Member of the Week: Ray Bromley

Ray Bromley

Professor Emeritus

Urban and Regional Planning/International Development Studies

University at Albany, State University of New York

Please describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I retired from teaching and administration in January 2020 so as to concentrate on research and writing. My initial retirement plans were to focus on international comparative work for six or seven years and then to shift my focus to the New York Metropolitan Region, but within weeks everything was turned upside down by the emerging Covid pandemic. I’m now focusing on New York until 2024 or 2025, and planning to return to international projects after then.        

My primary project is “New Yorkers’ Moses Obsession”—to explain why New York intellectuals so frequently mention Robert Moses as the great creator and destroyer, and how this very personalized view of history distorts our broader understanding of international, national, and metropolitan regional changes between the 1920s and the 1990s. The Moses focus is often further complicated by the fascination that many New York intellectuals have with comparing Moses to a saintly Jane Jacobs, as if somehow everything that matters is encompassed within the Moses-Jacobs relationship! Reality, of course, is much more complex, with global events, capitalist corporations, the federal and state governments, several major organizations, dozens of other key decision makers, and millions of citizens, workers, and consumers playing significant roles.  Moses and Jacobs were important figures in New York history, but that history would not have been so dramatically different if they had never lived. People use them to characterize and dramatize events and public works, but similar events and public works occur in hundreds of other cities in the United States and across the world, with no need to evoke the name of Moses or Jacobs to personify global changes.

In order to better describe and explain the significance of Robert Moses and the limitations of his impacts, I am developing detailed case studies of specific projects, most notably the major bridges, tunnels, parks, parkways, and expressways of Westchester, the Bronx, and Manhattan, considering both those that were actually built and those that were planned, advocated by Moses, left incomplete, or never built. More broadly, I am comparing New York City and Long Island cases where Moses had a significant impact with Westchester, Connecticut, and New Jersey cases where he had little or no impact. I am also discussing the major roles played by the Port Authority, the Regional Plan Association, and New York State agencies over which Moses had only limited impact, and by New Jersey and Connecticut agencies and municipalities over which he had no jurisdiction. Finally, I am reviewing the roles that biography can play in broader socioeconomic history and the dangers inherent in framing history around great biographies.

Please describe what you are currently teaching. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?

The research that I have described is the main focus of my activity, but I also spend a significant proportion of my time downsizing my files and library, and maintaining some of my international interests. I haven’t taught since retiring, but I’m always open to guest lectures, walking tours, or short courses. 

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’m closely following the various projects to portray Moses and Jacobs in literature, theatre, and musicals, and I’m comparing their personifications with the much simpler and blander histories of highways and neighborhoods developed elsewhere in the United States. Of special interest are cities like Houston and Dallas, where major expressways have three to four times as many lanes as their New York equivalents, where “parkways” were never built, and where highways are still being widened to accommodate extra traffic. I’m also fascinated by the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway—the speed with which they were constructed, the many expansions that they have undergone, the thousands of homes that were demolished or moved for their construction, and their impact on New Jersey history and culture. 

What kinds of advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?

It’s a great field to work in, with a wide variety of possible careers.  There’s work in urban and regional planning, in local, state, and federal government, in non-profit and community organizations, in many consulting, construction and real estate firms, and in education and research. Opportunities are available across the United States and in many different countries, and it’s always possible to move from liberal arts undergraduate studies to specialized graduate degrees in such fields as civil or transportation engineering, urban planning, architecture, public administration, or community development. Most importantly of all—to me at least—urban studies and planning provide lifelong justifications for observation and travel. The world is fascinating, and many of the most extraordinary memories are of places that most Americans never visit or even learn about. When traveling by plane, car, or bus, always go for the window seat! When you can, walk as much as possible to enjoy street life, to experience the most crowded places, and to contrast those places with wilderness areas!

In this conversation with Alec Dawson, Ray Bromley discusses the diverse research he has pursued during his career, along with his most important advice for those pursuing research in an urban setting.

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