A Fresh Look At Robert Moses: Three New Exhibits To Open

Three NYC exhibits at Columbia University, Museum of the City of New York, and Queens Museum of Art, will soon open featuring the works of Robert Moses that mark the first look at the City’s master builder since Robert Caro's, "The Power Broker".

"Every generation writes its own history," said Kenneth T. Jackson, a historian of New York City at Columbia who with Columbia University architectural historian Hilary Ballon edited "Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York", the catalog accompanying the (three) exhibitions.

"It could be that ‘The Power Broker' was a reflection of its time: New York was in trouble and had been in decline for 15 years. Now, for a whole host of reasons, New York is entering a new time, a time of optimism, growth and revival that hasn't been seen in half a century. And that causes us to look at our infrastructure.", Jackson said.

Hilary Ballon believes Moses deserves a better legacy than ascribed by Robert Caro's epic biography - or at least a fresh look. In three exhibitions opening in the next few days, she "argues that too little attention has been focused on what Moses achieved, versus what he destroyed, and on the enormous bureaucratic hurdles he surmounted to get things done."

Each of the exhibitions has a different emphasis.

"Remaking the Metropolis," which opens at the Museum of the City of New York on Feb. 2, focuses on Moses' roads, like the Henry Hudson Parkway and the Cross Bronx Expressway; major buildings and monuments (Lincoln Center, the United Nations); and parks (the expansion of Riverside Park, East River Park and recreational spaces in Central Park).

Opening Feb. 4 at the Queens Museum of Art (whose forbidding stone building Moses had built for the 1939-40 World's Fair), "The Road to Recreation" documents his expansion of roads and recreation in the 1930's: some 416 miles of parkways and 658 playgrounds.

"Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution," which opens on Jan. 31 at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, focuses on Moses' ambitious 1950s urban renewal program.

Thanks to Mark Boshnack

Full Story: Architecture: Rehabilitating Robert Moses



Rehabilitating Robert Moses

The article says:
Ultimately, the exhibitions’ organizers say, they felt it was important to judge Moses’ impact on New York in the context of what happened across the nation during his tenure, like middle-class flight from cities and the construction of highways that spurred the rise of suburbs. “What was happening in Detroit and St. Louis?” Mr. Finkelpearl said. “Those cities died. Maybe the city was in decline, but not relative to other cities.”

In reality, New York did not decline as much as other cities partly because it stopped some of Moses' projects. In Detroit, they built all of the freeways that were proposed, slicing up the city and hastening its decline. In New York, citizen's movements stopped some of Moses' proposed freeways, which also would have hastened New York's decline. Eg, Moses' Lower Manhattan Expressway would have made it much harder to revive the area that is now called Soho.

It is very strange to rehabilitate Robert Moses by arguing that he built big projects and we need big projects today. We do need big projects, such as high-speed rail and commuter rail, but Moses refused to build public transportation. New York's subway stagnated from the 1940s onward and does not reach parts of Queens and Brooklyn, because Moses put all the transportation money into freeways. Moses built projects that were big and destructive - clearly not models for us to imitate today.

I suspect that the attempt to rehabilitate Robert Moses is an academic fad among people who are trying hard to say something unconventional. It certainly has nothing to do with the current theory or practice of urban planning: the sort of single-use housing projects that Robert Moses built have been discredited by the New Urbanists, and the narrow-minded focus on freeways that Robert Moses promoted has helped to cause global warming.

Charles Siegel

A Fresh Look at Robert Moses

It is about time that this man get his due. I think his accomplishments have made NYC a better place. Robert Moses was a man of vision and determination who acted in big and dramatic ways. Our cities need more builders and planners like Moses, with concentrated power to get things done. A model I prefer over planning by committee and incrmental muddling.

Robert T. Don, AICP

"Robert Moses Gets Things Done"

This statement was made so often during the 1950s that it became a joke. Eg, Paul and Percival Goodman wrote in _Communitas_ (1961): "This is a man who "gets things done.' He has done a great disservice to the people of New York."

It is an easy statement to ridicule, because it obviously does not make sense to admire someone because he Gets Things Done, without asking whether those things are beneficial or destructive.

Would we admire him even more if citizens movements hadn't stopped him so he could Get More Things Done? He would have built three cross-Manhattan expressways that would have made Manhattan a much worse place for pedestrians. He would have demolished west Greenwich Village and replaced it with a modernist high-rise housing project, destroying one of the city's most beloved neighborhoods. Would this have made New York a better place? Would we admire this ability to Get Things Done?

I admire people who get things done that actually improve their cities, like Jaime Lerner and Enrique Penalosa. I don't blindly admire anyone who Gets Things Done, regardless of whether those things are good or bad.

If we are going to admire people purely because they Get Things Done, then it is time to start rehabiliting Joe Stalin, who Got Things Done even more effectively (and more destructively) than Robert Moses.

Charles Siegel

Robert Moses Legacy

It is a lazy arguement to say that re-thinking the Moses legacy is kin to rehabilitating Stalin.

It is my opinion that the Moses legacy is a mix of good and bad. But some (mostly paranoid community activists) remain fanatical about him - seeing evil in all things Moses.

Robert T. Don, AICP

Moses and Stalin

It is a lazy argument to claim that I said rehabiliting Moses is similar to rehabilitating Stalin. I actually said:

"If we are going to admire people purely because they Get Things Done, then it is time to start rehabiliting Joe Stalin."

Charles Siegel

Moses and Global Warming

"---the narrow-minded focus on freeways that Robert Moses promoted has helped to cause global warming."

The anti-Moses crowd is totally over the edge.....next it will be that he created the "Wal-Mart" boogeyman...

His acccomplishments are too numerous to list and have been cataloged many times. In my mind his vision was how he thought about the NY area as an integrated region. Creating regional agencies, authorities, and funding mechanisms to ensure their longevity. One might quibble over his aestheic taste, placement of a road or park. But, (in my mind) the NY region is a better place because he served. I would like to see NYC errect a stuatue to honor his service. I doubt that will happen considering the politics of NIMBY that prevail today.

Robert T. Don, AICP

Name Calling Instead of Reasoning

I don't see how anyone can deny (1) that America's post-war freeway-building binge helped cause global warming (since automobiles are a major source of CO2 emissions) and (2) that Robert Moses was a leader of that freeway-building binge. Which of these two statements do you disagree with?

Unfortunately, you constantly resort to name calling instead of reasoning: this time the slur was "totally over the edge." I don't think you are convincing anyone by calling me names instead of addressing the facts about global warming. The name caller is only demeaning himself.

And I obviously am not "quibbling over the placement of a road." I am saying that Moses made a fundamental error by focusing exclusively on freeway and ignoring public transportation. In fact, as Caro shows, he deliberately undermined public transportation by building parkway bridges so low that buses could not pass under them.

Charles Siegel

Taking Moses' Rehabilitation Seriously

The move to rehabilitate Robert Moses has serious implications. For example, Columbia University Professor Kenneth Jackson, who will write the book based on these exhibits, is now defending the Cross-Bronx Expressway: "How do you travel between Boston and Pittsburg without the Cross Bronx Expressway? You have to move laterally at some point." (quoted in _Columbia_ magazine, Winter 2006-2007, p. 37).

In my criticism of Robert Moses, I have referred to specific projects that most people agree would have been destructive: the three cross-Manhattan expressways and the plan to demolish West Greenwich Village and build a housing project.

The defense of Robert Moses has not talked about a single specific project. It has relied entirely on:

--Vague generalities, such as "a man of vision and determination," "the NY region is a better place because he served," "the Moses legacy is a mix of good and bad."

--Nasty name calling, such as "lazy argument," "over the edge," "paranoid community activists."

Let's get specific. I think the Cross Bronx Expressway was a destructive project that blighted a neighborhood, displaced residents, destroyed decent housing, and did not reduce congestion in the long run. I agree with John Norquist that it would have made more sense to keep the freeways on the peripheries of American cities, as they did in most European cities, rather than running them through inner-city neighborhoods.

Do you think that we should build more projects like the Cross Bronx Expressway, new freeways slicing through existing urban neighborhoods?

If you don't, then you should be wary of the attempt to rehabilitate Robert Moses - or at least of this implication of the attempt, which Kenneth Jackson is promoting. If you do, then you should say so, and we will all where you really stand.

It is not helpful to respond with a vague generality like "I believe in regional planning." I also believe in regional planning - eg, in the sort of planning that they have done in the Portland region, which is exactly the opposite of the sort of planning that Moses did in New York.

And it is not helpful to respond with more ugly name calling.

Charles Siegel


My original post read....

"It is about time that this man get his due. I think his accomplishments have made NYC a better place. Robert Moses was a man of vision and determination who acted in big and dramatic ways. Our cities need more builders and planners like Moses, with concentrated power to get things done. A model I prefer over planning by committee and incrmental muddling."

The poster's reply was to call such a statement a "joke."

Robert T. Don, AICP

A Statue of Robert Moses

I have found the perfect place for a statue of Robert Moses, to commemorate the changes he brought to New York.

There is a circle at the west corner of Prospect Park where Ocean Parkway used to begin. It is hard to imagine what this corner was like when it was first built, but it must have been a high point in the history of New York's urban design. Frederick Law Olmstead considered Prospect Park his greatest creation; the boulevards radiating from the corners of the park were the key to Olmstead's planning vision for Brooklyn; and Ocean Parkway was the most completely realized of these boulevards.

Robert Moses destroyed the stretch of Ocean Parkway nearest to Prospect Park in order to build a sunken freeway there, the Prospect Expressway. The boulevard that tied together the neighborhood was replaced by a freeway that sliced up the neighborhood. Shortly after Moses did this, the rest of Ocean Parkway was declared a landmark, so no one could do the same sort of damage to the rest of this boulevard.

This circle must have been a popular place for pedestrians when it was first built. The intact parts of Ocean Parkway are still full of people sitting and strolling, and this circle must have been even more lively, because it connected Ocean Parkway with Prospect Park.

Today, it is an empty circle full of weeds with a freeway passing by it. This circle is an ideal place for a statue of Robert Moses, with a plaque describing how he changed this neighborhood.

Because there are no pedestrians here, the statue is bound to be vandalized and covered with graffiti, exactly what Robert Moses deserves for vandalizing this neighborhood.

But if the damage that Robert Moses did to this neighborhood is ever undone - if the freeway is removed and the boulevard is restored - then the crowds of people on the boulevard will deter the graffiti artists. If Moses' act of vandalism is ever undone, then his statue will no longer be vandalized.

Charles Siegel

Moses Recognition

Actually, a statue of Moses already exists in Babylon,near the town center. And there is a bust of Moses on the Lincoln Center campus of Fordham University. There is also a dam named after him, bridges/tunnels, several highways, and state parks. Several museums are having retrospectives of his life and more people are becoming aware of his fine contributions and service. The man never profited from his immense power and authority over millions of dollars of public spending. The more that is known of this man's tremendous accomplishments, the more his service is appreciated.

As hard has the anti-Moses crowd rages against this man, people of moderation are giving him his due. Time is on Moses side.

Robert T. Don, AICP

Irvin Dawid's picture

In case you want to go to the museums, here are the links:

Columbia University:
Slum Clearance & Superblock Solution
31 January through 14 April 2007
Weds - Sat, 1-5pm;
closed Sun - tues

Queens Museum:
Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Road to Recreation
February 4 - May 27, 2007
Wednesday - Friday: 10:00am - 5:00pm
Saturday and Sunday: 12:00pm - 5:00pm
Closed Monday & Tuesday

Museum of City of NY
Robert Moses and the Modern City: Remaking the Metropolis
Feb 1 through May 28
Tuesday - Sunday: 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Closed Mondays. Open on Monday holidays including Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day

Irvin Dawid, Palo Alto, CA

The Robert Moses Parkway

The one highway I know that is named after him is the Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls, NY, which is being removed because everyone there realizes that it has blighted the city and helped to cause its economic decline by cutting it off from the Niagara Gorge. The have already closed half of it to cars, and they are now planning complete removal.

I think this is the appropriate response to Moses' memory, and I recommend that next we should remove his Sheridan expressway and restore the Bronx River. I don't know if any of Moses' housing projects were removed by HOPE VI; can anyone give me this information?

Why should "people of moderation" admire Moses? He is probably the most immoderate and extreme person who ever held so much power in American government. Look at all the freeways he built and tried to build, no matter who got hurt in the process; look at his hostitility to public transportation, which was so extreme that he designed overpasses that prevented buses from using his parkways; and then try to tell me that he had moderate ideas about transportation.

Charles Siegel

Moses and Freeways

The constant blathering by the anti-Moses crowd about some of his highway projects is boring. There is much more to the man's accomplishements including the UN, Lincoln Center, two World Fairs, bridges/tunnels, hundres of parks (1,000 of square miles), Jones Beach, Riverside Park, cultural institutions,tens of thousands of middle income housing units (Co-op City, Washington Square South, University Village, Kips Bay Plaza, Penn South Houses and Stuyvesant Town). The projects he built (roads, bridges, tunnels) all have made NY a major international city. If Moses hadn't been a visionary force, the economic base of the region would be for the worse. Imagine the city without the United Nations (as an example). It was Moses ambitions that secured it for New York over San Fransisco and other contenders.

On this web site (follow the thread), the anti-Moses crowd has made attempts to compare him to Stalin, blamed him for global warming, labeled defense of his accomplishments as a joke, and even stooped so low as to say a statue should be built of Moses so every jerk with spray paint can have their revenge on the guy. There is no reasoning with irrational rants.

For myself, I will continue to admire Moses and his service. I look forward to the new book coming out this month about the man. “Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York,” (edited by two Columbia professors, Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson). It reportedly reflects the current thinking by urbanist scholars..."recasting Moses in a more balanced, favorable light, without whitewashing his flaws." according to the NY Times.

Robert T. Don, AICP

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