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Thread: The Legacy of Robert Moses

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    Default The Legacy of Robert Moses

    Longing for Robert Moses

    BY FRANCIS MORRONE - Special to the Sun
    August 22, 2005

    New Yorkers love to hate Robert Moses, the city's "master builder" from the 1930s to the 1960s. But while Moses remains anathema to your typical Community Board attendee, in recent years the hatred has abated for many others.

    I encounter students and young architects every day who admire Moses. A group of German architecture students visiting New York recently asked me to show them only things Robert Moses had built. He did not, they told me, ruin the city by bringing the automobile into it; he figured out how to save the city while bringing automobiles into it. For these young intellectuals, Moses belongs to that moment in the history of modernism that is again all the rage - from Le Corbusier to Wallace K. Harrison. Moses fits right into the delirious weltanschauung of Rem Koolhaas.

    Moses projects that were once chicly lambasted are being praised by a new generation of critics. In a New York Times Op-Ed in 2003, Columbia University professor Hilary Ballon, one of the country's leading architectural historians, lauded Moses's vision in creating Lincoln Center. The eminent New York historian Mike Wallace, in his eloquent book "A New Deal for New York" (2002), wrote that post-September 11 New York needed something like the three-way relationship among FDR, Fiorello La Guardia, and Moses to pull the city out of its funk.

    The former New York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, summed it up: "Today," he said, "many people are less inclined to judge Moses so harshly. The decay of the city's infrastructure has made it easier to look back with appreciation at a figure who was able to get so many public-works projects off the drawing boards."

    And early next year, a massive exhibition called "Robert Moses and the Modern City," curated by Ms. Ballon and the well-known urban historian Kenneth Jackson, will occupy three venues: Columbia University, the New-York Historical Society, and the Queens Museum.

    This is quite a journey in 30 years. In 1974, New Yorkers were perhaps eager to find a lightning rod for their discontent. Arrogant old Robert Moses fit the role beautifully. In that year, Robert A. Caro's "The Power Broker" burst onto the scene as few biographies have ever done. This beautifully written 1,246-page book is the sort of breathless page-turner one wishes one had the stamina to read in a sitting. But there was something else.

    The book's phenomenal resonance with New Yorkers in the 1970s is evident in the subtitle: "Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. "The "Fall of New York" was on just about everyone's mind in 1974.

    For a few years after World War II, New York stood paramount among the cities of the world - as perhaps no city had since ancient Rome. New York's industrial output outstripped any other city on earth. The seaport and wholesaling sectors boomed. The number of Fortune 500 headquarters based in New York was at its peak. And, for the first time in its history, New York became the undisputed culture capital of the world.

    Yet New York rapidly squandered this capital - financial, social, and, broadly speaking, moral. Chaos and decay were the keynotes of the 1960s and '70s. Manufacturing steeply declined, the seaport moved to New Jersey, crime skyrocketed, and, amid financial chicanery at high levels, the city's physical plant endured shocking deterioration.

    Moses was the public face of the changed New York. For Jane Jacobs, Mr. Caro, and just about everyone in the 1970s, Moses had ripped the heart out of New York. He had overseen the proliferation of high-rise housing projects and "high-speed" roadways that altered the cityscape forever. Mr. Caro's most acclaimed chapter, "One Mile," was the meticulous recounting of the building of one mile of the Cross-Bronx Expressway and its devastating impact on the East Tremont neighborhood. That expressway, Mr. Caro wrote, destroyed the soul of the South Bronx, and paved the way (no pun intended) for the galloping deterioration that followed.

    Yet the mid-1970s consensus was, in turn, was a tremendous shift from what many had thought of Moses 30 years before that. Critics cheered what Moses accomplished in the 1920s and 1930s, and his work riveted world attention. Cities across the globe wished to emulate New York, as they had once wished to emulate Paris.

    When Moses worked for the state in the 1920s, he built Jones Beach. Before Moses most of Nassau and Suffolk counties was inaccessible to the public. Meager country roads separated vast private landholdings, whether farms or country-house grounds. Moses changed all that, by building parks and parkways that transformed Long Island into a domain of pleasure for the city dweller with a motorcar. Seldom had a government built for its people something so splendid as Jones Beach. It was a great gift from on high.

    In the 1930s, Mayor La Guardia got Moses to work for the city, initially as Parks Commissioner. In the summer of 1936, the mayor dedicated 11 municipal swimming pools that Moses had built. Like Jones Beach, these pools were unprecedented. No city had ever created such a thing, much less in the midst of a depression. Not only was there no comparable system of municipal pools in the world, but some of the pools, like the ones in Astoria Park in Queens and McCarren Park in Brooklyn, were among the most splendid individual pools ever built.

    Again, Moses gave a great gift to the people. No wonder schoolchildren danced and sang songs of praise to Commissioner Moses in the 1930s. And no wonder Moses was allowed to mold the world's most prosperous city to his own vision of modernity.

    To see the quintessential Robert Moses cityscape, both good and bad, you need only drive up the FDR. Moses built the drive itself, before the war. It is not felicitous in the way it cuts neighborhoods off from the riverfront. Starting from the Brooklyn Bridge, on the drive's west side is mile after mile of red-brick high-rise towers-in-a-park. This is the "Bad Moses" of the postwar years, the Moses of the Lower East Side projects and of the Cross-Bronx and Brooklyn-Queens expressways.

    Tenements and row houses once occupied those miles along the FDR. In 1961, Jane Jacobs came to the defense of tenements and row houses in her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." Ms. Jacobs made the case that the Lower East Side, had "urban renewal" (i.e., Robert Moses) left it alone, possessed the same capacity for "spontaneous unslumming" as her own West Village. She led the fight against the Moses-proposed Cross-Manhattan Expressway on the line of Broome Street, which would have wiped SoHo and Little Italy off the map.

    Beyond Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village (Moses's brainchildren, but built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company) stands the United Nations. When Nelson Rockefeller made his 11th-hour purchase of the land to keep the United Nations from moving to Philadelphia, he knew there was but one person who could in a day expedite what might otherwise be months of red tape in transferring the land, and that person was Robert Moses.

    Farther north one drives beneath the cantilevered esplanade of Carl Schurz Park, built by Moses. To the right is Moses's Triborough Bridge, which when it was completed in the 1930s was the greatest bridge-building project in history. Carl Schurz Park predated Moses. But it was redesigned when the FDR Drive was built. Moses liked formal gardens. The 86th Street entrance, off East End Avenue, leads to an allee culminating in a stone wall with symmetrical curving stairs. The wall blocks the view ahead, but the stairs, beautifully designed, beckon the pedestrian upward. At the top, at the esplanade cantilevered over the drive, the river and its islands and bridges burst into view in a controlled architectural sequence that's nothing short of brilliant.

    This is "Good Moses."

    On the other side of the island from Carl Schurz Park lies Riverside Park, which many New Yorkers think of as an Olmsted creation. Olmsted did design Riverside Drive and the easternmost half of the park. But his park pulled up far short of the river. That's because the busy tracks of the New York Central Railroad separated the park from the water. In the 1930s, as part of his "West Side Improvement," Moses "completed" Riverside Park.

    He ingeniously encased the railroad tracks inside a great concrete box, on top of which he built the long, landscaped pedestrian path that is, in fact, what most New Yorkers think of when they think of Riverside Park. Then Moses inserted the Henry Hudson Parkway, the epitome of the gorgeous sinuous landscaped parkways he liked to build in the 1920s and 1930s. Pedestrian underpasses lead to the water's edge, where Moses built a long es planade. Near its southern end, at 79th Street, Moses created a marina, accessible from within the park via an arcaded circus that also serves as a traffic rotary for the parkway.

    The West Side Improvement also yielded the High Line. This was an elevated track for freight trains, leading south from the New York Central yards in the West 30s as far as the Moses-built St. John's Park Freight Terminal in Tribeca. The High Line ingeniously weaved among or passed straight through warehouses and factories along what was, in the 1930s, still one of the busiest working waterfronts in the world. After the line became obsolete, its southernmost portions were razed. (And so might the rest of it have been but for the Friends of the High Line, who wish to transform it into an elevated linear park like the Promenade Plantee in Paris.)

    Finally, in Brooklyn, Moses built the Belt Parkway, opened in 1940. Along its Upper Bay path he created "ribbon parks" that are not only splendid in their own right but afford breathtaking views of the Moses-built Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Long Island and Staten Island. Even finer, Moses built Owl's Head (or to the locals "Bliss") Park, right at the northern edge of Bay Ridge. The hilly Owl's Head may be the least known of the city's great parks, and was carved from the grounds of the former estate of E.W. Bliss, who left the land to the city.

    There is certainly much more "Good Moses" than most New Yorkers have given him credit for. But I cannot entirely get behind this revival of his reputation. The seeds of "bad Moses" were there from the beginning, even in the 1920s and 1930s.

    But in those days Moses, who had come up in reform politics and had enjoyed the patronage of left-liberals like Belle Moskowitz, delivered his goods with value added: parkways not expressways, beaches, playgrounds, waterfront esplanades, marinas, swimming pools. La Guardia kept a rein on Moses's excesses: Moses served a vision that was not his alone, but also La Guardia's. Later mayors - O'Dwyer, Impellitteri, even Wagner - would be dupes of Moses.

    Moses was obsessed with Baron Haussmann, the master builder of Paris of the 1850s and 1860s. Aesthetics aside, where the comparison breaks down is that the comparatively weak regimes that followed that of Napoleon III, Haussmann's patron, continued the rebuilding of the capital, the grands projets, without missing a beat after Haussmann left office as prefect of the Seine. After Moses, public works in New York ground to a halt. Westway, anyone?

    This, more than anything, is what is behind the new nostalgia for Moses. With his unexampled mastery of public administration, Moses knew the window of opportunity was short when it came to the massive projects not only he but many others felt essential to the city's future. The ruthlessness he exhibited after World War II points to the sad fact that in a city like New York major public works are extremely difficult to do, and if you're going to do them, you've got to be pretty ruthless about it.

    And that, alas, points to faults with our city's political culture. As Moses came to see it, it wasn't a question of a good highway design versus a bad one, but a question of highway or no highway. He felt that if he didn't build it, then it would never get built - and he was probably right.

    It's just too bad he didn't care for subways.

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    Chief Antagonist Ninjahedge's Avatar
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    Meh.

    I do believe he helped a lot in certain ways, but his bulldozer style of destruction had many more faults than benefits.

    He was an efficient beaurocrat buster when he was reigned in, but let loose, he destroyed a lot of good neighborhoods, and would have done more, all for the sake of the ultra-modern.

    NYC would have been akin to some of the more industrialized cities that cared more about getting people in and out than actually keeping them there.


    I will not deny that he did a lot of good, but when you do not have any check or balance for development like that, you lose Penn Station.

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    Crabby airline hostess - stache's Avatar
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    Take a look at Houston St. It has to be the ugliest thoroughfare in town. If he had his way the entire city would look like Athens today.

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    The progress that he did make came with quite a high cost. Forcing people out of neighborhoods, bullying people into coming around to his way of thinking.

    I agree with the article, that his work did both good and bad for the city. Robert Caro's description of how Riverside Park looked like before Moses got his hands on it is absolutely depressing. And his ability to forsee the boom in automobile usage was amazing. It still amazes me to think, though, that one man could have wielded so much power that even mayors who were elected while he held his position were powerless to remove him. Countless lives were changed by his whim-like decisions to change an area, or put a highway through a neighborhood, and God help anyone who lived there because they were in no position to do anything about it.

    If, like the article says, people today don't hold the disdain they held in the past, it's only because time has softened the memories of the misery he caused to literally millions of New Yorkers.

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    Quote Originally Posted by redhot00
    If, like the article says, people today don't hold the disdain they held in the past, it's only because time has softened the memories of the misery he caused to literally millions of New Yorkers.
    Same thing happened with Baron Haussmann. He's now lionized because most of what he did turned out so well, but his folks had to go in there with rifles cocked.

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    Quote Originally Posted by redhot00
    And his ability to forsee the boom in automobile usage was amazing.
    chicken or the egg? If massive investment of public infrastructure cash hadn't built a car-favoring environment, would there have been such a boom? NYC isn't car-oriented because its infrastructure was already built before car technology was affordable.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ryan
    chicken or the egg? If massive investment of public infrastructure cash hadn't built a car-favoring environment, would there have been such a boom? NYC isn't car-oriented because its infrastructure was already built before car technology was affordable.
    That's true of most North American cities that grew big before 1920. Most just dissolved as urban entities, like alka-seltzer tablets; parking lots and suburban zoning de-urbanized all but New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Toronto, Montreal, San Francisco, Chicago and a small handful of lesser places.
    Last edited by ablarc; August 22nd, 2005 at 10:19 PM.

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    Angry

    I grew up in the Bronx and will never forgive him for the Cross Bronx Expressway. It destabilized the borough more than anything else. I hate this man with a passion.

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    Srah - he is dead - you win. Relax.

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    Unfortunately, most of the negative image concerning Robert Moses revolves around the automobile. It punished older cities twofold: once by giving residents the means to abandon its outdated image; again by forcing the cities to adapt to the demands of those same people who insisted on driving back.

    That considered, I think Robert Moses' finest project in NYC is the Henry Hudson Parkway.

  11. #11

    Cool

    Sarah - Many more people drive on the Cross Bronx Expressway in one hour than the number that lived in its path before it was built. Maybe you know another route the road could have taken? Its pretty hard to connect Boston to NYC to Washington without going through the Bronx.

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    Well golly, now I understand the formula. It's the number of people.

    But shouldn't the people that were there all the time get extra points.


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    Quote Originally Posted by markvollmer
    Sarah - Many more people drive on the Cross Bronx Expressway in one hour than the number that lived in its path before it was built. Maybe you know another route the road could have taken? Its pretty hard to connect Boston to NYC to Washington without going through the Bronx.
    Just think of all the people who would be using the cross-greenwich-village expressway! Not a great argument.

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    Chief Antagonist Ninjahedge's Avatar
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    I think they could have come up with a better solution, but I do have to agree the Hutch is nice.

    They did not need to make a better ROADWAY between Boston and NYC, maybe all they needed to do was make the RAILWAY straiter and more direct.

    The problem is, Moses only had a choke hold on NYC, he could not force CT to build a line through residential areas, and he also could not do that with MA.

    It would be nice to have a high speed directl rail to Boston, or even through Hartford to Boston. It would have taken less space than a highway and probably been even better for your weird "people traveled to people displaced" ratio Mark....

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    I've known about Robert Moses all my life, and watched as he and his projects altered the face of New York. Particularly, Upstate New York where I lived as a kid.

    Some of his largest projects were done in Western New York (as the designer and administrator for the Niagara-Mowhawk Power Project), where monuments worthy of an Egyptian caliph were etched into the bedrock that supports the Niagara Escarpment. The power plant and The Robert Moses Diversion Canal are both reached by traveling down The Robert Moses Parkway, which connectes to a series of parkways around The Falls within The Robert Moses State Park; the layout,roadways and the foliage designed by The Man Himself. Just like Nassau County, eh?
    While this massive power complex was being built, it became necessary to divert the Niagara River so some work could be done around the Falls. Thus, Robert Moses played the starring role on the dramatic day when, for the first time since the Mezazoic Era, Niagara Falls went dry. This guy could do anything.

    Then there's The Thousand Island Bridge, which arches over the St Lawrence River and into Canada,right near The Robert Moses Power Dam.The Bridge, while not one of Moses' personal projects, was built with his plans, originally proposed in the 1930's but turned down by the State because Moses wanted too much control over the Bridge Authority and wanted to run it from 400 miles away in New York City. Thirty years later he watched as the span was dedicated, just the way he presented it. There's another Robert Moses State Park in nearby Massena, a second one bearing his name (The third Robert Moses State Park is on Long Island).

    Yeah,I knew a lot about Robert Moses,and I got interested when he brokered the UN-Rockefeller deal. That's when I REALLY started to pay attention. My Dad HATED the Rockefellers, even though he was a Republican, so when they made a deal with Moses-- and Moses got on Dad's Shit List--I had to know more about the Man.

    I watched him have his way as his huge projects got built around The City--The Verrazzano Bridge, the Bruckner/Cross Bronx,Tappan Zee, the endless rebuilding of The Triborough, the World's Fair and Flushing Meadows Park, etc, and I kept hearing about other Mega-Projects that he had in mind--it was breathtaking, the changes Moses was inflicting on the City.
    I remain to this day ambivilent about Moses.
    The changes he brought about have proven themselves as necessary for the vitality of New York, but they did come at the cost of great social and physical upheaval.
    He also had a LOT of political and financial power, which he exercised frequently, not only in The City but also throughout New York State, and I would often speculate on how one gains that kind of power.
    He was, actually, a government unto himself, unelected and yet funded by the People of New York and possessing the strength to move whole populations, entire mountains, if his plans called for that.
    Caro's often-cited bio captures Moses' ruthless convictions and the ways he manipulated politicians in order to see his visions through. Once he wanted something done he was unstoppable until it got done. He altered any landscape he chose, human or physical, often with a cold and uncaring precision.

    Still, imagine New York City WITHOUT some of Moses' handiwork. Imagine no Verrazzano, no Throg's Neck, no Parkways through Brooklyn or Queens; no FDR,Major Deegan or east-west passage through The Bronx. No Queens-Midtown Tunnel, no La Guardia or JFK as it is today, either.
    Shea Stadium?...Fageddaboutit.
    Robert Caro's book is probably the best biography I've read.

    ...Moses' most unusual contribution to the City is The Panorama of New York City. If you haven't already been there, go to the Queens Museum and check it out. It's large, monumental in its scale and spectacular, like everything Robert Moses ever did to and for New York.
    Last edited by Hof; January 5th, 2011 at 03:17 PM.

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