Looking Back at Moses

A trio of New York museums explores the voluminous works of controversial urban planner Robert Moses.

New York City is currently undergoing redevelopment on a scale it has not seen for decades. Columbia University is planning to expand its Morningside Heights campus by 6.8 million square feet with a scheme designed by Renzo Piano in collaboration with SOM. Forest City Rattner’s bid to develop Atlantic Yards constitutes the largest private development proposal in the history of the borough of Brooklyn. The rebuilding of Ground Zero represents one of the most ambitious, if politically fraught, initiatives that New York City has seen in years. Finally, over the last decade state and city funding has been used to build a network of waterfront promenades and parks in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Hudson River Park stretches from Chambers Street on the lower west side of Manhattan to 59th Street in midtown. If you can muster the energy, you can already ride your bike from the Staten Island Ferry up to the George Washington Bridge without passing a single traffic light (that’s not true actually, there is a slight interruption when you get to 125th Street. But you get the point).

Given these realities, the fact that the Queens Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, and Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University are now collaborating on an exhibition that looks at the work of Robert Moses (it is officially titled “Robert Moses and the Modern City”) only makes sense. Moses was the most significant figure in the history of city planning in New York, period. His reign spanned from 1934, when he was appointed commissioner of parks, to 1968. Over the course of his life, he constructed 17 pools, 25 playgrounds, 2 zoos, and 3 beaches. Early in his career, he built Jones Beach. Later on, he was responsible for building numerous bridges, from the Verrazano-Narrows to the Whitestone, from the Triborough to the Throgs Neck. He constructed the Long Island Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Cross Bronx Expressway, FDR Drive, and the Henry Hudson Parkway. He brought two World’s Fairs to New York, one in 1939 and a second in 1964-65.

Despite these achievements, for most of the last forty years Moses has been viewed critically by historians and critics alike. During the 1960s, he was blasted by the press for his involvement in developing Lincoln Center, which displaced thousands of tenement dwellers. He was also at loggerheads with Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of American Cities (1961), over his proposal to run an expressway through Greenwich Village. This David and Goliath story, which regularly made front-page headlines, accelerated Moses’ fall from grace and significantly eroded his power. In 1974, Moses’ obsession with power and his Machiavellian disdain for participatory forms of governance was brilliantly documented in Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker, which is as fresh today as it was more than thirty years ago.

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The curator of this exhibition, Hillary Ballon, offers in many ways a revisionist reading of Moses. It acknowledges Moses’ failures—his obstinance, his detachment, and his arrogance. It also features models of little-known projects that were ultimately never realized—his proposal to build an expressway through midtown Manhattan, for example, which we can all be thankful never happened. Yet Ballon sees Moses as a creative realist of sorts who attempted to make good on the problems of his day: the growing significance of the automobile, which threatened to make cities obsolete, and the need for recreational infrastructure, which is still a pressing issue. In the exhibition’s catalog, Ballon also suggests that New York could benefit from a figure like Moses today, who, she and historian Kenneth T. Jackson write in the exhibition catalog, “would have capitalized on the opportunity to rebuild Manhattan after 9/11.”

This last statement is certainly the most problematic thing to come out of the exhibition. On the one hand, the fact that the show is taking place simultaneously on three sites represents a fantastic gesture if only because it also forces us, as spectators, to venture into many neighborhoods and buildings where Moses had a significant impact. The installations are site-specific, they have a historical connection to the subject they depict. Were there no Moses, there would be no Queens Museum, which originally was originally built for the 1939 World’s Fair. Visiting the Queens Museum, we have a chance to see the stunning model of the city of New York, which Moses also helped bring to fruition.

But it is extremely dangerous to celebrate a figure like Moses, as this exhibition does. Simply because Moses got things done and managed to maneuver through a Byzantine and inert municipal bureaucracy does not mean that we should follow his example today. There is no substitute for democratic discourse, particularly where matters of public policy are concerned. One may argue that Moses represents the “lesser evil”—that our increasingly privatized world makes people like Moses look increasingly attractive—but even here one has to acknowledge that Moses’ understanding of the city was incredibly destructive, particularly as the years wore on. New York was not—and is not—a tabula rasa, and many of the most pressing questions that the city faces today have less to do with development and managed growth and more to do with memory and sometimes mourning. Ground Zero is not a failure on account of political infighting or a lack of vision or direction, as historians such as Hillary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson seem to suggest. It’s a failure because we do not quite know how to connect with the history of the site, with the fact that it has a history. The clean-up effort may have been too successful, the devastation erased too quickly, the desire to restore a state of normalcy too sudden and too contrived. In the not so distant future, Fresh Kills, the Staten Island landfill where the debris from September 11th was deposited, will probably surpass Ground Zero in terms of significance and symbolic appeal, particularly once it becomes a public park in the coming years.

This only to say that “Moses and the Modern City” is a great exhibition, one that is worth seeing and debating and thinking about. But it is also a flawed exhibition inasmuch as it heroicizes a figure who failed to grasp the psychic and socio-historical dimensions of urban life. Admittedly, some of the projects Moses sponsored represent stunning formal and aesthetic achievements—the Whitestone-Narrows Bridge is still an amazing site. Many of Moses’ projects have reintegrated themselves (e.g., McCarren Park Pool is a fantastic venue for viewing open-air movies and concerts) into the city. But Moses himself looked at the city largely through a pilot’s cockpit, from an aerial point of view, which is unbelievably limiting in terms of how it objectifies, de-historicizes, and utterly de-personalizes the urban terrain.

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].

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