Why Robert Moses Keeps Rising From an Unquiet Grave
Why Robert Moses Keeps Rising From an Unquiet GraveBy DAVID W. DUNLAP, 3/21/2017, originalRobert Moses in 1960, in front of a display of plans for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, one of the innumerable marks he left on the city. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said that the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx was one of Mr. Moses’ mistakes. Credit The New York Times There he is again.
Builder of infrastructure. Ravager of neighborhoods. Maker of omelets. Breaker of eggs. Never mind civics texts. The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro’s biography of Mr. Moses, is the book that still must be read — 43 years after it was published — to understand how New York really works.
The reputation of Mr. Moses, good and bad, has outlived those of every governor and mayor he nominally served, with the possible exceptions of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, who had the sense to get an airport named after him, and Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, whose name speaks for itself.
Mr. Moses rose again from his unquiet grave this week.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo invoked his ambiguous legacy as he announced $700 million in state financing for the first phase in the replacement of the Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx with a more modest and amenable boulevard, one that no longer cuts adjoining neighbors off from the Bronx River.
Mr. Cuomo said the expressway was one of Mr. Moses’s mistakes.
No governor would have dared talk that way when Mr. Moses was in his prime, holding as many as a dozen state and city offices simultaneously, impervious to every attempt to remove or bridle him.
But that prime was long ago. Even his death, at age 92 in 1981, was long ago. Younger New Yorkers may wonder what’s the big deal about Robert Moses, and why he keeps coming up in the conversation.
Let Paul Goldberger’s obituary explain:
“Before him, there was no Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach State Park, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, West Side Highway or Long Island parkway system or Niagara and St. Lawrence power projects. He built all of these and more.”
“Before Mr. Moses, New York State had a modest amount of parkland; when he left his position as chief of the state park system, the state had 2,567,256 acres. He built 658 playgrounds in New York City, 416 miles of parkways and 13 bridges.”
“But he was more than just a builder. Although he disdained theories, he was a major theoretical influence on the shape of the American city, because the works he created in New York proved a model for the nation at large. His vision of a city of highways and towers — which in his later years came to be discredited by younger planners — influenced the planning of cities around the nation.”
“His guiding hand made New York, known as a city of mass transit, also the nation’s first city for the automobile age.”
Which brings us back to the Sheridan, called the Bronx River Expressway when it was conceived in the 1940s. It was to have run about two-and-a-half miles, part of it alongside Bronx Park.
That presented no problem. The city’s construction coordinator, Robert Moses, had merely to consult with the city’s parks commissioner, Robert Moses.
“The Bronx River Expressway is designed to move traffic between the Boston Post Road and Bruckner Boulevard,” Mr. Moses said in New Highways for a Better New York, an article he wrote in 1945 for The New York Times Magazine.
Yes. A highway from one highway to another highway. The archetypal Moses project.
It languished for years, a small link in a vast skein of asphalt and steel. The project was still on the drawing boards in June 1952 when Arthur V. Sheridan, the commissioner of borough works in the Bronx and an ally of Mr. Moses, was killed when his car skidded into the path of an oil truck at Broadway and 256th Street in the Bronx.
What was to be the Bronx River Expressway was renamed in his honor. Then it languished some more.
In 1959, Mr. Caro wrote in The Power Broker, the East Tremont Neighborhood Association was trying to develop a middle-income housing complex in the Bronx. It had been frustrated in its efforts to work with the chairman of the mayor’s slum clearance committee, Robert Moses.
The group found a tract along the Bronx River that seemed perfectly suitable, until they learned that it was controlled by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, whose chairman was —.
You know who it was.
Neighbors tried to persuade the authority to reroute the Sheridan slightly to leave room on the riverfront parcel for 200 units of housing. At least, they said, leave the route unchanged and allow us to build a more modest housing development.
The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority said it was a matter for the Parks Department to decide, since that agency would be in charge of any land left over from the roadway work. The Parks Department sent the neighbors back to Triborough, since the expressway was the authority’s project. Triborough bounced them back to the Parks Department. This went on for about a year.
“What happened at the end of the year, basically, was that the community gave up the fight,” Mr. Caro wrote. Neighbors were already exhausted and demoralized by the even greater trauma of displacement and disruption caused by the Cross-Bronx Expressway, developed by Mr. Moses.
The gantlet of environmental and community reviews that seems to slow progress today was created in part so there wouldn’t be another Robert Moses, who demolished first and asked questions later, if he asked at all; who put shovels in the ground before worrying about where the money would come from, since he knew that even balky legislators could not allow a half-finished bridge to stay that way.
However, that gantlet has had another result, Mr. Cuomo said last year. “Somewhere along the way, we lost our daring,” he told the Long Island Association. “We got consumed by the opposition. And we got consumed by bureaucracy, and we don’t think big anymore.”
In some projects, like the replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge that is now being built, the governor is apparently stacking himself up against the legacy of Mr. Moses. But along the Bronx River — presumably having learned the lessons The Power Broker can teach — even Mr. Cuomo is thinking just a bit smaller.