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Reconsidering Robert Moses


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#1 Rail Paul

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Posted 28 January 2007 - 10:03 PM

The NY Times has an article today about the movement toward a more favorable view of Robert Moses, the "master builder" of today's New York City. Three new exhibits will show a more human face, and document his many accomplishments.

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.”



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#2 ranitidine

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Posted 28 January 2007 - 10:11 PM

There is a SoHo today because Moses's LoMEx was stopped. It was also called the Broome Street Expressway. Midtown was to be destroyed by the Mid-Manhattan, or 30th Street, Expressway.
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#3 g.johnson

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Posted 28 January 2007 - 10:12 PM

This is not new. I first became aware of Moses through a PBS documentary in the early 90s that presented both sides quite clearly.
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#4 bloviatrix

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Posted 28 January 2007 - 10:33 PM

Apparently, Robert Caro who has written the definitive biography of Robert Moses was not included in the planning process for any of these exhibits and didn't even know about it until recently.

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#5 Rail Paul

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Posted 28 January 2007 - 10:34 PM

The New York Observer offers some additional information on the Moses saga.

One item that's missing in the discussion so far is Mr Moses's role as commissioner of the Long Island Parks Authority and Water Authority. That was the combined role which allowed him to build the Motor Parkway, Northern State, etc.

NY Obs

ETA crossposted with Bloviatrix

Edited by Rail Paul, 28 January 2007 - 10:35 PM.

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#6 bloviatrix

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Posted 28 January 2007 - 10:37 PM

Great minds think alike. :lol:
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#7 ranitidine

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Posted 28 January 2007 - 10:47 PM

The New York Observer offers some additional information on the Moses saga.

One item that's missing in the discussion so far is Mr Moses's role as commissioner of the Long Island Parks Authority and Water Authority. That was the combined role which allowed him to build the Motor Parkway, Northern State, etc.

NY Obs

ETA crossposted with Bloviatrix


Excuse me. The Motor Parkway was constructed either before Moses was born or when he was very little. I believe Henry Ford had a hand in building it.
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#8 Rail Paul

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Posted 28 January 2007 - 11:24 PM


The New York Observer offers some additional information on the Moses saga.

One item that's missing in the discussion so far is Mr Moses's role as commissioner of the Long Island Parks Authority and Water Authority. That was the combined role which allowed him to build the Motor Parkway, Northern State, etc.

NY Obs

ETA crossposted with Bloviatrix


Excuse me. The Motor Parkway was constructed either before Moses was born or when he was very little. I believe Henry Ford had a hand in building it.



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He did build the other Long Island PARKways on the park lands and water reserves, though
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#9 SethG

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Posted 29 January 2007 - 04:59 AM

I haven't seen the shows, but I think the Times article is a little unfair to Caro. Caro's titular linking of Moses to "the fall of New York" may have been a bit much, but within the actual text of the book Caro goes to great lengths to describe Moses' accomplishments. I read the book about fifteen years ago and iirc the early sections of the book are filled with inspiring stories about Moses' work standing up to the monied interests on Long Island in order to build public beaches and roadways, and his rather astonishing success in reforming the state government of New York. Even late in the book, after all of Moses' sins have been parsed, Caro still admits the man's genius as he describes his interview with Moses in which the retired, powerless ex-titan reels of a list of ideas for how New York should be organized to run in the future. Caro freely acknowledges that Moses, even after his ouster, remains the only person with such a sweeping vision of the future.
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#10 Lex

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Posted 29 January 2007 - 03:07 PM

I highly recommend The Power Broker to anyone who really wants to understand how large projects get built in New York. Just the chapters dealing with Moses' close relationship with the great Al Smith in the early part of the book are worth reading for their own sake.

There is an unholy alliance of real estate developers, construction companies, and politicians that drive the process. The public interest is a minor part of how decisions are made. The proposed West Side stadium for the Jets was a recent example of this type of synergy. The idea made no rational sense but it took on a golem-like life of it's own as it was pushed by a combination of entrenched private and governmental groups. Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn is another example.

I remember reading The Power Broker shortly before one of Ed Koch's re-election campaigns. The Daily News had published a list of his top 10 campaign contributors and 7 out of 10 were real estate developers. Bingo.

There were never any corruption charges leveled at Moses himself. He wasn't in it for the money. He orchestrated political and business alliances to further his own vision of New York and in fairness he did more good than harm. Towards the end of his life, however, he lost all perspective on what made the city livable and his 2 abortive Manhattan expressway projects would have been disastrous if they had been built.

The abuses of the Moses era led directly to the checks and balances put in place to govern large scale construction in the city. Although they are far from perfect they have prevented some massive boondoggles like Westway and the proposed Manhattan stadiums for the Jets and the Yankees.

On the other hand they've created so many hurdles that no large scale construction has occurred in New York since Moses left the scene. The paralysis around the Freedom Tower and the WTC Memorial is a case in point.

BTW, Moses built the United Nations building among dozens of monumental projects.

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#11 Stone

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Posted 29 January 2007 - 03:20 PM

I long for the time when real estate developers are recognized as scum worse then lawyers, advertisers, politicians, and pedophiles.

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#12 lovelynugget

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Posted 29 January 2007 - 04:00 PM

... to further his own vision of New York and in fairness he did more good than harm.

One of the book's overarching criticisms is that Moses directed so many of these projects in service of the car rather than in mass/public transportation. For this reason, I think he did more harm than good.

#13 Lex

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Posted 29 January 2007 - 04:16 PM


... to further his own vision of New York and in fairness he did more good than harm.

One of the book's overarching criticisms is that Moses directed so many of these projects in service of the car rather than in mass/public transportation. For this reason, I think he did more harm than good.

True. The lack of a rail link to Kennedy airport is a case in point. It also would have been a good thing to extend the subway to Staten Island at the same time he built the Verrazano bridge. He was powerful enough to have made that happen.

Having said that I think Moses' favoring of the car over mass transit was more a reflection of the mid 20th century mindset rather than something unique to himself. Road building was happening everywhere in the United States during those days - the interstate highway system was born in the 1950s. Moses just did it better than anyone else.
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#14 Lippy

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Posted 29 January 2007 - 04:21 PM

Moses's faith in the automobile is especially puzzling in light of the fact that he never even learned to drive a car.

#15 Wilfrid1

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Posted 29 January 2007 - 04:22 PM

I saw the Observer article. It's nuts to exclude Caro. That's a 1200 page biography, and it will remain definitive for years if not permanently. I have heard Caro speak (on his current subject, LBJ), and he's a thoughtful, engaging, informative guy - not an advocate. By all means elicit alternative views of Moses, but excluding Caro completely tarnishes the entire project.
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