Courtesy MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive

A Builder Who Went to Town

Robert Moses in 1939 with a model of his proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, which opponents managed to block. A less intrusive tunnel was built instead.
Robert Moses in 1939 with a model of his proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, which opponents managed to block. A less intrusive tunnel was built instead. (By C. M. Spieglitz -- Library Of Congress)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

NEW YORK -- This city is having a debate about the soul of Robert Moses -- the "master builder" who used his enormous powers, in the middle of the last century, to give shape to the Big Apple's roads, beaches, parks and housing. That soul has no doubt been somewhat troubled in the past 30-odd years, since Robert Caro's 1974 biography of Moses, "The Power Broker," which has made his name synonymous with ugly and brutal city planning. Now comes an exhibition, "Robert Moses and the Modern City," spread across three separate museums -- the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art and the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University -- that seeks to undo some of the damage done by Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning opus.

The exhibition is extraordinary in that it is essentially an argument with a single book, an effort to present alternatives to Caro's view, to put Moses in a broader context and, sometimes, to make apologies for the man. Yes, the curators argue, some of his plans required huge displacements of people, but how else could they have been built? Yes, his expressways plowed through poor but viable neighborhoods, but without them, New York would be gridlocked into economic irrelevance. And yes, Moses was probably racist, but who wasn't in his day and age?

Still it is a fascinating exercise, a snapshot of an argument about cities and progress and people that has lessons to teach far beyond the intricacies of urban design. What it says about power and politics can be seen playing out today in the Washington area in the debate over the extension of Metro through Tysons Corner (a likely more expensive tunnel, or an unpopular but cheaper above ground route?). Moses's career, based on bravado and the pure momentum that comes from success, offers its own lessons pertinent to contemporary politics: Never elected to any office, he was a classic American type, a git'r done man, whose lesser children include political figures as disparate as Donald Rumsfeld, Mitt Romney and Eliot Spitzer.

Moses was born in 1888 in New Haven, Conn., and was the beneficiary of a very blue-chip education (Yale, Oxford, Columbia). He was at first sympathetic to the urban reform movement, an advocate for parks and play space, a foe of slums, a visionary for urban renewal. His most famous early project, Jones Beach, a pleasure ground 33 miles from Manhattan that has been beloved by generations of heat-weary New Yorkers, may have been his best. By the end of his career, after he had built a broad, almost invincible power base through the various commissions, authorities and agencies he led, his projects were generally more utilitarian: vast bridges and expressways that opened up New York to its suburbs, linked its diverse boroughs, and often devastated its neighborhoods.

The list of his accomplishments is astonishing: seven bridges, 15 expressways, 16 parkways, the West Side Highway and the Harlem River Drive, more than 1,000 mostly low-income apartment houses, Lincoln Center, the United Nations headquarters, college campuses, Shea Stadium. Caro, in a New Yorker article, put the cost of Moses's public works at $27 billion (in 1968 dollars).

"He was the greatest builder in the history of America, perhaps the greatest builder in the history of the world," Caro wrote. The authors of the current exhibition's catalogue agree, at least as far as Moses's influence on the city. He had "a greater impact on the physical character of New York City than any other individual," write Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, "and given how the process of city building has changed since his time, it is unlikely anyone in the future will match him."

But where Caro was horrified by the human consequences, the current exhibition devotes considerable energy to the positives, and to the context, including what the curators argue are the inevitable forces of history that reveal Moses less as a monster than man of his time. His architects, the men who designed his swimming pools and park facilities, often produced very high-quality work, they argue. New York's transportation infrastructure had to improve lest the city suffer economically. And while Moses may seem obsessed with highways at the expense of mass transit, that was pretty much the prevailing view of urban design at the time. The exhibit also argues that only a man of Moses's stature and force of will could have accomplished projects, such as Lincoln Center, which many New Yorkers today regard as one of the city's major assets. And in many cases, Moses had considerable support from the very people -- progressives, urbanists, neighborhood activists -- who now think of him as a demon.

"You cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs," says Moses, in a film of a speech he gave at the groundbreaking of Lincoln Center (seen at the Museum of the City of New York). But eventually, all those eggshells pile up. There's a deeper Goldilocks question, for those who have spent time with Caro's book, and now with this exhibition: Did New York get too much of Robert Moses, too little, or just the right amount? Has the city entered a stultifying new age in which big projects are forever mired in bureaucracy, petty power struggles and subject to cries of "not in my back yard"? As the city struggles (and at present, fails) to build something meaningful at the site of the World Trade Center, the fascination with Moses's legacy isn't accidental.

His career might be boiled down to a handful of rules. Rather than confront political powers head-on, he worked by expanding his personal power base, using revenues from one project to undertake another. He also knew the importance of drama in politics, and he used his increasing power to create the impression of personal omnipotence, and inevitability about his plans. He built "parkways" to get people to his parks, but he quickly expanded the idea of parkway to become a de facto highway czar for the New York region. By working within specially created, stand-alone agencies, he could build bridges and charge the tolls that gave him money to take on new projects. As Owen D. Gutfreund argues in a catalogue essay, politicians loved these projects, especially ones like the Triborough Bridge that sprang up and paid for themselves in the midst of the Great Depression.

The exhibition acknowledges that Moses's view of New York was from the stratosphere, that he saw the city not as a habitat for people or a collection of neighborhoods but as a vast piece of infrastructure. He played with New York rather the way a little boy will build cities with blocks and toys and Matchbox cars. The allure of that view, the dangerous and vertiginous thrill of seeing the city as a canvas, bridges as sculpture, roads as ribbons of paint, is all too apparent in the exhibition.

On display is a large model of the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge and its approach roads, made around 1939 in a failed effort to sell the project. It is a thing of fearsome beauty. Bridges can define a city, add elegance, connect people. But this bridge was all about funneling cars from Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan, with small regard for the huge footprint of its access roads. Public opposition finally forced Moses to back down from the project and the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel was built instead.

But not before Moses made what is often the deciding argument in these debates. A tunnel, he said, would be prohibitively expensive. If you want it done, build my bridge. That is not too much different from the argument about whether a tunnel or a bridge should be built through Tysons Corner. It's not just that money decides these issues. Rather, people who claim omniscience about money, about the ability to generate funds and revenue and project budgets and costs, ultimately have the most sway.

Yet Moses lost that argument, and as time went on, he began losing more and more of them. Plans for highways that would cut across Manhattan failed. A bridge across Long Island Sound was scrapped. "New urbanists" like Jane Jacobs emerged to fight Moses's fundamental view of the modern metropolis as a world of cars and highways and bridges. The importance of neighborhood became a kind of mantra in the years between when Moses was forced from power, in 1968, and his death in 1981. And Jacobs, author of "The Life and Death of Great American Cities," has become almost a saintly figure in the annals of urban design and study.

As Witold Rybczynski pointed out in a January lecture at the National Building Museum, Jacobs's neighborhood view of urbanism has its own problems. Not least, the neighborhoods she favored -- walkable, diverse, with a mix of new and old -- are not very common. The few that exist have become so popular that regular people can't afford to live there. One might add that someone has to get the grocery truck somewhere near those walkable neighborhoods, and without all of Moses's bridges and expressways, turnips would be prohibitively expensive in Greenwich Village.

The exhibition plays out like a drama. A reformer emerges, gains power, refashions the city, then falls from grace as a new kind of reformer emerges. There is a nostalgia, lurking behind this exhibition, for the grandeur that was Moses. He was a breathtakingly arrogant man. After Caro's book was published, Moses wrote a high-handed and spirited riposte, quoting from Shakespeare, the Old Testament and obscure English poets. And he defended the importance of men who break eggs: "The current fiction is that any overnight ersatz bagel and lox boardwalk merchant, any down to earth commentator or barfly, any busy housewife who gets her expertise from newspapers, television, radio and telephone, is ipso facto endowed to plan in detail a huge metropolitan arterial complex good for a century." Thus, he brushed aside the very notion that citizens might reasonably direct the planning of their cities.

But the pendulum swings and swings. For now, and for a little while longer, cities will debate the right balance between Moses' car-culture city, and Jacobs's walkable urban paradises. But the terms of the argument will change, as the environmental devastation of the internal combustion engine and other unsustainable technologies becomes impossible to brush aside.

And then cities will need massive new kinds of infrastructure, built quickly, to move people and things, to provide power, and to do it all without ruining the atmosphere. And very likely, cities like New York will need a new Robert Moses, wielding blueprints not of highways or bridges, but new kinds of mass transit. A lot of eggs will have to be broken, but one hopes the cost will be borne more equitably than in Moses's day.

Robert Moses and the Modern City, a three-part exhibition, can be seen at the Museum of the City of New York until May 6, the Queens Museum of Art until May 13 and the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University until April 14. More information is available at

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