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The legacy of Robert Moses

Robert MosesOur story this week focuses on the stumbling blocks American infrastructure projects face — a system rife with bureaucratic red tape and slow-moving policy restrictions. Consider this startling statistic: It now takes four times as long to move these projects along than it did in the 1970’s. In New York, this might just be the result of, in part, the titan of the skyline, Robert Moses.

Moses began his career in New York politics, shadowing Governor Al Smith in the early 1920’s, after earning a PhD from Columbia. According to a 1974 profile of Moses in The New Yorker, Moses took readily to politics. He  became “the best bill-drafter I know,”said Smith. What Smith and Moses were able to accomplish in Albany forever altered the terrain of New York state politics; they “reorganized” and consolidated many aspects of state government, offering Smith and his team a chance to implement the social reform goals of post-Depression politics. From there, Moses set his sights on urban planning.

The New Yorker  lauded Moses’ ultimate contribution to New York, “In the seven years between 1946 and 1954, seven years that were marked by the most intensive public construction in the city’s history, no public improvement of any type-no school or sewer, library or pier, hospital or catch basin- was built by any city agency unless Moses approved its design and location.” Projects spear-headed by Moses, just in this period alone, included the building of the United Nations on the east side of Manhattan, the Belt Parkway and the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

Moses was a controversial, if not a supremely effective catalyst of change across New York’s infrastructural landscape. The New York Sun reports Moses, in the totality of his reign as ‘Master Builder,’ “built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today’s dollars” across the City of New York. Nearly unfathomable nowadays is that Moses was able to wield such lofty power, from the mid-1920’s through 1968, without holding any elected office. Instead, as reported by Paul Goldberger in his New York Times obituary, Moses “held several appointive offices and once occupied 12 positions simultaneously, including that of 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.”

Moses, for all his accomplishments, continues to be an enormously divisive figure. In his foray into the art of biography, which won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, Robert Caro’s  profile of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, forever recast Moses’ legacy. One sharp criticism of Moses focuses on his displacement of the poor, where tenements for low-income residents were besieged by the construction of middle-income apartments. Caro writes in The Power Broker, “To build his highways, Moses threw out of their homes 250,000 persons — more people than lived in Albany or Chattanooga, or in Spokane, Tacoma, Duluth, Akron, Baton Rouge, Mobile, Nashville or Sacramento. He tore out the hearts of a score of neighborhoods.”

Caro, in a 2007  interview with the New York Times, stands by his portrayal of the late Moses, “We don’t need a new Robert Moses because he ignored the values of New York,” Mr. Caro says. “If anything, I see the city moving today to correct his ravages.”

Moses’ resolve was the stuff of legend, and his most famous quote ”Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize” epitomize both his cultural and physical legacy on the City. In a 1977 interview with Thirteen, Moses is defiant. When challenged on the increasing movements against urban displacement he challenges, “Let’s be sensible. How do you visualize the area that we cleared out for the Fordham expansion downtown? They needed the space. Now I ask you,what was that neighborhood? It was a Puerto Rican slum. Do you remember it? Yeah, well I lived there for many years and it was the worst slum in New York. And you want to leave it there?”

Today, the cult of Robert Moses could not exist in a city such as New York. Not only did he hold appointed positions at both the city and state level concurrently, he didn’t “have much use for modern-day environmentalists,” according to his Thirteen interview. As we see in our report on the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey, environmental review alone can take as long as ten years, as seen on Cape Cod. Moses was, after all, unsaddled by many of the checks and balances our system has established in the last forty years, some created to prevent the excesses of his methods.

Disputed as Moses’ style is, many of his accomplishments have stood the test of time. When asked directly in his interview with Thirteen if, “his methods had been perhaps a little gentler or less direct or perhaps [he] had been more circumspect,  would he have gotten as much accomplished?” Moses is classically steadfast “No, I wouldn’t have gotten anything done. I’m absolutely sure of that.”

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