The Cross-Bronx Expressway, April 1971. Photo by Dan McCoy/Environmental Protection Agency/National Archives


Sick city

My dad grew up in Robert Moses’s New York City. His story is a testament to how urban planning shapes countless lives

by Katie Mulkowsky + BIO

The Cross-Bronx Expressway, April 1971. Photo by Dan McCoy/Environmental Protection Agency/National Archives

My father rollerskated on the Cross-Bronx Expressway before it opened to car traffic. Born in 1953, he would have been seven or eight when New York City’s massive thoroughfare reached the peak of its construction, facilitated by the destruction of many tight-knit Bronx neighbourhoods. He didn’t live in East Tremont or Spuyten Duyvil, which were literally cut through by the highway, but he did live in between Fordham Heights and Kingsbridge Heights, about two miles north of the new road. He wasn’t a politician or an urban planner – he was a child, concerned with the size of his clip-on roller skates, and whether they’d fit over shoes large enough to support his lanky frame. He didn’t know that he was gliding above one of the city’s most contested planning projects, or what kind of impact it would have on his life. He was young and with friends, and so they laced up their skates. For ordinary people, this is how history happens.

Dad was brought up in Robert Moses’ New York – a city undergoing major infrastructural development to produce a sprawling highway network. In addition to his unelected political influence and scores of towering turnpikes, Moses was known for spearheading planning projects that splintered local communities. When my father recalled the Bronx that raised him, he described a place that was diverse and down-to-earth, sometimes veering toward mean, but one where people looked out for each other. They recognised one another. You could leave your house keys with your shopowner, whose brother would send condolences to your family when a loved one passed away. Moses was famous for blatantly overlooking this kind of social capital, and for celebrating rather than ignoring proposals that required entire neighbourhoods to be bulldozed. He was notorious for paraphrasing the adage, ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’

That quote has been mistakenly attributed to Stalin, but today it rings rather Trump-like, with a callousness so dumbfounding it’s almost comical. My dad spent his youth in perpetual sickness, one of countless Jewish kids in the Bronx whose skinny legs and bad asthma kept them out of school. Engulfed by construction and vehicle congestion, my father was nine when his health got so bad that his teachers finally decided to hold him back a year, separating him from classmates and friends. It was 1962, nearly a decade into the period described by the Bronx-born philosopher Marshall Berman as an era of dust and debris, when Moses’s highway was ‘pounded and blasted and smashed’ through the centre of their neighbourhood.

For many families like my own, the Expressway symbolises a broader story of environmental injustice in the area, now dubbed ‘asthma alley’ due to its disproportionately high rates. Incidences of childhood asthma in the Bronx still rank 40 per cent higher than the New York City average, a fact attributed to elevated concentrations of particulate matter in the air. Last year, New York City’s mayor Eric Adams declared that the Cross-Bronx Expressway nurtured these inequalities by fragmenting largely Black and Latino working-class neighbourhoods while generating significant air pollution that has been statistically correlated with poor health outcomes for generations of residents. Traffic emits a range of toxins, like nitrous oxide, PM2.5 and dust from brakes and tyres; the side-effects of prolonged exposure to them include asthma, emphysema, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

A friendly looking man looks at the camera from a high vantage point above a view of downtown New York City

The author’s father Leonard on a return trip to New York in the 1980s. ©Katie Mulkowsky

We lost my dad last year: the denouement in a courageously fought cancer battle that spanned more than two decades. I was 24 when he died – not as young as I could have been, but not old enough to negate a dull, almost-always-there sense of missing something. He was unpretentious, unfashionable, unfailingly reliable. He was corny and funny and sentimental. He was a rare combination of impossibly hard-working and deeply empathetic: a respiratory therapist for many years, he was an asthmatic who helped people breathe. We won’t ever be able to say for certain whether his lifelong lung issues, and lengthy scrimmage with the carcinomas, were caused by his exposure to harmful pollutants alone. But we’d be foolish to say that the environment he was raised in had no bearing on his wellbeing – or that of his dad, or brother, or niece and nephew, or those other 33.3 per cent of Bronx residents who die prematurely, a rate substantially higher than in New York City (26.2 per cent) or New York State (23.4 per cent).

Beyond being a daughter, I’m now a practising urban planner, and was trained by mentors with a keen eye on the link between public space and public health. Thanks to a slew of writers, scholars and activists – like Robert D Bullard, author of Dumping in Dixie (1990), Julie Sze, author of Noxious New York (2006) and Gregg Mitman, author of Breathing Space (2008), particularly Chapter 4, ‘Choking Cities’ – it’s well documented that environmental issues have unequal human impacts. Certain populations, based on their location, demographic makeup, level of resources available and underlying political context, feel the effects of industrial pollution more than others. This often has to do with the fact that histories of social and economic disenfranchisement become mapped on to urban space through planning practices like redlining and zoning. Along with the South Bronx, neighbourhoods like Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and Manhattan’s West Harlem today have higher geographic concentrations of polluting infrastructure, such as major highways, power plants, incinerators and waste transfer stations, than their wealthier counterparts do – predisposing some of the city’s poorest and most diverse communities to the worst health outcomes. Knowing this, on a professional and a personal level, has compounded the magnitude of my grief with the exasperation of having seen something coming for a long time.

I first encountered critical writing about the Cross-Bronx Expressway in Berman’s work, which was shown to me when I decided to follow in my dad’s footsteps and move from my native California to New York for my planning degree. A professor declared Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982) his favourite book, and I spent one Thanksgiving pretending to understand its Faustian references while a hometown friend came over and cooked. The text is about as radical as you’d expect from one whose title quotes the Communist Manifesto. Interested in the local impacts of capitalist accumulation, Berman wrote extensively about the Bronx’s complicated relationship to development while documenting the Expressway’s violent construction, a process that spanned decades. To me, Berman’s work demonstrates the power of putting narrative in dialogue with fact, as it brings to life the visceral, human picture behind things like air-quality statistics.

He recalled, for instance, ‘the immense steam shovels and bulldozers and timber and steel beams, … the giant cranes reaching far above the Bronx’s tallest roofs, … the wild, jagged crags of rock newly torn, the vistas of devastation stretching … as far as the eye could see – and marvel to see our ordinary nice neighbourhood transformed into sublime, spectacular ruins.’ I find something both heart-wrenching and affirming in this excerpt, a sense of: So that was the air he grew up breathing. Born about a decade before my dad, Berman came of age in a similar chapter of Bronx history, and with a similar connection to Judaism. He was a professor at the City University of New York, an activist and a Marxist; Dad went to Lehman, the university’s local campus, and worked department-store day jobs to pay his way through class at night. These parallels made Berman, to me, at once totally inaccessible and already familiar.

The consequences of top-down land-use rulings might be seen in full only too late, by the generations that follow

I recently revisited his book in an effort to make sense of some tapes I recorded with my dad a few summers ago, when his health started to decline. I won’t exactly call it a benefit, but maybe a side-effect of his lengthy illness was that we at least had time to prepare for the eventuality ahead. This was coupled, of course, by the particular pang of slow grief, and all of the pre-emptive losses that it wrought, but I coped with our situation by coaxing an intense urge toward documentation, an effort to outrun the moment in which he’d no longer be around to be asked questions. I lied and told him our chats were for my New York-based planning dissertation, but what we eventually produced together was an oral history of his life. Loosely structured, our conversations quickly turned toward his childhood neighbourhood – and therefore to the Cross-Bronx Expressway:

It was a major road, like the FDR Drive or the West Side Highway – not as wide as the I-5 here, not as many lanes – but it was a major road that goes from the George Washington Bridge on the far west side of the Bronx all the way to the east side of the Bronx, where you can connect to the Whitestone Bridge or the Throgs Neck Bridge to go to Queens or Long Island.

That’s my dad – or at least his voice – on record, playing geographer by comparing New York’s roads to the San Diego of my birth, where you can hear the hum of Interstate 5 traffic from the house my parents raised me in. Even in California, my dad carried the Bronx with him: in his faint accent, which came out in punches with certain words like ‘idea’ (always ‘idear’), and in his body, working tirelessly to stay with us. The temporality of urban planning – the distance between a decision and its delivery, and then its real impacts – means that, especially when it comes to environmental health issues, the consequences of top-down land-use rulings might be seen in full only too late, by the generations that follow.

For different reasons, men like Berman and Moses are remarkable figures in urban history. My dad, meanwhile, was mostly remarkable to me and the small few who knew our family. But the story of a place is equally contained within those people who live on the margins, whose names never make their way into headlines or books. As a planner, I believe that these are the people who should be listened to the closest – the ones interacting with city spaces on the ground, every day, as their ordinary lives play out. The ones most strongly impacted by major development projects, despite conventionally being the most voiceless in the process. There were some powerful parallels between what my dad said in our recordings and what Berman wrote to critical acclaim, which elevate his anecdotes from being vaguely touching to demonstrating the legitimate merits of everyday expertise. Take this, for example:

Dad: I was little, and we didn’t have a car – I didn’t think it [the Expressway] was going to change our lives. I just remember knowing that it was going to get really busy and really noisy with traffic.
Berman: [I]t seemed to come from another world. First of all, hardly any of us owned cars: the neighbourhood itself, and the subways leading downtown, defined the flow of our lives.
Dad: The area was already very commercial – lots of shops and street vendors – and very ‘ethnic’, I don’t know how else to say it. A lot of people spoke Italian or Yiddish as their first language.
Berman: Besides, even if the city needed the road … they surely couldn’t mean what the stories seemed to say: that the road would be blasted directly through a dozen solid, settled, densely populated neighbourhoods like our own; that something like 60,000 working- and lower-middle-class people, mostly Jews, but with many Italians, Irish and Blacks thrown in, would be thrown out of their homes.

Unlike Berman, my father never explicitly blamed this destruction and displacement on Moses, and I don’t know that any child would have been aware of the broader political and economic forces shaping his environment at the time. But he remembered details, like the kind of rollerskates he wore to play with his friends on the unopened parts of the Expressway while the rest of it was going up. ‘You probably never had a pair like this,’ he said to me. ‘You wear your regular shoes, your sneakers, and you have a key to tighten the little clamps in front of the skates, and you have a strap around the ankle, and you tighten the front so they don’t fall off…’

In the annals of history, it probably doesn’t matter enormously that these dorky young boys, who got mugged at Yankee Stadium and thrown down stairwells by school bullies, played together on the infamous highway. But my dad’s stories are reminders of childhood innocence and lightness, existing on the sidelines of the wider drama unfolding. They signpost agency and alternative modes of place-making: as much as formal planning decisions contour urban spaces, cities are also shaped by people, and given an identity through their relationships and memories.

Of course, a more popular way to tell the story of the Expressway is to tell the story of Robert Moses. Many have done this before, so he already has many monikers: most commonly ‘the power broker’, as in Robert Caro’s eponymous 1974 biography, though The Spectator also called him ‘the psychopath who wrecked New York’. Though Moses is less infamous in the UK than he is in the US, David Hare’s play Straight Line Crazy (2022) recently saw Ralph Fiennes play him at the Bridge Theatre in London in a series of dramatised contestations with anti-car activists seeking to protect their communities from his highway treatment. As a nod to the iconic battle between Moses and the journalist-turned-organiser Jane Jacobs – in which she successfully mobilised enough opposition to thwart his plan to thrust another expressway through quintessential parts of Lower Manhattan – Fiennes sputters on stage, as Moses once did in real life: ‘There is nobody against this: NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY but a bunch of… a bunch of MOTHERS!’

A mother herself, but also a thoughtful writer deft at community engagement, Jacobs’s planning philosophies were much more localised than Moses’s were. When it came to scale, she was interested in the level of the city block, and the networks of trust and safety that emerge from human activity in healthy neighbourhoods. Her ‘eyes on the street’ maxim was rooted in the basic principle that if people are around – frequenting local cafés, running after children, walking their dogs, walking at all – places become less dangerous, and more equipped to concern themselves with thriving. When I asked my dad what his childhood neighbourhood was like, his first response was: ‘People knew each other.’ The filmmaker Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, whose documentary Decade of Fire (2019) presents a counternarrative of the flames that swept through the South Bronx in the 1970s, said that people interviewed for her film remembered the area as somewhere you could genuinely ‘ask for sugar from your neighbour’.

Eviction notices were served en masse to some of the city’s most vulnerable tenants

Most accounts of Moses indicate that it was some combination of money or power, or both, that motivated his alleged 17-hour working days. Caro’s exhaustive and exhausting 1,300-page biography of the planner is an intense character study that documents how Moses amassed more finance capital (his public expenditure ultimately totalled $27 billion, in 1968 US dollars) and political will than perhaps any other figure in New York history. Caro argues that it was corruption and manipulation that won him the role of parks commissioner (and construction coordinator, and then a seat on the planning commission), when Moses’s payoffs to key elected officials skewed land-use decisions in his favour. While those who pocketed his money fought for his projects, Moses mobilised urban renewal policies to appropriate large swathes of privately held land into public authority, a key legal measure to secure the right to actually build on them.

By the end of Moses’s lifetime, the New York City region was rendered into an unrecognisable version of itself. The list of his creations is long: the expressways Major Deegan, Van Wyck, Sheridan, Bruckner, Gowanus, Prospect, Whitestone, Clearview, Throgs Neck, Staten Island, Long Island, Nassau and Brooklyn-Queens. Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway. Then come the bridges: Triborough (now RFK), Verrazzano, Marine Parkway, Henry Hudson, Cross Bay and Bronx-Whitestone. He built Lincoln Center and he built Jones and Orchard beaches. Dams and power plants by Niagara Falls. Even the park scheme for the World’s Fair. ‘[T]he list seemed to go on forever,’ Berman wrote. ‘But then, in the spring and fall of 1953,’ – Dad’s birth year – ‘Moses began to loom over my life in a new way: he proclaimed that he was about to ram an immense expressway, unprecedented in scale, expense and difficulty of construction, through our neighbourhood’s heart.’

According to Caro, Moses’s first proposals for the highway emerged in 1944, but their scale, cost and ambitious construction programme had to gain political support. The plan spanned 113 streets; hundreds of sewerage, water and utility mains; a subway and three railroads; five rapid transit lines and seven other expressways that Moses himself was concurrently building. All critical infrastructure had to keep running during construction, but the residents of East Tremont and their housing stock were deemed acceptable collateral. Remarkably, a parallel route for the Expressway, which would have necessitated the destruction of only six residential buildings, instead of a whopping 54, had been considered – but ultimately avoided because it would have involved the bulldozing of a depot belonging to the Third Avenue Transit Company, a key Moses affiliate. Eviction notices were served en masse to some of the city’s most vulnerable tenants, an immediate human cost, while a fiscal expenditure of $10 million per mile was syphoned into polluting roadways instead of much-needed community development. One man’s ego and greed worked alongside the structural forces of poverty to further entrench existing inequalities. Broken eggs, indeed.

The author’s ancestors in the Bronx in the 1940s, featuring the same roller skates her father would use on the Cross-Bronx Expressway years later. ©Katie Mulkowsky

Meanwhile, my father’s stories animate the streetscape that Moses treated as a faceless canvas, and reveal one family’s sense of the local communities he discarded. Dad grew up in four different apartments around the same few streets, where the shopowners all knew his parents. The fourth apartment, just next door to the third, was declared superior because his mother could watch from the window as his sister crossed the street to school. It had formerly been occupied by an umbrella repairman who never told his clients that he moved, so for years they’d come and knock and have to be turned away, forced to look elsewhere to fix their umbrellas.

Their final apartment sat at the corner of East Kingsbridge and Morris Avenue, about two miles north of the Expressway. Also named Morris, my grandfather died suddenly when my dad was just 16, making the cross-streets take on new meaning for him. Back in the innocence of youth, dad called himself and his friends ‘street kids’ – in the summer, they’d leave the house by 9 am and walk one block south to St James Park, where they’d stay until dinnertime:

We didn’t go ‘out’ to play: when you live in an apartment building, you go ‘down’ to play. And when your mother wants you home for dinner, you don’t go ‘home’, you don’t go ‘in’, you go ‘up’ for dinner.

His memories were distinctly place-based, and the life he lived was hyper-local. Lehman College, where my father eventually earned a psychology degree, was a closer walk to his family’s apartment than his middle school was.

In the end, by Caro’s count, the number of people in similarly quaint, happy neighbourhoods who were displaced as a result of Moses’s highway projects was more than 250,000. Jacobs might have argued that the tally should be even higher, when considering the impact that the erection of a thoroughfare in the centre of a community has on its social dynamics and sense of place. She described the concept of a ‘border vacuum’, a lifeless area that ultimately becomes unsafe and falls into decline because of the lack of people passing through it. Beyond the immediate physical consequences of geographic fragmentation, there were the environmental impacts of exposure to two decades of construction, followed by the vehicle traffic that the Expressway produced when finished. The highway became one of the most congested in the US: contrary to the traffic alleviation that Moses originally promised, one consequence of the 416 miles of new road that he built was to, logically, encourage more driving.

Ella was the first person in the world for whom pollution was explicitly cited by a coroner as a factor to her death

Today, I work not in New York but in London as a transport planner. There are many reasons why I fell into my field that didn’t feel purely emotional at the time. But when I consider the questions that I now deal with on a daily basis – how to nurture less car-dominated environments, how to foster ‘healthy streets’ where people of all backgrounds can safely travel by active or sustainable modes – I realise just how personally charged my professional engagements are. I see how they connect back to my dad.

In the UK, ‘Ella’s Law’ is currently at the House of Commons. It’s named after Ella Roberta Adoo Kissi Debrah, who died in 2013 at just nine years old, the result of a fatal asthma attack. Ella lived in the London borough of Lewisham near the heavily congested South Circular Road, which her mother Rosamund later learned was emitting illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide due to car traffic. Ella was the first person in the world for whom pollution was explicitly cited by a coroner as a contributing factor to her death. Her landmark case spurned a legal battle driven by her mother, in partnership with the Green Party peer Jenny Jones. Under Ella’s Law, or the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill, they are fighting to mandate that air quality in every community be brought up to World Health Organization standards.

It’s not lost on me that a grieving mother is the one powering this fight. Maybe it takes our own experiences of the extreme to metabolise sadness into something more like resolve. Rather than hardening him, my dad’s losses and own health issues made him empathetic; they equipped him to effectively treat others as a respiratory therapist. In his late 20s, he left New York behind, and finally learned to drive on the crosscountry road trip that he took to settle anew in California. He met my mom, an ICU nurse, at work on the hospital rota. Before he became really sick, the life they lived was simple, powered by patient care on the clock, and love for each other off it.

Legacy is a funny concept. Deeply American in some ways, it tasks us with the trope of ‘having an impact’ in our lifetime so that we’ll be remembered, for remembrance’s sake, when it’s over. With figures like Moses as cultural guideposts for the capacity – and danger – of unfettered social influence, I don’t think we ask ourselves enough what the nature of that legacy should be, or whether another individual’s infamy is really what our perplexing and tumultuous world currently needs. My father was human and, as such, imperfect. But he was unconcerned with ego. He was soft-spoken. He wanted to take care of people, and for the hard-earned lessons of his first-hand experience to live on in his work. My greatest hope would be to honour him by doing the same. Urban planning is a strange field because you can essentially choose which side of history you want to be on: the one profiting off the master’s tools, or the one dismantling his proverbial house. It’s perhaps never been more important to opt for the latter. I can’t bring my dad back, but I can carry his teachings forward, a tremendous act of parenting, which parents on.