Robert Moses Re-reevaluated
Anyone who loves New York’s past, admires its roads and bridges, and likes to look at how it developed, no doubt already has an opinion about Robert Moses. To some, he remains, with albeit a few blemishes, a brilliant visionary who shaped a great city for generations to come. To others, he has more than just a few blemishes, he in fact did more harm than good. Evaluating all he did and all it means is a difficult task, he did so much. Would New York have been better off with him or without? The question still rages on. Either way he is a fascinating person and remains a very interesting study.
Robert Moses built just about every major road, parkway, tunnel, beach, pool, causeway, and expressway in New York City and Long Island from the 1920’s through the 1960’s. He took the boroughs and linked them together with a network of bridges, roads, and tunnels. He built civic centers, convention centers, stadiums, parks and beaches. It’s not a surprise that Moses did have to push some people out of his way, he couldn’t have built anything unless he did. The question is, how much pushing did he do, was it all necessary, and were the benefits that came from it worthwhile?
By the time you finish reading Robert Caro’s detailed biography of Moses, the answer is that he did much more harm than good. In the 1920’s on Long Island, Moses moved his new parkways off the estates of wealthy mansion owners and then put them right in the fields of local farmers. In the 1930’s he ignored the requests of the people of Sunset Park Brooklyn when he elevated the Gowanus Parkway over 3rd Avenue, the main drag, instead of on 2nd Avenue as they had pleaded, precipitating its decline. In the 40’s in downtown New York he had the New York Aquarium in Battery Park destroyed purely as revenge for the defeat of his prized Brooklyn Battery Bridge project. As slum clearance coordinator, he evicted hundreds of thousands of people from their homes all across the city. In the 1950’s he pushed the Cross Bronx Expressway through the heart of a vibrant neighborhood and refused to change the path of the roadway at all, which helped destroy the community. Time and time again Caro finds examples of needless destruction caused in the name of would be improvements.
His roads did bring the city together like it had never been before, and allowed millions to get back and forth from work as well as to his beaches, but traffic still only got worse after they were built. Since Moses helped choke off public transportation funds in favor of his roads, there was nowhere else for people to go but on them. Ideally, his bridges and highways could have been one alternative for travel, buoyed by an efficient network of railroads and subways. Public transportation could have even been built right alongside his new expressways. But Moses refused to allow public transportation next to any of his roads. The LIE, Van Wyck, and Jones Beach could have had rail systems built right with them, but Moses said that such projects would push his construction costs outrageously over budget, even though most of his projects ran way over budget anyway.
The thought that Moses was leaving a path of destruction did not originate with Caro in 1974. It wasn’t so much that Caro unearthed it than he found it from groups of people all over the city and suburbs who had dealt with Moses and paid dearly. From Long Island farmers, to Brooklyn merchants, to countless in the Bronx and Manhattan, people knew Moses would move them out on a whim in the name of his next pet project. Jane Jacobs knew it when she published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, and fought along with her fellow Greenwich village residents against the ten lane expressway that would have forever changed the face of their quaint neighborhood. The idea that Moses had been more problem than solution was already almost common knowledge when in the 1980’s authors Jasmine Pierce and Neil J Sullivan revealed that it was Moses who forced Walter O’Malley to move the Dodgers out of Brooklyn. Moses came to be the person who was more than anyone else blamed for the decline of the Rockaway’s, The Bronx, Coney Island, and the city itself.
This does not mean that everyone turned together and declared Moses a villain pure and simple. PBS ran a mostly positive biography of him in the late 1980’s. It credited Moses as the man who brought a crippled New York into the 20th century and did it with great efficiency and effectiveness. It quoted a New York Times obituary stating “he hurt thousands, but he helped millions.” And even Caro’s book isn’t all bad; it concedes the inherent value of Jones Beach, Orchard Beach, Lincoln Center, and The United Nations. Ric Burns featured Caro heavily in his New York documentary series in 2001. Burns extensively detailed the destructive effects of Moses, particularly slum clearance. But by 2002 articles and books started appearing in increasing numbers which expressed newly found praise for Moses. Led by Columbia Professor Kenneth T. Jackson and author Phillip Lopate, more and more people began to question Caro’s conclusions and looked at Moses in a more positive light.
The new pro Moses arguments included the following points: (1) He built an incredible amount of great things. Yes, there were some big negatives, but they still do not outweigh the benefits. He built too many great roads, beautiful parks, parkways, bridges, and more not to be of benefit. (2) Yes he emphasized the automobile, but he did so at a time when everybody was in love with the car. It wasn’t so much as Moses was pushing the automobile, as Moses was being pushed to push the automobile. (3) Yes he was racist, but just about everyone in public administration was also during that era. (4) His arrogant personality worked against him, Yes he uprooted people, but his abrasive public persona made him appear much worse than he really was. (5) The decline of the city neighborhood was inevitable. In the 1960’s and 1970’s it would have come anyway, regardless of anything Moses did. It happened in other cities as well. (6) Caro’s book was written in 1974, at a time of terrible strife for New York City. This made Moses an easy target of blame for its problems. The city has since revitalized, if you are going to blame Moses for its failures then, how can you not credit him for its successes now.
The argument that in the end we are better off thanks to Moses bridges and roads is the most solid of these. It’s doubtful anyone else would have ever built close to half of what he did, and where would we be without all of it today? Not one major road project has been completed in the city since Moses left 40 years ago, and few were completed in the years before his arrival. Moses himself said critics never build anything, all they do is criticize. And it’s hard to criticize Jones Beach, Lincoln Center, and the Triboro bridge. The other pro-Moses points are harder to make. It’s not easy to pin Moses’ love for the automobile on anyone but himself, he was such a staunch advocate for the car all his life. As for racism, being a racist city planner can be a real problem, especially in a city where there are many impoverished blacks and minorities within its boundaries. Moses forced large numbers of them out from where they lived, but never gave them anywhere to go. And while yes, Moses was not the only reason people were fleeing the city, he was a major player. His parkways made the suburbs someplace to drive to, his expressways made the city someplace to drive through. Does he deserve credit for the rejuvenation of the city, yes, but how much does the city benefit today from an improved public transportation system which Moses fought so hard against.
In the end, the Moses debate will no doubt continue. Everyone is entitled to their own perspective. I always find myself thinking that his life and work was an opportunity lost. We will never truly know if East Tremont would have survived had Moses listened to its residents and agreed to move the Cross Bronx Expressway, but at least we could say he tried to help them. We will never know how much less traffic would be on the parkway to Jones Beach if Moses had allowed the Long Island Railroad to build a rail line to it, but at least we wouldn’t care if he blocked buses from getting to the beach by building the bridges too low. We will never know how much easier getting around the city would be if Moses had allowed rail lines on the Long Island and Van Wyck Expressways, but at least we could say that he took a realistic approach to the city’s transportation needs and addressed them.
Even in the worst of lights, it’s impossible not to look at the value of his bridges, roads, beaches, and stadiums. Even in the best of lights it’s impossible to ignore that he was ruthless, bitter, combative, and destructive. In the end, we can debate if Moses overall grades a B+ or a C-, but the city would be a lot better off if we could have realistically scored him an A.