Nathan Glazer is the author, most recently, of From a Cause to aStyle: Modernist Architecture's Encounter With the American City(Princeton University Press).
Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York
Edited by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson
(W.W. Norton, 336 pp., $50)
For a long time, those of us who follow the fate of New YorkCity--its sons and daughters scattered far and wide,distinguishable by their regret that The New York Times does notinclude its "Metropolitan" and "Real Estate" sections in issuesdistributed beyond a hundred miles or so from the city--have waitedfor the "counter-Caro" book. That book would be the other book onRobert Moses, putting his achievements in reshaping New York Cityand its region in somewhat better or fairer perspective than RobertCaro did in his monumental tome The Power Broker: Robert Moses andthe Fall of New York, which appeared in 1974. When I was editor ofThe Public Interest, I used to urge young writers interested in NewYork City to consider an article or perhaps even a book on someaspect of the career of Robert Moses, and his impact on the city,that would complicate the dark and Manichaean portrait painted byCaro.
It was easy in those days to associate Robert Moses with the "fall"of New York City, as Caro did. Jane Jacobs, Moses's greatantagonist, who was already influential among observers andanalysts of the city when Caro published his book, had in The Deathand Life of Great American Cities also lamented the "fall" of NewYork. And even those who better appreciated Robert Moses'sachievements could not easily separate New York City and the idea ofdecline. In 1985, Roger Starr, a wise and knowledgeable observer ofthe city who had served as housing commissioner in its darkest daysand had risen to the editorial board of The New York Times, titledhis own book The Rise and Fall of New York City. Novelists andfilm-makers were especially hard on New York. So was it not likelythat the city's awesome parks commissioner of the 1950s and 1960s(even his title had the Orwellian ring of an official wieldingenormous power behind a modest title) bore responsibility at leastin part for the decline and the fall?
Caro's book appeared while Moses was still alive--he died in1981--and when New York was not in good shape, losing itsmanufacturing and its role as a major port; struggling with theassimilation of a great wave of new, poor migrants; afflicted withrising crime rates; engaged in endlessly reforming a troubledschool system; disturbed by serious racial conflict; and on the eveof a financial crisis that brought the city close to bankruptcy.And in those days Moses was remembered best--perhaps he stillis--for having tried to drive an expressway across Lower Manhattanthrough Tribeca (it wasn't called that then), Chinatown, LittleItaly, SoHo, and the Lower East Side, and another major roadthrough Washington Square; and for battling mothers who were tryingto protect a playground from being bulldozed for parking for theupscale restaurant Tavern on the Green; and for leveling greatsections of the city for housing developments and for LincolnCenter. Did all this contribute to the decline of New York City?
But New York is on the rise again, and it has been so for a while.Now a different question is begged. Shouldn't we have to askwhether Moses and his legacy played any part in this recovery? Evena reader of Caro's devastating work might have been given pause injudging Moses too harshly if he had looked at its opening map ofNew York, titled "Landscape by Moses," which shows how much of thecity we know today was built by him, and how unimaginable the citywould be without all this: the parkways and expressways entering thecity (the Saw Mill River, the Bronx River, the Hutchinson, theGrand Central, the Northern State, the Southern State, and more),the bridges and tunnels that are major gateways and connections(the Henry Hudson, the Triboro, the Whitestone, the Throgs Neck,the Verrazano, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel), and the Hudson Riverparks and parkways, which, along with the George Washington Bridge(not the work of Moses, but of the Port Authority of New York andNew Jersey), make the most magnificent entry to the city. There arethe grand beach developments (Jones Beach, Jacob Riis, OrchardBeach), the hundreds of playgrounds that dot the map, the parksnewly built or restored--Flushing Meadows, Central Park, ProspectPark. And Caro's map also directs the reader, in a legend at itsside, to the United Nations Headquarters, Lincoln Center, Co-opCity, Shea Stadium....
Even Robert Caro, as the map I have just described indicates, wasnot entirely of one mind on Robert Moses. Nor are the creators ofthree exhibitions about Moses's work in New York City this spring(at the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art,and Columbia's Wallach Art Gallery), or the editors and writers ofthis excellent book that has been published concurrently with them.Indeed, they are interested--and rightly so--in redressing theimbalance. What we have in these shows and in this book is aresponsible effort to place Moses in his time, to record all of hiswork in New York City carefully and critically (his substantialachievements in the rest of New York state and in particular hisremarkable work on Long Island are not included). Responsible, butby no mean adulatory: Moses does not escape criticism for projectsand proposals that were disastrous, or would have been disastrousif realized.
The Moses map does not include, crowded as it is, the remarkablemonumental swimming pools with their associated grand entries andbathhouses that sprang up in the city, a new one each week, in thesummer of 1936. No one has matched Moses and his organizations inthe scale of their work and also in the speed of their building,often under budget and completed earlier than scheduled. BryantPark, behind the New York Public Library, was "four acres of mud anddirt," according to The New York Times, when Moses was appointedparks commissioner in January 1934. Within a month, a competitionfor a redesign had been launched, a winner selected, and hundredsof federally funded relief workers were hired and at work. The parkre-opened with a classic design on September 14, 1934. It all tooknine months. The design served until New York fell on hard times inthe 1970s; its reconstruction into the park we have today took fouryears.
The program for magnificent swimming pools in crowded areas wasannounced in July 1934, and by the summer of 1936 the pools wereopening to the public. Large color photographs of the huge swimmingpools and their associated buildings were the most impressiveimages to be seen in the three exhibitions on Moses. They wereunexampled works for the poor, and most of them are stilloperating; and they direct us to think of the fine landscapearchitect Gilmore Clarke and the accomplished architect Aymar EmuryII who worked with Moses throughout much of his career. These earlyworks by Moses were economical, but with hints of monumentality andgrandeur, evoked in brick and stone. They remind us of what onemight call the WPA style, which was just about the last style ofpublic building in the United States that used decorative elements.Clarke and Embury are given full credit in the book accompanying theexhibits, and some of the huge photographs of the pool buildings byAndrew Moore in the show at the Queens Museum of Art are reproducedin it, but not on the same dazzling scale.
One looks back at that map, "Landscape by Moses," and if one askswhat has been added in the fifty years since Moses lost power, onehas to say, quite astonishingly: almost nothing. There is almost nomajor work--park, bridge, tunnel, beach, parkway, expressway--thatmust be added to the Moses map to make it contemporary. New York iscongratulating itself on its revival, and a revival it has been:its population has been growing, after fifty years during which itwas static or declining; crime is very sharply down; real estatevalues are rising; financial and cultural industries seem to have inlarge measure successfully replaced its manufacturing and portactivities. Yet the new dynamic city attempts few great projects,nor would it know how to carry them through.
Thus, for the third time in seventyfive years, an effort is beingmade to build a second East Side subway line; another subway linemay be extended west in midtown Manhattan; and the JavitsConvention Center may be expanded--but all this is little comparedto the Moses era. No truly major public improvement is planned orunder way. As Kenneth T. Jackson observes, "in the twenty-firstcentury, when almost anything 'public' is regarded as secondrate andwhen the city cannot afford to repair--let alone construct--grandedifices, [Moses's] is a remarkable achievement." (Caro alsorecognized this, of course. He had seven long interviews withMoses, and wrote that "I must thank him.... If his monologues ...were in a sense lectures on the philosophy and art of GettingThings Done in a democratic society, they were nonetheless thelectures of a genius. Having been an investigative and politicalreporter for some years, I have naively believed I knew somethingabout the innermost fabric of decision- making in New York City andNew York State.... All that I knew was as nothing besides what Ilearned from this Gamaliel.")
Moses's work, as Jackson reminds us, was work in and for government.That is particularly striking in today's environment, when publicauthorities seem regularly impoverished, and their projects aredelayed, impeded, and underbudgeted; when infrastructure crumbles,and we name stadiums and stretches of road after banks andfinancial companies, and depend increasingly on the private sectorto save our cities. Moses's achievement was one of public work.This is one of the themes best sounded in the Ballon-Jackson book.(Public Works: A Dangerous Trade was the title of Moses's oneeffort to record his achievements in book form.) Moses was proudthat he worked for the public, though the public saw him asarrogant and distant and overbearing. He saw himself as a reformerand a public servant. Other reformers also saw him as one of themall through his long career, which began as an assistant to hisfirst patron, the reforming Democratic governor of New York stateAlfred E. Smith in the 1920s, and entered its major phase when thereforming mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed him to the positionsthat permitted him to reshape the city.
Jackson tells us that Moses's estate when he died in 1981 was worthall of $50,000. "Certainly there are no material rewards [in publicservice]," Moses wrote, "comparable to those which can be expectedfrom similar devotion to private work." He continued: "I made up mymind long ago to get my rewards from the dogwood ? the curvingparkway, the spiderwork of suspension bridges, the reclaimedwaterfront, the demolition of slums, the crack of a baseball batand the shouting of children in playgrounds." All this flies in theface of Caro's portrait. And in his later years Moses described hiswork in building middle- class housing developments in the city asreplacing "uninhabitable structures built by consciencelessspeculators before we had adequate tenement legislation. " That isalso the way LaGuardia thought of his own achievement in buildinghousing projects for the poor.
Robert Moses and the Modern City corrects the record on RobertMoses, not uncritically, and with a scholarly attention to coveringall his work in New York City that will not be surpassed. Theeditors are not strangers to New York's fall and rise. HilaryBallon, an architectural historian at Columbia, is the chiefcurator of the three shows, and is the author of a fine book onPennsylvania Station, the destruction of which in the 1960s wasperhaps the age's greatest act of vandalism. (Moses, then still inpower, had nothing to do with that.) Kenneth T. Jackson, adistinguished urban historian, also at Columbia, is the editor ofThe Encyclopedia of New York City (1995), which was one of themarkers of New York's rise from the depths of the 1970s.
The distinctive contribution of Ballon and Jackson's book is the wayit places Moses in the context of the national urban policies ofthe times. He was a New York phenomenon, but it was not only NewYork and its liberal politics and policies that made him possible.Finally it is the national urban policies of the time that explainwhat Moses did and what he did not, or could not, do. Thus one ofthe major charges against Moses was that he disdained publictransportation and did nothing to improve it. The New York Citysubways did not expand during the time of his greatest power, andsuffered a decline in maintenance--but as Jackson points out, Moseshad no authority to deal with the major systems of publictransportation. No national policies supported local publictransportation, which was seen in those years as a purely local andstate obligation. Nor does one note any great improvement afterMoses's removal from power in the 1960s, when the MetropolitanTransportation Agency, responsible for the subways, was merged withMoses's Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA). It was hopedthat tolls from the TBTA would pay for the upgrading and theexpansion of the subways, but there was no major expansion orimprovement after this coup and the removal of "the power broker."The subways were rehabilitated painfully and at great cost in the1980s and 1990s.
The real issue, again, was that the national urban policies of thetime offered no help to public transportation. Moses was dependenton the flow of funds from the federal government and on the tollsfrom the TBTA, which supported the bond issues necessary for majorinfrastructural work. There was little enough to be expected fromthe city and the state, which were strapped by the huge increasesin social and health expenses. The significant federal policies, interms of their impact on the physical structure of the city,consisted of two great initiatives, both launched in the 1950s, andboth, as became apparent as early as the 1960s, misguided: supportfor the building of a great national expressway system, whichfacilitated the growth of suburbs; and support for the clearance ofwhat were considered deteriorated parts of central cities in aprogram of "urban renewal," which was expected to help retain themiddle class in the central city and support the cities' tax base.Moses was responsible for the implementation of both these programsin New York City, as chairman of the Mayor's Committee on SlumClearance from 1956 to 1960 and as coordinator for arterialprojects from 1960 to 1966.
As new superhighways sliced through various cities, they did greatdamage to those cities' physical and social fabrics, oftendestroying neighborhoods, uprooting great numbers of the black andthe poor, and eliminating hundreds of small businesses. Moses wentwhere the money was. In any case, some major roads for truck andcommuter traffic were necessary. Even so, as Jackson points out,New York's expressways were relatively modest in scale, contrastedwith the enormous multi-lane superhighways in Chicago, Houston, andelsewhere. This was true even of the execrated Cross-BronxExpressway, which was limited to three lanes and designed with noroom for shoulders. But even so, the damage was great.
As we can see from the early Long Island parkways, Moses thought ofthe road initially as a means of recreation, engaging the naturalenvironment, with planting along its sides and leading to some parkor beach at the end. The pictures of the early parkways areenchanting. But the federal road-building program meant that if onewas to get federal funds, the new roads had to be wider,straighter, with fewer entries and exits, built to accommodate carsand trucks going at greater speeds. And if that was what wasnecessary to get federal funds, that is what Moses would build.Alas, park-like roadways were in time expanded and straightened, asthey no longer served pleasure drivers but commuters.
Almost the first words in the book--Ballon's acknowledgments--directour attention to this dilemma created by federal policy. "'The Roadto Recreation, '" Ballon writes, "appears at the Queens Museum ofArt, where Moses remains a palpable presence. He created theFlushing Meadows-Crotona Park, the site of the museum, and wasresponsible for the highways that now encircle it like a moat." Butthe first of the roads that became this strangling girdle of thepark was a parkway, the Grand Central. After the war, thingschanged. You can see the impact of the change from parkway toexpressway if you try to get to the Queens Museum of Art by publictransportation (as recommended by the Museum's website) on the #7line of the New York subway. You are left today in a desert ofparking lots, roadways, and stadiums. Where is the park, you ask,and indeed, where is the museum, and how do you get to it? Theoriginal parkways were built with wonderfully designed bridges inWPA style, stone and brick, which could accommodate pedestrians, aswell as cars on local roads. But they became something else underthe impact of growth, federal money, and federal requirements; andthe pedestrian trying to approach the Queens Museum of Art todayfinds it no easy matter.
Yet could the city survive without the expressways, limited as theyare in comparison with those of motor-oriented cities? Certainlythe balance of federal funding should shift more to publictransportation, as it has in recent decades. But New York is uniquein its dependence on public transportation, and national policiesare not often made to respond to unique cases.
The other great federal program that Moses ran in the 1950s and1960s was urban renewal, which was known as Title I: it createdplanned housing communities, but it could also be used, and soMoses used it, to clear a large area to create Lincoln Center and acity campus for Fordham University, and to assist other New Yorkinstitutions of higher education with housing for staff andfaculty. This program has to be distinguished from the publichousing program that ran concurrently and had its roots inpre-World War II legislation, but which grew enormously after thewar, covering large sections of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklynwith housing projects. Urban renewal was designed to eliminateslums, not to rehouse slum-dwellers. If non-tax-paying housingprojects were to replace the slums, it would defeat the purpose ofurban renewal.
Moses had no operative role in the public housing program, whichreached a vast scale in New York City, but his developments diddisplace great numbers of slum-dwellers, the people eligible tolive in public housing, and he located some Title I projects nearpublichousing projects in the expectation, or at least the hope,that they would accommodate the displaced. Many of the housingdevelopments built under Title I resembled public housing projectsin their arrangement on newly created superblocks imposed on theclose grid of Manhattan's streets, and in the materials theycommonly used (red brick)--but they housed the middle class, peoplewhose income made them ineligible for public housing. In theory,Title I projects permitted more imaginative design (as in I.M.Pei's design for Kips Bay), and on occasion they were imaginativelydesigned; but federal rules made imagination difficult, and visuallythey were often not distinguishable from public housing.
On the whole, the Title I projects were well developed and managedin New York. In some other cities, great areas were cleared and layvacant because private developers did not want to build in them.That did not happen in New York. Moses made sure he had developerslined up, private or public, ready to build on newly cleared land,and the scandal of large areas from which the poor had beendisplaced lying vacant for years did not arise in New York.
But there were problems, and scandals, as the assigned developers inone project, for example, continued to collect rent from thoseliving in the designated slum and did not get on with the task ofremoval and clearance. And the larger scandal was this: were theareas being cleared really occupied by "slums," beyondrehabilitation? Was not a distinctive New York City fabric, a mixof housing, stores, churches, small factories, and varied otheruses, being swept away for the cold monoliths of modernistarchitecture and planning? Ballon has given a masterful account ofthe Title I story in the book and in the exhibition that shemounted at Columbia University, and what we see is a clash betweenan ideal of city planning and replanning that had captured all-- oralmost all--minds in the 1930s and 1940s, and the gritty and complexreality explored and promoted by Jane Jacobs. When one looks at thepictures of the areas cleared away as "slums," one sees only NewYork city blocks, with their mix of uses and of older and newerbuildings, perfect candidates for rehabilitation andgentrification--particularly in view of where these areas werelocated-- in the 1990s. Why were they labeled slums? And why werethey demolished?
But those are not the only questions. Were these doomed placesreally such candidates for gentrification in the 1960s, when theseprojects were reaching realization, or in the 1970s? To cast up thebalance sheet is not a simple matter. As New York City rents rise,surely one of the anchors of what remains of a middle class inManhattan--schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers, smallbusiness owners, health workers, whitecollar workers--are thedevelopments built under Title I and related programs, which are nowunder pressure as the market and its wild new wealth tries toreclaim them. So perhaps what Robert Moses did was implicated notonly in New York's "fall," but in some degree in New York's morerecent "rise." It is preposterous to regard him as only a villain.
By Nathan Glazer