On Progressive Impotence and an Obsolete Penn Station

In a deep dive into the sad state of the nation's busiest transit hub, Marc J. Dunkelman raises a dispiriting question. In their zeal to ward off future Robert Moseses, have progressives crippled government's power to carry out its job?

2 minute read

December 24, 2019, 11:00 AM PST

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc

Robert Moses

Robert Moses embodied an era when public authority could get things done, for good and for ill. | C.M. Stieglitz / Wikimedia Commons

"Penn Station is the second most heavily trafficked transit hub in the world, trailing only Tokyo's Shinjuku Station," Marc J. Dunkelman writes. "For more than a generation, New York's most important gateway has been a grimy relic." Determining exactly why that is led Dunkelman on a lengthy investigation into how the politics of infrastructure have evolved in New York City.

His conclusion: Penn Station has languished because political progressives fear the power Robert Moses once wielded and have defanged it over time, tying their own hands along the way. "No one has the leverage to fix [Penn Station]. The sad state of America's most important train station stems more from a failure of power than a failure of leadership. And shockingly enough, that's not by mistake—it's by design."

Dunkelman argues that the publication of Robert Caro's seminal work on Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, marked the starting point for an anti-power strain on the left that worked in concert with the anti-government right, in reality if not in rhetoric, to undermine public sector effectiveness.

He writes, "Even as progressives have championed Big Government, they've worked tirelessly to put new checks on its power—to pull it away from imperious technocrats who might use government to bulldoze hapless communities. And it's that impulse to protect the powerless from the abuse of public power that is most responsible for the morass that is Penn Station."

Dunkelman's narrative traces how increasingly unambitious plans have been put forward to remake the station, only to run up against a dynamic in which "where so many players can exercise a veto, it's nearly impossible to move a project forward." He goes on, "The Trump era may not be the moment to extol the virtues of unchecked executive power. But Penn Station's story suggests that, for those hoping to achieve traditionally progressive aims, America's cultural aversion to power has gone too far."

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