Lately there’s been a lot of nostalgia for Robert Moses, that bête noire of 20th-century New York. A new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York and an accompanying book by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson (both professors at Columbia University), offers a revisionist view of Moses, pointing out that without his many achievements — the development of bridges, roads, parks, playgrounds, swimming pools and public beaches — New York City would not be what it is today.
Ever since the publication of Robert Caro’s biography The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York in 1974, Moses has been seen as an evil man who demolished neighborhoods and blemished Jane Jacobs’s vision of a perfect New York. I had a somewhat different read of The Power Broker. It is certainly a critical biography, but it is the study of a man over the course of his career.
The first half of Caro’s book tells us about Moses the idealist, Moses the reformer, Moses the good guy. And the second half shows us the dark side of Moses — the Moses who bulldozed the South Bronx to make room for the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Moses who cared only about car culture, the man who didn’t care about the people affected by his projects. That part of the book had an enormous impact, and the lasting impression of Moses that Caro left is different from the complete picture he presented. For more than 30 years, the collective wisdom has been that the city would have been better off without Moses.
In the last few months, news stories about the exhibit have described warm feelings for Moses that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Many of these stories say the nostalgia is for the way Moses got things done. It’s true that Moses did more spectacular development projects than anyone before or after. He was able to do this in a very complicated, fractious and divided city (though in many ways a less fractious and divided city than it is today).
And that has appeal when, after more than five years, the site of the World Trade Center is still an awful hole in the ground. It’s a tremendous embarrassment to the city, and it’s sacrilegious, in a sense, that the city, the state and the private sector have not been able to come to terms about how to rededicate that space. Maybe Moses, if he were around, could have forced something to happen by now. But nobody today holds the number of positions that Moses had, and most people would agree that we wouldn’t want to give one person a near-monopoly on development, even if it meant we’d have a September 11 memorial.
To me, this nostalgia for Moses seems a bit misplaced. Moses is not relevant because he was able to get things done. He is relevant — and remarkable — because he was able to view the city as a whole, and he had a vision for it over time.
Whatever the short-term costs of a neighborhood dislocation, Moses would do it if there were long-term advantages for the city as a whole. This had devastating consequences at times, as it did in the South Bronx. But Moses was also the person who gave us Jones Beach, which was also devastating on a narrow neighborhood level. Except in that case, the families who controlled access to the ocean were members of the privileged class, and there are not many people who would argue that it was bad to take that land away in exchange for the long-term advantages.
Moses was a flawed individual who made many mistakes, as Caro’s biography and the new exhibit show. He was often described as seeing the city from a distance of 35,000 feet, and this was sometimes meant as a criticism of how he viewed New York only as it appeared on maps. But by taking the long view, Moses was able to overcome the not-in-my-backyard phenomenon in a way that very few people have been able to do since, which is why development is such a major problem in New York today.
Ray Horton is the Frank R. Lautenberg Professor of Ethics and Corporate Governance and director of the Social Enterprise Program.