Robert Moses Re-reevaluated

Robert Moses

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.

Robert A. Caro

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.

Phillip T. Jackson

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.

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  1. Mike Gordon

     /  January 21, 2011

    Very well written, Todd. I agree with what you said 100%..

    “The decline of the city neighborhood was inevitable. In the 1960′s and 1970′s it would have come anyway” is an excellent observation. As people gained wealth, they were not going to stay in Brooklyn or the Bronx.

  2. Dean Lefebvre

     /  January 21, 2011

    I agree with you Todd, a very straight forward approach to the Moses Legacy…NO SPIN,,that was good and honest ! The part about The Cross Bronx holds true that you wrote, My Great Aunt lived on Gleason Ave right next to The Cross Bronx and before the Cross bronx was ever thought of. She lasted there to the 1980’s, the “Old neighborhood” died off, and crime ran hog while The “Lindsley” (as the old transit union boss(Mike Quil) use to call him)/ Koch adminstration’s did nothing. Moses didn’t kill those neighborhoods..they (the Mayors and their policies did, plus alot of other things that you very well stated in this article. I remember visiting from the late 1950’s to the 1980’s (the apartment)and witnessing the decline..sad..beautiful lobby, then urine smelling,graffti covered, junkies on the stairs (5 Story walk up),mailboxes torn and burned out of the wall..Today if you go down the Cross Bronx it is one block from where you see the Pontiac Firebird up on the roof of a body shop going towards the GWB Left side

    • Mike Gordon

       /  January 21, 2011

      Wow, I forgot about that car up there on the CBE! Actually located it on Google street view. As someone who drove on the highway very often, and hated it, I did marvel at how it was built every time on it. I’d think how they just dug a trench through the Bronx, and laid a highway down in the middle. Looking at the brick walls and then up at the buildings that remained…


     /  June 3, 2011

    Here’s a vignette related to Bob Moses and Jones Beach:
    When I first started my college summer job in 1952 as a toll collector at Jones Beach State Park, two chief responsibilities were stressed:
    – Keep the traffic moving!
    – Be on the lookout for state cars with special license plates.

    The long list of plate numbers to watch for included officials from New York State government, the Long Island State Park Commission and other agencies. As soon as one was spotted, we were to call the Jones Beach operator immediately so that appropriate actions could be taken in the several minutes it would take the car to travel from the tollbooth to the administrative offices near the beach.

    One quiet weekday on the Meadowbrook Causeway, a black car entered my lane, driven by a chauffeur, with a man and a woman seated in the back. As soon as the car left, a more experienced collector quickly jumped over the counter to get to the nearest phone. Excitedly, he told the operator that Mr. Robert Moses had just passed through in a state car that was not on the list. I could imagine the panic as the staff scrambled to get ready for a surprise visit from the powerful Commissioner.

    Bob Moses (1888-1981), the “Master Builder,” was responsible for the construction of Jones Beach, the crown jewel of the NY State park system, it’s still considered one of the best beaches in the world. He also created most of the state parks on Long Island, along with the hundreds of miles of limited access roadways leading to them – all built during the Great Depression of the 1930s. These were in addition to the many urban planning projects he handled in the state. A major deconstruction of the Moses myth began with Robert Caro’s scathing biography of 1974, “The Power Broker.” But in 2007, a comprehensive retrospective, nicknamed “Rehabilitating Moses,” took place at three museum venues in New York City.

    For the toll collector’s excellent early warning, he should have received a special commendation, but I suspect his “heads-up” went unrewarded. Bureaucracy takes care of its own, and we were, after all, only summer hires.

  4. manhattan resident

     /  October 27, 2012

    Yes, I saw those exhibits and thought, no, Moses destroyed much of New York. The Cross Bronx alone is a travesty along with the Gowanus. And the Aquarium should have stayed where it was. So much of what Moses did was out of spite or because somebody’s cousin had a warehouse in the way (CrossBronx, it was the county leader’s cousin). And he hated public transportation. It’s taken decades to try to straighten that out. And Lincoln Center has been redesigned and rebuilt at the cost of many millions, maybe a billion dollars. So much for the good Moses.

  5. Gene Biancheri

     /  November 28, 2012

    Maybe we have to rethink the Elton John song [lyrics follow] — was he writing about Robert Moses after all?

    Border Song (Holy Moses)

    Holy Moses I have been removed
    I have seen the spectre he has been here too
    Distant cousin from down the line
    Brand of people who ain’t my kind
    Holy Moses I have been removed

    Holy Moses I have been deceived
    Now the wind has changed direction and I’ll have to leave
    Won’t you please excuse my frankness but it’s not my cup of tea
    Holy Moses I have been deceived

    I’m going back to the border
    Where my affairs, my affairs ain’t abused
    I can’t take any more bad water
    Been poisoned from my head down to my shoes

    Holy Moses I have been deceived
    Holy Moses let us live in peace
    Let us strive to find a way to make all hatred cease
    There’s a man over there
    What’s his colour I don’t care
    He’s my brother let us live in peace
    He’s my brother let us live in peace
    He’s my brother let us live in peace

  6. builder by trade

     /  August 29, 2014

    they should have put i 95 in the center of the long island sound up on casons buried deep in the 60 foot bottom water..

    think of them florida keys and the bridges …

  1. Infrastructure Would Be Nice | The Handbuilt City

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