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  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement”: Robert Moses

Robert Moses was a public servant who spent his professional career in metropolitan New York overseeing public works projects such as the construction of highways, bridges, and transit systems. His indefatigable efforts helped to create the Long Island, New York, suburbs. Although he was not a trained civil engineer or city planner, Moses’ projects influenced generations of architects, engineers, city planners, and other civil servants. He was the subject of Robert Caro’s magisterial biography, The Power Broker. The 1974 book won the Pulitzer Prize and publicized Moses’ work, albeit not in altogether flattering ways. According to Caro, Moses unabashedly punished his enemies, practiced questionable ethics, and wielded power in ways that sometimes hurt the less fortunate. I discuss Moses’ life and career in my upcoming book Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement.”

As Caro noted, part of Moses’ success was attributable to his understanding of political power and its uses. He was never elected to public office, but Moses understood how to wield power. At one point in his career, he held 12 job titles, including New York City Parks Commissioner and Chairman of the Long Island State Park Commission. The innocuous-sounding titles failed to capture Moses’ enormous influence as a public manager and developer.

Moses was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 18, 1888, to German Jewish parents. His father, Emanuel, was a well-to-do real estate speculator and department store owner in New Haven. The family lived a few blocks from Yale University. When young Robert was nine years old, his father sold his businesses and moved his family to New York City to retire. His mother, Bella (Silverman) was active in the settlement movement there, which sought to integrate social classes together in close quarters. The boy learned about buildings and urban planning from his mother.

Robert and his brother Paul attended the Dwight School, a college preparatory school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as well as the Mohegan Lake School, a military academy for boys. Always devoted to education, Robert earned a B.A. from Yale College in 1909, a B.A. in 1911 and an M.A. in 1913 from Oxford University, and a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University in 1914.

Moses became interested in New York City politics, and he was dismayed at the corruption inherent in common patronage practices. He authored a 1919 proposal for reorganizing state government to minimize patronage, but the proposal failed. It did capture the attention of Belle Moskowitz, a progressive reformer and adviser to New York Governor Al Smith. Moskowitz recommended Moses to the governor.

Moses became a key associate of Governor Smith throughout the 1920s. On Moses’ suggestion, Governor Smith championed legislation to create the Long Island State Park Commission and the State Council of Parks. Moses served as the president of the former and chairman of the latter. From these positions, Moses demonstrated his uncanny ability to centralize authority and effectively push through his programs. His effectiveness stemmed from Moses’ firm command of engineering principles and legal concepts. More than one commentator marveled at his skill in drafting legislation to consolidate his on power. He was “the best bill drafter in Albany,” according to one source.

At the time of Robert Moses’ ascendancy, New York politics was largely directed by the corrupt partisans of Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine that had controlled government operations for generations. Under the spoils system, government managers earned their positions based on who they knew, not what they knew. Government service was viewed as hopelessly inept and corrupt. Moses showed that government could operate another way. He became an icon of expertise and efficiency. As a reward for his work, after the position of secretary of state was changed from an elective to an appointee position, Smith appointed Moses in 1927. Moses served for two years.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, his top legislative priority, the New Deal, created a vast array of programs aimed at lifting millions of Americans out of poverty during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, few cities and states had “shovel ready” construction projects. To demonstrate the effectiveness of the president’s programs, the administration looked to New York as an example of what government could accomplish when it forged partnerships among the different levels of federalism.

Thanks in no small part of Robert Moses, New York City obtained significant funding from Alphabet Soup agencies such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). These programs allowed Moses to realize this vision for rebuilding the New York City metropolitan area.

During a long career that spanned from the 1920s through the 1970s, Moses became a larger-than-life figure. His energy and inventiveness appeared limitless. He held multiple positions simultaneously, most notably as the Long Island State Park Commission president, New York City Parks commissioner, and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman.

Among his many successes was Moses’ effort to create new swimming pools for residents in the metropolitan area. Using WPA money, he began constructing 11 pools beginning in October 1934. Ten of the 11 pools were completed within two years. New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia proved to be an indispensable partner in the projects. To his eternal shame, Moses insisted that Black Americans be kept out of the swimming pools, a popular opinion among white decision-makers of the day.

Moses continued to exercise authority even after La Guardia retired. Many New York City mayors acquiesced to Moses’ plans. Aside from public works projects, he oversaw the city’s public housing units. He eventually became the city’s chief negotiator with Washington, D.C. regarding multiple construction projects.

Many of his projects were seen as innovative and ahead of his time, such as incorporating green space between new buildings. Detractors charged that he acted dictatorially without consulting anyone owing to his many connections and his lack of transparency. He also destroyed almost as many apartments as he built. Moreover, when Moses resolved to push through a new construction or infrastructure project, he expressed little or no concern for neighborhoods that were divided or disrupted by his plans.

Moses became well known for championing bridge construction, a necessity given the topography in and around New York City. For more than 30 years beginning at the height of the Great Depression, Moses oversaw construction of the Triborough, Marine Parkway Bridge (1936, later renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge), the Marine Parkway Bridge (later called the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge, 1937), The Henry Hudson Bridge (1936), the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge (1939), the Throgs Neck Bridge (1961), and the Verrazzano-Narrows (1964, 1969) Bridge.

In addition to bridge construction, Moses oversaw the development of numerous roads, freeways, buildings, and public spaces. He was the driving force behind the creation of Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center, and the United Nations headquarters building. Other cities, notably Portland, Oregon, hired Moses to design the city’s freeway system.

Aside from his practical skills as an urban planner, Moses carefully cultivated political connections. He knew when to acquiesce on a project and when to insist that his vision be implemented. When Walter O’Malley, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted to replace the deteriorating Ebbets Field, he butted heads with Moses. O’Mally sought to use eminent domain to secure property near the Long Island Railroad, but Moses demurred, preferring to construct a parking garage on that site. Moses believed that the new stadium should be constructed in Queens, the site of the former (and future) World’s Fair.

O’Mally feared that constructing the new stadium in Queens would undercut the Dodgers’ identity as a Brooklyn baseball team. Despite this concern, Moses refused to yield. As a result, Shea Stadium was constructed on the site. Following the 1957 season, the Brooklyn Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles.

After four decades in power, Moses’ influence waned. Because he was committed to continually tearing down older buildings and roadways to construct new facilities, he ran afoul of activists who worried that New York was losing its historic sites and its quirky character. Moses’ opposition to the Shakespeare in the Park and his plans to dismantle a playground in Central Park, for example, incensed a large group of Manhattanites. When he announced that he was going to demolish Pennsylvania Station, a beloved architectural landmark, to construct an expressway, city residents rose up in arms. The activist Jane Jacobs galvanized public opinion against Moses in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

His association with the 1964 New York World’s Fair hurt Moses as well. He touted the economic benefits of the fair and predicted record attendance upwards of 70 million people. When the crowds failed to appear, many critics accused the self-serving Moses of padding the data to improve the optics. Even worse for Moses, the economic benefits of the fair were illusory.

Moses had always gone his own way, rejecting opinions he found unfavorable and expressing undisguised condescension toward anyone who opposed his building program. He had always enjoyed sufficient political power to overcome most objections, but by the 1960s his power was declining and disdain for critics caught up with him. New York Governor John Lindsay removed Moses from the position of the city’s chief lobbyist for federal highway dollars.

Additional reversals followed this one. The New York state legislature redirected toll revenues from the Triborough Bridge and Tunney Authority (TBTA) to cover budget shortfalls in other agencies, a decision that Moses strongly opposed. He lost that battle. The legislature merged the TBTA into a new agency, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Moses might have challenged the change in court, but he was anxious to remain in legislators’ good graces in hopes of securing a position in the new agency. Instead, he was offered a contract as a consultant. When the new MTA chairman refused to consult Moses, the grand old man recognized that he had suffered a major defeat—a defeat that would have been unthinkable in previous years.

One final humiliation marked Moses’ decline. He had lobbied New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to support a project to construct a bridge from Rye to Oyster Bay across Long Island Sound. Such a bridge was certainly needed, and it was financially feasible, but many Republican suburbanites opposed the project. Realizing that it was inexpedient to push through the project in a politically divisive climate, the governor refused to support the measure. Rockefeller cancelled the bridge project in 1973, much to Moses’ chagrin.

Publication of Robert Caro’s biography, The Power Broker, in 1974 did much to solidify Moses’ reputation in the public mind as an autocratic leader who used his positions of power for his own purposes. Caro praised some of Moses’ early projects, but his depiction of the “power broker” as an unaccountable egomaniac was devastating. Moses issued a lengthy rebuttal to Caro’s book—to which Caro responded—but the damage was done. Moses’ reputation would never recover.

Robert Moses lived to the ripe old age of 92. He died on July 29, 1981. He was interred in a crypt in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

During his long, controversial career, Robert Moses did more than almost anyone else to remake the landscape of twentieth century New York. Many roadways, public works projects, and parks bear his name. Some historians have sought to rehabilitate his reputation in the wake of The Power Broker, arguing that his use of power may have appeared autocratic, but it was the only way to engineer the many construction projects in a difficult political climate. His leadership style, his defenders argue, was perfectly aligned with the times in which he lived. Criticism of his strategy and tactics reflects the sensibilities of a later epoch when public participation and inclusion were more highly prized than they were in Moses’ day.

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