A Weekend Subway Ride With Robert Moses

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I entered a turnstile in the Financial District on Saturday, bound for the Upper West Side. The 2 train was running on the east side and the 3 wasn’t running at all below 14th Street. So I went instead to the A and the C platform. The C train wasn’t running, period.

With the C train out and the 2 and 3 trains FUBAR, the A train, when it finally came, was absolutely packed. Any New Yorker except for — I’m guessing here — the richest 1% and the poorest 1%, is familiar with this condition during rush hour, but hopes to avoid it on the weekend. But not this weekend. I had one person in each armpit, while, confounding the laws of physics, I was simultaneously in someone else’s armpit. Each stop took a half an hour to get through because the people were blocking the doors open as they crammed into the cars. Someone near me was asking her traveling companion if there wasn’t some kind of maximum allowable limit to the number of people who could be crammed into a subway car. Packed as it was, the train frequently crept through the tunnels at a snail’s pace because there were workers repairing the tracks or platforms. When I got off at 59th Street, the platforms were being torn up as the floors were being replaced.

It is nice to see investment in mass transit, but somehow, one wishes this investment wasn’t quite so … thorough.

Just as I was considering cursing the MTA for the comprehensiveness of its maintenance operations, I was reminded of who to blame. Above the heads of all these people standing in the aisles, there was a 1938 photograph of the smirking face of a young Robert Moses, standing, arms folded, in front of a giant map of New York’s arterial roadways (not the photo above). It was part of an advertisement for an exhibition (third item) celebrating Moses, the dawn of the automobile age, and the 70th anniversary of the opening of the Triborough Bridge.

Now I remembered where to direct my angst over the sorry conditions underground. By systematically starving mass transit to pay for his grandiose automobile projects, the subways were on life support by the time Moses died in 1981. A year later, the MTA began its mammoth program to bring the stations and tracks back into a "state of good repair." More than two decades later, this program continues, creating the need for weekend service curtailments just as the city is bursting at the seams with new residents.

Cursing the MTA would have been misdirected. It is doing what it has to do. Work needed to bring the system up to a state of good repair is ultimately a good thing. But a crash program to restore the system wouldn’t be necessary today if the planners of generation ago hadn’t been so certain that the automobile was the answer to all transportation problems. And one busy Saturday underground, there was Robert Moses, staring down at a new generation of subway sardines, still mocking us.

I’m very familiar with the automobile age. Please, don’t make me celebrate it.

  • I don’t think these museum exhibits are celebrating Bob Moses, per se. Rather, they’re examining his legacy yet again. While there’s been some revisionist history in regards to Moses’ legacy, “celebrating” is quite a strong word.

  • mfs

    having seen a couple of the exhibits, the recreation exhibit at the Queens Museum is kind of celebratory (and I overheard one of the curators giving a tour said he wanted to bust a lot of the ‘Moses myths’). The general exhibit at the Museum of the City of NY is much more even-handed and talks much more about the downsides of his projects.

  • Columbia University professor Kenneth Jackson is writing the book based on these exhibits and, at least to some extent, he seems to have inspired the exhibits.

    Jackson goes further in celebrating Moses than the exhibits themselves.

    For example, he has said that Moses housing projects made New York a better place. (Does he think New York would be even better if Moses had succeeded in demolishing West Greenwich Village and replacing it with a housing project?)

    He has even defended the Cross-Bronx Expressway: “How do you travel between Boston and Pittsburg without the Cross Bronx Expressway? You have to move laterally at some point.” (quoted in _Columbia_ magazine, Winter 2006-2007, p. 37).

  • David

    And you know Rohit Aggarwala, the guy who is heading up the Mayor’s new office of long-term sustainability is a big Ken Jackson acolyte. Interesting.

  • AD

    Charles, I’m surprised to hear that about the man who wrote Crabgrass Frontier.

  • Gizler

    Most noxious to me is the suggestion in a lot of the reporting about these new exhibits is that Caro’s work is somehow unbalanced. In fact, it is very balanced. He gives Moses full credit for his early accomplishments – the parks, Jones Beach, etc. Then he quite properly does a thorough job of dissecting all of the devastation he wrought in the second half or two thirds of his career. And there should be no attempt at rehabilitation of that.

  • I admire _Crabgrass Frontier_, and I sometimes quote from it, so I was also surprised when I read these statements from Kenneth Jackson in _Columbia_ magazine.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    That is disappointing from Ken Jackson. How do you travel between Boston and Pittsburgh without the Three Rivers? How do you send freight between the two cities without the Cross-Harbor tunnel?

  • And how do you travel between Brooklyn and New Jersey without a Cross Manhattan Expressway?

    Somehow, people manage to do it, even though Moses’ cross-manhattan expressways were stopped, just as people manage to travel between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge even though the Embarcadero Freeway was stopped.

  • crzwdjk

    “How do you travel between Boston and Pittsburg without the Cross Bronx Expressway?”
    Take the 76 to the 81 to the 84 to the Mass Pike, bypassing New York entirely. There are also peripheral routes such as the 287, which allow traffic to bypass the urban core. There’s absolutely no reason for major intercity expressways to pass through the centers of major cities.

  • Steven Levine

    Caro’s The Power Broker is a great book, but it is unbalanced becuase it adheres to the great man theory in history. Caro makes Moses all powerful. Is New York the only city to have built highways through the center of cities, disinvested in mass transit or used Title I to displace the poor? These were national trends driven by federal policy. Moses was unique in his power, but his policies were not out of step with what was going on nationally.

    P.S. New York’s public housing is notably better than any other high rise public housing in the nation.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Steven, I think that’s the only real valid criticism of The Power Broker that I’ve read. Bob Fitch argues along these lines in his excellent book The Assassination of New York, as summarized in this review:

    “Fitch, however, believes that the bureaucratic arrogance of Moses made it easy for critics such as Caro to exaggerate the importance of New York’s master builder in reshaping the metropolitan area. “The scapegoat for two decades of planning failures,” he “simply poured the concrete on the dotted lines” of the earlier plans.”

    Fitch points out that almost all the changes that Moses made were outlined in the 1929 and 1968 Regional Plans, put out by those folks at the Regional Plan Association who are now our friends and in favor of transit.

    That critique is valid, but limited. Moses was a “great man,” because he accomplished so much, against the resistance of many elected officials and in violation of democratic principles. Without him, the Rockefellers might only have been able to build half as many highways.

  • Moses was also an architect of those “national trends” that supposedly acted upon him. He was paid by GM to write books and articles extolling freeways and automobiles.

    As for the idea that he was only carrying out pre-existing plans, every city has filing cabinets full of big plans. The question is which plan gets carried out.

    If experience is any guide Moses also used illegal tactics to get what he wanted. That’s what the highway builders did in my state.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Absolutely. Moses could have chosen to build the Second Independent Subway System instead of the highways.

  • The New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights also has a wonderful exhibition on the Triborough Bridge, the first bridge built by Robert Moses.

    THE TRIBOROUGH BRIDGE: ROBERT MOSES AND THE AUTOMOBILE AGE
    Exhibition continues through 2008
    New York Transit Museum, Brooklyn Heights

    Robert Moses has become a mythic figure in the public memory. To some he was a man who could get things done, building bridges, beaches, playgrounds and parks. To others he was the destroyer of neighborhoods evicting families and bulldozing homes to make way for highways. Nearly four decades have passed since the Moses reign came to an end yet his name is still frequently invoked in urban planning debate. Mega projects like the Atlantic Yards, ideas that can’t get off the drawing board like Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the slow progress of the rebuilding efforts at the World Trade Center site are compared and contrasted to his legacy. Historians have become interested in re-evaluating him with several new museum exhibitions taking on the subject. “Robert Moses and the Modern City,” is being presented by the Museum of the City of New York, Columbia University and the Queens Museum of Art. Further insight into Robert Moses relating to his role in regional transportation can be found at the New York Transit Museum. The Triborough Bridge: Robert Moses and the Automobile Age was organized to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Triborough Bridge in collaboration with MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archives.

    Under the direction of Robert Moses the Triborough Bridge Authority evolved into the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which has built every major vehicular bridge and tunnel within the city since 1936. He ran the Authority from 1934 until 1968, during which time he also headed the agencies that built most of the traffic arteries that these bridges and tunnels link. In 1968 Moses was ousted from his position when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, created by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, absorbed the Triborough Authority allowing lucrative bridge tolls to help subsidize the city’s public transportation.

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