In 1974, Robert Caro published a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses, THE POWER BROKER. I interviewed Caro on that occasion. Unfortunately, Caro's interview appears to have been lost. If I had it, it would have made a great companion piece to the Moses tape and would have put the Moses interview into perspective. Caro says Moses' slum-clearance project on Manhattan's Upper West Side actually led to the area's decline (now reversed), and that Moses built the overpasses on the parkways leading to Jones Beach on Long Island so low buses couldn't pass underneath, preventing poor blacks in Manhattan from traveling to the beach, since few minorities in the city had cars.
It was Robert Moses, more than any legislature or any other individual, who tied those islands together with bridges, soldering together three boroughs at once with the Triborough Bridge (and then tying two of them, the Bronx and Queens, even more firmly together with the Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridges), spanning the Narrows to Staten Island with the mighty Verrazano, tying the distant Rockaways firmly to the rest of the metropolis with the Marine and Cross-Bay spans, uniting the West Bronx and Manhattan with the Henry Hudson. Since 1931, seven great bridges have been built to link the boroughs together. Robert Moses built every one of those bridges.
His job titles seem prosaic: New York City Parks Commissioner, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Chairman, and the like. However, in those positions Moses created the highways and bridges now integral to the New York experience, and peppered the city with playgrounds, parks, and pools...Yet as Mr. Caro teaches us, socially Moses was a friendless, hobbyless, racist boor and pitiless class snob. As such I have also been struck by how he has polluted my life and that of others...The splendor of Riverside Park tapers off in Harlem because Moses did not consider its residents worthy of it. And never mind how his expressways, pushing aside countless apartment buildings in working-class neighborhoods, drove cash-strapped people to festering tenements elsewhere.
For those of us who care about cities and why they flourish or fade, the accepted wisdom boils down to this: Robert Moses bad, Jane Jacobs good.
Moses lives in urban lore as the ruthless New York bureaucrat who forced highways through neighborhoods with no regard for real lives in the way. Jacobs is his antithesis, the Greenwich Village everywoman who enshrined the virtues of messy vitality in her still-potent "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."
In 1961 Robert Moses initiated plans to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Condemning Greenwich Village as a slum, he proposed a vast urban renewal project that would level fourteen city blocks and create the eight-lane highway that would slash through the Village, Soho, and Chinatown, from the East River to the Hudson. It would displace almost ten thousand residents and workers and destroy thousands of historic buildings. He condemned the Village as a slum and argued, in an interview, that, "Cities are created by and for traffic. A city without traffic is a ghost town."...On December 11, 1962, for the first time in almost a half-century of power, Robert Moses was defeated...To this day, residents can still live their whole lives in Manhattan without cars. Neither of the two other Manhattan expressways projects came to be built.
Moses began his studies at Columbia after graduating from Yale and Oxford; he received a PhD in political science in 1914. It was while at Columbia that he became interested in civil-service reform, work that led to his first job, at the city's Bureau of Municipal Research. In 1948, it was Moses who approved the conversion of 116th Street from an automobile thoroughfare to the pedestrian College Walk. For this concession Columbia agreed to donate 10 acres of the Lamont estate (now the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory), land that Moses sought to build the Palisades Instate Park.
In the words of Columbia history Prof. Kenneth T. Jackson, "the achievement of Robert Moses was that he adapted New York City to the twentieth century."...He built hundreds of playgrounds, was a driving force behind the construction of Shea Stadium, and ran both the 1939 and 1964 world's fairs. Called by former governor Al Smith "the most efficient administrator I have ever met in public life," Moses accrued his power in a series of state and city positions—many held concurrently—that left his ability to reshape the city and state virtually unchecked.
THE BATTLE OF EAST TREMONT: More significant challenges lay ahead for Moses. In 1952, more than six years after Moses announced his plans for the Cross Bronx Expressway, construction was yet to begin on "Section 3" from the Bronx River Parkway west to the Major Deegan Expressway.
The route of "Section 3" would displace numerous residents in the East Tremont and Morris Heights neighborhoods. Specifically, 159 apartment buildings would have to be demolished, displacing 1,530 families. An alternative route was available in the area of Crotona Park that would have reduced the number of families that would have to be displaced. Moses rejected the alternative plan, despite its support from the East Tremont Neighborhood Association.
His reputation with the public was very unfavorable in the later years of his life. He was especially unpopular with the estimated quarter of a million people who lost their homes or were displaced from their homes due to his projects. In 1974 Robert Caro published his book about Robert Moses entitled The Power Broker. In it he showed the very cruel and flawed side of Moses, demolishing his reputation once and for all.
'Those who can, build,'' Mr. Moses once said. ''Those who can't, criticize.'' Robert Moses was, in every sense of the word, New York's master builder. Neither an architect, a planner, a lawyer nor even, in the strictest sense, a politician, he changed the face of the state more than anyone who was. Before him, there was no Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach State Park, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, West Side Highway or Long Island parkway system or Niagara and St. Lawrence power projects. He built all of these and more.
Before Mr. Moses, New York State had a modest amount of parkland; when he left his position as chief of the state park system, the state had 2,567,256 acres. He built 658 playgrounds in New York City, 416 miles of parkways and 13 bridges.
But he was more than just a builder. Although he disdained theories, he was a major theoretical influence on the shape of the American city, because the works he created in New York proved a model for the nation at large. His vision of a city of highways and towers -which in his later years came to be discredited by younger planners - influenced the planning of cities around the nation.
Urban planner Robert Moses is one of the major shaping forces behind America's modern cities, particularly those in the North East. His controversial programs, many of which were considered necessary for the region's development after the Great Depression. His projects have had lasting impact and his favoring the highway system is claimed to have precipitated the decline of public transport.