Resurrecting the legacy of Robert Moses

“Robert Moses and the Modern City,” an exhibition currently running in New York (based on a book of the same name by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson), brought to mind bittersweet memories of the Master Builder.

August 11, 2010

I met Moses only once, in December 1968, shortly before his eightieth birthday, when he came to his alma mater, Yale, to speak to us students in the graduate planning program. Earlier in the year, he had been deposed from his last official position, as chair of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

I grew up enjoying many of the wonders Moses had brought to the Empire State: Jones Beach, with its splendid boardwalk and magnificent white-sand beaches (rivaling any the Caribbean could offer, and free!); Fire Island State Park, which he made accessible to millions of landlubbers by building a bridge to the once-isolated barrier beach; and, of course, Shea Stadium, home of Casey Stengel's beloved Amazin' Mets, who in 1969 would defy thousand-to-one odds and win the World Series.

Without Moses, there probably would not have been a Lincoln Center or a New York World's Fair in 1964-5. The United Nations headquarters would have a Philadelphia address. He built 16 parkways, seven bridges, 15 expressways, Harlem River Drive, the West Side Highway, and tens of thousands of low-income apartments. He rescued Central Park from decay and abuse during the Depression and created more than two-and-a-half million acres of parks and recreation facilities, virtually of which are still in use today.

The 1974 publication of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York detailed how the early do-good Moses underwent an almost demonic personality change. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Robert Caro described how Moses single-handedly controlled numerous independent bonding entities to finance projects outside the normal channels of public purview.

He could do great things, and he could be malevolent, all under the rubric of getting things done. “Those who can, build,” he said. “Those who can't, criticize.” One example: His scenic parkways provided access by car to the splendid parks and beaches he built on Long Island. But to keep out the indigent hordes from the city, he made sure the overpasses were built low enough to prevent buses from ever being able to go under them.

The new look at Moses' legacy raises the question of whether a power broker of Mosaic dimensions might not be welcome today. Certainly Moses would not have tolerated the shenanigans embroiling the World Trade Center site, nor would he have abided the post-Katrina inertia in the Gulf Coast. But it is unlikely that, with today's media scrutiny and Internet blogs, a power broker could function as ruthlessly as Moses did in his heyday.

Moses died in 1981, at age 92. The retrospective of his life's work is on view at three museums in the city.



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