Moral Depravity, Discontent and Socialism The Politics of the Urban Revolution

Harry Blain


A boy in a glass factory, ca.1890. (Jacob A. Riis, Museum of the City of New York)


When political leaders use the language of doctors, you know they are planning something barbarous. ‘Cancers’ must be eradicated, not tamed; ‘viruses’ can only be met with ‘harsh cures’; and ‘epidemics’ must be contained before they can spread. Read any newspaper after October 1917 and you will see the proliferation of ailments threatening the ‘body politic.’ ‘Bolshevism,’ of course, but also seemingly incurable nuisances like hot-tempered suffragists, unruly union leaders, and – perhaps worst of all – those people who refused to accept the science of racial hierarchy.  

The menaces were all linked, as Tom Buchanan conveys in The Great Gatsby: “Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.” However, there was one looming source of fear that hung over the otherwise comfortable lives of the Tom Buchanans and their friends in Albany or Washington: the chaotic and explosive growth of cities.  

How could order be imposed on such a swelling morass of filth, toil and misery? What would stop the “vicious, semi-criminal” classes (to use Charles Booth’s term) from invading the walled gardens and respectable streets? For how long could Men of Good Breeding live alongside disease, ragged immigrants and knife-fights in seedy alleys? All of this represented “an evil which is gnawing at the vitals of the country”, in the words of Henry Morgenthau at the first National Conference on City Planning (1909). “An evil that breeds physical disease, moral depravity, discontent, and socialism” – which “must be cured and eradicated or else our great body politic will be weakened.”

Those who took up Morgenthau’s challenge permanently transformed the United States. Some left a legacy of methodical and deliberate brutality far beyond anything even the most devious gang of criminals could hope to accomplish. Others turned cities into laboratories for the great social programs of the 20th Century. Amid these revolutions, most people ate, talked, fought, got drunk, danced, sang and worked. Their music, poetry and literature has long outlasted buildings, roads and housing developments. 

We inherit these urban revolutions. Can we make new ones? 

A Certain History

Well before the events of October 1917, great cities were scary. Jacob Riis’ descriptions of New York in 1890 offered a warning:

Where Mulberry Street crooks like an elbow within hail of the old depravity of the Five Points, is “the Bend,” foul core of New York’s slums… Around “the Bend” cluster the bulk of the tenements that are stamped as altogether bad, even by the optimists of the Health Department. Incessant raids cannot keep down the crowds that make them their home. In the scores of back alleys, of stable lanes and hidden byways, of which the rent collector alone can keep track, they share such shelter as the ramshackle structures afford with every kind of abomination rifled from the dumps and ash-barrels of the city. Here, too, shunning the light, skulks the unclean beast of dishonest idleness. “The Bend” is the home of the tramp as well as the rag-picker.

Children sleeping on Mulberry Street, ca 1890 – source:


Max Weber described Chicago in equally vivid detail fourteen years later, likening what was then the world’s fifth-largest city to ‘‘a human being with its skin peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work.” Dickens had already looked deep into 19th Century London’s “intestines,” and shown them to be overflowing with lawless hordes of street-children, hopeless paupers, and scheming merchants. The idea of this in the vast country of Thomas Jefferson – who saw nothing but disaster in “the mobs of great cities” – was terrifying. 

Everyone knew that poverty existed. In a way, they knew it better than we do, avoiding our sanitizing language of “relative deprivation” or “socioeconomic disadvantage” and instead going for squalor, penury, filth, and misery. You couldn’t hide from this in cities. And, if you couldn’t see it, you would probably smell it, as Londoners learned during the Great Stink of 1858 – which was so bad that Parliament nearly had to be moved to Oxford and “curtains were soaked in chloride of lime to suppress the ‘noxious stench.’”  And thus was Progress made: London built decent sewers, Chicago conquered typhoid, New York built a subway. 

New York- Slum District, ca. 1890 – credit Jacob A. Riis, © Bettmann/CORBIS


And then, in 1917, one of the great cities of “civilization” – home to the worldly socialites and princes of War and Peace – exploded. St. Petersburg (stupidly renamed ‘Petrograd’ so it didn’t sound too German) was full of raucous workers: striking, threatening and organizing. Trotsky listed them: “Laundry workers, dyers, coopers, trade and industrial clerks, structural workers, bronze workers, unskilled workers, shoemakers, paper-box makers, sausage makers, furniture workers.” Once they seized power in Russia, would others follow? The great reformers of the 20th Century – high-minded, sober, intelligent, and elitist – felt they could. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George even feared “there would be a soviet in London” if a foolish “military enterprise” was ever launched against the Bolsheviks.

The cities had to be tamed. 

There was, of course, the option of brute force: beat up striking workers, ban picketing, sweep up suspected ‘reds.’ This was certainly the preferred choice of the more panicked and less intelligent decision-makers, such as President Wilson’s notorious Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer. His belief, as he told Congress in June 1919 – that radicals could “rise up and destroy the government at one fell swoop” – led to some of the most reckless and violent political repression in the modern United States (the ‘Palmer Raids’), all under a supposedly ‘progressive’ administration. Others were smarter. In New York, especially, a strange alliance of machine politicians, labor activists, and urban visionaries revolutionized the city, the state and, eventually, the country. 

It all started with flames.

Frances Perkins, who was then the Executive Secretary of the New York City Consumers League, remembered it well. On March 25, 1911, she – along with hundreds of other New Yorkers – watched in horror as dozens of young women, many still teenagers, jumped from the smoldering Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where they worked. Some were impaled on the fences below, others died from the sheer impact of falling eight or nine stories. Those who didn’t jump found the main exit to the stairwells locked, and were asphyxiated. 146 died in total. 

The Triangle Shirtwaist disaster embodied everything wrong with urban life and work: crowded and poorly managed factories, miserable labor conditions, and no semblance of health or safety protections. This was the reality of modern New York, and the Factory Investigating Commission, established three months after the fire, was damning. It was unprecedented in its scope, holding 59 public hearings and taking testimony from 472 witnesses, including Perkins. 3,385 workplaces were investigated in all key industries. The Commission found “insidious”, “numerous” and “deadly” hazards – particularly in the chemical industry, where workers were regularly exposed to “lead, arsenic, phosphorus, mercury, injurious gasses, irritating dusts, high temperatures, hot and corrosive liquids, and dangerous explosives.” “Health is the principal asset of the working man and working woman,” the Commission wrote in its final report, recommending that the government “is bound to do everything in its power to preserve the health of the workers.” The Commission’s report led to several crucial pieces of state and local legislation, and helped inspire the creation of the federal Department of Labor in 1913. 

Young cotton mill operators, ca.1910 – cerdit: Jacob A. Riis, Museum of the City of New York


Perkins, however, was not finished. In 1918 – the first year that women could vote in New York State elections – she mobilized this new electoral force behind Al Smith, a Tammany Hall city politician who spent his teens working in the Fulton Fish Market to support his widowed mother. Smith, who had co-chaired the Factory Commission, went on to become one of the state’s greatest governors. Perkins, for her part, became FDR’s Labor Secretary, and the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the United States federal government. She traced Roosevelt’s social programs to an earlier date: the day she saw the black smoke of the Shirtwaist Factory rise above Washington Square – March 25, 1911, “the day the New Deal was born.” 

Neither Perkins nor Smith were die-hard socialists. Smith, in fact, went on to lead an odd and speculative project you may have heard of called the Empire State Building, and became mixed up with virulently anti-New Deal financiers. But the initial goal of the two New Yorkers, one from the slums under the Brooklyn Bridge, the other a graduate of Columbia, was simple: make urban life more tolerable. With this, they eventually inspired the holder of the most powerful office in the country, who used their ideas to change it permanently.

“You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs”

While this was happening, another force was rising in cities that few politicians could grasp: the automobile. In the 1920s, following the release of the new, relatively affordable Ford Model T, the number of registered drivers trebled across the United States, reaching around 23 million people. This did not just affect Detroit, where these new symbols of middle-class triumph were made. It transformed every single city. 

This is one of the few revolutions that we can always see: the plodding chains of cars permanently lining the Hudson River, the dual-carriageways slicing through the middle of the Bronx, the snaking parkways on Long Island, or the endless suburbs sprawling out (most obviously) from Atlanta, Las Vegas or Houston. How did all of this happen? 

Again, New York was a model, thanks almost exclusively to the work of Robert Moses, who controlled various public offices in the city and the state for over forty years. His mix of arrogance, imagination and ruthlessness is conveyed beautifully in Robert A. Caro’s gigantic book, The Power Broker (1974), which invites the reader to gauge some of Moses’s influence simply by looking at a map: 

Standing out from the map’s delicate tracery of gridirons representing streets are heavy lines girdling the city or slashing across its expanses. These lines denote the major roads on which automobiles and trucks move, roads whose very location, moreover, does as much as any single factor to determined where and how a city’s people live and work. With a single exception, the East River Drive, Robert Moses built every one of those roads. He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway, and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Expressway. 

When Robert Moses was laying down parkways on Long Island, his only immediate barriers were the estates of billionaires and small fishing communities. However, when he turned to the streets of the city – some of the densest in the world – the task was radically different. 

But Moses was confident. He was, after all, an Oxford and Yale man of the highest pedigree, “the best bill drafter in Albany,” a tall, imposing, eloquent political communicator. His intellect and work ethic were unquestioned, his public image largely positive. And, he had the resources: money, power and trust from everyone who mattered in Albany and New York City. And so he brought about incredible social and physical destruction. The urban theorist Marshall Berman, who grew up in the Bronx, describes impact of the construction on the Bronx Expressway in All That is Solid Melts Into Air (1982):

A policeman stands in the street, observing charred rubble and corpses of workers following the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City on March 25, 1911 – credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images


For ten years, through the late 1950s and early 1960s, the center of the Bronx was pounded and blasted and smashed. My friends and I would stand on the parapet of the Grand Concourse, where 174th Street had been, and survey the work’s progress – the immense steam shovels and bulldozers and timber and steel beams, the hundreds of workers in their variously colored hard hats, the giant cranes reaching far above the Bronx’s tallest roofs, the dynamite blasts and tremors, the wild, jagged crags of rock newly torn, the vistas of devastation stretching for miles to the east and west as far as the eye could see – and marvel to see our ordinary nice neighborhood transformed into sublime, spectacular ruins.

It’s hard to know exactly how many people were displaced by this single project in one New York borough, or how many neighborhoods were permanently erased. Moses and many others argued that the cost was worth it, for here was our great chance to build the teeming and flowing motor metropolis of the 20th Century, and why should a few thousand people be allowed to stop it? These people certainly couldn’t make their case in the rational, cost-benefit language that dominated the thinking of figures like Moses. It’s impossible to quantify the ‘value’ of an urban neighborhood, despite the repeated attempts of economists and planners to improve their models and metrics. For Berman’s Bronx neighborhood, and countless others in New York and across the United States, this would prove fatal. And their executioners were, so often, “progressives.”

The tools were not always roads. ‘Slum clearance’ programs became just as critical in grand city-taming visions. Ostensibly benign and public-spirited, they helped to establish the racial and economic segregation that still defines so much of the urban landscape in North America. “San Francisco and most northern cities now are engaging in something called urban renewal”, James Baldwin said in 1963. He was blunt about the subtext: “Moving Negroes out. It means Negro removal – that is what it means. And the federal government is an accomplice to this fact.”

I have no idea what conditions were really like in the supposedly ‘blighted’ neighborhoods that were razed or cut up by highways. I have no idea what would have happened if they survived. Maybe it was all worth it. Moses was probably right to say that nothing would ever get built if we let every community action group wield veto power. “If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?” Moses famously asked. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

But then we have to ask: how many houses, street corners, shops and stoops are we willing to see disappear forever? A few thousand? A million? And for how many roads? Moses wanted to build three expressways across lower- and mid-Manhattan and Harlem. Such a scheme is utterly unthinkable today, which shows some shift in our moral and political compass, one that thinks a bit more about the “eggs” and less romantically about the “omelet.” As we look back today, the hero in New York’s story is Moses’s adversary, Jane Jacobs. Her view was clear and simple: “The urban planners are ravaging our cities.” All the nuisances that planners loathed were the veins of the city. Rip them out, and the city would die. 

The death is very visible, and not just in New York. It can be seen in the Los Angeles neighborhoods bisected and traversed by conveyer belts of cars or the daily trail of angry, mutinous drivers on the Atlanta Bypass. It can be seen on the racial and economic maps of Chicago, Houston and Baltimore, or in the yearly statistics of traffic-related deaths nationwide, which make terrorism look like a joke. It can be seen in decaying buses and subways and on abandoned railroad tracks. In the 20th Century, the car won and the city lost. 

Can we salvage anything from these ruins? 

Fire hoses spray water on the upper floors of the Asch Building (housing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company) – credit: Keystone / Getty Images



In New York, at least, some attempt can be made. Visit Moses’s Orchard Beach – complete with high-decibel Puerto Rican music blaring through Long Island Sound – on an August afternoon. Or one of the 225 playgrounds he built in just one decade, or one of his public pools that swell with overexcited children in the summer. They are hardly the genteel ‘leisure’ spots he envisaged – invariably crowded and loud, maybe not to the taste of a hard-headed Oxford man. They could only be created through massive physical transformations, but they lay something down and left it to people – all people – to figure out how to use it. This is the great promise that planning offered – and perhaps still can. 

Inner City Blues

By the 1960s, Moses’s outlook had been replicated in almost every city across the United States. Roads, cars, highways, housing projects, parks, all of them could bring the promise and the brutality of New York’s Great Leap Forward. How did people respond? 

Some wrote the soundtracks of the era, imbuing their music with its dominant themes. Motown— the voice and spirit of Detroit—led the way. When Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On in 1971, the Motown era already included the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the Watts riots, white supremacist terrorism in Birmingham, rent strikes in Harlem, the March on the Pentagon in Washington. Gaye’s album has a special way of capturing these moments.  

Bills pile up sky high, send that boy off to die.” 

“Crime is increasing, trigger-happy policing.”  

“Panic is spreading, God knows where we’re heading.” 

 “What about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from man can she stand?”

“Are things really getting better like the newspapers say?”

“Mother, mother there’s far too many of you crying. Brother, brother there’s far too many of you dying.”

That a man who was mainly known for singing about sex could produce this poetry says something about both the man and his time. 

Across the country, it was true that there was no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’ (to paraphrase Orwell). It was even truer in its great cities, where uncertainty and turmoil were inescapable.  Of course, the art and the picture were never the same. Take the differing portraits of Harlem alone: the films and songs Hell Up in Harlem (1974) and Across 110th Street (1972) were filled with references to “pimps”, “pushers” and “junkies.” “You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure, across 110th Street is a hell of a tester,” Bobby Womack sang. “The family on the other side of town would catch hell without a ghetto around.” “In every city you find the same thing going down – Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town.” “I’m not saying what I did was alright, trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight.”

Then there was Bill Withers’ Harlem (1971), which struck a lighter tone: 

“Summer night in Harlem, man it’s really hot!”

“Well it’s too hot to sleep and too hot to eat, I don’t care if I die or not!”

“Winter night in Harlem, radiator won’t get hot – and that mean ole landlord, he don’t care if I freeze to death or not!”

“Saturday night in Harlem, Ahh every thing’s alright. You can really swing and shake your pretty thing, the parties are out of sight.”

Here was the variety of the modern city: at once exploitative, fun, fast, slow, dangerous, curious. The “inner city blues”, as Marvin Gaye titled one of his greatest songs, encompassed all of it.  

“Do things gradually, bring more tragedy”

“My people are rising”, Nina Simone wrote in the song Why? after King’s murder in 1968. “What’s gonna happen in all of our cities?” That question is still open. Simone’s observation – “do things gradually, bring more tragedy” – has, in some ways, been borne out. The old Jim Crow was dismantled, but our cities are still segregated, and the north is no better than the south. In fact, according to our most recent census, eight of the top ten most segregated cities in the United States are above the Mason-Dixon Line. In this sense, the reflections of Elizabeth, from James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain weren’t far from the truth: “There was not, after all, a great difference between the world of the North and that of the South which she had fled; there was only this difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly on one hand, it took back with the other.”

“The difference is in the way they castrate you,” was how the great Harlem writer put it himself. “But the castration itself is the American fact.” There is still “trigger-happy policing” and bills are still piling up sky-high. Our cities are still scarred by Robert Moses monstrosities. Neighborhoods killed by highways are never coming back. We are, however, left with some scraps of hope. The public spaces carved out by planners can be enjoyed and expanded; the great songs can keep enriching our culture and understanding. By surveying the wreckage of earlier urban revolutions we might, with some luck, fumble our way towards new, more human ones.

One comment to “Moral Depravity, Discontent and Socialism The Politics of the Urban Revolution”
  1. “What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun,
    Or fester like a sore-
    and then run?
    Does it stink like rotten meat
    Or crust and sugar over,
    like a syrupy sweet?
    Maybe it just sags
    like a heavy load.

    Or does it explode? ”

    We may be about to find out!

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