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Revisiting the Legacy of Robert Moses

A visit from the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to see Robert Caro, author of "The Power Broker," provides a refresher on the works of Robert Moses and Caro's writing.
May 16, 2016, 12pm PDT | Irvin Dawid
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John A. Anderson

Dutch Prime Minister Rutte and a friend were greatly influenced by Caro's epic biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. The two met up with Caro who had agreed to "show them some sights from the book," writes John Leland of The New York Times. Leland joined them in a narrated auto trip by the master historian to visit a handful of Moses' many creations.

Mr. Caro...pointed out Moses handiwork, which was basically everything in sight: the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (formerly the Triborough Bridge), the northern extension of the F.D.R. Drive, the massive public housing projects in Queens and Upper Manhattan.

“Every building you see here was built by Robert Moses,” Mr. Caro said, gesturing toward the projects. “And there’s not a single architectural element to make them look better. Moses wanted the people living in them to feel poor.”

First stop was Randall Island, where Moses' main office for the Triborough Bridge Authority was located, directly below from where the three spans of the bridge (from three boroughs) meet. The bridge opened in 1936.

The Triborough Bridge Authority is now part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller created to force Moses from power, Mr. Caro said. “It was the only way to get him out. Moses didn’t think it could be done.”

"MTA Bridges and Tunnels, legally known as the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, is an affiliate agency of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, that operates seven intrastate toll bridges and two tunnels in New York City," according to Wikipedia.

Next up: "The Cross-Bronx Expressway, whose construction devastated a mile-long swath of the Bronx, uprooting a stable low-income neighborhood and leaving urban misery in its place," writes Leland. 

When Mr. Caro was working on that part of the book, he said, it made him depressed and angry. He’d track down people who had been displaced, and the word they used to describe their lives afterward was “lonely.”

The Sheridan Expressway, also built by Moses, abuts the Cross-Bronx. It is budgeted to be razed and replaced with a ped/bike-friendly urban boulevard, as noted recently in a post that shows how far we have come from the destructive transportation policies embraced by Moses.

"Much has changed since “The Power Broker” came out in 1974, when it earned its subtitle about “The Fall of New York," writes Leland. "Mr. Caro said the subtitle reflected the city as Moses left it: crime rising, schools decaying, the city’s finances crumbling."

For Mr. Rutte, a lesson of the intervening years was that “leadership does matter,” he said, adding: “I used to walk in the Bowery in the early 1980s and it was not safe. It went from this to Disneyland under Giuliani and Bloomberg. This is now one of the best-run big cities in the world.”

Times have indeed changed in New York City since Moses' reign. Instead of building roadways that destroy neighborhoods, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan pedestrianized parts of Broadway with new plazas. Mayor Bill de Blasio continues in that vein with Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg by taming notorious Queens Boulevard.

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Published on Friday, May 13, 2016 in The New York Times
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