One name keeps coming up unbidden during my appearances for BLOOD ALLEY. The name (as you've probably surmised from the title of this post) is Robert Moses, the longtime master builder and planner of New York City and State.
Moses did play a role in the development of the United Nations complex. After the Rockefeller family donated the land to the UN, Moses wrote up the legal agreements that were necessary to make the deal a reality. It took him only four days. By all accounts, the agreements were flawless.
Moses is mentioned a couple of times in passing in my book.
He is most widely known today as the subject of Robert Caro's monumental (in every sense of the word) biography, THE POWER BROKER. Caro's book came out in the mid-1970s, when New York had reached rock bottom, and it laid just about all of the city's ills at Moses's feet. In fact, while I was growing up, my parents always referred to him as "Robert Moses the Man Who Ruined New York," and for a long time I thought that was his full name.
As the years have passed, attitudes toward Moses have softened. (Mine included.) For all his faults -- which were, yes, monumental -- the man made some vital contributions to the New York area: Jones Beach, the UN, Lincoln Center, and lots and lots of parks. Although the city and state's elected leaders should never have let the man get anywhere near a road or a housing project.
Toward the end of his career, Moses's nemesis appeared in the unlikely form of Jane Jacobs, who called for a more organic, bottom-up method of urban development. Moses had the power, but Jacobs won the argument. Today her ideas are much more influential than this. And rightly so.
But still -- New York City has lost its capacity to get great things done. The city needs a new Penn Station. It can't get built. We're approaching the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and the Trade Center site is still, essentially, a hole in the ground. The latest news reports cast serious doubt that anything significant will be built on the site by the tenth anniversary of the attacks.
Robert Moses got things done. Sometimes it wasn't pretty. Sometimes people's feelings got hurt. But creating big public projects will inevitably create friction, and municipalities need a man or a woman who has technical expertise and a large amount of chutzpah to get the deed accomplished.
Seen from the early 21st century, Caro's book looks less like the last word and more like the case for the prosecution. It is a cautionary tale. Nobody should ever amass all the power that Moses had (numerous city and state positions at the same time, plus heading a number of unelected and unaccountable public authorities). Politicians should not abdicate their most important responsibility -- oversight over the people who are supposed to do the public's business.
But, writing as a resident of Lower Manhattan, it would really be nice to have somebody around who could get Ground Zero rebuilt.