Does New York Need a ‘New Moses’?

Okay, so the question comprising the title of this post sounds naive enough to border on rhetorical. But in light of the city’s current development climate, it takes a stronger resolve than mine to read "Power Broken," by NYU’s Thomas Bender, without wondering which side of the fence to come down on.

Published in the latest edition of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (free registration required), mosescover2.JPGBender’s provocative essay reacts to what he sees as a revisionist Robert Moses movement, typified by the recent book "Robert Moses and the Modern City," by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, and the accompanying museum displays earlier this year. Moses revisionists, Bender writes, believe the thriving New York of today would not exist were it not for the hard-nosed autocrat’s bulldozing brand of tough love. Bender says those calling for "neo-Mosesism" are willing to forget — or, worse, forgive — the human cost Moses inflicted upon the city, rationalizing it as inevitable, or even necessary, much like Moses himself.

Bender disputes the neo-Mosesist claim that dependence on public process has lead to "urban paralysis," bogging down public works and stifling growth. Instead of Moses clones, Bender argues that cities need better ways to accept and utilize public input.

While it’s hard to disagree with that, Bender missteps by citing the progression of Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards as rebuttals to the Mosesist ethic. Of the former, Bender writes:

Today, the recently approved Atlantic Yards project, a huge mixed-use development in central Brooklyn including an arena for professional basketball, proceeds, after a great deal of public discussion and review (albeit a controversial one) by government bureaucracies. 

It would be difficult to find many people, if any at all, from the public advocacy arena who would say Atlantic Yards has been anything other than a developer-driven monster from day one, with enough backroom machinations and public bullying to rank among Moses’s most notorious projects. And though the reviled plan for a far West Side Jets football stadium was defeated, as Bender points out, neighborhood residents are suing the Bloomberg administration over its Moses-like quest to include over 20,000 parking spaces as part of new Hudson Yards development.

In fact, with unpopular projects like Atlantic Yards, Willets Point and the new Yankee Stadium surging forward, one could make the case that a new Moses era has long been underway.

To further cloud the picture, consider the positive works that have recently moved forward under edict — be they relatively smaller ones, like pedestrian improvements to Jewel Avenue in Queens, or an enormous undertaking like congestion pricing. As Transport for London spokesman Alun Shermer said, "If congestion pricing had to go through a legislative process it probably wouldn’t have happened." And in New York, it may well be that "populists" for hire end up killing it off.

So what’s the solution?  More efficient, effective public involvement? Enlightened, benign dictatorship?  Or should we — must we — straddle that fence with some combination of the two?

Image: W.W. Norton

  • I liked the article. In particular, the suggestion for a more streamlined and transparent system of citizens participation in development projects. Large projects that displace people can be a good idea, and many (but by no means all) of Moses’ projects were. But the current system of lawsuits and countersuits, with little participation except through lawyers, is an annoying way to regulate them.

  • It would be nice to have a new Moses (or an anti-Moses actually) who would build all the stalled and proposed rail projects around the region, like the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel, the full-length Second Avenue Subway, Vision42, the 7-train extension (with both stops), MOM, and pie-in-the-sky stuff like a buried restoration of the Third Avenue elevated in the Bronx, and to do it in the length of time it took to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the Gowanus Expressway.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ve long said that the whole public review and public hearing process has become a playground for pompus anti-anything naysayers, “populists for hire,” and worse.

    I think the problem is those are the only people who show up, and wait in line for their star turn. Is there any reason to believe, for example, that the people bellyaching spoke for the majority of Park Slope residents on the 9th Street bike lanes? Of 9th Street residents?

    We need better public involvment. How to get it is a tough question.

    Real elections would be a start. Another possibility would be to select those asked to provide public input at random, and provide some reward for those willing to read documents and show up to discuss the issue. Hold the meeting in a restarant and give them a free dinner?

    Costly, but perhaps you get what you pay for.

  • So, exactly what did Moses do that was actually worthwhile? I can’t think of anything that he built, at least the way he built it, that NY would be worse off for not having.

  • I like Larry’s idea of a local jury public policy jury duty instead of community boards that have members with lifetime appointments. But we also need good impartial experts to provide real facts to these debates rather than the wrong assumptions and imagined fears that dominate these debates.

    And we need a process that is long term and incremental.

  • Hilary

    Ken: Parks, pools, parkways, Lincoln Center. And don’t judge these things on what they were allowed to deteriorate to.

  • Which parks and pools? Can you get to them without your own automobile? Parkways? Strictly autocenteric. Many were designed to prevent buses from using them. Lincoln Center? A terrible piece of anti urban design.

  • Hilary

    Which parks? About half of them, including neighborhood playgrounds. Which pools? All of them, I believe (though many are now closed) — and they are spectacular, functionally and aesthetically. I don’t find Lincoln Center anti-urban, as it establishes a concentration of cultural institutions worthy a great metropolis. True, it is not Jane Jacobs-urban, but a great city does not consist of only Jane Jacobs ad hoc vitality. I happen to love the occasional respite from the grid — open space, monumentalit y, long views, non-commerciality. As for the parkways, their original design was a visionary balance of automobiles, park users, and residents. They included paths, promenades, recreation, and landscaped buffers (now vital environmentally) and — like Moses’ parks and other public spaces, were non-commercial oases.
    None of these were perfect in their concept or implementation, but they were exemplary in their marshaling of federal and state resources for the city (the whole city, not just Manhattan).

  • “As for the parkways, their original design was a visionary balance of automobiles, park users, and residents.”

    That is true of some Moses parkways, but certainly not of all the freeways he built: witness the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Gowanus Expressway, and the proposed cross-Manhattan Expressways that were stopped by that horrible public process that the Moses-Revival criticizes.

    Would New York be a better place if those three cross-Manhattan Expressways and Moses’ proposal for Westway had been built?

    On the contrary, New York is a better place because the public process stopped them.

    In San Francisco, they stopped freeway construction sooner, and San Francisco did not decline in the 1960s and 1970s, as New York did. San Francisco is thriving, even though it did not allow a local Robert Moses to arise, so it is clearly false to claim “the thriving New York of today would not exist were it not for the hard-nosed autocrat’s bulldozing brand of tough love.”

    In fact, the thriving Soho of today probably wouldn’t exist if Moses had built an elevated expressway through the middle of it.

    I would like to see an anti-Moses to tear down lots of his remaining freeways, starting with the Sheridan and the Gowanus.

  • Nenad Krstic

    In addition to Hilary’s list: Orchard Beach, the U.N., underappreciated SDR Park in the Lower East Side, the now-repurposed McCarren Park Pool, and hundreds of basketball, handball, and bocce courts and playgrounds across the City.

  • bill

    hmm.. may be sometimes you need short-term bad for long-term good. just think of what kinds of continuous waterfront facilities we’ll be able to achieve once we muster the will to remove the freeways that ring many of our waterfronts. if the freeways hadn’t squatted on that space, it would probably just have developed into private property, making it even harder to have a public use there in the future. may be moses was doing us some (unintentional) favors in the long term.

  • Gary

    I’m 150 pages into “The Power Broker” right now. It’s a pain in the ass to schlep a 10 pound book around all day, but what a phenomenal read.

    Moses is a tragic character. So incredibly effective; unfortunately, he was often very effective at creating negative things.

    I hate many of the things the man built, particularly the elevated and sunken expressways that destroyed whole neighborhoods, but you have to admire the man’s capability. His impact on this city is nothing short of breathtaking in its scope.

  • Gizler

    As Bender points out, Caro & the revisionists are mostly in agreement about the narrative – the disagreement is more about the spin. Most people will concede that the many parks he created were a big plus for the city, but that was all relatively early in his career.

    I personally find Lincoln Center anti-urban and unpleasant, and I agree with Jane Jacobs emphatic further criticism that it makes no sense to agglomerate cultural institutions in one place rather than weaving them into the urban fabric throughout the city.

    The idea that we need another Moses is pure bunk of the most obnoxious sort, and Bender does an admirable job demolishing it. The fact of the matter is, congestion pricing IS getting spearheaded–by an elected official with vision who is accountable to voters, ie not a Moses at all.

  • Niccolo Macchiavelli

    A lot of those first 150 pages is pretty valuable. His creation of the civil service system has had an enormous impact on government, development and environment. And, Moses did most of that work for free for the first ten years of his enormous career. Maybe a lot of the self-appointed architectural and development critics who spend enormous time and resources at public meetings shouting down anything built anywhere near anything else are channeling the earlier Moses, selflessly committed to righting the wrongs of Tammany Hall.

    Or maybe what we need is Tammany Hall pitching for Congestion Pricing. Maybe his murder of Tammany Hall through the dispassionate human resource science of civil service examinations has made the creation of a truly urban political power impossible. The forces of urban political castration set in motion by term limits have permanently empowered the NIMBYs and BANANAs. It may be that it took an upper class twit Ron Lauder to finally drive a stake in Moses’ heart.

  • Niccolo Macchiavelli

    Gizzler stuck in an argument I disagree with regarding Bloomberg’s “accountability” to voters, while I was writing my prior screed. Mayor Mike could have been accountable to voters, he could have put this all out there before the election, but he didn’t. Now there has been an entirely jury-rigged government process to substitute for straight forward electoral accountability. The Legislature wants protection from term limited City Councilmen before they vote for congestion pricing. And the future Mayors now have to be accountable. If the anti-CP Weiner gets elected, or even through the Dem primary he will be “accountable” to stop CP or he could force the Republican candidate (Kelly? Tisch?) to reneg on the city’s committment to CP. Anyway, the accountable one will be the next Mayor.

  • Gizler

    What we need more than a dictator is simply more public funding. For instance, when Williamsburg was rezoned in 2005, the city could have used eminent domain to create a waterfront greenway. Instead, it enticed developers to do it by allowing them to build 50-story towers that loom for miles. Yes, the State did step in to build a park, but why didn’t the City pony up too? Not enough in the budget.

  • Moses is a cruel tyrannical bastard who is somewhat of a racist (where are the parks & playgrounds above 125th Street) but he got things done. Hopefully this Moses era is less life-destroying.

  • Eddie N.

    Quinn: Moses _isn’t_ anything. He died in 1981. Put it in the past tense and you’ve got half a point.

    Look here if you really need to find a playground uptown (there are lots). Robert Moses even built some of them.

    Niccolo: “Moses, selflessly committed to righting the wrongs of Tammany Hall”

    that’s a stretch. He worked within Tammany Hall (literally and figuratively) and presided over excesses of patronage throughout his career. He just did so _effectively_. Caro’s thesis in part is that Moses set out to remake government into something he was uniquely suited to exploit (by virtue of having written most of the rules in a way that only he understood), that this started in his earliest days as an aide to Al Smith, and that there was nothing selfless about it.

    Yes, Moses was instrumental in the replacement of the spoils system with civil service. However, as anyone who has worked in government can tell you, this is a very mixed blessing. Civil service is the main contributor to the sclerotic ineffectiveness of government in New York, and has been for decades.

    Even as Caro lays out the standard narrative of “young Moses good; old Moses bad”, he undermines his own thesis with anecdotes of Moses’s early (ahem) Macchiavelian exploits.

    I’ve always been ambivalent about the Power Broker. It’s a tremendous source of information, and a tour de force of research. But it’s soooo repetitious and stylistically overwrought. Easily twice as long as it needs to be to convey the same information and perspective. Ditto for his biography of LBJ. Amazing how much copying and pasting he managed to do in the days before computers and cheap photocopy machines.

  • Dave H.


    What’s a BANANA?

  • Hilary

    Bill (#11) is right when he says “if the freeways [SIC] hadn’t squatted on that space, it would probably just have developed into private property, making it even harder to have a public use there in the future. may be moses was doing us some (unintentional) favors in the long term.”

    Fortunately, New York’s waterfront highways aren’t freeways (or expressways). They are parkways, and thus are set income with landscaped verges, with recreational facilities, and beautiful park infrastructure. What’s more, they are co-owned by our Parks Departments, which once had sole jurisdiction and benefited from their toll revenues! Our generation is now confronted with a choice — do we let these parkways continue to spiral into freeways (following the recommendation of TA to open them to trucks, for example, which means even more straightening, widening, fortifying with concrete and chain link), or do we restore them to parkways, enhancing their waterfronts and greenways and restoring their beautiful and historic stone bridges and promenades? Isn’t it time for TA to revisit this issue, and see the inconsistency in their position on cars in parks and trucks in parkways??

  • JF

    I third Larry’s idea of rotating “community board duty.” We’ve talked before about how neighborhood associations and community boards tend to favor older people, retired people, people who have enough money so they can take time off from work – and of course, career politicians. Younger people, parents with young children, people who work long hours, immigrants and other people who move around are not well-represented.

    There’s something to be said for giving more voice to people who have a strong connection to the community, and who have put a lot of work into serving it. But the current system goes too far.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Dave H. – Build Almost Nothing Anywhere Near Anything = BANANA

    Eddie – By selflessly I meant that the earlier era Moses worked for no money, city or private, except for family support. Lots of rich people (Bloomberg) do it like that. The dirty little people who wanted political friends to get them government jobs were his enemy. There was a lot of the holier than thou reformer in him in that era. That reminds me of a lot of the NIMBY-BANANA development critics out there.

    I didn’t get from the book that the arc of Moses’ career included a decades long strategy of building a civil service system that he would later be able to exploit. I got that he was a clever guy who adapted to power to amplify his own power and thereby get things done.

    And, I never said the civil service system was even a mixed blessing, I was actually sort of lamenting the passage of Tammany Hall as an engaged political community. I’ve tried to cajole good folks who read this blog into building up their own political clubs. If Vito Lopez can do it so can Aaron.

    And, I don’t find any of my nom d’plume’s ideas to be in any way pejorative. The Little Prince is all about applying political power. In the transportation context that means ultimately that the desires of the abutters will have to submit to the greater good. If you are going to wait for a consensus of citizens from the point of origin, citizens at the point of destination and the citizens abutting the transportation way there would never be anything built or operated. Only when a political entity can speak for the best interest of all, and get it done, can the civic good be accomplished, especially with regard to transportation.

    The problem with the Moses legacy, and Caro’s book is that it has undermined civic trust at all levels. When Moses was running Tri-Bourough he did have the trust of the New York Times, the Building Trades, the Democrats and the Republicans and most of the citizens. It is only in retrospect that he became the icon for the civic distrust and cynicism we know today. And as indispensable as Caro’s book is he must take some of the credit for the cynicism and sarcasm that blankets our community boards today.

    When Rockefeller pried TBTA toll revenues from Moses’ white knuckles he created the first Congestion Pricing program that now Bloomberg, another very wealthy Republican, hopes to expand. What is absent from the equation now is any political party or organization behind Bloomberg. In there place is the “whole public review and public hearing process (that) has become a playground for pompus anti-anything naysayers, “populists for hire,” and worse.”

  • Eddie N

    Niccolo, first, Moses’ period of reform minded idealism was very brief. Caro documents in (excruciating) detail how he spent the vast majority of his life hoarding power for himself and enriching a chosen few . Second, according to Caro, Moses’ economic selflessness was a pose. He gave himself far more in perks than he could have collected in salary. In event, whether he collected a salary or not is irrelevent. He was no more selfless than Bloomberg or any other rich guy rejecting a government paycheck. He wanted to impose his view of how things should work on the world. That’s not selflessness, it’s ambition, which in Caro’s view morphed relatively quickly into meglomania.

    Third, with respect to civil service, knowing the limitations of the system, Moses built his empire outside of it (Triborough was not covered by the Civil Service system during his tenure). He positioned himself as the can-do guy in oppostion to the feckless permanent government institutions he actually created. But civil service is really a very small part of the pharmacopia of poison pills he planted in New York. Contracting rules, bond covenants, Federal aid legislation, land use rules, mapping. Inside knowledge of that stuff is what he used to his greatest advantage.

    And check your namesake’s publications again. So far as I know he didn’t concern himself with the exploits of a naif from outer space.

  • hawkny

    Robert Moses redux???? Hardly!

    By the time Nelson Rockefeller ended his “public” career, Robert Moses was the most hated man in American history.

    The power Moses wielded will never be put into the hands of one individual again.


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