Eugenie Birch: Pat Moynihan as City Planner

eugenie-birch.480.323.sAs part of a celebration marking the publication of “Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary,” AAPSS invited Eugenie Birch to read one of the letters of Senator Moynihan included in the book and comment on its significance. Birch is the Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research and Education at the University of Pennsylvania. The following is a transcript of Birch’s selection, which may also be listened to or downloaded as a podcast.

Letter from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Max Frankel, June 22, 1988

Eugenie Birch: This is at the end of the letter that I am going to read, and as I read it I would like to think about what a city planner is.  To my mind, a city planner is someone who aims to build communities of lasting value and is someone who knows that to do so requires the vision and understanding of the various complex threads that weave together to create cities or places that are strong, beautiful, and function well.  It requires knowledge of people, it requires knowledge of infrastructure, it requires knowledge of a place’s potential for beauty, it requires an understanding of natural resources, and at its very basis it requires understanding the politics of place.  So let me read the letter and let us see if Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a city planner.  This book, by the way, is wonderful.  I hope you will all buy it.  The editorial comments are superb and they draw you through Pat Moynihan’s life with such joy and interest and intelligence, so thank you.

This letter was sent to Max Frankel, who at that time was executive editor of the New York Times and Senator Moynihan was lamenting the lack of coverage of the plans for a courthouse and other buildings in downtown New York, an area called Foley Square.

Dear Max,

Oh Lord, of course you had Cliff May’s fine story of our getting, or my getting if I may say, the Foley Square authorization and the continuing resolution down here.  But your coverage stopped here.  Subsequently, on December 30, 1987, I met with the mayor at City Hall and laid out the proposal.  We had, I said, a vast opportunity.  One-half billion dollars worth of building and a chance to design a great urban space at Foley Square, which is a wreck at the moment.  Our situation, however, was urgent.  The deal turned on a technique, lease-to-own, which had been thought of by the best GSA administrator in a generation, Terence Golden, who was leaving.  He left March 18th.  He and I had teamed up to build the Federal Triangle Building on Pennsylvania Avenue [which we just heard about].  Two-thirds of the floor space at the Pentagon [this is the size of the project of the Federal Triangle] and brilliantly conceived, all without a nickel of public money.  On March 11th we had a big signing ceremony at City Hall.  The deal done, save, as I say, the deal is never done unless the Times reports it.  In fairness, the News and the Post gave us good stories, but this kind either is in the Times or the city does not feel committed.  I spent the spring trying to interest the Times’ architecture critic, Paul Goldberger.  No luck yet.  Then I raised it at lunch with you all on May 4th.  My point is this, the city doesn’t give a damn about these things, not really.  The one exception is Esnard [this was the Deputy Mayor, Robert Esnard] who, it turns out, is an architect.  Therefore, the city needs to know that other people do care.  Especially about the redesign of Foley Square.  That it is wholly an oral understanding that I reached in the mayor’s office just before the signing of memoranda of understanding.  So there it is.   I will not be happy until I see something like this morning’s front page.  Granted we have no model, we’ll let Goldberger show his stuff, or I would settle for a street plan.  I enclose a brochure put together by the local GSA whose head, Bill Diamond, is a peach.  Foley Square – do you remember the good old fella, when he died it was said [this means Foley, I believe] they buried the brains of Tammany Hall.  Federal courthouse, justice, decorum, design – I guess at heart I am a city planner.  Like Glazer, I would hope that after Pennsylvania Avenue I would finish my years seeing the Westway through to a triumphant conclusion.  That was obviously not to be.  And so the only thing I will ever do for the city is this.  And so I plead.

Now, I think he is doing himself a lot of injustice when he said that was the only thing he had done for the city.  And what I want to do is just go through how I think he became a city planner and maybe you will agree with me.  So, the city planner is born …he comes from Tulsa…and then at age six he moves to Hell’s Kitchen, there is an image of it at the top.  He goes to Benjamin Franklin High School in Harlem, where he graduates first in his class.  He does not quite go to college yet; he becomes a longshoreman and sees that part of city life.  He then spends a year at CCNY, the free university of New York, the working class manna.  After a year he decides to join the U.S. Navy, after the Navy he goes to Tufts, earns his degrees, and he spends a year…many years in London but he has a Fulbright from 1950 to 1951.  So he was exposed to all sorts of parts of cities, from the worst in Hell’s Kitchen to the gritty working-class of the longshoremen, to the Boston Brahmins to London and so forth.  So he loved cities.  Then he began to develop his interests and we can track some of these interests, and the broadness and the breadth of his interests.  And I think that is the point I want to make, that yes, he understood aesthetics but he also understood all the other elements that made a city planner.  In 1960 he is writing an article about new roads and urban chaos, and the whole point of this article, or many parts of the point of the article, is to show how these highways were destroying cities.  And wouldn’t it be good, he said, if we gave the cities this money and let them choose how to spend it.  This is in 1960 – remember that because Jack is going to tell you something about this later.  And then Nat Glazer – he was introduced to Nat Glazer by Bill Kristol, who invites him to be part of a project.  The New York Post decided they wanted a series of articles on ethnic groups and Nat’s plan was to invite people who knew…who came from different ethnic groups, to write about them.  But he could not find anyone who satisfied him, except for Pat Moynihan and so he invited him to do the Irish chapter, which is just brilliant, absolutely brilliant.  And at the time he is doing it he is also working on the Harriman Papers and he is working on democratic politics, so he really understands the importance of the Irish population in New York City and it is a very, very fine chapter.  As we heard from Doug Massey he goes to be Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy Research, the Moynihan Report, at that time he works on guidelines for federal architecture.  He is also very concerned with road safety because he has invited Ralph Nader to come work in that area as well.  So the breadth of his understanding is growing.

And then, this book that Nate Glazer…or the articles that were commissioned, brought with them a small grant.  And so Nate being a friend of Martin Meyerson, who you see in that image right there, Marjorie, takes the grant to MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies.  And this grant then yields this book, which is Beyond the Melting Pot, and it becomes a great seller.  He matures.  He ultimately becomes the director of the MIT Joint Center.  He becomes an advisor to Nixon on urban policy.  He does the Pennsylvania Avenue plan, and he does this enormous book called Door to National Urban Policy, where he lays it all out, all the things we need to know, ten points right there about what urban policy should be about.  And then, as a Senator he sets policy.  As a member of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, he is involved in infrastructure as you will hear, clean water, clean air, and so forth.  So when he says, “I guess at heart I am a city planner, that after Pennsylvania Avenue I would finish my years seeing the Westway through to a triumphant conclusion.  And so the only thing I will ever do for the city is this,” he is not telling the truth.  He did a lot more for the city than just that.

Eugenie Birch

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