Robert Moses dominated New York City like no man before him, and like none has since. Today, more than 30 years after his death New York is still a city shaped by Robert Moses.
Moses built highways, bridges, parks, public housing and a vast array of public works including the United Nations, Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium, Jones Beach, the Triborough Bridge and Co-op City, the largest cooperative housing development in the world. He built the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Belt Parkway, the Verrazano Bridge, the Midtown Tunnel and the World’s Fair.
Robert Moses was so influential in shaping the topography of America’s greatest city that he, more than anyone, can claim to have built contemporary New York. He changed both where and how New Yorkers lived.
”This man gave us bridges to beaches, parkways to power stations,” the Very Rev. Donald S. McPhail said at Moses’ memorial. “He was a visionary, because it takes a visionary to make a better world.”
But not everyone is convinced Moses made New York better. While his legacy lives on, so too does debate as to its benefits. Robert Moses may be one of the most influential men in the history of American cities but he is also one of the most polarizing.
Moses was born into a prominent Jewish family in New Haven, Connecticut in 1888. His father Emanuel Moses was a department store owner and the family was part of a wealthy circle of German Jews. When Moses was a child the family moved to New York City, where he grew up in a town house on East 46th Street.
Moses entered Yale at the age of 17, and on graduating in 1909 proceeded to Oxford for his doctorate. He wrote his Ph.D. on the British civil service, and reforming the civil service became his passion. About Judaism, however, he was less passionate and some time after attending Yale and Oxford Universities, he converted to the Episcopal Church.
On his return to New York it was natural that Moses would enter civil service. There he caught the eye of Belle Moskowitz, an advisor to Governor of New York Al Smith. In time Moses himself became close to Governor Smith. Soon he was part of the governor’s inner circle.
Moses’ first job was in the Bureau of Municipal Research, where he met and in 1915 married a secretary named Mary Louise Sims. Together they had two daughters. At the Bureau of Municipal Research, Moses supervised the creation of perhaps the most remarkable public beach in the world, Jones Beach, which provided normal New Yorkers with the amenities that had once been available only to the wealthy.
This first project was a revolutionary and almost unarguably positive contribution to New York, yet Moses executed it in a manner that would become his signature—without any deference to or interference from politicians or members of the public. In time, as Moses’s power grew, this unaccountability would be as divisive as any highway he might build through the heart of a neighborhood.
Early in his career, Moses made several trips to Long Island that opened his eyes to the vast swathes of unused land at the edge of the city. As the price of cars fell and their use increased, Moses realized that this land and its accessibility by car would be a key driver of New York’s development.
Moses coupled his vision with an incredible work ethic. An extraordinarily energetic man who loved to swim, he worked 15 hours a day or more and kept multiple offices to work from. “So eager was he to use every minute that he often held meetings in his car, taking his guest along in whatever direction Mr. Moses happened to be going,” the New York Times reported.
In time Moses became known as the “Master Builder” of New York. Between 1924 and 1968, in the course of 44 remarkable years, he built public works costing more than $70 billion in today’s value. These included highways, 13 bridges, 658 playgrounds, large amounts of public housing, tunnels, beaches, zoos, civic centers, exhibition halls and 416 miles of parks. New York before Moses had very little parkland but after him the state could boast 2,567,256 acres.
Moses employed novel techniques to get things done. He established public authorities—autonomous organizations that undertook public works with money raised by issuing bonds. He would sell bonds, build the projects with the funds, and pay the investors back with revenue from tolls. Crucially the authorities were insulted from any public or political influence. And successful projects would bring in vast revenues that the authority itself—which was led by Moses—could control, again free from any influence from the public or government.
In the tough world of New York politics, this was a way of getting things done. A lot of things.
Moses’ first quasi-public corporation was the Triborough Bridge Authority, which was easily his biggest project up to that point. Completed in 1936, the Triborough Bridge was a crucial link to his new network of highways and regional parks.
But Moses’ means of getting things done and the projects he executed were not always popular. Former New York City Mayors Robert F. Wagner and Ed Koch respectively described Moses as a ”tough opponent, a fighter” and a ”tough adversary.” Unlike the mayors, Moses was never an elected politician. Although he occupied several appointed offices and once held 12 positions at the same time, his power never came from the public on whose behalf he was working. In fact, the one time Moses ran for elected office he made history by losing the 1934 election for Governor of New York by the largest margin in the state’s history.
Moses’ projects were subject to much criticism. The Cross Bronx Expressway, for instance, required 1,500 apartments to be demolished in a single one-mile stretch alone. Today its destruction of communities is thought to have contributed to the decline of the borough. Yet Moses was defiant. ”I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs,” he said.
Critics argued that Moses’ projects dispossessed people and disrupted city neighborhoods for the benefit of drivers, that he favored the middle-classes and wealthy New Yorkers who owned cars above poorer, often non-white New Yorkers. Many argued that his building projects deliberately excluded minorities from his new New York. They alleged that by building bridges to Long Island too low for buses, Moses deliberately cut off poor residents of the city from his new suburbia.
Meanwhile the public housing he built in New York was of the Le Corbusier school: bland, monotonous, sterile and functional. This public housing, his critics claimed, did not improve the city’s ghettos; it just substituted new slums for old ones.
Another criticism was that by prioritizing roads and cars, Moses had put the greatest city in America at the mercy of the car. To quote one New Yorker, “his solution was roads, roads, and more roads.” But the more roads a city builds, the more roads it needs, for roads breed traffic.
Moses did not question the effect cars would have on New York. They were a reality, he argued, and as such should be legislated for. ”We live in a motorized civilization,” he said.
But ironically, this great builder of highways never learned to drive. He did however maintain a staff of chauffeurs on call 24 hours a day.
Thanks to his roads and highways, Moses was largely responsible for the settling of Long Island. But as many white New Yorkers–primarily Italian, Irish and Jewish-Americans from Brooklyn and Queens–moved to the new suburbs, many blamed Moses for white flight and inducing the exodus of the middle class from New York.
”Those who can, build,” Mr. Moses once said. ”Those who can’t, criticize.”
But if Moses could sometimes be bullish in the face of criticism, he did not enjoy opposition. He would often dramatically offer his resignation when faced with disagreement. But one day in 1962, the policy backfired when to Moses’ surprise Governor Rockefeller accepted the resignation he had only offered in protest over a disagreement.
Moses lost most of his state jobs with his unintended resignation. He then lost his last position of power in 1968, when the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority merged into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
But he had already more than left his mark by then.
Moses was in many ways a discredited figure when he died of heart failure in 1981 at 92. Today he is known as the American Haussmann—a New York version of the man who built modern Paris. For nearly 50 years Moses ruled over much of New York, protected by his reputation and unfettered by restraints. And although historian Lewis Mumford disliked him, he conceded that for good or for ill, ”in the 20th century the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.”
Moses did more ”for New York’s common man,” said his friend the Rev. Lawrence McGinley, ”than the Pharaohs did for Egypt in all their might.”