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  A Horned Moses No More?  
  Published in NYFA Current  
  April 25, 2007  


In an April 23 New York Times article announcing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vision for the city in 2030, the author immediately addresses how the proposed plan is the stuff legacies are created from: “Mr. Bloomberg...set the parameters for what could be a large piece of his legacy as mayor. In an address outlining the plan yesterday...Bloomberg likened it to the first blueprints for Central Park more than 100 years ago and the construction of Rockefeller Center in the Great Depression.”

While it would be naïve to assume all facets of the plan will proceed as proposed, Bloomberg’s plan could have the most profound influence on the infrastructure of New York since the city’s mid-century “master builder” Robert Moses. Long derided as a consummate insider politician whose building projects mistreated or ignored poorer New Yorkers, Moses’ legacy is revisited in a three-part exhibition at the Queens Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and Columbia University.



  (1939 Photo: C.M. Spieglitz); Library of Congress  


In the fluid world of New York City politics, legacies are unstable things. Former mayor and current presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani’s may have been salvaged by a paternal post-9/11 performance that obscured his record of unstable relations with Blacks and Latinos, especially. The legacy of New York’s 20th century “master builder” is equally contested, and the three-part exhibition Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York on view simultaneously at the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, and the Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University begs the question: why re-evaluate Moses now?

Two influential documents predate the exhibition and accompanying book co-edited by curator Hillary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson: Jackson’s own 1989 essay “Robert Moses and the Planned Environment: A Re-Evaluation” and Phillip Lopate’s 2002 essay “Rethinking Robert Moses: What if New York’s Notorious Master Builder wasn’t such a Bad Guy After All?” While Jackson argues for a “more temperate and moderate view of Robert Moses,” Lopate colorfully exaggerates that Moses “made Baron Haussmann [who transformed Paris from a city of tiny, medieval streets to one of grand, teeming boulevards in the 1860s] look like a subcontractor.” These two revisionist pieces lay much of the groundwork for the exhibitions, mainly placing Moses within the larger context of his era. These three exhibitions portray a Moses who embraced America’s car culture, who followed federal slum-clearance guidelines for public housing, who adhered to prevailing planning models, and who was often forced to compromise on his projects. The strongest argument in favor of Moses and his actions is his modernization of New York City for the 20th century, making it competitive for the modern age. This of course raises another question: what does New York need to do to remain competitive in this century?

Ballon and Jackson argue that Moses’ legacy is physical; as Parks Commissioner and head of several New York City public authorities, he created for the city 20,000 acres of parks; 17 pools; 255 playgrounds; two zoos; three beaches; 28,400 public housing units; seven bridges; and over 600 miles of parkways and highways. Robert Caro’s classic 1974 biography The Power Broker: The Rise and the Fall of New York continues to influence how many people think of Moses today: the greatest builder of the 20th century, but a power-hungry and corrupt racist, detached from the people he was supposedly serving. The exhibition is as much a re-evaluation of Caro’s conclusions as it is of Moses’ work.



  Rendering: Gero; Collection MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive  


In the two-day symposium “Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder” held in March to coincide with the exhibition, University at Albany Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning Ray Bromley revisited the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the depressed mile-long highway that Moses rammed through existing working-class neighborhoods. Bromley’s analysis aimed to take fire out of Caro’s argument that the construction of the highway ruined the neighborhoods beyond those which it physically replaced, echoing a familiar strain heard throughout the symposium and within the exhibition; Caro’s biography was of the author’s time (just as Moses and his actions were of his time), when New York City—and the Bronx, especially—was declining. Now that New York City’s economy and appetite for development have both improved, Moses’ re-evaluation has understandably trended toward the positive.

Wedged in between Moses’ rise in the 1930s and his declining power in the 1960s was Jane Jacobs’ influential celebration of neighborhoods and street life in her The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Caro’s biography fails to mention Jacobs’ classic 1961 book, even though she was instrumental in stopping Moses’ plan for bisecting Washington Square Park with a highway and shifting the tide of urban planning (locally and nationally) from large-scale mega-projects to small-scale infill projects sensitive to neighborhoods and the families living within them. While Caro may not have mentioned her directly, Jacobs’ influence permeates his particularly negative takes on Moses’ “birds-eye” planning that ignored the “on-the-street” social and psychological considerations and participatory, public involvement championed by Jacobs.

Reconciling these two ways of thinking is not easy, but an attempt to do so is apparent with Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff’s description of the current administration’s initiatives—using an old Moses adage—as “making omelets without breaking eggs.” Doctoroff aligns Bloomberg’s goals with Moses’ accomplishments by stating, “I don’t think any mayor has had an agenda like this, not since LaGuardia.” This agenda includes finally completing the Second Avenue subway line (in the works since 1954) and extending the 7 train west of Times Square; developing the Atlantic Yards, Hudson Yards, the World Trade Center site, the neighborhood around Columbia University, Silvercup West, and a slew of other developments; rezoning numerous areas of the city, including parts of Harlem, the Garment District, and Gowanus; and implementing PlaNYC 2030, an ambitious initiative that anticipates one million more city residents, calls for long-neglected improvements to the city’s infrastructure (water, transportation, energy), and aims to make New York City one of the greenest cities in America. While not literally a “plan” yet and questionable in many of its assertions, PlaNYC 2030 can be seen as Bloomberg’s attempt at keeping the city competitive in the 21st century, to create a legacy where his housing, infrastructure, and sustainability programs will shape the city long after he leaves office in 2009.



  1938 photo courtesy NYC Department of Parks and Recreation  


Long-term, city-altering projects like the resolution of the World Trade Center site or Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development (co-designed by Frank Gehry and including 6,400 housing units; a hotel; office space; retail space; a park; and a professional basketball stadium) will figure into the Bloomberg legacy. These projects also illuminate the differences between the present day and Moses’ day, where now public incentives, private investment, increased concentration on security and the creeping tide of luxury housing have fundamentally altered the character of the city. Goals of economic development today outweigh the concerns of Moses’ day, namely those of improving the public realm. So when three exhibitions, a book, and a number of lectures and symposia address the master builder’s legacy historically and academically, we have to wonder if this last piece—a concern for the public and the public realm—is lost in the political interpretation, if “getting it done” is overshadowing “getting it done right.” This slippery slope is embodied in New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s remark that a biography of Moses written today might be called At Least He Got It Built: “That’s what we need today. A real commitment to getting it done.”

What the exhibitions accomplish is to change the way we look at Moses, in a light illuminated by multiple voices rather than a single vision. While Ballon and her contributors do not deny Moses’ faults, his shortcomings are rationalized in favor of a contextual view that praises his overarching vision and his ability to follow through on it. This last trait is what many are looking for today, in essence making the show more of a filter than a lens; what one sees on display is filtered through one’s thoughts and attitudes towards the city, the projects transforming it today, and the projects lined up to transform it in the future. Someone impatient for progress at the World Trade Center site might embrace how Moses built Lincoln Center despite opposition, though someone battling Atlantic Yards may focus on the insensitive destruction of neighborhoods. Ironically, what arises from these and other filtered views of the exhibition are ways of seeing not only Moses’ legacy but the future of Bloomberg’s as well.

:: Thanks to Nick Stillman for the great editing and the introduction (in italics). Text John Hill

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  Article Links:  
  :: NYFA Interactive  
  :: Moses & the Modern City  
  :: Moses & the Modern City  
  :: The Power Broker  
  :: Single-Minded Genius  
  :: Phillip Lopate article  
  :: Moses Symposium (PDF)  
  :: Death and Life...  
  :: PLaNYC 2030  

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