Launch Slideshow

An Indecisive Democracy

An Indecisive Democracy

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    Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

    Robert Moses (fourth from right), in his role as president of the New York World's Fair 1964-65 Corp., watches as President John F. Kennedy inspects a model of the fairgrounds.

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    MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive

    Moses didn't always get his way. Renderings of Moses' proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway looked glamorous.

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    MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive

    Moses' proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge would have been cheaper to build than a tunnel, but the entrance and exit ramps would have required demolition of historic Castle Clinton and much of Battery Park.

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    MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive

    An aerial view shows the scar such a roadway would have inflicted on Manhattan.

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    Andrew Moore

    Projects Moses successfully built in New York City include Morningside Gardens on the Upper West Side.

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    Andrew Moore

    A 1957 experimental co-op that counted Thurgood Marshall among its many black professional residents, and Sunset Pool in Brooklyn, one of 11 pools that Moses opened in the summer of 1936.

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    Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

    Urbanist Jane Jacobs in the 1960s rides her bike through a Manhattan neighborhood threatened by one of Moses' expressway projects. Jacobs fought Moses and won, triggering the nationwide shift toward community participation in urban planning.

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    C.M. Spieglitz/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

    Robert Moses with a model of the proposed Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, 1939.

Robert Moses, the legendary New York power broker, has been out of fashion for decades. An autocrat with a civic mission, Moses bulldozed his way to mythic status as the city's commissioner of parks and overseer of bridges, tunnels, and highways. From 1934 to 1968, he constructed much of the infrastructure of the modern metropolis, setting the pace and style of urban development across the country. If neighborhoods were ruthlessly dislocated, and mothers wept in the path of imposed improvements, the omnipotent bureaucrat remained resolute.

“You cannot rebuild a city without moving people,” Moses famously declared, “just as you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

The history and impact of Moses' exploits are documented in Robert A. Caro's Pulitzer Prize–winning 1974 biography, The Power Broker, which has defined Moses as a Machiavellian villain for a generation. But now, suddenly, the Moses legacy is up for grabs. Three exhibitions in New York and a book, Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, have recast this Darth Vader of eminent domain as a can-do bureaucrat with a visionary gene.

“Moses is relevant again largely because the nature of projects has become big again,” says James Corner, chair of landscape architecture and urbanism at University of Pennsylvania School of Design. He's talking well beyond New York. “Almost every big city has been thinking big for the past 10 years.”

Seeking a Leader

Revisionist history can be dangerous, but any fascination with Moses is easy to understand. He got things done.

“There's a wistful longing for decisive urban decision-making,” says architect Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California School of Architecture (SCI-Arc), who had his own brush with the Moses legacy. Moss won, then lost, a 2001 competition to transform the city-owned Queens Museum of Art, which is associated with Moses since it houses the 9,335-square-foot panorama of New York City the planner had built for the World's Fair of 1964. (Moss lost the commission after preservationists and new board members balked at his proposal for a radical enhancement—a glass atrium inserted into the middle of the building, showering the bunker-like Deco interior with light.) Moss says he struggles with the tyrannical aspects of the man sometimes described as America's master builder, but he is equally unhappy with the glacial pace of bureaucracy when action is needed.

Today, one has only to chart a time line for rebuilding at the World Trade Center site or the post–Hurricane Katrina reconstruction of New Orleans to see how urgent public works can become mired in process.

Disaster zones are not the only urban planning challenges. From Boston to Los Angeles, congested cities are choking on growth, while post-industrial sites need reinvention, decommissioned military bases await new purpose, and waterfronts deserve to be reclaimed for public benefit. Cities struggle to create amenities and ensure healthy environments as they compete for growth.

Moses was driven by a notion that the automobile, not mass transit, would move people around in an idyllic urban future.

Moses understood the need for a firm hand to guide the process. But the jury is out on whether today's massive projects require the detached perspective of a development czar like Moses, who flew over New York's five boroughs and traveled by chauffeured limousine.

“People always long for dictators,” says architect Daniel Libeskind, whose master plan for the World Trade Center site did not have a Moses to protect it. “They like the pseudo order. I don't think we need dictators. You need political leadership.”

New York architect Margaret Helfand is a founding member of New York New Visions, a coalition of professionals formed in the weeks after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center to ensure that designers' voices were included in the planning for Lower Manhattan. Helfand finds Moses' accomplishments “rather impressive,” but she acknowledges that the current buzz has made some people “a little overly romantic. I don't think they are debating the cultural losses.”

Moses operated as a lone tyrant, doing what he thought needed to be done. Now, officials are both aided and constrained by zoning hearings, historic review boards, neighborhood activists, environmental inquiries, and the moderating influence of public-private partnerships.

“The only thing that stopped him was people demonstrating,” Helfand says.

It is fashionable to say that lessons have been learned since Moses' death in 1981, at the age of 92. But at a recent gathering of New York's urban experts, Majora Carter, the activist director of Sustainable South Bronx, challenged the notion that big public projects in poor neighborhoods are handled in gentler ways.

She listened quietly as city officials asserted that they were redeveloping forlorn swaths of Brooklyn and the West Side of Manhattan “without breaking so many eggs.” She demanded to know what was so post-Moses about choosing to locate a new jail in her powerless, historically black borough, which is still suffering the aftershocks of being severed by Moses' Cross-Bronx Expressway. Answers were not forthcoming.

Raised Voices

Moses began his career simply enough, creating a six-mile-long public beach on Long Island in the 1920s. During the depths of the Depression, he built elaborate neighborhood swimming pools and hundreds of parks throughout New York City, which made politicians who appointed him popular with their constituents.

Moses amassed independent power by setting up a network of self-funding “authorities” that made infrastructure his own fiefdom. In the 1950s, he expertly commandeered newly available federal funds to supplant tenements with middle-class housing, which he believed would stem the flight to the suburbs. (Moses, who studied political science at Yale, Oxford, and Columbia, was not overly design-conscious, but his reputation benefited from his association with a young architect, I.M. Pei, on the staff of a big developer.) Moses also orchestrated the establishment of the United Nations headquarters and Lincoln Center, which he believed would give a city heading for bankruptcy new life as a cultural capital.

Moses did not drive, but he was driven—by a notion that the automobile, not mass transit, would move people around in an idyllic urban future. He built as many bridges linking outer boroughs to Manhattan as his few overlords would allow. (It took Dwight D. Eisenhower to block one grandiose span, by declaring it a threat to national security.) And he fought off mass transit.

Failures were rare, but came with lasting consequences. In the 1960s, Moses threatened to ram expressways through Lower Manhattan, endangering the historic neighborhoods of SoHo and Greenwich Village. The projects ignited a lifelong feud with urbanist Jane Jacobs, while giving neighborhood activism and the fledgling preservation movement a huge boost. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller finally removed the aging tyrant from his power base—the last was the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority—in 1968, when Moses turned 80.