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.

Corner points out a central irony in the Moses narrative: the power broker's tendency to mow down all obstacles in his path created the inequities that led to citizen participation.

“That's the world we now live in,” says Corner, “a world where individuals in communities have huge input.”

Giving all parties a say has never been the smoothest approach, as Moses understood. When asked whether layers of public review have made the end result more democratic than in Moses' day, Helfand pauses before responding, “Only somewhat.”

Moss complains that on projects of enormous scale, giving every constituent a say has the power to dilute vision. “You have to have the power to implement,” he says. “There needs to be some way to be opinionated, decisive, and able to act within a reasonable time frame.”

Or, borrowing a cadence from Moses, he adds, “If you want to build a road, you gotta knock down some trees.”

Vision of the Future

Moses' insistence on building parks and providing recreation space in the city remains heroic and relevant today. Corner's firm, Field Operations, has won commissions for two major landscape projects in New York: the 25-year transformation of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island into a recreational wetland, and the conversion of an elevated rail line in Manhattan, known as the High Line, into an urban trail.

Corner does not bemoan the lack of a Moses-like power figure to work with. He talks of a new style of leader, “a visionary of a very different ilk from the singular fist.”

Modernism was partly to blame for some of the Moses excess. Le Corbusier's ideal city was a top-down vision of monumental structures surrounded by moats of serene space. At the 1964 World's Fair, which Moses planned in Queens, visitors made their way past the now iconic Unisphere to view the World of Tomorrow. In the film, a narrator talks of sinuous elevated highways whisking shiny autos around cities free of congestion and chaos, circa 1984. General Motors made the film, but it captured the essence of Moses' passion for automobility.

Such utopian visions have been discredited, even if no one has solved the traffic problem. “He did some great things,” Libeskind allows, “but it was another era. I don't think he's a model for how we build cities.”

What cities should be is elegantly described by Marshall Berman, the philosopher and writer, as a “maelstrom” of reality, not a tasteful mausoleum of white marble. In his book On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, Berman writes of chaotic environments such as 42nd Street and Broadway as inheritors of the Enlightenment, places that generate ideas. He argues persuasively that people have “a right” to such a city, in all its unplanned, spontaneous serendipity.

Moses more than likely would have seen Times Square as an opportunity for a fresh start, not as Berman's generator of “joy and creative triumph.” In that sense, time has passed Moses by.

“We don't need autocratic methods to produce good cities,” Libeskind says. “We don't need the self-styled ideologue to dictate what cities are. It's not just about getting your own way. It's letting reality speak.”

On the other hand, he acknowledges that the World Trade Center site “could have benefited” from strong authority. But he says it would have been wrong to cut off discussion.

“Architecture without democracy is nice forms, but it's nothing to people's lives,” he says. “I believe architecture is civic art. It's affecting every person. Every person has a stake in it.”

The issue of power resonates across the globe, anywhere big projects dominate the landscape. Paris had Baron Haussmann and François Mitterrand. Dubai has a development-driven emir. Singapore, Seoul, and Beijing are not far behind. In this country, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast remain the gargantuan challenge for American planners and politicians. There is no Moses figure in sight and certainty only that federal funding will eventually make things happen.

“They could use a little more control in New Orleans,” Helfand observes. “They lost a lot of ground.”

After several false starts on master planning, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin reached out in December to the internationally known planner and recovery expert Edward Blakely, chairman of urban and regional planning at the University of Sydney in Australia. Blakely wasted no time talking up the need for a new, more-energized citizenry to push the city past its tired cliché of racial politics as usual. His central mission is to focus attention on the city's economic future, which he calculates will have more to do with being a gateway to Latin American trade than a quaint, low-rise party town.

Elsewhere, the chief influence on post-Katrina construction has been the new urbanist planner and architect Andrés Duany, who arrived on the scene of devastation in Mississippi at the behest of Gov. Haley Barbour. Through a large-scale charrette weeks after the hurricane, Duany and the Congress for New Urbanism were able to orchestrate the discussion of redevelopment. Where Moses ordered up projects and power plays from his office under the Triborough Bridge, Duany engaged communities in a shirtsleeved planning process in a damaged resort hotel.

If coastal development proceeds as sketched out at the Mississippi Renewal Forum, organized persuasion, rather than fiat, may gain converts as the power tool of choice.

As Corner points out, “Leadership and vision are crucial for large-scale projects to take shape. It's finding the right balance between inclusion and process on the one hand, and autocracy and decision-making on the other hand.”


Power Box

Robert Moses consolidated authority through a variety of official positions, many of which he created. A listing from the 1981 edition ofWho's Who, the last Moses compiled, appears in the exhibition “Remaking the Metropolis” at the Museum of the City of New York. It remains an astonishing résumé.

New York City Department of Parks, commissioner, 1934–60
Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, member, 1934–, chairman, 1936–38
Henry Hudson Parkway Authority and Marine Parkway Authority, merged into New York City Parkway Authority, sole member, 1934
City Planning Commission, member 1942–60
Mayor's Emergency Committee on Housing, chairman, 1946
New York City Construction Coordinator, 1946–60
Mayor's Committee for Permanent World Capitol, chairman, 1946
Mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance, chairman, 1946–60
Coordinator of Arterial Projects City of New York, 1960–66
New York World's Fair 1964–65 Corporation, president, 1960–67