Thursday, June 22, 2006

Robert Moses, Volume One

One of my projects for this summer is to better understand Robert Moses. Moses, an unelected bureaucrat who held incredible power in the New York City government between the depression and the 1950s, has been known variously through history as a a savior of corrupt government and as a despot, as a champion of parks and public housing and as a racist, a visionary of the 20th-century city and as a scapegoat for the 20th-century city.

Robert Moses portrait by Arnold NewmanThese days, the reputation of Robert Moses (left, in a famous portrait by Arnold Newman) usually runs towards the latter, less favorable of these pairs. In some cases, this is merely comeuppance: Moses was undoubtedly racist, for example, and many of his projects shoved inner city neighborhoods into steep decline after the second world war. Robert Caro's 1974 biography of Moses, The Power Broker, is another major contributing factor to Moses's bad reputation. Caro ruthlessly deconstructs all of the careful political machinations that Moses used to get his projects built, and, with the benefit of hindsight, documents the effects that Moses inflicted on neighborhoods and the city in general. The Power Broker won the Pulitzer Prize, and remains the authoritative volume on the man's political life.

My most direct acquaintance with Moses comes from the West Side Highway, a six-lane freeway that decapitates the summit of Inwood Hill from the Hudson River waterfront. Yesterday I made the hike down through a pair of little-used underpasses to Inwood Hill Park's riverfront ballfields, a pretty bleak place where the fields are dusty and the trees, nourished on thin soil over landfill, provide scraggly shade. The ballfields were Moses's offering to the park to compensate for the highway that would slice it in two; today, that offering is paltry, and thanks to the highway, it's almost impossible to get there anyhow.

Nevertheless, I'm a little bit suspicious of Caro's biography, which, after all, was written at a time when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, race wars, and other crises (the book is subtitled "Robert Moses and the Fall of New York", which seems melodramatic here in 2006). Moses seems too convenient a scapegoat for all of these problems, especially when every other large American city also built racist freeways and housing projects, and experienced the same consequences, without Robert Moses around. Robert Moses was simply a very effective executor of the dominant urban planning theories of the day, and up until his retirement, the majority of New York's intelligentsia (including, with an almost religious reverence, the editors of The New York Times) supported his projects.

Caro seems a little too vindictive in his writing, as when he criticizes Moses for building playgrounds at the edges of parks: Caro treats this as a kid-hating scheme to keep children out of the great outdoors. I don't see it that way: where playgrounds are concerned, I'm more inclined to agree with Moses and say that they're better placed accessibly, near active streets, rather than deep in the woods.

Even Caro admits that Moses did some good work: he created dozens of new parks all over the metropolitan region, opened up new public beaches, and built crucial infrastructure that no one else could build. Even his housing projects, long derided as racist slums, remain today (with renovations) as crucial elements of affordable housing in a superheated real estate market.

So, for now, I'm inclined to look at Moses with ambivalence: a man whose failures were partly a product of his times, and whose successes were often incidental. It's telling, however, that as New York City enters the 21st century flush with money and ambition, it has few plans to "correct" the "mistakes" of Robert Moses.

To be continued...

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