Robert Moses – NYC’s “Best” Man

Robert Moses was the corporation in flesh

Mr. Moses

Robert Moses was a jerk. He was also racist, arrogant, classist, segregationist – a dictatorial, power-hungry bigot driven to ignore community lines in pursuit of expanding his influence. He was, at best, ambivalent towards public transportation, at worst: driven to make New York the first metropolis to “transcend” public transportation. He’s been fingered for killing Coney Island, for driving off the Dodgers and the Giants, for building whites-only parks, and for kick-starting the modernist movement of ugly, soulless high-rise towers to stash the poor. Much of this is generally taken as fact; all of this I’ll concede.

The question, however, shouldn’t be whether Robert Moses was a “good” man, but rather: was Mr. Moses ultimately good for the city? Overwhelmingly, the answer today is a resounding, “yes.”

The most popular state park on the east coast attracts 6 million visitors a year.

Let’s go over his resume. He doubled the number of parks in the state within five years of the creation and his appointment to the State Park System. Jones Beach, only thirty miles from Times Square, stands as the crown jewel of his early career and survives to this day as the single most popular beach on the East Coast. Mayor LaGuardia – a frequent opponent – brought Moses into his administration in the 30s; almost immediately, the city’s neglected, inefficient, and mostly ignored park system was transformed into a model of efficiency. The city’s park system increased its operating budget in Moses’ first term from some paltry sum to over $300 million between 1934 and 1939. The man had ambition.

Regardless of who Moses meant to benefit from the construction and upkeep of the hundreds of additional playgrounds, parks, and recreation centers, today, those areas are being frequented by all manner of people, from myriad backgrounds, races, and incomes. Again, the focus shouldn’t be on Moses the man, but how Moses impacts our city, today.

Moses is credited for nearly every bridge or tunnel connecting NY since 1940

Moses is credited for nearly every bridge or tunnel connecting NY since 1940

Moses is portrayed as a “Paul Bunyan” of a man, a “fiery” character ripping through his opponents and detractors with “facts, or sears them with sarcasm and ridicule.” In his prime, the man was a little bit feared, a little bit loved, and a lot bit respected. Dude had chutzpah; Moses held his government positions – Parks Commissioner, President of Long Island State Park Commission, Secretary of State of New York, Chairman of the New York State Power Commision, and his most powerful position, the Commissioner of the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority (nee the Triborough Bridge Authority) – all at the same time, because he “himself drafted the laws creating every position he held or now holds.” The state legislature scrambled to tweak rules and laws so Moses could hold all these titles. And they did it because Moses had positioned himself to be the man in charge of deciding where the New Deal money would be allocated.

Finally, Moses believed – somewhat correctly, it appears – that automobiles would be the wave of the future. That “cities are for traffic.” That “if the ends don’t justify the means, what does?” Yes, he catered to the rich white population (famously diverting his Long Island highways to dodge the properties of people like JP Morgan, while bulldozing communities in the Bronx), but the access in and out of an island metropolis – today – is worth it.

One of the projects that did Moses in.

One of the projects that earned the ire of activist Jane Jacobs

In the end, he ran up against a new form of activism, a stronger mayor with stronger connections, the public sentiment he’d up ‘til then wielded like an epee, and his own hubris. First, Jane Jacobs was credited with foiling a number of Moses’ “urban renewal” projects. Then, he tried to destroy a popular-with-rich-whites playground in Central Park to create a carpark for the Tavern on the Green restaurant. While the media was ripping him for the playground, he went after the popular Penn Station, and his media fate was sealed. Finally, he tried to play his patented “announce resignation to the press” gambit against Governor Rockefeller, who accepted, stripped him of his powers, rolled the TBTA into the MTA, and Moses was done.

He was efficient, partly because the financial power the Tri-borough Transportation Authority commanded, thanks to its political autonomy from the mayor’s office, and partly because, by all accounts, he was ruthless and fervent in shaping the city to his utopian/realist vision. Moses was a fan of the automobile. He saw the future, and it was riding on four wheels next to an empty carpool lane.

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