Robert Moses Lives

An epic three-part exhibition on how the master builder shaped modern-day New York demonstrates the role he still plays in the life of the city.

Robert Moses, dead for more than a quarter century, is never out of sight or mind. From­ my desk I can see his Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (1964) in the distance and the elevated six-lane hell of his Gowanus Parkway (1941) closer by. But somehow it wasn’t until I trekked out to Flushing Meadows Park on a cheerless winter day and confronted the Unisphere—the 450-ton steel globe that served as icon of the 1964–65 World’s Fair (Moses was its president)—that I felt overwhelmed by the glorious, tragic arc of his career. Dedicated by its sponsor, U.S. Steel, to “peace through mutual understanding,” the Unisphere seemed like a poignant symbol of so much misguided progress and misspent opportunity. Standing there, I suddenly felt depressed. And I hadn’t even set foot in the Queens Museum of Art, formerly the fair’s New York City pavilion, to take a look at a portion of a monumental three-part exhibition on the legacy of the man.

Actually, I found myself sandbagged by emotion during the week in which I roamed around town visiting the three sections of Robert Moses and the Modern City, curated by Columbia professor and architectural historian Hilary Ballon. It was as if I were watching some Spielbergian melodrama. The photos and documents in one gallery at the Queens Museum that preserve the magical summer of 1936, when Parks Commissioner Moses opened 11 public swimming pools, were so inspiring they made my knees weak. I had the opposite reaction to a series of black-and-white shots showing the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the approach road to the Verrazano Bridge. The photos were taken right after broad swaths of densely populated Bay Ridge, Cobble Hill, and Red Hook had been bulldozed to oblivion, the wounds fresh and raw. Moses, as was his custom, ignored pleas to reroute his highways to spare those working-class neighborhoods, yet in wealthy, politically influential Brooklyn Heights, the images demonstrate that he came up with an innovative scheme to neatly conceal the highway, preserve the treasured view, and create a park, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Maybe my emotional reaction can be attributed to the fact that I reread Robert Caro’s epic 1974 biography of Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, in preparation for Ballon’s exhibitions. In 1,162 pages of sustained outrage, the book tells the story of Moses’s transformation from the populist hero who built Long Island’s Jones Beach and some 600 New York City playgrounds and who rescued Central Park from the neglect of a city government run by greedy Tammany Hall hacks to a power-engorged monster who rammed highways through dense urban neighborhoods with a “meat-ax” and became the un­stoppable engine of “slum clearance,” the éminence grise who largely ran New York City.

Ballon’s approach to Moses is, however, a revisionist one. She asserts that Caro’s angry view of the man was a product of the moment when it was written, as New York was hurtling toward bankruptcy. Now that the city is booming, we can comfortably embrace his accomplishments while writing off his flaws—racism, contempt for mass transit and the public he supposedly served, disinterest in the unique qualities of urban neighborhoods—as “symptomatic of his age.”

Historian Kenneth Jackson’s introduction to the book version of Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, coedited by Ballon and Jackson, attempts to put The Power Broker in perspective. “Whatever the cause of the New York turnaround, it would not have been possible without Robert Moses,” Jackson insists. He argues that in building highways rather than transit Moses was merely “swimming with the tide of history.” True enough, but Caro points out that other swimmers were ahead of the tide. The Power Broker tells of a city planner named F. Dodd McHugh, charged with drawing up a master plan for the city’s airports, who in the 1940s pushed for providing space for transit along the Van Wyck Expressway to Idlewild Airport. If only Moses had been receptive we wouldn’t be stuck with the Air Train, an awkward, unsatisfactory early-twenty-first-century retrofit. In the 1950s, Caro says, Moses ignored studies that demonstrated the economic value of providing mass transit along the route of the Long Island Expressway. And by the 1960s Moses wasn’t swimming but treading water; Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay were desperately trying to find a way to use the surplus amassed by Moses’s fiefdom, the Tri­borough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, for improving mass transit.

Whatever her intentions, Ballon’s exhibition is invaluable, a wonderfully rich assemblage brimming with bits of significant ephemera. At the Museum of the City of New York, on a wall dedicated to the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the 1950s, I read neighborhood activist Lillian Edelstein’s poignant mimeographed handouts asking, “Why Destroy Our Houses?” On another wall there’s a prospectus for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have followed Broome Street from the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges; Moses described the neighborhoods in the project’s path—places we now know as Soho, Little Italy, and Chinatown—as harboring “the most wretched slum housing in the entire city.” I read that and began to wonder about all the other “slums” Moses cleared, like the endless acres he bulldozed for Title I housing during the first wave of federally funded urban renewal. Under that program Moses built most of New York’s most ambitious middle-class housing developments, such as the Lincoln Center towers and Kips Bay Plaza—all indispensable parts of the present-day city, but at what cost? How do we weigh what we lost against what we gained?

Unlike our current crop of Trumps and Ratners, Moses built for the public. That was his great virtue. The problem was that Moses built for a theoretical public; the actual public, especially the portion of it that had the misfortune of living in his right of way, was just a nuisance. Sadly, in recent years there’s been a return to Moses’s methods. Eminent domain, a tool he honed, is back in fashion. And lately redevelopment schemes, such as Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards, have emerged from backrooms as faits accomplis, the city’s land-use review process be damned. So Robert Moses and the Modern City seems particularly significant at this moment—or it could be if it became a catalyst for an honest discussion of the man and his methods.

Strangely, most of the participants in the exhibition’s opening-night symposium seemed to believe that we are now living in a more enlightened age. Hell, maybe we are. Port Authority chairman Anthony Coscia announced a “four-billion-dollar commitment to mass transit” and a renewed “­ability to build generational projects.” Not bad. Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff—who in his efforts a couple of years ago to build a football stadium on Manhattan’s West Side came across as a Moses manqué—gave a winsome talk called “Making Omelets Without Breaking Eggs.” Nice. Unfort­unately, Doctoroff seems to regard the mammoth Atlantic Yards as an example of benign development. Not so nice.

Only one speaker, Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx and an African-American woman on a panel of white men, expressed outrage over the damage Moses had done with his meat-ax. She really got my attention when she mentioned a project that sounds genuinely post-Moses: her organization is collaborating on a plan to decommission the lightly traveled 1.25-mile Moses-built Sheridan Expressway and use the roadway’s 28 acres for 1,000 units of affordable housing, parkland, and much needed community and commercial facilities. Carter’s proposal is an example of what community groups can do if they think creatively and opportunistically, as developers do. But it also smacks of poetic justice. In the Spielberg version of the Moses saga that’s been playing in my head, there’d be a coda: Carter and her cohorts, a multiculti crew in hard hats, would drive their bulldozers triumphantly onto the Sheridan.

On Tuesday, March 20, view the museum’s current exhibition, “Robert Moses and the Modern City: Remaking the Metropolis”, and join Metropolis contributing editor Karrie Jacobs as she shares her views in a compelling talk, “Landscape by Moses.” Jacobs will highlight a number of Moses’s peculiar landscapes and discuss whether or not they have been successfully integrated into the daily life of our city. Refreshments and light hors d’oeuvres will be served. Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, NYC, 6:30 p.m. Space is limited. Please respond to: [email protected].

Recent Programs