Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York by Hilary (edt) Ballon
Reviewed by Nathan Glazer
The New Republic Online
For a long time, those of us who follow the fate of New York City -- its sons and daughters scattered far and wide, distinguishable by their regret that the New York Times does not include its "Metropolitan" and "Real Estate" sections in issues distributed beyond a hundred miles or so from the city -- have waited for the "counter-Caro" book. That book would be the other book on Robert Moses, putting his achievements in reshaping New York City and its region in somewhat better or fairer perspective than Robert Caro did in his monumental tome The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which appeared in 1974. When I was editor of the Public Interest, I used to urge young writers interested in New York City to consider an article or perhaps even a book on some aspect of the career of Robert Moses, and his impact on the city, that would complicate the dark and Manichaean portrait painted by Caro.
It was easy in those days to associate Robert Moses with the "fall" of New York City, as Caro did. Jane Jacobs, Moses's great antagonist, who was already influential among observers and analysts of the city when Caro published his book, had in The Death and Life of Great American Cities also lamented the "fall" of New York. And even those who better appreciated Robert Moses's achievements could not easily separate New York City and the idea of decline. In 1985, Roger Starr, a wise and knowledgeable observer of the city who had served as housing commissioner in its darkest days and had risen to the editorial board of the New York Times, titled his own book The Rise and Fall of New York City. Novelists and film-makers were especially hard on New York. So was it not likely that the city's awesome parks commissioner of the 1950s and 1960s (even his title had the Orwellian ring of an official wielding enormous power behind a modest title) bore responsibility at least in part for the decline and the fall?
Caro's book appeared while Moses was still alive -- he died in 1981 -- and when New York was not in good shape, losing its manufacturing and its role as a major port; struggling with the assimilation of a great wave of new, poor migrants; afflicted with rising crime rates; engaged in endlessly reforming a troubled school system; disturbed by serious racial conflict; and on the eve of a financial crisis that brought the city close to bankruptcy. And in those days Moses was remembered best -- perhaps he still is -- for having tried to drive an expressway across Lower Manhattan through Tribeca (it wasn't called that then), Chinatown, Little Italy, SoHo, and the Lower East Side, and another major road through Washington Square; and for battling mothers who were trying to protect a playground from being bulldozed for parking for the upscale restaurant Tavern on the Green; and for leveling great sections of the city for housing developments and for Lincoln Center. 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 ask whether Moses and his legacy played any part in this recovery? Even a reader of Caro's devastating work might have been given pause in judging Moses too harshly if he had looked at its opening map of New York, titled "Landscape by Moses," which shows how much of the city we know today was built by him, and how unimaginable the city would be without all this: the parkways and expressways entering the city (the Saw Mill River, the Bronx River, the Hutchinson, the Grand 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 River parks and parkways, which, along with the George Washington Bridge (not the work of Moses, but of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey), make the most magnificent entry to the city. There are the grand beach developments (Jones Beach, Jacob Riis, Orchard Beach), the hundreds of playgrounds that dot the map, the parks newly built or restored -- Flushing Meadows, Central Park, Prospect Park. And Caro's map also directs the reader, in a legend at its side, to the United Nations Headquarters, Lincoln Center, Co-op City, Shea Stadium....
Even Robert Caro, as the map I have just described indicates, was not entirely of one mind on Robert Moses. Nor are the creators of three 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 of this excel-lent book that has been published concurrently with them. Indeed, they are interested -- and rightly so -- in redressing the imbalance. What we have in these shows and in this book is a responsible effort to place Moses in his time, to record all of his work in New York City carefully and critically (his substantial achievements in the rest of New York state and in particular his remarkable work on Long Island are not included). Responsible, but by no mean adulatory: Moses does not escape criticism for projects and proposals that were disastrous, or would have been disastrous if realized.
The Moses map does not include, crowded as it is, the remarkable monumental swimming pools with their associated grand entries and bathhouses that sprang up in the city, a new one each week, in the summer of 1936. No one has matched Moses and his organizations in the scale of their work and also in the speed of their building, often under budget and completed earlier than scheduled. Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, was "four acres of mud and dirt," according to the New York Times, when Moses was appointed parks commissioner in January 1934. Within a month, a competition for a redesign had been launched, a winner selected, and hundreds of federally funded relief workers were hired and at work. The park re-opened with a classic design on September 14, 1934. It all took nine months. The design served until New York fell on hard times in the 1970s; its reconstruction into the park we have today took four years.
The program for magnificent swimming pools in crowded areas was announced in July 1934, and by the summer of 1936 the pools were opening to the public. Large color photographs of the huge swimming pools and their associated buildings were the most impressive images to be seen in the three exhibitions on Moses. They were unexampled works for the poor, and most of them are still operating; and they direct us to think of the fine landscape architect Gilmore Clarke and the accomplished architect Aymar Emury II who worked with Moses throughout much of his career. These early works by Moses were economical, but with hints of monumentality and grandeur, evoked in brick and stone. They remind us of what one might call the WPA style, which was just about the last style of public building in the United States that used decorative elements. Clarke and Embury are given full credit in the book accompanying the exhibits, and some of the huge photographs of the pool buildings by Andrew Moore in the show at the Queens Museum of Art are reproduced in it, but not on the same dazzling scale.
One looks back at that map, "Landscape by Moses," and if one asks what has been added in the fifty years since Moses lost power, one has to say, quite astonishingly: almost nothing. There is almost no major work -- park, bridge, tunnel, beach, parkway, expressway -- that must be added to the Moses map to make it contemporary. New York is congratulating itself on its revival, and a revival it has been: its population has been growing, after fifty years during which it was static or declining; crime is very sharply down; real estate values are rising; financial and cultural industries seem to have in large measure successfully replaced its manufacturing and port activities. Yet the new dynamic city attempts few great projects, nor would it know how to carry them through.
Thus, for the third time in seventy-five years, an effort is being made to build a second East Side subway line; another subway line may be extended west in midtown Manhattan; and the Javits Convention Center may be expanded -- but all this is little compared to the Moses era. No truly major public improvement is planned or under way. As Kenneth T. Jackson observes, "in the twenty-first century, when almost anything public' is regarded as second-rate and when the city cannot afford to repair -- let alone construct -- grand edifices, [Moses's] is a remarkable achievement." (Caro also recognized this, of course. He had seven long interviews with Moses, and wrote that "I must thank him....If his monologues...were in a sense lectures on the philosophy and art of Getting Things Done in a democratic society, they were nonetheless the lectures of a genius. Having been an investigative and political reporter for some years, I have naïvely believed I knew something about the innermost fabric of decision-making in New York City and New York State....All that I knew was as nothing besides what I learned 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 public authorities seem regularly impoverished, and their projects are delayed, impeded, and underbudgeted; when infrastructure crumbles, and we name stadiums and stretches of road after banks and financial companies, and depend increasingly on the private sector to 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 one effort to record his achievements in book form.) Moses was proud that he worked for the public, though the public saw him as arrogant and distant and overbearing. He saw himself as a reformer and a public servant. Other reformers also saw him as one of them all through his long career, which began as an assistant to his first patron, the reforming Democratic governor of New York state Alfred E. Smith in the 1920s, and entered its major phase when the reforming mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed him to the positions that permitted him to reshape the city.
Jackson tells us that Moses's estate when he died in 1981 was worth all of $50,000. "Certainly there are no material rewards [in public service]," Moses wrote, "comparable to those which can be expected from similar devotion to private work." He continued: "I made up my mind long ago to get my rewards from the dogwood the curving parkway, the spiderwork of suspension bridges, the reclaimed waterfront, the demolition of slums, the crack of a baseball bat and the shouting of children in playgrounds." All this flies in the face of Caro's portrait. And in his later years Moses described his work in building middle-class housing developments in the city as replacing "uninhabitable structures built by conscienceless speculators before we had adequate tenement legislation." That is also the way LaGuardia thought of his own achievement in building housing projects for the poor.
Robert Moses and the Modern City corrects the record on Robert Moses, not uncritically, and with a scholarly attention to covering all his work in New York City that will not be surpassed. The editors are not strangers to New York's fall and rise. Hilary Ballon, an architectural historian at Columbia, is the chief curator of the three shows, and is the author of a fine book on Pennsylvania Station, the destruction of which in the 1960s was perhaps the age's greatest act of vandalism. (Moses, then still in power, had nothing to do with that.) Kenneth T. Jackson, a distinguished urban historian, also at Columbia, is the editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City (1995), which was one of the markers of New York's rise from the depths of the 1970s.
The distinctive contribution of Ballon and Jackson's book is the way it places Moses in the context of the national urban policies of the times. He was a New York phenomenon, but it was not only New York and its liberal politics and policies that made him possible. Finally it is the national urban policies of the time that explain what Moses did and what he did not, or could not, do. Thus one of the major charges against Moses was that he disdained public transportation and did nothing to improve it. The New York City subways did not expand during the time of his greatest power, and suffered a decline in maintenance -- but as Jackson points out, Moses had no authority to deal with the major systems of public transportation. No national policies supported local public transportation, which was seen in those years as a purely local and state obligation. Nor does one note any great improvement after Moses's removal from power in the 1960s, when the Metropolitan Transportation Agency, responsible for the subways, was merged with Moses's Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA). It was hoped that tolls from the TBTA would pay for the upgrading and the expansion of the subways, but there was no major expansion or improvement after this coup and the removal of "the power broker." The subways were rehabilitated painfully and at great cost in the 1980s and 1990s.
The real issue, again, was that the national urban policies of the time offered no help to public transportation. Moses was dependent on the flow of funds from the federal government and on the tolls from the TBTA, which supported the bond issues necessary for major infrastructural work. There was little enough to be expected from the city and the state, which were strapped by the huge increases in social and health expenses. The significant federal policies, in terms of their impact on the physical structure of the city, consisted of two great initiatives, both launched in the 1950s, and both, as became apparent as early as the 1960s, misguided: support for the building of a great national expressway system, which facilitated the growth of suburbs; and support for the clearance of what were considered deteriorated parts of central cities in a program of "urban renewal," which was expected to help retain the middle class in the central city and support the cities' tax base. Moses was responsible for the implementation of both these programs in New York City, as chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance from 1956 to 1960 and as coordinator for arterial projects from 1960 to 1966.
As new superhighways sliced through various cities, they did great damage to those cities' physical and social fabrics, often destroying neighborhoods, uprooting great numbers of the black and the poor, and eliminating hundreds of small businesses. Moses went where the money was. In any case, some major roads for truck and commuter traffic were necessary. Even so, as Jackson points out, New York's expressways were relatively modest in scale, contrasted with the enormous multi-lane superhighways in Chicago, Houston, and elsewhere. This was true even of the execrated Cross-Bronx Expressway, which was limited to three lanes and designed with no room for shoulders. But even so, the damage was great.
As we can see from the early Long Island parkways, Moses thought of the road initially as a means of recreation, engaging the natural environment, with planting along its sides and leading to some park or beach at the end. The pictures of the early parkways are enchanting. But the federal road-building program meant that if one was to get federal funds, the new roads had to be wider, straighter, with fewer entries and exits, built to accommodate cars and trucks going at greater speeds. And if that was what was necessary to get federal funds, that is what Moses would build. Alas, park-like roadways were in time expanded and straightened, as they no longer served pleasure drivers but commuters.
Almost the first words in the book -- Ballon's acknowledgments -- direct our attention to this dilemma created by federal policy. "The Road to Recreation,'" Ballon writes, "appears at the Queens Museum of Art, where Moses remains a palpable presence. He created the Flushing MeadowsCrotona Park, the site of the museum, and was responsible for the highways that now encircle it like a moat." But the first of the roads that became this strangling girdle of the park was a parkway, the Grand Central. After the war, things changed. You can see the impact of the change from parkway to expressway if you try to get to the Queens Museum of Art by public transportation (as recommended by the Museum's website) on the #7 line of the New York subway. You are left today in a desert of parking lots, roadways, and stadiums. Where is the park, you ask, and indeed, where is the museum, and how do you get to it? The original parkways were built with wonderfully designed bridges in WPA style, stone and brick, which could accommodate pedestrians, as well as cars on local roads. But they became something else under the impact of growth, federal money, and federal requirements; and the pedestrian trying to approach the Queens Museum of Art today finds it no easy matter.
Yet could the city survive without the expressways, limited as they are in comparison with those of motor-oriented cities? Certainly the balance of federal funding should shift more to public transportation, as it has in recent decades. But New York is unique in its dependence on public transportation, and national policies are not often made to respond to unique cases.
The other great federal program that Moses ran in the 1950s and 1960s was urban renewal, which was known as Title I: it created planned housing communities, but it could also be used, and so Moses used it, to clear a large area to create Lincoln Center and a city campus for Fordham University, and to assist other New York institutions of higher education with housing for staff and faculty. This program has to be distinguished from the public housing program that ran concurrently and had its roots in preWorld War II legislation, but which grew enormously after the war, covering large sections of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn with housing projects. Urban renewal was designed to eliminate slums, not to rehouse slum-dwellers. If non-tax-paying housing projects were to replace the slums, it would defeat the purpose of urban renewal.
Moses had no operative role in the public housing program, which reached a vast scale in New York City, but his developments did displace great numbers of slum-dwellers, the people eligible to live in public housing, and he located some Title I projects near public-housing projects in the expectation, or at least the hope, that they would accommodate the displaced. Many of the housing developments built under Title I resembled public housing projects in their arrangement on newly created superblocks imposed on the close grid of Manhattan's streets, and in the materials they commonly used (red brick) -- but they housed the middle class, people whose 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 imaginatively designed; but federal rules made imagination difficult, and visually they were often not distinguishable from public housing.
On the whole, the Title I projects were well developed and managed in New York. In some other cities, great areas were cleared and lay vacant because private developers did not want to build in them. That did not happen in New York. Moses made sure he had developers lined up, private or public, ready to build on newly cleared land, and the scandal of large areas from which the poor had been displaced lying vacant for years did not arise in New York.
But there were problems, and scandals, as the assigned developers in one project, for example, continued to collect rent from those living in the designated slum and did not get on with the task of removal and clearance. And the larger scandal was this: were the areas being cleared really occupied by "slums," beyond rehabilitation? Was not a distinctive New York City fabric, a mix of housing, stores, churches, small factories, and varied other uses, being swept away for the cold monoliths of modernist architecture and planning? Ballon has given a masterful account of the Title I story in the book and in the exhibition that she mounted at Columbia University, and what we see is a clash between an ideal of city planning and replanning that had captured all -- or almost all -- minds in the 1930s and 1940s, and the gritty and complex reality explored and promoted by Jane Jacobs. When one looks at the pictures of the areas cleared away as "slums," one sees only New York city blocks, with their mix of uses and of older and newer buildings, perfect candidates for rehabilitation and gentrification -- particularly in view of where these areas were located -- in the 1990s. Why were they labeled slums? And why were they demolished?
But those are not the only questions. Were these doomed places really such candidates for gentrification in the 1960s, when these projects were reaching realization, or in the 1970s? To cast up the balance sheet is not a simple matter. As New York City rents rise, surely one of the anchors of what remains of a middle class in Manhattan -- schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers, small business owners, health workers, white-collar workers -- are the developments built under Title I and related programs, which are now under pressure as the market and its wild new wealth tries to reclaim them. So perhaps what Robert Moses did was implicated not only in New York's "fall," but in some degree in New York's more recent "rise." It is preposterous to regard him as only a villain.
Books mentioned in this post