Midcentury Planners Demolished America’s Social Fabric

Denys Nevozhai/Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange, Los Angeles, California

In 1939 at the New York World’s Fair, industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes presented his exhibition on the future of the American city. Named “Futurama,” this world was one of the mega-highways that cut through dense metropolises and their skyscrapers. Some five million people viewed the exhibit, shattering records at the time. Geddes had begun his career in the theater, and so he knew how to stir the people’s imagination. Attendees were presented with a special pin upon exiting that read, “I have seen the future.

Americans did see a glimpse of the future that day, but there wasn’t much of them in it. Geddes’s exhibit was a mechanical world intended for organized movement. Its 14-lane highways acted as conveyor belts for a utopia designed around the automobile. The living quarters were secondary, based on a grid system whose boundaries were set by dense motorways. Despite the diminished sociability built into its design, Futurama illustrated a narrowly efficient world that gave an impression of the cutting edge.

And what excited audiences most was its bold prediction: this vision would be a reality by 1960. Geddes was not far off. In the two decades that followed, state planners and their private sector partners went on to build a version of this new America under the umbrella term of “urban renewal.” The highway became its distinguishing feature, ushering in a new way for Americans to live.

But the constituents of this new public—one that has been defined by widespread cynicism and a “crisis of confidence” since the 1970s—increasingly found themselves without a place in the America that the postwar planners built. Geddes’s 1939 exhibit, therefore, marks an inflection point that is still felt today.

Planning for America

Urban planners of Geddes’s generation might have considered his ideas fantastical, but they nonetheless believed in their core message. As the film accompanying Futurama stated, the time had come to “displace outmoded business sections and undesirable slum areas.” This was because “man continually strives to replace the old with the new.” While realist postwar planners would end up tempering Geddes’s vision, they undoubtedly agreed with this basic premise: it was time to “replace the old with the new.”

Such sentiments were an outgrowth of the New Deal era when government institutions had the mandate to plan and reorganize society. The emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II demanded such coordination, and it produced results. Businesspeople, academics, scientists, government officials, and state planners all co-mingled in the newly-created agencies like the Work Progress Administration, Public Works Administration, and National Resources Planning Board.

The new social environment within the state naturally made for new people. One of them was Charles W. Eliot II, the executive officer of the Department of the Interior’s planning board from 1933 to 1943. Eliot was representative of a generation who came to view planning as a profession. Formerly the prerogative of civil servants who were trained as needed in the design of urban landscapes, the wide set of questions that planning dealt with—social, administrative, economic, and geographic—was put into a single career. Bringing in such professionals was a stated goal of the National Planning Board. One of the most important products of this mindset would be Robert Moses.

Moses’s name became synonymous with the rebuilding of postwar America, often called “urban renewal.” His influence was so all-encompassing that much of the period can be understood through him. During the New Deal, he was viewed as the planner with a “shovel in hand,” ready to turn funding into results. One such example was the Triborough Bridge completed in 1936 after it had been delayed for years. Notably, it was also Moses who was responsible for making Geddes’s 1939 exhibit possible as New York City’s Parks Commissioner. As is so characteristic of him, Moses did so partly because he saw the fair as an opportunity to turn an ash dump in Queens, New York into a park.

Moses embodied the temperament that would come to dominate postwar planning. He was progressively minded in his origins but a hard realist and non-ideological in practice. Like many urban planners of his generation, he greatly admired the early muckrakers and social workers who exposed poverty, like Jacob Riis and Jane Addams. He partly owed his early New York career in the 1920s to progressive activist Belle Moskovitz. These activists, Moses wrote in 1945, had “awakened the sleeping conscience of a generation too busy making money” to care about the less fortunate. Yet, he also believed their time had now passed. The social project going forward was to be “turned over to the administrators” who would bring the final job to completion.

Taking the “job to completion” meant adopting depoliticized consensus-building as a form of management, a sentiment that is today associated with the postwar era. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. described it as consisting of “reasonable responsibility about politics and a moderate pessimism about man.” Such sentiments, sometimes called “consensus ideology,” were held by Moses and his generation of planners. Massive welfare and infrastructural projects were framed by the New Deal generation as state prerogatives—the only debate was in the details. Conservatives like Frank Meyer, who was associated with the National Review, acknowledged that in the postwar era “conservatives could no longer openly seek to repeal the New Deal.” The atmosphere was relatively depoliticized, almost mechanical, in its view of relentless progress and the implementation of the urban renewal program. Its modus operandi was technocratic and top-down, enjoying high public trust because it had “produced results” before.

Moses’s temperament was idolized as fitting for the age, and so were his ideas. Praise was most lavishly applied by historian Sigfried Giedion. In his Harvard lectures, Giedion spoke of Moses as the climax of three centuries of modernist design and planning. Moses’s parkways were compared to “cubist paintings, to abstract sculptures and mobiles, and to the movies.” In all these examples, modernity was said to be relentlessly moving forward. Moses’s work was said to altogether prove that “possibilities of a great scale are inherent in our period.” But they could only be understood in motion, Giedion wrote in Space, Time and Architecture, because “the meaning and beauty of the parkway cannot be grasped from a single point of observation.” Giedion was here speaking of the automobile—the machine that made the “space-time feeling of our period” possible.

If such modern marvels could only be understood in motion through the automobile, then he who built the roads also brought modernity. Someone who believed this deeply was Thomas Harris MacDonald, one of Moses’s inspirations. The longtime chief of the Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 to 1953, MacDonald was once America’s leading evangelist of roads and highways, and among the most powerful men in Washington in his heyday. Known for a cold and calculative approach that Moses admired as “nonpolitical,” MacDonald produced multiple reports that argued for highways as a means of revitalizing large cities, removing blight on their peripheries, and expanding suburbia. These would be critical blueprints for the redesign of postwar America.

MacDonald and Moses possessed a similar pugnacious temperament, but Moses was ultimately more flexible. Before he became the leading powerbroker of New York City and beyond, he appealed to the public for support in a battle that would decide his career. In 1938, New Dealer Rexford Tugwell—once part of President Roosevelt’s “brain trust”—was appointed as the first director of the New York City Planning Commission. When he put forward a new master plan for the city, Moses decided to wage a public war.

As if tapping into his future critics, he argued against “big planning” and the encroachments of “utopian bureaucrats” on everyday life. Appealing to the democratic everyman in the papers, he claimed Tugwell had no public mandate. He also forged key alliances with real estate sponsors who came to his cause and would later be instrumental to his career. Tugwell was eventually forced off the New York City planning commission in 1941, thus cementing Moses as the sole kingmaker of the city.

This move by Moses would be immensely consequential for postwar America thereafter. MacDonald, meanwhile, failed to materialize his demands in the last years of his career. Throughout the 1940s, his Bureau was one of the few within the state to push for public housing to accommodate living areas cleared by highways. Yet, he was ultimately unable to produce the needed results. In 1949, the housing plan would be rejected for being too politically complicated. President Truman would go on to marginalize MacDonald’s department, culminating in his forced resignation in 1953.

Both these stories set the stage for what would become postwar America. After 1949, highway planning at the federal level largely lost interest in the broader social consequences of its projects. It became more narrow, centered on traffic efficiency and establishing suburban linkages for economic benefit. Moses, on the other hand, was able to engineer a consensus around himself after Tugwell’s resignation. But left as the city’s leading powerbroker, he would become more and more lost in Faustian dreams—those same dreams he once saw as too fantastical in Geddes’s Futurama. As the years went on, Moses’s developments became grandiose and unpopular as they openly encroached on everyday community life.

Building a New America

In 1955, the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads published the schematics of the new system they planned to build. Nicknamed the “yellow book,” it outlined an interstate highway plan that was to be constructed through some 104 cities in total, each with a population of over 50,000. The public works project, one of the largest ever in history, was signed into effect by President Eisenhower in 1956.

The network of highways was fundamentally designed with suburbanization in mind. It prioritized easy passage between the urban core and the growing suburban sprawl. The novel living arrangement was also designed as a means to alleviate the persistent prewar problem of underconsumption, which was commonly blamed for having extended the Great Depression. Postwar economic prosperity allowed for a new ethic of consumption best represented in burgeoning suburbia. It also created a new person, likened by sociologist William H. Wyte to an “organization man”—those who “have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life.” Suburbia with its “packaged villages,” he further wrote, “has become the dormitory of a new generation.”

The freeway was viewed as the mediator between this idealized pastoral life in suburbia and the urban core. Long Island proved to be the model of what would be recreated in much of America. Moses had already built its necessary linkages and leisurely places by 1945: the Northern State Parkway, the Southern State Parkway, Jones Beach, Heckscher State Park, and Caumsett State Park. Now other postwar planners, like William Levitt of Levitt & Sons, sought to make a new life around them with his “Levittown” and other suburban projects. Between 1950 and 1970, the population of suburbia doubled as cities themselves became emptier.

The mass construction of highways complemented the campaign for urban renewal, which began in earnest during the 1950s. During this time, talk of the decline of city downtowns filled American papers so much that “nobody goes downtown” became something of a middle-class cliche. Compounding issues of economic and racial integration were a topic of conversation in virtually all local papers as black Americans moved to cities in the “Second Great Migration.” The problem of downtown city life was discussed clinically, as if it was a “patient with a serious but undiagnosed disease.” While the public was scattered on its cause, they nonetheless had faith in the state’s ability to resolve it—trust in the state in general was at an all-time high, after all, buoyed by the successes of the New Deal and the Second World War. In a sense, the planners were free to “do no wrong.” 

The mass construction of highways was an essential component of revitalizing urban spaces and believed to be the solution. Robert Moses’s New York City served as a testing ground which later became the national program, and Pittsburgh was one of the first to pursue the urban renewal program as such with the help of financier R.K. Mellon. It was rooted in a traffic plan by Moses for its downtown area, initially proposed in 1939 a few months after the Futurama exhibition. Baltimore’s own efforts were notably kickstarted that decade by James Rouse, who popularized the term “urban renewal.” His company would go on to pioneer some of America’s first enclosed malls. All around the country—especially on the east coast—newspapers compared their city planners to Robert Moses in temperament and achievement. In Philadelphia, there was Edmund Bacon and in Boston, Edward J. Logue. Like most of their cohort, both of these planners were originally motivated by liberal-administrative causes.

Still, urban renewal was a corporatist process involving the interplay of business leaders and many civic organizations who were themselves lobbying for it. While some saw the placement of freeways as a way to effectively enforce segregation, such efforts were not exclusively cheered on by middle-class whites. Cleveland’s leading black newspaper, Call and Post, for example, stated that black Americans would be the “number one beneficiary” of urban renewal in 1955. But as James Baldwin realized while filming Take This Hammer in 1963, the results on the ground proved otherwise. Visiting the “urban renewal” of the black Western Addition neighborhood in San Francisco, California, which displaced some 20,000 people, he recounted speaking to an uprooted teenager who told him, “I’ve got no country, I’ve got no flag,” to which Baldwin added in his telling, “I couldn’t say you do. I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does.”

Planners did keep close records of displaced families between 1950 and 1966, despite the limited political will to relocate them. A 1964 House of Representatives report found that some 66,000 individuals were projected to be displaced annually. By the end of the decade, virtually no American city was untouched by what amounted to the greatest urban re-imagination in the country’s history. Historical literature has well-documented the transformations in major cities like Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, and beyond. Yet, the majority of urban renewalism was pursued in far smaller cities: from Greenville, North Carolina to Tupelo, Mississippi. The effect was total, with each city having its own idiosyncrasies and its own stories worth reading.

If the highway system only stopped at each city’s beltway, its praises would be more common today. Instead, it was conceived as if it were shaping an inordinate and malleable mass rather than a lived space. The general pattern was often the same: highways cut through city downtowns so that the suburban consumer had easy access to its new shopping districts. Already existing local urban life and its communities were forced to give way to a speculative version of Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama and its conveyor belt idea. Consequently, it was this conveyor belt, the highway, that caught the ire of the public.

Starting from the mid-1950s, the public began to make its opposition known in what are commonly known as the “highway revolts.” They were an open dispute over who would define America’s social sphere, but they also embodied organic elements of a civil society that is today sadly missing. Most major cities were embroiled in such conflicts by the late 1960s, opposing highways breaking up their downtowns and historic areas.

In California, such public opposition manifested in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego as early as the 1950s. The disputes spread throughout the country. One famous struggle was in New Orleans, locally known as the “Second Battle of New Orleans.” In 1969, residents successfully thwarted the construction of the Moses-proposed Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway: an elevated freeway that was supposed to cut through the city’s famous French Quarter. Other states like Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, and others also saw intense public backlash, which persisted well into the 1970s.

Published in 1961, The Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs is credited as a catalyst for these disturbances, as she spoke directly to the highway revolts in its opening pages. She stressed the street as crucial to healthy urban sociality and that a “growing number of planners and designers have come to believe that if they can only solve the problems of traffic, they will thereby have solved the major problem of cities.”

The book is unabashedly polemical, taking aim at planners who sought to impose a “pretend order,” which she said was derived from everything but the actual, lived world of cities themselves. She criticized the paternalistic “segmentation of life” that was part of their blueprints as if it were an attempt to decontaminate the organic relations between different spheres of life. While she did not ascribe direct malice to the planners, it is remarkable how her words echo those of Moses’s some 20 years before—when he was waging a public war against Tugwell, appealing to the man in the street against bureaucratic utopian projects.

Jacobs’s book struck a nerve with the public, but the Moses era of urban renewal would succumb to wounds that were ultimately self-inflicted. Insulated within an artificial consensus of his own making, Moses’s projects were growing more forced and unnecessary. In a 1939 letter to Tugwell, Moses described Geddes’s Futurama as “figments of imagination” because they “eliminated the human element.”

But by the 1960s, Moses and the planners were losing their “human element” too. The proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, approved in 1960, intended to bulldoze through Greenwich Village and Soho. The Mid-Manhattan Expressway, approved in 1963, showed similar disregard. Both failed due to being widely unpopular. Moses and the planners were surprised and even angered. Responding to the protests, Moses often argued that “succeeding generations would be grateful.” Sometimes he even relished being an adversary. “I’m just going to keep right on building, you do the best you can to stop me,” he once replied—or, more bluntly, “when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” Increasingly, people were simply in the way.

This bitter turn did not come out of the blue but was rather an expression of that same temperament that made Moses so successful for decades. Frances Perkins, America’s first Secretary of Labor under FDR, recalled noticing this sentiment in Moses’s planning ethic during their time working together:

It used to shock me because he was doing all these things for the welfare of the people…To him, they were lousy, dirty people. ‘I’ll get them! I’ll teach them!’ He loves the public, but not as people. The public is a great amorphous mass to him; it needs to be bathed, it needs to be aired, it needs recreation, but not for personal reasons—just to be a better public.

Foot traffic and the life of the street, which Jacobs saw as embodying urban life, would suffer in most cities. What is remarkable is how quickly urban decay followed urban renewal—and, similarly, how quickly public trust collapsed after its peak in 1964. It is ultimately a testament to the fragile basis that the prewar consensus and its planning were built upon.

Geddes’s dream may have been a nation of superhighways, but organized flow can just as easily operate in reverse. Fleeing rising crime rates and hollowed-out city cores, white Americans flocked to the suburbs in increasing numbers throughout the 1960s, eroding the tax base these infrastructure projects required. In 1968, the Kerner Commission issued a stark warning: America was producing “two separate societies” along racial lines, one for cities and another for the suburbs. The consequences, it stated, would be “further deterioration of the social and physical environment in the central core.” By the 1970s, postwar planners found that social trust, the mandate they relied upon, had collapsed. It was out of this gritty urban backdrop that a new, cynical public was born—and that same cynicism still defines our social and political present.

A New Public

During the 1970s, the state grew more insular and less daring as urban decay repudiated past attempts at renewal. New York City, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Atlanta each lost some 10 percent of their populations during the decade; St. Louis, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit shrank by some 20 percent. Tax revenue likewise declined precipitously and resulted in a deep fiscal crisis in many cities, most famously in New York City. The postwar planning ethic became financially untenable, but the public it once relied upon also evaporated.

Literature at the time often spoke of a pervasive cynicism. Student campuses, formerly hotbeds of radical political activism, noticeably calmed. Concepts like “burnout” began to appear in psychological journals for the first time, as did quantitative measures for loneliness. As one 1974 New Yorker editorial read, “there is sudden gloom everywhere—a compound of shattered hopes, cynicism, despair about the future, and helplessness.” By the end of the decade, just a quarter of Americans said they trusted their own government. The drop is remarkable when we consider the fact that trust in government peaked in 1964 when 77 percent of respondents stated that they trusted the government always or most of the time. It was the so-called “last innocent year.”

A new public was forming from the remains of a bygone era that prided itself on technocratic competence and consensus liberalism, both now invalidated by presidential scandal and a failed war abroad. The “crisis of confidence” during the 1970s left a deep mark across all levels of civil society: social, institutional, and political. Cultural critic Christopher Lasch wrote in 1979 that those who “recently dreamed of world power now despair of governing the city of New York.” America, he went on, “has lost both the capacity and the will to confront the difficulties that threaten to overwhelm it.

Yet, the phrase “crisis of confidence” was not coined by Lasch or other commentators like him but by then-president Jimmy Carter. The threat, Carter told Americans in a 1979 public address, was “nearly invisible in ordinary ways” and was “threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America. What was this “invisible threat?” Carter was keen not to assign it solely a political meaning. In fact, his speech highlighted that American community life itself had declined, that “strong families, close-knit communities” had been replaced by “self-indulgence and consumption.” He went on to say that “material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Carter spoke these words as if the United States was turning a cultural page, and in this regard, he was right. Historian Bruce J. Schulman likened it to the “great shift.” As institutional authority collapsed and great projects, planning, and political solutions seemed impossible, the public retreated into private life.

This new culture had a few defining features. In Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism, he posited that one aspect was the belief in a new kind of “therapeutic sensibility,” where everything in life—including politics—becomes a mechanism for “self-realization.” Indeed, self-help books dominated the best-seller lists by the late 1970s after being virtually absent a decade prior.

This idea was more rigorously explored in the 1985 study Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, which profiled white, middle-class Americans. In its psychological assessments, the book spoke of a “new individualism” that revolved around the “ideal of a radically unencumbered and improvisational self.” Political scientist Ronald Inglehart likened this transformation to a transition toward post-materialist values centered on “self-expression, self-esteem, self-realization, and the quality of life.” He contrasted this with previous American generations who he characterized as possessing materialist values, gravitating toward mass organizations and concerning themselves instead with the distribution of goods and income.

Amid the collapse of a collective vision, self-actualization emerged as its replacement and antidote. The damaged social contract did not repair itself but instead looked inward. Nonetheless, this new public still needed places of meaning, and those were diminishing in the New America built around them. 

When a New Public Cannot Find a Place

Fifty years after the Futurama exhibit, Ray Oldenburg began his book The Great Good Place with the declaration that “the problem of place in America has not yet been resolved.” The text popularized the idea of “third places,” those areas of socialization that can be counted as neither school nor work.

Third places share a few key characteristics: they are places that are neutral and accessible, lack pretension, have regulars, do not require status, and exist as a kind of “home away from home.” The mood of a third place is convivial, playful, and allows for chance encounters and even friendships. Writing at the tail-end of the long Reagan era, Oldenburg was already lamenting the decline of “informal public life.” He gave it a clinical diagnosis: that such a loss denied Americans “the means of relieving stress that serve other cultures so effectively.” 

Importantly, places of this type had often become obstacles during the era of urban renewal. In a 1957 meeting of the Society of American Planning Officials, one report otherwise sympathetic to urban needs characterized third spaces as quaint remnants that would inevitably get swept away in a rejuvenated city fabric:

Most commercial occupants in such areas are small, independent merchants who have maintained their businesses for many, many years and are almost institutions as far as the neighborhood is concerned. Theirs are the stores in which the children shop, in which the parents have shopped, and in which the grandparents shopped before them.


Every attempt must be made to help these merchants, by working with them and assisting them financially in relocating. But it is only realistic to recognize that many such merchants, whose stock-in-trade is good will, unfortunately cannot compete with large-scale merchandisers.


The same report mentioned the “unusual situation” of a neighborhood near the University of Chicago where small-time gift shops and “arty” buildings in a neighborhood enhanced its appeal, despite the poor maintenance: “No satisfactory way has been found to assist them to continue to serve the community.”


The decline of American third places had an impact on the collective dreams of the entire country. This is because community spaces are inherently proto-political spaces as well—areas where common ideas are lived through and acted upon. By congregating and talking, individuals gain a sense of agency. Without it, their society lives off the borrowed language of a democratic sensibility that no longer exists as part of everyday life. This is reflected in the fall of political participation in Oldenburg’s time—in the 1996 presidential contest, turnout was just over 50 percent—the lowest since the Second World War.

In 1995, Christopher Lasch wrote that “the decline of participatory democracy may directly be related to the disappearance of third places.” Oldenberg himself received a letter on this topic from a woman who grew up during the Great Depression. She wrote of how the times she spent “eavesdropping as a child gave her a lifetime interest in politics, economics, and philosophy…none of which were part of the world at home.”

The decline of third places in America has, therefore come at the expense of thinking about something other than oneself—and as a result, collective experience as a whole has deeply suffered.

Anton Cebalo is a historian and writer. You can follow him at @ceba70.