CNU XVI – Robert Caro on Robert Moses

Last year several New York museums and institutions put together a retrospective on the career of Robert Moses. After six years with a highly visible hole in the ground at the base of Manhattan, frustration with a gridlocked planning process seemed to boil over into a kind of Moses nostalgia. Not a nostalgia for his works, necessarily, but for the kind of person who could marshal resources like Moses did and Get Things Done.

By and large Moses has been made into a sinister figure since his particular brand of urban construction—lots of people would call it deconstruction—fell out of favor. In particular, the publication in 1975 of Robert Caro’s epic Moses biography, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” exposed Moses’ single-minded pursuit of power and a building agenda that resulted in the largely unnecessary eviction of 500,000 people, and starved public transit and other social programs of funding.

When Jane Jacobs died in 2006, newspapers and magazines predictably were filled with eulogies recalling her battles with the evil Moses in the late 1950s over his plans to drive Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park and bulldoze a swath of Lower Manhattan, including much of SoHo, for a cross-island expressway connecting Brooklyn and New Jersey.

This recent push to reconsider Robert Moses included exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York, Columbia University and the Queens Museum of Art. Accompanying the exhibitions was a catalog, “Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York,” edited by Columbia professor and New York City historian Kenneth T. Jackson and Columbia architectural historian Hilary Ballon. Symposia were held to take a fresh look at Moses’ work. No less than (former) New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer suggested in a speech to the Regional Plan Association on May 5, 2006, that another biography of Moses might be titled At Least He Got It Built. “And that’s what we need today,” Spitzer said. “A real commitment to get things done—to get it built.”

But upon reconsideration, Moses remains a steely-eyed autocrat, steamrolling any opposition, for good or ill, a trait with which Spitzer could certainly identify.

All of this is a long-winded way of backing into Robert Caro’s keynote address at Friday night’s CNU XVI plenary. In about 45 minutes, Caro completely dispelled any fog of Moses romanticism. Moses was about power, Caro said; he was the greatest builder in the history of the Western world. Moses was never elected to office, but he was in a position to control the building of New York state and city infrastructure for 44 years, under six governors and five mayors. “And in the fields in which he chose to exercise this power, which were the fields which shaped New York and the region around it—for decades and probably for centuries to come, if not forever—he had more power than any governor or any mayor or any governor or mayor combined,” Caro said.

Caro recalled how, as a reporter for Newsday, he thought he was explaining to people how power worked. Repeatedly, though, he would encounter Moses: Moses the city parks commissioner incongruously building the Long Island Expressway, Moses the head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority building power plants in upstate New York. Who was this guy? Caro asked himself.

Then Caro was sent to cover a story about a bridge over Long Island Sound that Moses wanted to build. Caro went to Albany and spoke to legislators who said they would never support it. Caro wrote a story saying Moses’ bridge idea was dead. A week later, he was called back to Albany and arrived just in time to witness the overwhelming vote in favor of the bridge.

Caro recalled thinking “Who is this man, who has the power to come up to Albany and change an entire state government from top to bottom around in a single day without hardly trying.” He had always believed power came from people who were elected, from the ballot box. He realized that to uncover how a man like Moses could amass so much power and hold onto it for so long without ever being elected to anything he would have to quit being a newspaper reporter and write a book.

Caro spent seven years reporting and writing “The Power Broker.” He found in his research that Robert Moses had started out as a young, idealistic reformer, seeking to break the iron-fisted hold of Tammany Hall corruption on New York. He had a brilliant mind that could envision a massive project like Manhattan’s West Side Highway in place of the shantytowns and dirty, smelly railroad yards that lined the Hudson River in Moses’ youth. He could ride a train and see a network of roads on Long Island that would become a great parkway system. And he had a force of personality that got these great projects organized and built.

No wonder some people wish another Moses would come along and untangle the bureaucratic red tape strangling large-scale public works and development thinking today. Surely a Robert Moses would have re-built Ground Zero by now. But as Jason Haber, an Upper West Side resident, wrote to the New York Times on May 13, 2007, “The bottom line on Moses and New York will always be as follows: New York City needed a Robert Moses. Instead, it got the Robert Moses.”

And the Robert Moses ended up proving Lord Acton right in terms of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

The most damning evidence against Moses—and there is plenty from which to choose—may be his insistence on driving the Cross Bronx Expressway through the East Tremont neighborhood in the early 1950s, needlessly displacing 15,000 people and destroying 57 apartment buildings when re-routing it slightly to the south, along the northern boundary of Crotona Park, would have destroyed just six aging tenements, according to Caro. But moving the route would have hurt a politically connected transit company. So Moses chose to evict the longtime East Tremont residents, who were lower middle-class working people, Jewish, many with jobs in the Garment District.

Caro recalled interviewing an older couple who had been kicked out of their neighborhood to make way for the freeway. They had moved to Co-Op City in the Bronx, and Caro had asked them how things were in their new home. First the wife and then the husband had said “lonely.” That was it. Lonely.

Later that day, Caro had one of his rare interviews with Moses himself for the book. Caro asked him how he felt about the fight to ram the Cross-Bronx through East Tremont. Had it been a difficult fight? “He said, ‘Oh no, no. They just stirred up the animals there, so I just stood pat. It was easy. There was no more real hardship. At all.’ Then he looked at me very hard to make sure I understood his point of view, and I said I did.

“Political power shapes people’s lives, and I don’t think there’s a better example of that than the life of Robert Moses.”


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