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Robert Moses

Robert Moses (1888 - 1981) was the master builder of 20th century New York City. As the shaper of a modern city, his only peer is Baron Haussmann of Second Empire Paris. Although he never held elective office, Moses was the most powerful person in New York City government from the 1930s to the 1950s. Moses literally changed shorelines, built roadways in the sky, stadia, and zoos. Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of people, contributed to the ruin of the South Bronx, the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the decline of public transit, but Moses was a man with a crusade; he truly believed "cities are for traffic," and "if the ends don't justify the means, what does?"

Table of contents
1 Rise to power
2 Moses's Projects
3 Decline of his influence

Rise to power

Robert Moses, "the very flower of New York City reform movement," was born in 1888 to assimilated German-Jewish parents in New Haven, Connecticut. Moses' father was a successful department store owner and real estate speculator; his mother was a forceful and brilliant woman, with her own love of building.

After attending Yale University and spending time in Europe, Moses became attracted to New York City reform politics. Moses at this time was an idealist, and hatched several plans to get rid of patronage hiring in New York City. None went very far, but Moses, due to his intelligence, did catch the notice of Belle Moskowitz, a friend of Al Smith.

Moses rose to power with Al Smith. Smith gave Moses jobs, and Moses did the jobs extraordinarily well, such as the development of Jones Beach as a public park. Moses knew the law better than most lawyers, and he knew engineering better than most engineers. At a time when the public was used to Tammany Hall corruption and incompetence, Moses was seen as a savior of government. Shortly after President Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration, the federal government had millions of dollars to spend, but states and cities had few projects ready. Moses was one of the only people to have plans prepared. At one point one-quarter of federal construction dollars were being spent in New York, and Moses had 80,000 people working under him.

Moses's Projects

Moses persuaded Smith and the government of New York City to let him have jobs for the state and the city simultaneously - at one point, he simultaneously held twelve titles. For the city he was parks commissioner, and for the state he was chairman of the Long Island Parks Commission. He had power over the construction of all public housing projects, but the position that gave him the most power was his chairmanship of the Triborough Bridge Authority.

The Triborough Bridge, actually three bridges, connects the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens. The legal structure of a public authority made it impervious to influence from mayors and governors, since Commissioners are appointed for multi-year terms. Since NYC and New York State were perpetually strapped for money, but the bridge's toll revenues were in the tens of millions a year, Moses was the only person in New York who could pick up the tab for big construction projects.

Just how powerful was Moses? In the late 1930s it was decided to build an additional vehicular link between Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. The decision was between a bridge and a tunnel. A bridge requires an enormous amount of space where it lands, a tunnel very little. A Brooklyn Battery Bridge would have destroyed Battery Park and harmed the financial district. The bridge was opposed by historical preservationists, Wall Street financial interests and property owners, high society people, construction unions (since a tunnel would be more work for them), the Manhattan borough president, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and governor Herbert Lehman.

Moses wanted a bridge though. He wanted a soaring monument to himself, he wanted something that could carry more cars. LaGuardia and Lehman had no money to spend and the federal government felt it had given New York enough. Moses, because of his control of Triborough, had money to spend, and he decided his money could only be spent on a bridge.

The US Navy has the power to block anything that spans a major waterway, so President Roosevelt ordered the Navy to assert that a bridge, if bombed, would block the East River. It was a completely bogus claim, but it effectively stopped Moses. In retaliation for being prevented from building his bridge, Moses dismantled the aquarium that had been in Castle Clinton. Ultimately he was forced to settle for a tunnel connecting Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan, now called the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

Moses's power actually increased after World War II, when, after the retirement of LaGuardia, a series of weak mayors gave him everything he ever asked for. Named city "construction coordinator" in 1946 by Mayor William O'Dwyer, Moses became the official representative of New York City in Washington, D.C. Moses was also now given the powers over public housing that had eluded him when LaGuardia was in charge. Moses was the sole person authorized to negotiate in Washington for New York City projects. He could now remake New York for the automobile. Before Moses, most housing projects in New York were small scale (like the projects on the Queens side of the Queensborough Bridge). With Moses, projects grew to be the spartan LeCorbusier not-of-the-city monstrosities that we now associate with public housing. By 1959, Moses had built 28,000 apartment units on hundreds of acres. Ironically, to clear the land for the high-rises, he often destroyed almost as many housing units as he built.

Moses ruled supreme around New York City from the 1930s to the 1960s. He was responsible for the building of the Throgs Neck, the Bronx-Whitestone, the Henry Hudson, and the Verrazano Narrows bridges. His other projects included the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Belt Parkway, the Laurelton Parkway, and many more. He was the mover behind Shea Stadium and Lincoln Center, and contributed to the United Nations building. Los Angeles is considered the freeway city, but New York actually has more miles of highway.

Moses himself never learned to drive, and his view of the automobile was shaped by the 1920s, when the car was a toy. Moses' highways were curving, landscaped "ribbon parks," intended to be pleasures to drive through.

Robert Caro paints Moses as uniquely destructive to the urban fabric, but other US cities were doing the same thing as New York in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Boston and Seattle, for instance, both built highways straight through their downtown areas. The New York City intelligentsia of the '40s and '50s believed in such prophets of the automobile as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe and supported Moses. Many other cities, like Newark, Chicago, and St. Louis, also built unattractive housing projects.

Decline of his influence

Moses's reputation began to wane in the 1960s, as people began to appreciate the virtues of neighborhoods and smallness of scale. Moses also started picking fights with the wrong people over the wrong issues. Moses' campaign against free Shakespeare in the Park offended people; Moses' effort to destroy a shady playground in Central Park to make a parking lot made him enemies amongst high society.

The opposition reached a crescendo when Moses issued orders to demolish the old Penn Station in 1964, which was later replaced by Madison Square Garden. That sparked outrage amongst many Manhattan residents, and they turned out in large numbers to help derail his plans for a Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have cut through what is now Greenwich Village and Soho.

Moses' image suffered a further blow in 1973 with the publication of The Power Broker by Robert Caro. Caro's 1,200-page masterpiece (originally over 3,000 pages long) destroyed Moses's reputation. Caro was deliberately intensely critical of Moses because, in 1973, there were many people who only knew the good Moses had done. People had known Moses was a bully who disregarded public input, but they hadn't known that he had stole his brother's inheritance, nor how cruel he was in the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, nor how he willfully neglected public transit. Moses' reputation today is in many ways how Caro left it.

The bridges of Robert Moses are an exemplary and disputed topic in the sociology of technology. The main question is, how much ideology and politics can be built into technology and infrastructure, such as bridges. (cf. Langdon Winner, "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" in Daedalus, Vol. 109, No. 1, Winter 1980, and reactions on that article, e.g. by Bernward Joerges).