Moses's reputation has long been that of a colossus, trampling individual rights, and entire neighborhoods in his effort to build bridges, expressways, and other infrastructure. His disdain for mass transit, and for the rights of minorities is the stuff of legend and fact.
I believe his last public initiative was the plan to construct a lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have taken out hundreds of blocks in lower Manhattan, similar to the impact of the Cross-Bronx Expressway on the southern part of that Borough.
But according to the Columbia University architectural historian Hilary Ballon and assorted colleagues, Moses deserves better — or at least a fresh look. In three exhibitions opening in the next few days — at the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art and Columbia University — Ms. Ballon argues that too little attention has been focused on what Moses achieved, versus what he destroyed, and on the enormous bureaucratic hurdles he surmounted to get things done.
With the city on the brink of a building boom unparalleled since Moses’ heyday — the reconstruction of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, an overhaul of the Far West Side, sweeping redevelopment downtown — Ms. Ballon and other scholars argue that his legacy is more relevant than ever.
“Living in New York, one is aware there has been no evident successor or successors to Moses,” she said. “There aren’t master builders. Who is looking after the city? How do we build for the future?” All around New York State, she suggests, people tend to take for granted the parks, playgrounds and housing Moses built, now generally binding forces in those areas, even if the old-style New York neighborhood was of no interest to Moses himself. And were it not for Moses’ public infrastructure and his resolve to carve out more space, she argues, New York might not have been able to recover from the blight and flight of the 1970s and ’80s and become the economic magnet it is today.
“Every generation writes its own history,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a historian of New York City at Columbia who with Ms. Ballon edited “Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York” (W. W. Norton), the catalog accompanying the exhibitions. “It could be that ‘The Power Broker’ was a reflection of its time: New York was in trouble and had been in decline for 15 years. Now, for a whole host of reasons, New York is entering a new time, a time of optimism, growth and revival that hasn’t been seen in half a century. And that causes us to look at our infrastructure.”
“A lot of big projects are on the table again, and it kind of suggests a Moses era without Moses,” he added.
As for Mr. Caro, 71, he said he was not informed of the exhibitions in advance, nor is he part of a symposium Thursday at the Museum of the City of New York or other panel discussions pegged to them. Asked how he felt about having been excluded, Mr. Caro said: “When I am writing a book, I try always to give all sides a chance to express their viewpoint. I guess they didn’t want my viewpoint expressed, and not inviting me is certainly an effective means of accomplishing that.”
He will make a solo appearance at the museum on Feb. 11, but only because one of the exhibition’s financers, the philanthropist Roger Hertog, argued that Mr. Caro should be included.
“The exhibition elevates Moses’ achievements to historic — almost grandiose — accomplishment, yet he’s a complicated person,” Mr. Hertog said. “If you’re going to really think about this, there is this looming presence, this thousand-pound gorilla, in the middle of the room, and it’s Caro. His interpretation has to be heard as well.”
Fact? or Fiction?