Friday, September 16, 2016

Cautionary Tale

Imagine Imagine an arrogant, megalomaniacal New York builder of unknown personal wealth whose name is not Donald Trump.

My friend just sent me a 1,235 page book which is hard to pick up and even harder to put down. It is a signed copy of Robert Caro’s masterpiece biography on Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

In fact the projects built under the auspices of Moses dwarf anything our Donald’s fevered brain could even concoct. Reigning for over forty years he managed the construction of bridges, tunnels, parks, playgrounds, housing projects, parkways, expressways, power plants, stadiums and World’s Fairs which totaled approximately 27 billion dollars in 1960s money. Without his vision the United Nations building might well be in Philadelphia. It was also Moses who made Jones Beach possible. He presided over projects from NYC and Long Island up to the St. Lawrence River. Arguably he was the architect that made the suburbs possible.

It came at a price not only in dollars but the cost of human displacement. Half a million people lost their dwellings and neighborhoods were destroyed in the name of urban renewal. One might say he had an edifice complex…but I would never say that.

Though Moses never held an elected office he had, at one time, twelve different positions in NYC from Parks Commissioner to Planning Commissioner, Construction Coordinator to Zoning Commissioner a chair on the Board of Estimate. Any infrastructure project from 1924 to 1963 passed through his hands… and his grip.

Moses was perhaps the closest any American every came to creating his own monarchy with a fiefdom of enormous power, privilege and purse accountable to no one. He collected all toll money on the city’s bridges and floated his own bonds. Ninety percent of the N.Y. State debt currently goes to paying off those bonds.

What was it that built the Master Builder? He came from a wealthy family steeped in noblesse oblige. German Jews of considerable means had an inbred sense of superiority toward Eastern Jewish immigrants. He was his mother’s child fierce in a pragmatic approach toward the less fortunate with more than a touch of condescension. As an Ivy Leaguer he demonstrated a brilliance, vision and persistence far off the chart. His idealism slowly whittled away until power itself seemed to be primary.

Ultimately Robert Moses hit the wall when he tried in vain to erect an expressway in downtown Manhattan that would have been the end of Greenwich Village and SoHo. With all the right-of-ways for traffic (just as here in Los Angeles) at the expense of public transportation there is still major gridlock. It wasn’t until 1968 that the toll money was re-directed toward funding rapid transit. He also lost his way trying to block the free Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park.

Notably, the parkway leading to Jones Beach was built so buses were unable to pass under the overpass. This kept out the lower classes who relied on public transportation. Additionally when the huge Stuyvesant Town was constructed for returning G.I.s Moses put restrictive covenants in place to exclude Blacks.

He was an unapologetic elitist who defended the British colonial system. In his Oxford thesis he wrote that the subjects were not yet ready for self-rule…nor would they be any time soon. His authoritarian ideas of governing belonged in the 19th century. Trump also declares quick fixes to complex problems without offering any details as if his followers need only to leave it to him. Power resides in his preeminence at deal-making bestowed upon him by virtue of birth and breeding.  

The phenomena of abusive power is one we need to heed and the Robert Moses story is a lesson in that narrative.  Even before Joseph McCarthy, Moses engaged in smear tactics and witch hunts to discredit his enemies. In this new age of Trump and the Big Lie the study of Robert Moses can be seen as a cautionary tale.


  1. I've heard of Robert Moses but knew very little about him
    This info is astionishing on many levels. And now we have Trump

  2. Yes, the magnitude of both his footprint and betrayal of public trust is staggering. I think Ken Burns should do a piece on him and perhaps other city planners.