Review of the Book:

New York Plans for the Future
by Cleveland Rodgers

H. William Batt

[A review of the 1943 book by Cleveland Rodgers, published that year in New York by Harper & Brothers. This review was written in March 2010]

Sixty-eight years ago, a book was released to the public with an ad specifically directed to Georgist readers of Land and Freedom. The author was a member of the newly established New York City Planning Commission and former Editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, Cleveland Rodgers.

"What is said about Henry George?" asked the blurb. "A book that every Georgeist [sic], civic worker, taxpayer, businessman, real estate owner, every person concerned with city planning in or out of New York will find as dramatically absorbing as it is important and enlightening."

The book was priced at $3.00, what today would likely be $30.00!

That the author would laud planning was to be expected, but it was in substance much more. The prose flows beautifully, and the subject matter ranges over history, economics, politics, geography, trade, sociology and the personalities of the era in a way other books don't. Still, there was a definite naiveté to the book, reflective perhaps of a time when people viewed the capacity and promise of government to realize the public interest as unqualified and inexorable.

Special interests are capable of doing their own planning, Some of it is good and coincides with the public interest. But the larger public interest is paramount and must prevail, not spasmodically, not in certain neighborhoods or sections, but for the entire community, for present and future generations. It is the general interest which suffers from lack of planning and orderly development. The public at large cannot plan, and when planning is left to special interests the public is penalized. In this sense, democracy has been largely planless; but it has always been purposive. When challenged, democracy has demonstrated that it can defend itself. But only by planning can democracy achieve its higher purposes. (p. xiv)

Several later pages lauded the achievements of Robert Moses, this at a time when his greatest mark some today would say scar was yet to be left on the City of New York. While heaping praise on the Sage Foundation's support of Queens' Forest Hill Gardens housing development, Rodgers had no aversion to the rings of high traffic corridors that were being outlined at the same time. He could praise Rockefeller Center but denounce the Equitable Life Insurance building for the shadows it cast. He exalted the preservation and expansion of the city's many parks and extolled the accommodations to increased auto traffic from the suburbs, facilitated by new bridges and tunnels, as well as the subsidies for parking, that increased congestion. In hindsight, the visions propounded by Bel Geddes' Autorama at the 1939 World Fair in Queens and venerated in this book are testament to the arrogance, if not just the naiveté, of planners.

So this is a fascinating book, and for all the problems and challenges enumerated in its first half slums, chaos, pollution, high taxes, general poverty and disease one expects some solutions to be provided in the second. The first section ends with the following clarion call (pp 142-43):

New York City is the chief remaining product and center of the so-called democratic-capitalistic system. The democratic part of the combination has worked well, so far as New York is concerned; the capitalistic part has been less successful, in spite of the unparalleled wealth created and concentrated in the metropolis and the activities directed from this control station. It seems clear, also, that the basic defects in capitalism cannot be cured automatically by leaving things to take their natural course . . . .

Government must unify and integrate, seek oneness instead of multiplicity of interest, as a guide. So long as we persist in thinking of national, state and local government as separate and distinct functions, and continue to add to the complexities of each, we cannot hope to achieve that unity regarding objectives which is essential in dealing with matters that are the common tasks of government at all levels. Shifting economic problems to the realm of politics only adds to the confusion, since social objectives become mixed with the intricacies of taxation and fiscal policies, which are usually far beyond the grasp of emotional reformers and sentimental idealists.

During the book's first half, one sees Henry George's name eight times. One hopes, and even assumes, given the ad, that the second half of the book will contain Georgist solutions.

Part II begins with the lament of the 1936 City's Charter Revision Commission to the effect that political machinations and "logrolling" have compromised the exquisite visions of earlier municipal plans. The Planning Commission was proposed as a means of righting the balance of private interests. The easiest part was to first impose strictures by district on use, height, and area. (p 165) Hence, "The beauty of Manhattan's skyline and the charm of her towers are due to height zoning, which has done much to provide more light and air in certain congested business sections." Considerable attention was given to matters of open space, mainly out of concern, it appears, for the welfare of families and especially children. At the same time, the book argues that land space is more than adequate for expansion of housing, of commerce and industry, and public purposes. (p 271) This presumably arises from the planning and zoning that have obtained in the city since 1916, and legitimized by court decision.

One of the most interesting observations concerned the growth of motor vehicle dependence in the metropolis. "The automobile," Rodgers says, "has been the greatest single factor in altering living conditions in the United States but, while almost everything else has been adapted to the city, it is [still] necessary to adapt the city to the automobile." (p 201-02) How this expanded road network would have altered New York further than what has since transpired is worth pondering. While places like London, Oslo, Stockholm and Singapore have found ways now to cut municipal traffic, American cities, especially beyond New York, are still widening roads. In passing, mention is made of the possibility of financing this infrastructure by "assessments on property benefited," (p 203) but this is mentioned only once, not elaborated, and ignores even local cases. Yet at that time Rodgers notes that the "average trip of a car ... was five miles."

The praise for automobile culture becomes bizarre at points, at least in hindsight:

In spite of all that has been done to glorify the automobile, it is still treated slightingly. The first garages were stables, and any available space is still considered good enough to store motors. Cars may cost more than a baby grand piano and give more pleasure, yet they are left out in all weathers to be battered and splattered, plundered and stolen. One reason for this may be that architects, who are supposed to devise shelter for man and his possessions, haven't fully appreciated the claims of motor cars to decent care. They haven't invited the car into the house, the store or the office. When this is done the parking problem will be greatly simplified for large numbers of automobile users, and street congestion will be measurably reduced. (p 209)

Later he proposes the construction of more parking garages. On the other hand keeping cars out of select areas is not satisfactory, because "that would seriously affect all present property values . . . . Once it is clearly determined that public policy requires a solution of traffic and parking problems, they can be solved, even in the most congested parts of midtown Manhattan." (p 212-213) What later became understood as Braess' Paradox only came to have traffic implications in the 1960s. It shows that adding extra capacity to a network actually increases the volume and the resulting congestion rather than relieving it.

Despite the author's confusion about the relationship between transportation and site values, he appreciated that large scale rehabilitation of old sections of the city was the soundest economic solution, and that "the most formidable obstacle to large-scale operations is the high cost of land. . . . Most urban real estate is controlled not by the titleholder but by the mortgage holder. Thus impersonal corporations claim rights for unused vacant land on which they hold mortgages comparable to the rights of the homeowner whose house and lots are free from a mortgage." (p 222-23) He argues at one point that "real estate assessments are too high in many cases," but never offers any further discussion of this except the sometime claim that speculators are profiting handsomely from exaggerated land values.

The Russell Sage Foundation is praised several times in passing, the president of which was Lawson Purdy, earlier also president of the Schalkenbach Foundation. Purdy had been President of the Taxation and Assessment for years and no doubt knew Cleveland Rodgers well. This may account for the existence of the ad. The Georgist allusions in Part I are rather general and casual; the references complimentary and broad brush. The first reference (p 48-51) states "Of all the American reformers who inveighed against social and economic ills in the last half of the nineteenth century, Henry George seems to have been the only one to get down to fundamentals." The chapter continues with general references to Adam Smith, Jefferson, Turgot and Quesnay. Everything about Georgist thought put forth is accurate, but it is never applied. Part II, the half addressing the future, contains not one further mention of George.

Was this book targeted to a Georgist audience? If so, why? The author was certainly familiar with the Georgist thesis, and numerous descriptions of the city's difficulties invited discussion of Georgist solutions. The indictment of land speculators is frequent, but never trenchant. The treatment of this material, as with much of our urban history and analysis, was an opportunity missed. Why that should have occurred for a writer so deeply committed to justice and the "public interest" is puzzling, if not maddening. It is a challenge which today, almost three quarters of a century later, still deserves attention.