The Scars Of Robert Moses

I’ve posted a new song, “The Scars Of Robert Moses,” my latest NYC history song. It was sparked by a conversation with Mike Ford of Moxy Fruvous last year in Toronto. It took a while to write, and the recent death of Jane Jacobs (along with my rereading of The Death and Life Of American Cities) got me thinking that I really needed to finish the song. I have a pretty big backlog of new, unrecorded songs, which I hope will be appearing in this space over the next few weeks.

For those who don’t know the name, Robert Moses was the man who built the majority of NYC’s highways and bridges. He ran the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority like his own personal fiefdom, and the insane tolls you pay on those crossings are a direct result of his manipulation of public authority funding to create a power base independent of voter or political control. From the 1930s until the early 1970s, he was in absolute control of most public works spending in New York City and across the state, and was crucial in the creation of the national Interstate Highway system. Most importantly, he is probably the single person most responsible for suburban sprawl and the decimation of American cities, through his divergence of public funding from transit to cars, and his disastrous ideas of urban planning.

My interest in Moses began with The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s Pulitzer-winning book that examines Moses’ legacy and his effect on urban and suburban development in the second half of the last century. I would not argue with anyone who said it was the most important book ever written about New York City. Caro’s book paints him as a destructive force (the subtitle is “Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”) and I largely agree.

Courtesy of Newsday, here’s a map of all his projects. It’s essentially every highway, bridge and tunnel in New York, minus the early East River bridges (Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg) and the Hudson tunnels. Lots of parks. All of the housing projects. Jones Beach. Robert Moses State Park. There’s no denying the magnitude of his impact. It’s whether it was good or bad that’s in question, and one needs to consider that not only in light of what he did, but what he did not do. Imagine if that much money and energy had been spent on mass transit. We’d have the Second Avenue Subway, and maybe a lot more — direct links to the airports, fewer two-fare zones and therefore better lives for millions of New Yorkers, and so on. If we’d built subways to Red Hook, rather than destroying it with a highway and housing projects, would that neighborhood have crashed the way it did?

For years, the answer to Moses’ critics was basically that no one else could have done what he did. He was a tyrant, but how else to get that much done? Where would we be without all of his projects? Even I used to concede that point, but over the years I’ve come to believe that we’d have been better off if after building Jones Beach, he’d spent the rest of his life sunning himself and never done anything else.

We’ll never know for sure if that’s true, but there are three ways to consider this question:

  • Look at cities where no one ever pursued a similarly massive highway-construction program. My epiphany about the overall worth of Moses’ legacy came in a cab in London, which has highways ringing the city, but none going through it. One morning I got a cab from my hotel in The City (eastern London) to Heathrow (west of London) and sat back for the ride as the driver cut through small local streets across the city. It was more than an hour of fighting through awful traffic. However, in New York, we destroyed lots of neighborhoods to build all these wonderful highways, and as a result, when it comes time to go to the airport … we spend more than an hour fighting through awful traffic. I can’t think of a clearer illustration of the way traffic expands to fill the available roads, and the insanity of believing that building highways will ease traffic problems.
  • Consider the benefits of the projects he built. With a few exceptions, his highways are jammed day and night (travelling between the airports on the Van Wyck was slower than it had been on local roads within weeks of its opening), constantly under construction, and always in need of expansion. His bridges would have been better off with subways and one could argue that several are not really necessary. His housing projects are textbook examples of horrendous urban planning. He built a few great parks, and a lot of abandoned squares of grass, poorly maintained and underused. If you erased everything he built from the map of New York City, I think you’d have a net positive effect.
  • Look at the projects that Moses didn’t build — those he proposed, but was blocked from completing. For instance, the Lower Manhattan Expressway or the Mid-Manhattan Expressway. Can anyone seriously suggest that we’d be better off with elevated highways running down 42nd Street, and through Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park? They’d be hopelessly jammed, as is every highway in New York, and those neighborhoods would have seen none of the resurgence and revitalization of recent decades. We’re better off without those highways, and I think it’s pretty clear we’d have been better off without most of his others as well.

I grew up on Staten Island, where the building of Moses’ Verrazano Bridge began a frenzy of car-oriented overdevelopment. When I was born, Staten Island had a total population of about 50,000 people, and there was a working farm where the Staten Island Mall is now. The population now is ten times that, and what was once an island of small towns and woods is now an expanse of the ugliest houses you’ve ever seen in your life, and roads endlessly jammed with traffic. I can’t stomach the xenophobia of Islanders’ anti-bridge sentiment, but if Staten Island had subways, I would have had a happier childhood, the Island would be a better place to live now, and the gorgeous old Victorian neighborhoods on the north shore would probably be booming, rather than moldering away because they’re a 2½-hour trip away from Manhattan.

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