Rethinking Robert Moses

What if New York’s notorious master builder wasn’t such a bad guy after all?

In the August/September 2002 issue of Metropolis, writer Phillip Lopate wrote a revisionist essay on the works of Robert Moses. Rather than portray Moses as power hungry and short-sighted to the needs of the people, Lopate writes that Moses “was one of the greatest heroes of the twentieth century, and one of our greatest Americans.”

Lopate’s essay was no doubt an inspiration for Robert Moses and the Modern City, an exhibit that examines the city planner and is currently on display at three musems throught New York—Queens Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, and Wallach Art Galleryof Columbia University.


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I am struck by the fact that whenever people from all walks of life—stockbrokers, leftist English professors, artists, bankers, carpenters—talk to me about New York City, they knowingly trace its problems back to Robert Moses. There exists a startling consensus that Moses was a monster, the enemy of the good. This Manichean tale—how Moses ruined, or tried to ruin, New York—has indeed become the city’s postwar master narrative, our Romulus and Remus myth. The last episodes of Ric Burns’s PBS documentary on New York, for example, regurgitated it whole. It has proven extraordinarily useful, as master narratives often are, and has only two drawbacks: 1) it may not be true—or true anywhere near the extent people believe; 2) it prevents us from interpreting New York’s history with accuracy and nuance, not to mention developing more sophisticated narratives that might better suit our planning for the city’s future.

The genesis of the “satanic majesty” version of Moses is of course Robert Caro’s magnificently readable and researched biography, The Power Broker, which first appeared in 1974. A great work of investigative reporting and urban history, no one can deny. The summer I read it, I gobbled it down like a detective novel to find out the answers to a lurid crime. I felt I had stumbled upon a Rosetta stone that explained for the first time the city around me, its physical mysteries and disenchantments.

Over the years I began to experience little voices of doubt. Some arose from overhearing architects and planners mutter, “What I’d give for a Robert Moses to cut through the bureaucratic crap.” As this seemed the equivalent of “Mussolini made the trains run on time,” I was inclined to dismiss it. But the more I witnessed New York City’s paralysis in tackling any new public works or large civic improvements, the more I suspected that maybe the old guy had a point. Then I came across a book by Moses himself, Public Works: A Dangerous Trade, and discovered a mind far more playful and subtle than the caricatured villain we have made of him—and a literary style better than most of his critics. I will excuse a lot for a well-written sentence.

But let me try to make the case for Moses. My first line of defense is that he accomplished much more good than bad. “Oh, did Moses do good things as well?” I am sometimes asked incredulously. Well, yes: he built Riverside Park and Jones Beach and dozens of neighborhood playgrounds and swimming pools, added 20,000 acres to the city’s parkland and 40,000 acres to Long Island’s, built seven major bridges (Triborough, Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone, Henry Hudson, Verrazano, Cross-Bay, Marine Parkway) and almost all the highways and parkways in Greater New York—627 miles total—without which the city would have become completely immobilized and stagnant. In fact Caro spent hundreds of pages diligently and judiciously chronicling the magnificent things Moses did, but it matters little, partly because most people who summarize The Power Broker have never actually read the massive work, and partly because the public loves contemplating Moses more as its vampire than its benefactor. Who likes to be grateful? So his achievements (Caro acknowledges him as the greatest city builder in history) tend to drop out of the picture.

My second argument is that Moses is unfairly held accountable for many questionable urban policies that were national, even global, at the time. It was not Moses who chose the automobile as the preferred mode of transportation in the twentieth century, or passed the federal highway construction act that unloosed billions of dollars for suburbanization, or decided that highways ought to be placed along waterfronts (that was done everywhere, alas), or decreed that public housing should be sited according to neighborhood racial patterns (it was standard governmental “wisdom” at the time), or mandated millions for slum clearance. He merely implemented these policies, yet somehow he has become their personification. Caro’s argument is that because Moses carried out these policies so forcefully and skillfully, everyone else copied him. I would argue that these policies were going through, Moses or no Moses.

What Moses did was to follow the ineluctable flow of dollars, wherever it happened to be at the moment, and siphon off a sizable chunk for what he deemed the betterment of New York. Even regarding these questionable policies, his record is sufficiently a mixture of good and bad that how we choose to evaluate Moses depends largely on our initial predisposition for or against him. Yes, he placed highways on the river, cutting off the populace from waterfront access, but he also tucked them under beautifully in places (such as the Brooklyn Promenade, Carl Schurz Park, and the Battery). Did he fail to tuck them under throughout because he was evil or benighted? Or because the budget did not permit more? Yes, he rammed through thousands of low-income public housing units that were grim, depressing, and monotonous; but the city, in its chronic housing shortage, would today be desperate without them. Yes, he tricked Staten Island into letting the municipality use Fresh Kills as a garbage dump by claiming it would only be temporary; but as it happens, it served that function beautifully, and now that it is closed, New York faces a major waste-disposal crisis. Yes, he engaged in slum clearance that cruelly displaced thousands of poor people; he replaced it with housing for the middle and upper classes but also with facilities that helped consolidate New York’s status as world capital—the United Nations headquarters, Lincoln Center, the Coliseum, and the Fordham, Pratt, and Long Island University campuses. I have to say I am not entirely opposed to what he did: cities are not obliged to maintain slums as slums, and when a market for higher-end uses exists, it may make fiscal sense to go for it, taking into consideration the city’s greater good. Of course, you hope that in upgrading these neighborhoods a commensurate effort is made to provide decent low-income housing elsewhere for those displaced—a hope often disabused. Moses often seemed cheerfully indifferent to the plight of those dislocated by his constructions. On the other hand, he built more public housing than anyone else.

My third argument is that too much of the anti-Moses sentiment derives from his character (at least as it has come down to us from Caro), and that we are far too petty and limited by political correctness in assessing it. The Power Broker paints an indelible portrait of the man as an elitist snob, a racist, and a wannabe patrician, an early champion of meritocracy whose arrogance and intellectual contempt led to the autocratic refusal to listen to others, and (horrors!) a builder of highways who never drove a car himself. Some of Caro’s judgments seem off. We are told that, having failed as a politician because he lacked the common touch, Moses amassed uncommon power behind the scenes. Well, what is wrong with an able person seeking to accomplish things as an appointed official if he cannot get elected to public office? Must we act naively shocked that, in a capitalist democracy, considerable clout may rest in the hands of nonelected individuals? Perhaps the time has also come to forgive Moses for roughly taking people by the arm when he wished to make a point, as Caro noted he was wont to do.

Of course the man was arrogant. He was the greatest shaper of cities in history, for God’s sake. He made Baron Haussmann look like a subcontractor. A better title for Robert Moses’s life story might have been The Master Builder; but by calling his huge study The Power Broker, Caro fixed a tantalizing label on Moses that would throw him more into the company of Boss Tweed and Mayor Daley than Roebling, Burnham, and De Lesseps. Not that it didn’t make good dramatic sense: by doing so, he could transform his autobiographical subject into a Shakespearean tragic protagonist, a Richard III or Macbeth grasping for more and more power, for its own sake.

Still, there is something circular about Caro’s argument that power is an addictive drug or, as in the old adage, “The more you have it, the more you want it.” It rests on the assumption that power itself and the desire for power are evil. This prejudice against the exercise of power and the pursuit of immortal glory is so in tune with our age that it requires taking a step back from it to grasp just how peculiar it would seem to the ancient Greeks, say, or the people of the Italian Renaissance. To Caro, what motivated Moses was the sheer abstraction Power. To Moses himself, I believe, it was the chance to act effectively, to accomplish more of his vision. For example, when Moses took over the public housing authority, an unsympathetic observer could see this as a naked grab for more power—his need to control every facet of New York City’s operation. But Moses—given his justified confidence in his abilities as a builder of public works and his awareness that there was no one else around even remotely as capable—might have felt that if those units were to get built, it would have to be by him.

Moses was a pragmatic political animal who practiced “the art of the possible.” He knew how the levers of society operated, and his dislike of planning critics and do-gooders rose from his sense that they did not. He defended Metropolitan Life Insurance’s plan to build Stuyvesant Town—even if it meant splitting off an uptown counterpart, Riverton, for blacks—because to turn down the offer would have, Moses felt, discouraged private builders in the future from working on moderate-income housing in the city. Acknowledging in a letter that the company’s chairman, Fred Ecker Sr., was “hard-boiled and conservative” and had surrounded himself with some “very poor advisers,” Moses went on to say: “The only constructive suggestion I can offer is to get Fred Sr. to take more Negro tenants at Stuyvesant and Cooper, get himself a new housing vice president with more milk of human kindness and less ice water in his veins, and keep abreast of the times.”

Was Moses a racist? Yes and no. Being a pragmatist, he understood that integration was a sign of the times. Another example of his pragmatic approach: Moses wanted to place the United Nations headquarters in Flushing Meadows, the old World’s Fair site, where he thought the organization would have more room to grow than in midtown Manhattan. But when the UN hierarchy, cool to the Queens site, started leaning toward choosing another city, Moses got on the phone and in 48 hours brokered the deal to have Rockefeller donate land in the East 40s.

For a man lambasted as rigid, Moses showed remarkable flexibility when it mattered. (Not that his ability to compromise earned him any points with purists, but the secretary-general of the UN, Trygve Lie, certainly appreciated it.) In keeping with the Shakespearean-tragedy scheme, Caro breaks down Moses’s life conveniently into discrete segments: Moses the Good, Moses the Bad—with 1954 being the fault line. When he built parks for kids and fought the Long Island barons to put a parkway through to the shore, so that the public could bathe at Jones Beach and elsewhere, he was a good guy. When he put a highway through a working-class quarter of the Bronx, he was a bad guy. This simplistic division of Moses’s life, though it suits our need for a see-how-the-mighty-fall scenario, distorts his basically unitary nature. He saw himself as operating the same way, following the same vision, all along. Absolutely, the destruction of the city’s fabric by the Cross-Bronx Expressway and other Moses highway projects was deplorable. But the dice are unfairly loaded in Caro’s tour de force chapter “One Mile,” recounting the Cross-Bronx Expressway saga: he pits Robert the King against the little people, such as Sam and Lillian Edelstein, and lo and behold, the reader chooses the latter. By the way, the sad fact is that even when no highways went through those old Jewish working-class neighborhoods, they were doomed to change and wither. There is only so much you can blame on highway construction.

I might add that some of the greatest sins for which Moses is held accountable are projects that never got built, such as the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Terrible they would have been, but it seems upside down to minimize or forget all the wonderful deeds he did while fixating on his unbuilt plans. What other genius would we cut so little slack? We Lilliputians can no longer take the measure of a Moses. From my own ant’s-view perspective, he was one of the greatest heroes of the twentieth century, and one of our greatest Americans. But we have problems with great men. “The unmasking of great men and women, true as a tactic, is false as a discipline,” critic David Bromwitch wrote. “By proving you contingently superior to the most admirable examples of the past, it deprives you of a weapon of criticism and a wellspring of hope. It fosters not love of perfection but moral snobbery and self-satisfaction.”

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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