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Daniel Patrick Moynihan 

In 2001, U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927–2003) was named laureate of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. At the ULI Fall Meeting in Boston that year, he was interviewed by Paul Goldberger, New Yorker architecture critic and Nichols Prize jury member. In recognition of the anniversary of 9/11, Urban Land thought it would be appropriate to publish this edited version of that Oct. 4, 2001, interview.

Goldberger: I want to begin by talking about this moment and how the world today is different now than it was up to September 10. You’ve devoted so much of your life to the value of the public realm, the value of public spaces, the joy people take in physically being together. Are we at risk now of losing that?

Moynihan: Not with such company as we have here [gesturing to the ULI audience]. We are here in Boston, so we must start with Aristotle. Aristotle called attention to Hippodamus of Miletus. He was the father of city planning, and he devised the grid pattern for urban spaces. And he was also the author, as Aristotle judged, of the first ideal constitution—constitution that presumed virtue and hopefully instilled virtue in its citizens. He appears in Thucydides where in a situation of tension he tells the Corinthians to build a wall. He does not tell them to flee; he does not say scatter. He says, “concentrate and defend.” And that is what we have to do now. It is no accident that the symbols that were attacked by the terrorists were symbols of a high urban civilization.

Goldberger: Today, technology has been pushing us away from density and away from centralization. This country and this world is full of people who communicate as much through computer screens as anything else—who do not feel they have to do a great deal of face-to-face business and, therefore, that by scattering, they are doing normal business. Doesn’t that make the city harder to defend because there are alternatives?

Moynihan: As communication has become easier, cities have become more important, more compact, more necessary because something happens when people are together that does not happen when they are dispersed. That’s the experience of mankind, is it not?

This is not a moment to be intimidated. We should keep in mind that during the Blitz, the British kept the theaters and the music halls going all the time; they never stopped, they never closed. Nobody changed their way of life.

There will be more [terrorists] after these people and there were others before them. The only way they can win is to change the way we live, and a lot of us live in cities.

Goldberger: The power of place is so profound. It’s something that President Lincoln found out during the Civil War with the construction of the Capitol dome. Lincoln said the work of building must go on so people would know the Union would go on.

Moynihan: He kept that dome going up; no one was going to take it down. Lincoln did not leave, he did not scatter. He could have made his way north or west and he did not.

Goldberger: We’ve increasingly learned over the 20th century something that architects and designers knew instinctively before the 20th century—that the street is what makes cities work. This generation has finally learned this the hard way by doing things so wrong for so many years.

Moynihan: We did learn, and we are not going to let ourselves forget this. We may not want to be putting up ever larger, taller buildings. There is a point at where there is an economic loss in doing that. But there is another reason, and we may as well get used to it: no matter how tall a building we put up, they are going to put up a taller one in Shanghai.

The downtown of Washington, D.C., is vibrant. When John Kennedy was inaugurated, it was emptied out; there was nothing there. It was just two- and three-story buildings, a few places sold firecrackers. The Willard [Hotel] was closed. Well, Kennedy said no. He said this is the center of our government, the street design [of Pennsylvania Avenue, with the White House blocks away from the U.S. Capitol] said we are a government with separate powers, but a government that is united. The last thing he did before leaving for Dallas was to request a coffee hour for congressional leaders to show them a plan for Pennsylvania Avenue. The city has come back so wonderfully well, it thrives, it prospers, but it does not soar. The building height limit in no way impedes a vital urban society. I think we can all agree that [a building] does not have to be 200 stories high to be significant.

Goldberger: The president has pledged support for the rebuilding of New York. It will be a long time before we decide what happens on the [World] Trade Center site.

Moynihan: I’ve been down there, and it is a stygian site. It hurts. It is inspiring to see the people working there—police, firemen, engineers; they work together, and they are calm and thoughtful. We are not going to have anything being built there for two years or more—maybe in a decade, or after a decade. But there is a certainty that we will bring back that island.

Look at Battery Park City, how it’s working out. We are discovering that we have a waterfront in Manhattan. Many of the waterfronts in our cities were taken away by elevated interstate highway systems. [It has taken] 40 years, but we are catching on. Boston, San Francisco are open to the water, and more cities are picking up on this.

We’ve got some wonderful things [in urban design and development] in front of us. We must not give in and say, “Oh my God, what happened?” This [terrorism] has happened for a long time; no major religion is without some part of it. But that does not change civilization. And we are a civilization. We’ve learned so much about our cities—how to treasure them, how to redo them. But this did not happen before a lot of thinking took place—not before a lot of people saying, “Do we all want to live way out there, apart from one another, going in [to the city] occasionally, but not living where things are alive?” It took some thought from the likes of you [the ULI audience] to make it happen.

For heaven’s sake, don’t get the idea that it [the revival of urban living environments] is not working because of something that happened on September 11. What we built once, we can build again, or we can build differently, depending on what we think is best. This time, we can do it even better.