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Robert Moses

Economy Hitting the Skids? Time to Get Ambitious About Transportation

triboro_workers.jpgT.A. director Paul White sends along this little nugget he came across in the New York Times archive. Read it for a timely review (penned by a pre-Bilbao Herbert Muschamp) of a Municipal Art Society show staged the last time an economic downturn coincided with a presidential election, in 1992:

"Steel, Stone and Backbone," which runs through Sept. 19, is aprotest against recessionary thinking. It's a strike against the ideathat in hard economic times people should lower their expectationsabout what kind of city they want to live in. In fact, the point of theshow is to offer historical proof to the contrary. When the going getstough, the tough get ambitious about architecture. Much of the New Yorkthat is most admired -- its water and transportation systems, housing,cultural institutions -- emerged from periods of economic crisis.

Theshow, put together by Laura Rosen, an archivist with the TriboroughBridge and Tunnel Authority, offers a look at six of these periods andthe public works they produced. Many viewers will already be familiarwith one of them: the Great Depression and its astounding record inprojects for housing, recreation and transportation. With segmentsdevoted to such projects as La Guardia Airport, Orchard Beach in theBronx and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel (with a video presentation on the"sand hogs" who built it), the 1930's takes up most of the exhibitionspace.

But the real news of the show is that the building boomof the 30's wasn't the exception. It was the rule. Such booms havefrequently coincided with financial busts, or as they were termed inthe 19th century, "panics." The Panic of 1837 saw the building of theCroton Water System, including the monumental Egyptian Revivalreservoir that used to stand on the current site of the New York PublicLibrary. After the Panics of 1873 and 1893, work began on theMetropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History andthe New York Zoological Society, later known as the Bronx Zoo. What apanic.

If the 1930s saw the completion of ambitious projects ushering in an age of cheap air travel and mass car commuting, might the near future see a transit renaissance and the mainstream emergence of non-motorized transport?

With municipal budgets reeling, a big question mark is where the money would come from. A national infrastructure bank? Carbon taxes and congestion pricing? Bill Gates and Warren Buffett? "History doesn't hand us a key," says Muschamp in his MAS review. "However, the implicit message of this show is that we will have to invent one for ourselves."

Photo of workers anchoring wire cables on the Triborough Bridge: New Deal Network

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