The prize-winning biography "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York" by Robert A Caro (1974) is about the man who had perhaps the single greatest impact on the physical design of New York City and its surrounding areas. As is often the case with stories of great personal accomplishments, troubling consequences can accompany the good, as well as interesting contradictions. I thought Robert Moses and his story would be an interesting discussion topic.
Robert Moses was born in 1888 to wealthy parents and moved with his family to New York City in his youth. His mother was a domineering, demanding and unyielding person and Robert also developed these traits. He was always interested in public service and his early years were idealistic, focusing on open government, good government, government reform and merit-based civil service. While he was interested in helping the less fortunate, he was an elitist and believed enlightened individuals, such as himself, were in the best position to guide public policy. In his early work years, he moved from one low level position to another, was frustrated by bureaucracy, and was not able to accomplish much.
However, after he allied himself with Al Smith (twice Governor of New York), things changed for Moses. While they were really close to opposites (Moses an elitist reformer and Smith a man of the people associated with the Tammany political machine), they got along well and maintained a close lifetime relationship. Smith made Moses president of the Long Island State Parks Commission so he could follow up on his idea of developing parks and roadways to reach them. At this point, Moses started the transition away from public debate and focused on getting things done. His most effective tools were writing legislation in private to achieve his goals, and using public administrations to fund his initiatives and insulate him from political opposition. He also started to make use of aggressive eminent domain practices. Moses felt strongly about preserving and creating recreational areas on Long Island and providing easy automobile access to such facilities. One of his first major projects was Jones Beach. His aggressive acquisition of land met with much opposition, but the reception the area received after it opened made Moses a hero.
Governor Smith also appointed Moses to be NY Secretary of State and he had a significant role in reorganizing the states agencies into Departments. Smith was succeeded as Governor by FDR, who did not like Moses at all. However, Moses retained positions of influence because of his ability to get things done and the popularity of his parks. When LaGuardia became NYC Mayor, he made Moses the city's first Parks Commissioner, but his power and accomplishments far exceeded that nominal position. He did make a disastrous run for Governor of NY in 1934, which he lost in an historic landslide by alienating almost everyone. But, because of his accomplishments and executive abilities, he retained his state and city appointments.
At one point he held 12 appointed offices simultaneously, including: New York City Parks Commissioner, head of the State Parks Council, head of the State Power Commission and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. He was responsible for overseeing an amazing number of massive projects for NYC, Long Island and upstate New York. In addition to Jones Beach State Park, these included: the Triborough Bridge, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (with the Port Authority), the West Side Highway, the Long Island parkway system, the Niagara and St. Lawrence power projects, 658 playgrounds in New York City, 416 miles of parkways, more than 10 other bridges, Co-Op city, multiple public housing projects, and slum clearance for the Lincoln Center complex.
He continued to have a major role in shaping NYC and the surrounding areas, and his career lasted far beyond normal retirement age. However, he was ultimately forced out of public service. A number of his later projects and proposals met with major opposition and/or scandal. The substantial negative impacts of his projects became more prominent in the public consciousness and his arrogant behavior alienated both powerful politicians and community groups. Highlights of his fall from power and the tarnishing of his legacy include:
- The Cross-Bronx Expressway, which required the demolition of at least 1,500 apartments in a one-mile stretch alone, and had substantial negative consequences for the impacted neighborhoods
- Proposing a bridge instead of tunnel for the Brooklyn-Battery crossing, in face of local opposition
- Various public housing and slum clearance projects resulting in community disruption and massive displacement of residents, while not producing improved housing conditions
- Investigations uncovering links to organized crime and shady dealings
He was named president of the[masked] World's Fair as a graceful exit from these scandals. It was his last major public project and was not as successful as he had hoped. In 1968 he lost his last public position as head of the Triborough Bride and Tunnel Authority.
His story is one of contradictions. He vigorously blocked public transportation options in his parks access and transportation projects, despite his nominal goal of serving the public and providing access to recreational facilities to common folks. He proposed new roadway systems to reduce congestion, but they resulted in increased traffic. He was initially a strong proponent of open government and reform, while the massive achievements of his career were based on legislation and decisions made in private; a single-minded pursuit of power; and a pattern of favor trading, payoffs and contacts with criminal elements.
The biography of Moses by Caro is certainly worth reading, but it is quite lengthly. If you have time, the following links should be useful pre-meetup adjuncts to the above description:
- The New York Time Obituary of Robert Moses:
- Robert Moses, CitiesX interview (6:23) [NYU Professor Hilary Ballon discusses the lasting imprint that Robert Moses left on New York City]:
- American Experience: The World that Moses Built Part 3 (9:00) [A snippet of a much longer PBS American Experience series]
- A Tale of Two Cities [May 6, 2007 NY Times Article on revisionist reaction to negative picture of Moses painted by The Power Broker]
- Jane Jacobs vs Robert Moses: Urban Fight of the Century (27:38)
With this as the background, I suggest a discussion focusing on the following questions and themes:
1. Open decision-making vs. getting things done. Contrasting value of efficiency/efficacy with that of openness, fairness, hearing all sides.
2. Urban design considerations: transportation efficiency vs. neighborhood scale and sense of community
3. Did even the negative aspects of the Moses legacy have positive value? For example, bringing negative aspects of urban development trends that would have happened anyway (but at a less noticeable pace) to our attention more quickly.
4. Were lessons from the story of Robert Moses unique to the New York metro area or did they have applicability and impacts to other parts of the country? Other cities? The Interstate highway system? Elsewhere?
5. For those more familiar with Philadelphia, how did highway and park development in this area differ? How did Ed Bacon differ from Robert Moses?
6. How the idealism of youth sometimes changes with age and experience:
a. To what extent does it result from personal experience and early failures vs. general experience of how things get done?
b. To what extent does it result from personal qualities such as ego?
c. How elitism in the name of helping those less fortunate sometimes goes astray.