No one gets arrested for the murder of a community.
Maybe that’s a good thing. It’s hard to nail down when a community becomes a living thing. Groups of people can be perfunctory—the people you ride with on the bus, for instance—but communities grow. Breathe. Live, and then die. Sometimes naturally. Sometimes violently.
In 1930s New York, Sunset Park was a living community.
By 1940, the neighborhood of Sunset Park was home to 70,000 people. The neighborhood was poor, but they called themselves “clean poor”—everyone’s little lawn was neat and trim, and every household took responsibility for the sidewalk in front of their home. Most of the neighborhood was made of tradesmen who took the elevated train to work, so the streets were quiet.
Sunset Park was on the border of a few streets rotted by what biographer Robert Caro calls “the blight.” Abandoned storefronts and brownstones that once housed families were now occupied by “derelicts and winos.” What drove the decaying homes into destruction was its proximity to the Bush Terminal—a 200-acre area of waterfront covered in piers, factories, and industrial yards.
It was, like many industrial areas, dirty and noisy. The Bush Terminal ran along the length of Second Avenue, but Sunset Park stretched from Third to Eighth Avenue and ran the length of 27 blocks. While industrial decay claimed the streets next to Second Avenue, the community stayed thriving from Third Avenue onward—and stayed that way from 1918 to 1940.
The Beauty of Sunset Park
Perhaps what kept Sunset Park from suffering the same fate as its next-door neighbor was togetherness. There was a tightness to the community that created mutual support, which is vital to life without a safety net.
Hundreds of little shops, restaurants, and businesses—most family-owned—lined the streets.
Summer brought block parties and neighborhood celebrations.
One butcher gave away 25 turkeys every Thanksgiving.
The apartment co-ops housed families that had been living together for 25 years.
Each family was a patron of a neighbor’s shop or bakery.
Because the streets were largely safe to walk and the sidewalks were fastidiously swept by the business owners, people were always walking between shops and restaurants. Businesses lived on the mutual generosity of their neighbors.
People lived, got married, had kids, and died in Sunset Park for a simple reason: because that’s where they wanted to be. Why go anywhere else?
At the heart of it was Third Avenue—the guardian at the gate against industrial rot, the center of social, cultural, and economic life. Despite living in the shadow of the Elevated Train (the El), the street itself was fairly quiet. Even under the train, the sunlight streamed through the railway planks, like enormous “Venetian blinds,” as Caro put it. One block away on Fourth Avenue, the city had just finished the underground railway, which meant the El was coming down. The heart of Sunset Park could, for once, enjoy some proper sunlight.
Within two years, Third Avenue would be utterly destroyed—abandoned and littered with refuse, both human and material.
An Age-Old Problem
New York City faced a serious traffic problem, even in the 1920s.
By the 1930s, noted public works maestro Robert Moses had built some of the largest highways in America to address the problem—and they did nothing. They did less than nothing. In some cases, the highways were filled to capacity within weeks without relieving traffic on surrounding highways.
Traffic experts and reformers were ready to try something else—they believed that the secret to relieving traffic wasn’t making room for more cars, but developing more public modes of transportation. Unfortunately for the public, none of these reformers had the power that Robert Moses had. Moses had spent the better part of two decades building a political kingdom, allowing him to make unilateral decisions despite not being an elected official, and now he was using it—gleefully, as though he loved exercising his power for the sake of making other people feel small. He ignored the traffic experts, as he ignored everyone.
So when New York needed rails, what it got was more roads. More roads then filled to the brim within a month without having any positive effect on traffic.
When Moses realized his roads were filling up too quickly, he built even more roads—usually laying them on top of neighborhoods, choking them with noisy, destructive traffic. He dug vicious ditches, scooping up entire apartment blocks and displacing thousands for a single stretch. He razed businesses, condemned houses, and wreaked havoc to build his monuments to urban congestion.
One of those communities was Sunset Park.
Just One Block Over…
Moses announced that he was building a “parkway” through Sunset Park—and he wanted to do it over the very core of the neighborhood: Third Avenue.
Immediately, residents and city officials begged him to move his plans one block over to Second Avenue. It was clearly a better choice: one, it was already noisy, so the parkway wouldn’t disrupt anything.
It was a better choice for another reason too—Robert Moses didn’t allow trucks on his roads. So while he planned on putting up an enormous concrete slab to replace the El, he was also planning on gutting Third Avenue’s ground level to turn into a ten-lane highway for industrial vehicles. Those industrial vehicles would need to travel side streets to get to the Bush Terminal anyway, so building on Second Avenue was objectively a better call.
Robert Moses didn’t care.
He didn’t care because he didn’t need to care.
Within months, Moses leveled half of Third Avenue to make room for his ten-lane highway. Homes, businesses, centers of social life that made living in the city bearable—all gone. Third Avenue was permanently in shadow, the highway so close to the apartments that when it rained, the cars splattered their windows.
The rest of Third Avenue fell. The wound of decay along Bush Terminal became a spreading infection.
Because half of the businesses were gone, those families had to leave the neighborhood—which meant fewer people on the street.
Fewer people on the street meant fewer patrons for the businesses that were left. One by one, those were gone too.
Abandoned storefronts made space for the “derelicts and winos” of Second Avenue, followed by crime, then gang violence, then abandoned cars, mattresses, and rats—the hallmarks of an urban ghost town. No family allowed their children to walk the streets anymore.
An entire safe, vibrant, beautiful community was needlessly strangled to death in service to a ‘solution’ that was bound to fail.
I read this story yesterday, and I’m not going to lie to you—I’m still upset about it. The people of Third Avenue are long dead, their children old, their grandchildren not even old enough to remember Third Avenue before 1941.
But we need to remember them.
We need to remember that decisions—even innocuous, boring, mundane, page-26-in-the-Tuesday-paper decisions—shape the destinies of thousands of people. Moses’ decision was only one of the hundreds of public works he completed that decade. We need to remember that classism is not just a word or a theory. Robert Moses destroyed thousands of lives because he thought poor people didn’t get to decide the destiny of their homes.
He destroyed thousands of lives out of spite.
He destroyed thousands of lives because he dismissed the beautiful, vibrant community of Sunset Park as a “slum.”
But I think something alive was murdered, too.
A few days ago, I talked about how poverty destroyed people spiritually and emotionally. Sunset Park was proof that low-income and poverty are not the same—that riches and support could come from within a community, and people could find support from their neighbors when it wasn’t available to them elsewhere. Sunset Park, like so many small communities hidden in pockets around the U.S., made its people richer through mutual care.
Communities like that breathe life into the people who are a part of them and soften the effects of poverty.
I work with a group of people who care about each other, love each other, give each other support and affirmation. I’m part of a congregation where we lend each other money, keep each other from being homeless, insulate each other from disaster.
My community is an extension of my spirit, my soul. Losing them would be like losing a piece of myself.
Robert Moses senselessly murdered a community, and he did it because no one bothered to pay attention to it.
The week that Gowanus Parkway (Third Avenue’s curse) was opened, newspapers praised Robert Moses as the “da Vinci” of his field.