Monday, June 30, 2008

Robert Moses

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.


Unknown said...

Nice post, Tom. Now I'm going out to buy "The Power Broker," and as soon as I'm done reading it, I'll read "Blood Alley." BTW, I like to think of Robert Moses as the guy who built those nifty zigzag highways on Long Island.


Howard Mansfield said...

I, too, grew up in Moses land, out on Long Island. But I grew up with the Good Moses and the Bad -- or call it Moses Noir.
The Good Moses built the Northern State Parkway. Back then it was still an intact design with wooden guardrails, black signs with white reflective letters, and a groomed landscape that was like one sinuous lawn backed by trees. It was one of the great under-appreciated landscape designs in America. The Northern State, in its prime, made the Merritt Parkway look like a back alley.
The Good Moses also built Jones Beach, another unified design, from the brick water tower and beach houses to the handrails on the boardwalk. It wasn’t fussy, ironic or over-designed. It had a natural soundness and attention to detail that is lacking in public projects today.
But the Bad Moses built the bridges on his parkways low so that buses of the poor couldn’t get to his beautiful Jones Beach. The Bad Moses built the Long Island Expressway. And the Bad Moses wanted to build a bridge across Long Island Sound, from Oyster Bay to Rye. I remember the fight over that bridge. It was one of the biggest battles he ever lost. And these days, returning to visit my folks, I do miss that bridge.
Robert Caro captured the Good and Bad Moses in his great biography. It’s been years since I read it, but I remember that in 1,162 pages there is not one wasted sentence, not one errant word. Caro was hard on Moses, but he did not overlook the great projects, and Moses’ vision.
The Powerbroker is being unfairly criticized. It’s a sign of our failings, not Caro’s. In the last 30 years we’ve let the nation’s infrastructure rot. We’ve turned over too much of our cities to private developers who – surprise, surprise – act like developers. In short, we’ve impoverished the public sphere in a time of great gains by the wealthy.
We can never have another Moses. And that’s good. We’ll have to rescue ourselves. And that’s the bad news.

Tom Coffey said...

Howard's post was as thoughtful as I expected, and I certainly found little to disagree with. I'd like to expand the point a bit more, and return to something I mentioned in my original post, by taking up a matter that was much in the news in New York last week.

A report commissioned by the new governor of New York and the new director of the Port Authority painted a dismal picture of the redevelopment process at the site of the former World Trade Center. The report's candor was surprising, but it's conclusion was distressingly obvious to anyone who walks by the site several times a week, as I do.

The biggest problem with the redevelopment is a simple one: Nobody is in charge. As a result, little has been accomplished. Situations like that lead a lot of people to yearn for the days of Robert Moses, autocratcic and misguided as he often was.