Urbanicide: the Murder of Cities

We wouldn’t have any American economy without the automobile business. That’s literally true. This is a great industry that has to go on and keep turning out more cars and trucks, and there have to be places for them to run – they’ll need more roads, and in order to get that done people are going to be inconvenienced who are in the way.
~ Robert Moses

UrbanDictionary.com defines Urbanicide as ‘When a city or metropolitan area pursues a gargantuan infrastructure project that is considered mostly unnecessary by the citizenry while there are scant funds to pay for it. The urbanicide then occurs when an appointed authority decides to subject the region’s citizens to user fees/toll/taxes to pay for the extravagance, dividing the community and greatly impoverishing it at the same time.

Marxist humanist philosopher Marshall Howard Berman preferred the shorter form Urbicide when describing the ‘murder of the city‘ by such destructive infrastructure. Classically, the term was attached to catastrophes like Hiroshima, New Orleans, Sarajevo, the Gaza strip. Only in the last several decades have urbanists applied the term to the construction of built environments that ultimately destroy lives and depress living conditions.

In his last lecture before his own passing, Berman eulogized the death of the South Bronx by the wrathful, God-like Robert Moses:

In the 1950s, we read that our neighborhood and many other working-class immigrant neighborhoods had been chosen for destruction. Officials said we all should be grateful; we were being told early so we would have plenty of time to get out. Moses was in charge of many city and state agencies, and he knew how to manipulate federal money. His projects got built because they expressed a total elite consensus, both on what to build and on how. The way to build was this: draw lines from point A to point B, obliterate everything in between. Moses knew how to do that.”

For Berman, watching the urbanicide of his childhood South Bronx under the shadow of a freeway was an act that required revenge, “I became obsessed forever with the destruction of cities.” He wasn’t alone. “The expressway project got underway…We had moved, but I kept going back. One big assembly point for construction was an overpass at the Grand Concourse and 174th Street. There was once a pocket-park [there], now a storage dump, that offered a spectacular view. It attracted many of Robert Moses’s victims. They were older than me, often involuntarily retired; their homes and jobs no longer existed. ‘That bastard,’ they said, ‘we’ll get him someday.


You’d think with all we’ve learned from Berman, WEB Du Bois, Jane Jacobs, Gordon Parks, William H. White, Helen LevittLewis Mumford and others, that the destruction of vibrant, livable cities would have ceased. On the contrary, new generations of planners have grown up reading Jacobs, claiming to have taken her to heart, yet continue to look down upon the city with Moses’ godlike petulance. In our increasingly urbanized cityscapes, urban freeways have become a toxic asset. Yet in their place we now see unaffordable tower developments that also divide neighbors, creating vertical gated-communities as isolating as the Sprawlburbia cul-de-sacs urban planners abhor.

Even worse, this new gentrified landscape is being erected for an obedient, technological class with little solidarity for the service class that supports them. Teachers, first responders, sanitation and restaurant workers – they’re being pushed away from the city center due to rising rents, becoming more automobile dependent in the process. We see the very same dismissal of working class issues by Robert Moses now happening at the hands of predatory developers. This is but another form of urbanicide – where glass and steel towers have similarly destructive effects as the concrete freeways built during generations past.

The core tradition of urban dehumanization is the driving force for Western cities: the accumulation of capital. Where people gather to share and commune, there exists a concentration of institutions with profit motives derived from dividing and displacing. After all, you can’t make much money in real estate if everyone stays where they are. You have to leverage political and economic mechanisms to coerce people out of old homes – by force when necessary – and into new ones. Fortunately, there are marketing terms like ‘sustainable’, ‘green’, and ‘smart growth’ to mask the malevolence of disaster capitalism. Linguistic adaptation is the key to socially acceptable economic purging.


Where once negative market pressures were despised by academics and the morally-minded, now intellectual outlets like National Public Radio not only accept displacement, but actively argue in favor of gentrification. From a recent apology for profit-driven real estate, NPR did its best to form a palatable narrative. Claiming far less people are displaced than is commonly believed, the corporately-underwritten network cited rising credit ratings of residents who managed to stay in gentrified communities as proof of progress. NPR failed to cite credit ratings of residents who were forced out.

This kind of metric is designed for one thing and one thing only: framing the narrative as one of ‘improvement’. Talk about how the neighborhood will cease to be poor – but don’t mention this will be achieved by purging out poor people. These so-called solutions to poverty are all about absolving guilt – thereby enabling liberals to go right on consuming without regret for their harmful lifestyles.

If recent ongoing protests to Apple, Twitter, and Google’s gentrification of San Francisco are any indication, national Right to the City and housing justice organizations see right through this bullshit. While many criticize such activists’ tactics as misguided, they do so with historical ignorance to the cultures of resistance that traditionally shape social rebellion. There is much precedent for demonstrations that, while misunderstood by the comfortable classes at the time, are frequently praised by historians years later when observed objectively.

Cities evolve, that is undeniable. What draws us to the city is the allure of community, culture, spectacle, and the routine spontaneity of unexpected experience. The profit-driven landscape of a developers’ urban utopia banishes the creative classes, the working classes, and those economic refugees who struggle to survive in a capital society. Truly good urbanism must be derived from processes far more democratic than we’ve seen in the last century. Reading Jacobs means nothing if we still think like Moses.

To end this bloody practice of Urbanicide, us lovers of cities need to adopt a radically holistic view of who benefits, and who is harmed by patterns of regressive policy. And it’s never too late to undo the damage. Even in death, the spirit of Marshall Berman seeks vengeance. In early 2013, it was announced an expressway named ‘in honor’ of Robert Moses will soon be torn down, granting residents access to the Niagara Gorge for the first time in decades.


When tall buildings and traffic lanes and business districts become our priority, we forget about people in neighborhoods. We actually forget about what is the Life Blood of a city. One of the things we ended up doing by focusing on the urban form – by building taller, bigger, faster, better – is that by the 1960’s cities were in financial crisis. They were in financial crisis because they neglected the neighborhoods.
~ Craig Steven Wilder

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