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How the New York of Robert Moses Shaped my Father’s Health

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

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.