Robert Moses: Good, Bad, or...?

Anthony Weiss's picture

The recent exhibitions on Robert Moses at the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art, and Columbia University have revived old debates about Robert Moses, most of which have boiled down to the question: when all is said and done, was he good or bad? When I visited the exhibitions, trying to figure out my own answer, I remembered my father's favorite saying (lifted from Oedipus Rex): "Would you condemn me for that which made me great?"

I don't think it should be too controversial – even if you dislike the man – to concede that Moses was a genius. The sheer quantity of roads, parks, bridges, playgrounds, and housing that he built is astonishing – and much of it of extremely high quality.

But his genius extended far beyond quantity. Moses had a rare ability to see a city as a complex organism of simultaneously moving, interconnected parts. Most of his projects are never just one thing, but in fact about five things tied together at once. Take, for example, the 1939 World's Fair, and the subsequent creation of Flushing Meadows Corona Park . For this one project, Moses cleared away an enormous ash dump, built a sewage treatment plant, cleaned the polluted Flushing River, built the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, what is now the Long Island Expressway, and the Interboro Parkway, and, after the fair was over, created a massive new public park. (This is probably more in the way of major public works than has been built in New York over the past two decades.) So for one project, he was thinking about access, circulation, major crossings over water, creating a regional road network, enivronmental remediation, recreation, blight removal, and probably several other things that I'm missing. And it changed not only Flushing Meadows, but also Flushing Bay, eastern Queens and most of Long Island.

This approach wasn't just good planning. It was also brilliant politics. You could say that Moses built all these projects to make the Fair possible. Or you could say he used the Fair as an excuse to get funding and support for all these projects. In the end, it's chicken-and-egg – he got them built.

There are very few people who can work at such a level of complexity, and Moses was a rare person – steadfast, self-confident, savvy, able to think on an enormous scale, and undeniably brilliant. He was a visionary on a grand scale – not too different, in a way, from Kissinger, or Napoleon.

The traits for which Moses has been rightly criticized were not a separate set of flaws, but the dark side of the same traits that made him successful. (This is, of course, apart from the accusation that Moses was a racist, which is its own separate debate.) He was stubborn, egotistical, impervious to criticism, and, above all, willing to sacrifice small people for what he saw as the greater good.

People with the vision of Moses aren't just useful. They are absolutely indispensable, and irreplaceable. There is no question that Moses accomplished a great deal that is good, and that New York simply couldn't function as it does if he hadn't existed.

But a Moses – or for that matter a Kissinger – must be checked. To be useful, rather than dangerous, they need somebody above them to periodically tell them "No." Our democratic system is founded on the profound insight that all people, including good people, are flawed, and their power needs to be checked. The problem with Moses was not only Moses himself, but that nobody was willing, or able, to check him. Too often, nobody told him "No."

Massive, complex systems like cities need massive, complex personalities to manage and shape them. If we are unable to make use of a Moses, then we are impoverishing ourselves. The essential question is how to ensure that they are checked, whether through laws or through strong opposing personalities. If we don't check people like Moses, their vision runs to excess and damages us all. But if we squelch them, then we condemn ourselves to mediocrity.

Anthony Weiss is a freelance writer and planner in New York City.



Shape democracy around the next Robert Moses?

Robert Moses was visionary and did much to benefit New York City. He probably put his pants on both legs at a time. Moses, as portrayed by Weiss, reminds me more of Neitszche's Ubermensch than Kissenger. Yet I wonder, how much time should we spend thinking of ways to control the furious talent of all the Robert Moseses out there when planning sees very few Moses-like figures? Waiting for the next Robert Moses to save us, even if we come up with good ideas to constrain his use of using emminent domain to plow through neighborhoods, hardly seems like using planning to promote democracy.

For planning to be democratic, not only must people oppose heavy-handed visions, people must have an opportunity to influence plans from the start. Simply thinking of democracy in terms of checks limits its possibilities. New York may have needed Moses, and may need a Moses in the future. What it (and many other places) needs now is an influx of planners savvy enough to stimulate civic participation in the planning process while simulutaneously finding ways to shape grassroots ideas into timely and well-conceived plans.

At some point we have to ask ourselves, what do we want society to be like? Do we want to build a vibrant participatory democracy, or do we want the Ubermensch-lite? The later sounds mediocre to me.

Robert Moses Benefited New York City????

"Robert Moses was visionary and did much to benefit New York City."

much to benefit New York City, such as

-- demolishing functioning neighborhoods and replacing them with highrise housing projects that had such high crime rates that they quickly became worse slums than the neighborhoods they replaced. Too bad he didn't also succeed in demolishing the West Village and replacing it with a high-rise housing project.

-- demolishing neighborhoods and replacing them with freeways, such as such as the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which caused blight and decay in the Bronx for decades. Too bad he didn't also succeed in demolishing Soho to build the lower-Manhattan Expressway.

-- encouraging the construction of totally auto-dependent suburbs, connected to the cities by freeways and not by transit. Let's get rid of all those Smart Growth people who are talking about transit-oriented development, and bring back Robert-Moses-style freeway-oriented development.

It is hard for me to believe the current adulation of Robert Moses. Many of the people who are going along with the Moses fad set off by the recent exhibits simply seem to be ignorant of the history of Moses' time - particulary of his projects that citizens stopped, such as the West Village urban renewal and the cross-Manhattan expressway.

If you say that Robert Moses was a genius because of the sheer quantity of projects he built, you might as well say that Stalin was a genius because of the sheer quantity of projects he built.

We don't need a new Robert Moses with democracy to check him. We need an approach that is just the opposite of Robert Moses': public transportation and transit-oriented development rather than freeways and automobile-oriented development.

Charles Siegel

Michael Lewyn's picture

Moses was overrated, for good and for ill

Much of the commentary about Moses makes it sound like he was some aberration, like a natural disaster. But in fact, his virtues were the same virtues, and his mistakes were the same mistakes, as those by planners in every other city in America. As Moses built parks and playgrounds, so did planners in other cities. As Moses built highways, so did planners in other cities. If anything (judged by New York City's speedy recovery in recent decades) Moses was less harmful than most. The only reason Moses attracts so much attention was that New Yorkers always think their problems are unique: if New Yorkers can't be the best in something, they would rather be the worst than admit their similarities to smaller cities.

Moses And 1950s Planning

"His virtues were the same virtues, and his mistakes were the same mistakes, as those by planners in every other city in America."

This is very true. What Moses did was typical 1950s planning.

Note that, when I criticize him, I am responding to claims that he was "a genius" and that some of his worst mistakes (such as the Cross-Bronx Expressway) were not mistakes at all.

I wonder if the people who want to rehabilitate Moses also want to rehabilitate the typical 1950s planning principles that he followed: build freeways through neighborhoods, starve public transit, demolish neighborhoods to build tower-in-a-park housing projects.

"If anything (judged by New York City's speedy recovery in recent decades) Moses was less harmful than most."

I am not sure I agree with this. I suspect that Moses did less harm to New York than similar planners did to other cities, because many of his projects were stopped during the 1960s.

If he had succeeded in demolishing the West Village and replacing it with a housing project, in building three cross-Manhattan expressways, and in building his proposal for Westway, New York would have had a more difficult time recovering than it did.

And it would be less livable than it is now: try to imagine Manhattan with those three expressways and with a massive Westway pumping traffic into them.

Charles Siegel

Robert Moses

I read Caro's book about Robert Moses while working on a Phd in public administration ("The Power Broker"). It was used to show what happens when there is top-down planning with no checks and balances. I recently read James Howard Kunstler's book "Geography to Nowhere", which used Moses to show how a backlash against railroads and the desire to retain a 19th century vision of Americans as "individualists" allowed the car to re-shape American values.

Moses may have been a master adminitrator, but he was no planner, and his legacy is one we are all just now really starting to pay for.

Rodney B. Proffitt

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