Robert Moses: The Legend And The Legacy
A review and retrospective by Susan Allen
Imagine a Giant straddling the five boroughs of New York City and its outlying suburbs, one massive foot in the roiling Hell Gate and the other on the Atlantic Ocean beachfront of Brooklyn, Queens or the Long Island counties to the east.
The Giant twists around in all directions to survey the metropolis as it looked after the Second World War. Far-flung, isolated Westchester County and Staten Island, dowdy Bronx. It looks like an old city, dated, rickety. Skyscrapers once thought sparkling and modern seem down at the heels, the streets laid out centuries ago by the Dutch and the English clogged with evermore traffic, too many tenement buildings, not enough parks.
Envisioning the new era sure to come, the Giant swoops down to rearrange it all. Spiked steel bridges will link the boroughs and beyond, concrete expressways will eviscerate the decaying slums, blocks of five-story buildings will be plucked up wholesale and grand brick housing projects planted in their place. The ash heap made famous by F.Scott Fitzgerald will be swept away for a glorious urban playground in Queens, the parks in the better Manhattan neighborhoods will teem with theaters, restaurants, swimming pools and other amenities, green parkways will subsume Long Island potato fields and lead out to sublime white beaches.
The Giant doesn’t have to think in human terms, on a human scale. Neighborhoods and streetscapes, the front stoop and the corner tavern, the elevated train, stickball in the street and the sidewalks of New York — all pure sentimentality! They mean nothing. Neither do the potato farmer, the Long Island beachfront landowner, or, later on, the Tuscorara tribe of western New York. If they are in the way of the Giant’s vision they have to go.
This is the impression Robert Caro leaves of a real-life Giant in his mammoth work, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Moses, the “Master Builder of New York,” surveyed his realm as if from above, made stupendously impossible grand plans and, incredibly, always “got things done.” Caro chronicles the rise of Moses and the way he muscled his way up the ranks in the guise of a devoted, selfless public servant. His reach for power came to a crescendo in the postwar years when he controlled virtually all public works projects and most of the public funding in the state of New York.
The Power Broker reads like a novel of hot political intrigue, entertaining, passionate, exhaustive. But Caro dissects better than any boring doctoral dissertation how government power comes to be, seeing through the multiple public relations facades. Though written thirty years ago, guaranteed you’ll learn the true and horrific mechanics of our very own state government.
As you might expect, eminent domain plays an ugly role in the Moses saga. How he got rid of the entire length of one borough to build the Cross Bronx Expressway would be an unbelievable story, except for the fact that we have our own versions of it in our own time, in our own communities, both urban and rural.
But a more sinister and ultimately more important story involves Robert Moses as the architect of the modern “public authority,” perhaps the most brilliant invention in the annals of lawful government corruption. This type of quasi-government agency uses public money but operates with all the perks of private business, including the means and the political connections to keep the public out of decision-making and, as much as possible, outside the sunshine laws. Originally designed as a simple method of paying for a project from its own income, like collecting tolls to finance a bridge’s construction, Caro describes how Moses “raised this institution to a maturity in which it became the force through which he shaped New York and its suburbs in the image he personally conceived.”
Moses’ legacy remains in another form in today’s spinoff, the so-called “public benefit corporations,” such as Industrial Development Agencies, Redevelopment Corporations, Empire Zones, Regulating Districts, miscellaneous commissions and other euphemistically named organizations with their own czars and power structures — not to mention the exploding growth and expanding reach of our long-standing state administrative agencies and departments.
You can also trace the foundation of other quasi-public entities that rose from Moses’ groundwork, like paid consultants, planners and managers, bodies such as river associations and community action agencies, and the contractual intertwining of government agencies with non-profit organizations. These often-anonymously controlled institutions increasingly hold sway over our lives absent public debate, sometimes colluding with, sometimes bypassing, our elected officials.
It may be farfetched to think there could ever be one Giant in such absolute control as Robert Moses was in his day. But substitute for Moses any of these government or quasi-government agencies, which often have eminent domain powers or the wherewithal to use strong-arm tactics to reach the same ends. Rural residents can easily substitute the politically powerful “environmental” organizations which seek to hold down or obliterate the human activity from their towns and counties — those groups might be the obverse of the “Master Builder” in their grand visions, but not at all in the sophisticated way they climbed into power and how they now employ their tactics of coercive persuasion. Wherever you might live, the lessons and warnings in The Power Broker still ring horribly true.
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Susan Allen is Editor and Publisher of the Adirondack Park Agency Reporter.