Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Robert Moses

When I arrived in NYC fifty years ago there was evidence all around of great projects successfully realized in recent years: bridges and highways, parks and playgrounds. Those in the know recognized that these projects were, most of them, orchestrated by a public official, Robert Moses (1886-1981), the “master builder.” Moses certainly knew how to get things done. Yet he died a defeated man. Urban renewal, which he had relentlessly utilized to condemn the space for many of his creations, was discredited. New York City had entered into a period of financial crisis that took many years to solve. And Moses had to endure the publication of an enormous muckraking biography by his nemesis, the historian Robert Caro,
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974.

When I read Caro’s monumental biography I realized that he painted everything in dark tones. There was a real possibility of "spin." In Caro's telling the accomplishments of Moses virtually disappeared, lost in a sea of prosecutorial zeal. It almost seemed as if the giant Caro had nullified the giant Moses.

A comprehensive reexamination of Caro’s demonization of Moses has long been needed. That is now under way. With consummate flair, Professor Hilary Ballon of Columbia University has orchestrated a suite of three exhibitions displaying Moses’s achievement. In addition there was a Symposium ("Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder," March 2-3, with no less than twenty-one different contributors. Pointedly, Robert Caro was not invited. The following remarks reflect gleanings from the Symposium, as well as viewing of the exhibitions.

Fairness requires proper recognition of what Moses did accomplish. His parkways enhanced and preserved New York City’s green belt. With his playgrounds, swimming pools, and construction of Jones’ Beach he vastly enhanced the recreational capacities of the city and the region. It is hard to imagine how New York City could function without Moses’s crown jewel, The Triboro Bridge. More generally, Moses was admired for getting things done. He completed the Henry Hudson Parkway in only four years. It has been longer than that and we still have only a hole in the ground at the World Trade Center site.

Yet the later Moses reveals a different side. He became notorious because of the ruthless evictions of ordinary people. These expulsions were done under color of the legal principle of immanent domain, a procedure that remains controversial. He is also reviled because of his obsession with slicing expressways through the city—the equivalent of the interstate highways elsewhere. Fortunately, his two truly vile expressway projects--the Mid-Manhattan and Lower Manhattan schemes-—were thwarted. They have nonetheless become symbols of the arrogance of power and the evils of urban renewal in general. To support these schemes Moses ordered the construction of elaborate models, which are on display at the Museum of the City of New York.

Why did Robert Moses switch (or so it seems) from being a public benefactor to a public menace? The drug of power explains a good deal. Moreover, Moses functioned in an elite environment that was all-too-favorable to his megalomania. For much of the twentieth century New York State was more an oligarchy than a democracy. For decades Moses usually got his way through his cultivation of powerful individuals in Albany. The wonder is not his downfall, which came in the 1960s, but why he was able to get away with it for so long. There is a larger issue. Follow the money trail, the slogan goes—and that trail leads to Washington DC. The housing act of 1949 and the highway act of 1956 provided vast federal subsidies to state and local authorities. Moses found these incentives hard to resist, but in many ways they proved deleterious to the basic character of New York City.

The centerpiece of Caro’s indictment is the Cross-Bronx Expressway, a segment of I-95. Ostensibly, this highway destroyed a thriving community in the Bronx and led to the subsequent catastrophic decline of that borough. However, the historian Ray Bromley showed that that that highway was not nearly as destructive as Caro claimed. In fact, the Cross-Bronx Expressway had long figured on master plans in just the location in which it actually appeared. Furthermore, the decline of the Bronx was part of an urban decline that affected many cities in the nation.

In retrospect it is clear that Moses’s downfall began with a seemingly minor matter. In 1952 the master planner proposed to extend Fifth Avenue as a two-lane highway right through Washington Square in the heart of Greenwich Village. A group of mothers, seemingly powerless, emerged to contest the scheme. The Village Voice, then just emerging as a counterculture weekly, gave publicity to their efforts. Six years later the Battle of Washington Square was over. Moses lost. And that was not the end of the matter, for out of the conflict came Jane Jacobs’ remarkable book, The Death and Life of the Great American Cities (1961). Among other things, Jacobs’s polemic was a clarion call for revolt against urban renewal throughout the nation.

Of course Moses had never been omnipotent as the myth had it. Some of his other projects were shelved. Staten Island was able to achieve an almost complete nullification. But it was the Battle of Washington Square that turned the tide. The reign of New York’s czar of construction was over.

To be sure, Moses is sometimes blamed for things he had little influence over. For the most part he was not responsible for the high rises (the "projects") built by the NYC Housing Authority. As the contributors to the symposium indicated there were other influential actors at the time, especially Austin Tobin, head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the planner Edward J. Logue. These figures sometimes abetted Moses and sometimes served to check his ambitions.

Moses’s ideas were not as original as they might seem. Many of them were in fact anticipated in the 1929 Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs. Still, it was Moses, with his energy and ruthlessness, who got these things done.

The power broker did not hesitate to put his case before the public in the form of pamphlets and letters to newspapers. His no-holds-bared resort to pungent language is a refreshing change from the scripted mush of most contemporary politicians. Moses’s favorite adjective was “preposterous.”

Looking back over the two days of the Symposium, the variety of the talks is an indication of the groundswell of research—microhistory if you will—on this subject. As a number of the speakers showed, the various NYC agencies keep treasure troves of revealing documents. By the same token, though, this scholarly effort is a little parochial. Perhaps not entirely, for some of the presentations showed awareness of the problematics of urban renewal, and the overall crisis of the cities that became apparent in the sixties.

Adequate foreign comparisons were lacking. For example, Lincoln Center is best compared not with Venice but with sites in the city of Rome. For instance, there is the Campidoglio with its three palaces regularized by Michelangelo. The first design by Wallace Harrison evoked Bernini’s colonnade in St. Peter’s Square. Yet the most telling comparison in the city of Rome may be with Mussolini’s E.U.R, the pompous collection of structures erected for the 1942 Olympics, which never occurred. Harrison’s pallid neoclassicism, complete with travertine textures, would have fit in perfectly with Mussolini’s monumentality.

Links with Paris are telling. Without Baron Haussmann, who reconstructed Paris under Louis Napoleon, there would have been no Moses. Famous for his boulevards, Haussmann did much more, including aqueducts, sewers, markets and parks. The ruling metaphor of the Parisian power broker was the syndesmos, the implication that the city as a giant human being, with ingress, egress, lungs (parks), and circulation. What was the ruling metaphor of Moses? Paris also affords a contemporary comparison. As the era of great projects was coming to a close in NYC, it was starting in Paris, beginning with the Centre Pompidou. Lincoln Center is a series of gestures to the past; the Centre Pompidou looked to the future. Indeed, it still does.

Why are we having the Moses reexamination now? It has been suggested that Caro’s 1974 book was timely as NYC entered into its time of troubles. Bankruptcy loomed and urban unrest continued to rage. It was natural to ask if some of these problems might find their origin in the social engineering that previous decades had so confidently embraced. Now the city is on the upswing again. There is more money and one would hope that we are ready to undertake big projects again (except that rebuilding of the ground-zero site has come a cropper.) Another theory is that the exhibition and the conference simply harvest a crop of scholarship that had been thriving for some time. Now is the time for a number of gifted researchers were eager to present their findings. It was the insight—and the energy—of Professor Hilary Ballon that artfully wove these strands together at this time.

Without taking anything away from the achievement of the Master Organizer, one should examine her credentials. Ballon is a professor at Columbia University, and the unversity is now pondering its own big project. This is intended as a major expansion across 125th Street into Harlem. As with many of Moses’s projects anguished grassroots opposition comes from "little people," owners of small businesses and renter of apartments, who do not want to move. Even though Columbia is a private institution it is threatening the big stick of immanent domain. All this is reminiscent of Robert Moses’s time. It is also ominously reminiscent of 1968, when an earlier Columbia attempt to expand produced riots. When asked about this matter, Ballon offered only an evasive defense. This issue called for sensitivity, but this was lacking.


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