 256 playgrounds he built in the 1930s—were placed out of reach of the poor, and, as Caro points out, the one pool built anywhere near a black or Hispanic neighborhood was kept at a “deliberately icy” temperature, because “Moses was convinced that Negroes did not like cold water.” And as Schindler points out in her paper, Moses also went out of his way to clog Harlem with cars: He placed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge's exit ramp there, when the sensible location would have been the Upper East Side, as almost all traffic at that time came from below 100th street. As a consequence, wealthier neighborhoods remained untouched by traffic, while Harlem’s streets were overrun with bridge-bound vehicles.


Examples from outside New York City

The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 3.

Palo Alto, California

Crossing Highway 101 to reach the wealthy West Palo Alto from low-income East Palo Alto is dangerous due to the presence of median barriers and the need to pass through numerous busy intersections; the area has one of the highest rates of car-pedestrian collisions. The lack of secure pedestrian infrastructure makes areas more difficult to access in a safe and easy manner.

The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 4.

Detroit, Michigan

In Detroit in 1940, a private developer constructed a six-foot-high wall—known as Eight Mile Wall—to separate an existing black neighborhood from a soon-to-be constructed white one. At the time, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) provided financing for a new development project only if the neighborhood was sufficiently residential and racially segregated.94  In the case of the Eight Mile Wall, the FHA required it's construction. The wall still exists today—and Detroit is the most racially segregated metropolitan area in the U.S.

The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 5.

Memphis, Tennessee

In 1974, the city closed a street that connected an all-white neighborhood to a primarily black one. Supporters of this measure argued that it would ostensibly reduce traffic and noise, in addition to promoting safety. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to this action. Although, Justice Marshall dissented, writing, “The picture that emerges from a more careful review of the record is one of a white community, disgruntled over sharing its street with Negroes, taking legal measures to keep out the ‘undesirable traffic,’ and of a city, heedless of the harm to its Negro citizens, acquiescing in the plan.”


The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 6.

Hamden, Connecticut

In the 1950's, a ten-foot-high, 1,500-foot-long fence was built that separated the racially diverse (though predominantly white) suburb of Hamden, Connecticut, from the primarily black public housing projects in New Haven. “To buy groceries at a Hamden shopping center three miles away” the public housing residents would “have to travel into New Haven to get around the fence, a 7.7-mile trip that takes two buses and up to two hours to complete.” It was removed in 2014, but the impact of the barrier will linger.

The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 7.

Baltimore, Maryland

An eight-foot tall, spiked fence was installed in 1998 around a public housing project in Hollander Ridge in Baltimore. Constructed by the local housing authority with funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), this fence blocked access to and through Rosedale, a mostly white neighborhood. Rosedale residents wanted the fence to keep out crime and keep their property values up, and “there was a not insubstantial vocal segment of Rosedale whose racist views were made readily apparent.”

The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 8.

Atlanta, Georgia

Wealthy, mostly white residents of the northern Atlanta suburbs have vocally opposed efforts to expand the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority subway system into their neighborhoods for the reason that doing so would give people of color easy access to suburban communities. The lack of public-transit connections to areas north of the city makes it difficult for those who rely on transit—primarily the poor and people of color—to access job opportunities located in those suburbs.


The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 9.

Buffalo, New York

Sometimes transit will allow a person to get close to a given area, but not all the way there, leaving the rider in a dangerous situation. Cynthia Wiggins, a seventeen-year-old woman in Buffalo, was hit and killed by a dump truck while she was attempting to cross a seven-lane highway to get to the mall where she worked. The mall’s owners had actively resisted requests to allow the bus, that Wiggins rode from the inner city, to stop on its property; rather, the bus stopped outside the mall on the other side of the large highway. Documents produced during a subsequent trial revealed that this transit-siting decision was motivated at least in part by race or class bias; a local transport official wrote in an internal document that “[mall decision-makers] feel it will not bring in the type of people they want to come to the mall.”

The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 10.


Municipalities have been known to use zoning regulations that require large lot sizes, square-footage minimums for buildings, or occupancy restrictions to limit the occupancy of low-income residents or large families. Arlington Heights, a suburb of Chicago, was the focus of a landmark case that is often used as precedent to enforce the constitutionality of this practice.


The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 11.


Highways have often been placed centrally in cities in order to eliminate low-income areas and reshape the landscape of the American city. New Orleans, Miami, Omaha and Charleston, West Virginia are just some examples of places where the highway has become a bulldozer. The Supreme Court has upheld that "urban blight" is an acceptable reason for eminent domain to be used.

 Source: Yale Law Journal Images: WikiCommons

Where the subway
track ends

Moses provides the largest-scale examples of this type of discrimination, but its execution is hardly limited to a single 20th-century builder. Daniel D'Oca is a Brooklyn-based architect interested in "post-Housing Act, post-Civil Rights exclusionary tools." Along with his partners Tobias Armborst and Georgeen Theodore, he's been collecting examples of this type of subtle segregation for years—first on a blog called The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion and, soon, in a book of the same name. "When we talk about public space, we ask questions like: Who gets to be where in a city? And what are the different tools that are used to exclude people from public space?" D'Oca said.

One such tool that D'Oca and his colleagues noticed involves parking. "In the wealthiest part of the Rockaways, there are these really big family houses on streets that sort of dead-end into the beach," D'Oca said. "And on every single street for about twenty streets there are signs that say 'No Parking Ever.'" Suspicious, D'Oca and his colleagues looked into the issue and discovered that the signs were not listed on the Department of Transportation's website. Their conclusion was that the signs were likely fake, and indeed as far back as 1996, the New York Times was reporting that Neponsit residents had "erected fake street signs warding off interlopers"—interlopers at what are, of course, wholly public beaches.


The lingering effects of NYC's racist city planning. Image 12.

Aerial view of the end of the A Train at rockaway beach, Queens, November 21, 2015. The area's more expensive real estate continues to the horizon.

Many of those street signs, though, would have been telling the truth: Parking without a permit is indeed barred in many parts of the Rockaway's wealthy west end. According to Jeanne DuPont, executive director of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, this is just one of a battery of infrastructural obstacles keeping the Rockaways' eastern residents from areas like Neponsit and Belle Harbor.

As with Moses' overpasses, the issue boils down to transportation. The eastern end of the peninsula has a minority population of 98%; at the west end, that number dips down to 0.2%. And yet the area's subway line terminates at 116th street, just a few blocks into the west end, which stretches all the way to 169th street. Additionally, according to DuPont, the boardwalk ends at 125th street. Couple that with the lack of bathrooms from 125th to 149th streets, and you can see why east end residents, many of whom do not own cars, would figure it not worth the effort to make the trip. "It's hard to look at that and not think it's a social justice issue," DuPont said. "There is no reason for someone to come to that beach and hang out—there's no bathroom there, there's no amenities, there's no food, there's nothing. But the people who live there are quite content with that."

Dupont and her organization have presented a novel solution, advocating for the construction of a five-mile walkway under the elevated track—building in the margins of our rusted, access-denying infrastructure. But Project Underway, as modest-seeming as it is, has been met with fierce resistance from surrounding communities, which gives some idea of how difficult it would be to do something more sweeping about this and similar issues country-wide. “We have these decisions that were made in the past, and—especially when we're talking about something like architecture or infrastructure—it's so enduring," Schindler said. “It's so hard to tear down a highway and build a connected street, and so expensive, and cities and states are so underfunded, that I think this hasn't been at the top of their priority lists."

And yet, if tomorrow morning some city government called for the re-routing of a neighborhood-isolating highway, its planners would have some sense of how to proceed. You’d need blueprints, bulldozers, vast quantities of concrete. Less clear—and, with every new race-related tragedy to make national news, more daunting—is how to reform the mindset that produced these barriers and that, consciously or not, persists among many of those who benefit from them. Sitting down with representatives of Black Lives Matter earlier this year, Hillary Clinton said “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.” You could see how this kind of practical approach to policy might work when applied to infrastructure; an extended subway line or walkway would, for example, almost certainly increase foot traffic at the Rockaways’ west end beaches. And to those born 20 or 30 years later, an extended subway line would just seem like a natural feature of the landscape, the same way its present-day termination at 116th street seems "natural" now. They would have been born into a kinder landscape.

A selection of racist planning techniques from arsenal of exclusion

Fire Zone 

A “fire zone” or “fire lane” is a no parking zone reserved for fire trucks to have adequate space to operate and access water supply during emergencies. The ubiquity of “No Standing Fire Zone” signs in certain neighborhoods, for instance neighborhoods close to beaches and popular public spaces, can be seen as a way of keeping out “riff raff” who might otherwise try to park in surrounding areas.

Exclusionary Amenity

An “exclusionary amenity”, such as a community pool or golf course, is a collective good that all members of a community have to pay for. Simply put, this can be an effective way of systematically keeping members of low income demographics, who might be unable to afford these amenities, out of a certain area or neighborhood.

Covenants, Conditions,
and Restrictions (CC&Rs) 

These are rules regulating land use in private communities. CC&Rs are often drafted by a Homeowners’ Association and can dictate anything from paint colors to lawn ornaments. Many times, these rules have classist connotations, such as stipulating that aluminum siding, clotheslines and lawn ornaments aren’t allowed to be displayed.

Inclusionary Zoning

This requires developers to make a percentage of housing in new residential developments financially affordable to low income households. Controversially, in some states developers can enter into an agreement to pay for improved housing in inner city areas, as opposed to including it within their own developments. These agreements are called Regional Contribution Agreements, and are created in response to inclusionary zoning laws, such as New Jersey’s Mount Laurel doctrine.

Expulsive Zoning

In essence, expulsive zoning rezones areas occupied by mostly low income minorities while leaving adjacent (and predominantly white) areas untouched. An example of this is Baltimore County’s Turner Station, home to the county’s largest concentration of African Americans. By the 1980s, so much of the neighborhood had been rezoned, that the population dwindled to 3,557, down from 9,000 in the 1950s.

Source: 1, 2, 3, 4