This article shows that people continue to debate Robert Moses' contribution to New York City. I've driven on his highways, and seen his parks, and I've read Robert Caro's biography. Biographies are funny things. I'm thinking of this new biography of Einstein by Issakson (spelling?). People are celebrating this author for bringing the famous old man (Einstein) back to life again. This strikes me as a strange synergistic trade. I understand why the author of the biography wants credit and fame but has he "earned" it? Or is he free riding on the great man's coattails as people yearn to know more about the departed person? The author might respond that he has read new documents about Einstein and by Einstein that "reveal" his inner thinking and help to recreate the zegeist of his times. Such gossip is fun but can a biographer really learn "why" a thinker and doer did what he did?
Now turning to Robert Caro and his distaste for Robert Moses. I always thought this was a classic case of pareto improvement without compensation. Moses did make New York City as a metropolitan area a higher quality of life place. The "silent majority" who live in Long Island have gained a heck of lot of consumer surplus because of the roads he built. It is true that he paved over many minority communities to provide this infrastructure. These individuals were not compensated for their losses and Caro remains upset about this. But, if the winners win more than the losers lose; is this bad public policy?
May 6, 2007
A Tale of Two Cities
By MICHAEL POWELL
THE question trails Robert Caro like a fly, buzzing in his ear. Over and over, at cocktail parties and museum receptions in the past few years, he hears variations on the same query.
“Doesn’t New York need a new master builder?” people ask. “Don’t we need a new Robert Moses?”
Mr. Caro, 71, sits in his spare writer’s aerie high in a Midtown office building, an owlish man with a faint smile. His answer has the virtue of concision:
Mr. Caro, a man of Ahab-like writerly obsessions, sees no need to rethink, redraw or revise his measure of Moses, despite the prominent critics now baying at him. His 1974 biography, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” documented many of what he regards as Moses’ transgressions, like acres of sterile public housing towers, parks and playgrounds for the rich and comfortable, and highways that sundered working-class neighborhoods and dispossessed a quarter of a million people. Why say more, he asks; the book speaks for itself.
“We don’t need a new Robert Moses because he ignored the values of New York,” Mr. Caro says. “If anything, I see the city moving today to correct his ravages.”
Unusual in an age when sentence fragments on a blog pass for intellectual argument and “definitive” accounts have half-lives measured in months, Mr. Caro’s 1,246-page tome has for three decades dominated our understanding of modern New York. A tale of hubris and unchecked power, “The Power Broker” was more than a Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of the man who shaped and misshaped New York. It offered a compelling narrative of the city’s rise and long slide toward the darkness of the 1970s.
Now a powerful revisionist tide is running in. New York has the feel of a boomtown — highways clogged, subways crowded, luxury condo towers rising — and an influential band of historians and planners have argued that Moses, who served as chief of public authorities and confidant to a half-century’s worth of New York’s mayors and governors, had much to do with the rise of the city and little to do with its (temporary) fall.
This revisionist project has taken form in much-praised exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York (through May 28) and the Queens Museum of Art (through May 27), and at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, where a Moses exhibit closed three weeks ago. The revisionists mounted a symposium — to which Mr. Caro says he was at first not invited — and Norton earlier this year published “Robert Moses and the Modern City,” a 336-page collection of essays with a revisionist theme running throughout. All would restore Moses, whose cracked bust is displayed on the cover of “The Power Broker,” to his pedestal as a master builder.
Argument Without End
That Moses was highhanded, racist and contemptuous of the poor draws no argument even from the most ardent revisionists. But his grand vision and iron will, they say, seeded New York with highways, parks, swimming pools and cultural halls, from the Belt Parkway to Lincoln Center, and thus allowed the modern city to flower.
Looking forward, the revisionists assert a broader claim: A Moses-like vision is needed to guard against another slide toward obsolescence. The transformations of Williamsburg, the Atlantic Yards tract in Brooklyn and Long Island City in Queens are harbingers of this assertive mood.
“ ‘The Power Broker’ was an important book, but after three decades an intellectual logjam had to be broken,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University and the editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. “Moses built with quality and a remarkable honesty, and we need a return of some of that today.
“The city is trying to change now,” said Professor Jackson, who with Hilary Ballon, an architectural historian at Columbia, edited the new collection of essays about Moses. “We need to help that along.”
These arguments strike partisans of Mr. Caro as blinkered. Thousands of people spent decades advocating for mass transit and parkland, and waging war against stadiums and projects seen as too dense and too weighted toward the rich. “The Power Broker” is often their touchstone.
“This is precisely the wrong time to deify Moses,” said Theodore Kheel, the retired labor mediator who at 92 is one of the few New Yorkers who recall going toe to toe with Moses over a 1965 proposal to double bridge and tunnel tolls and use the revenue to subsidize the subway fare. “He was hostile to mass transit and hostile to poor New Yorkers.”
So two visions of New York collide, each borne of a different cultural moment. If the arguments about the book and the man are testy and tinged with recriminations and charges of incomplete scholarship, how could it be otherwise? Historical understanding is contingent, contentious and rarely at a remove from the broader culture. In this “that was yesterday’s interpretation” age, the only surprise may be that “The Power Broker” has gone so long without a challenge.
“There is no ‘definitive’ study of any prominent biographical figure,” said the historian Robert Dallek, author of an acclaimed two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson and a recent book examining the relationship between President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He salutes Mr. Caro’s achievement even as he finds the wave of revisionist thinking inevitable.
“Historians still debate Lincoln,” Mr. Dallek says. “History is a construction of the contemporary mood and culture.”
History, as the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl said, is argument without end. So it is with reconsideration of Moses, whose legacy still stirs debate in this most disputatious of cities.
The Master Builder’s Case
Disgorging a rapid and perfectly formed stream of nouns and verbs, Professor Ballon recently gave a visitor a quick tour of the Moses exhibit at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery. The show’s curator, she genuflected, briefly, toward Mr. Caro’s book.
“It’s a mesmerizing narrative,” she said. “Caro stimulated a great discussion, and there’s a human truth there: Powerful people become undone by their power.”
Then came the rhetorical pivot.
“But the book is far from definitive and misjudges history,” Professor Ballon said. “It’s absolutely evident to me that ‘The Power Broker’ is symptomatic of a time and a zeitgeist. In the community of historians, there’s been brewing a sense of discontent.”
The revisionist case for Moses has percolated for nearly two decades and goes something like this: He was a visionary who gazed upon the city and region from the perspective of an eagle. He saw wastelands that would become parks, bridges that would span rivers and bays, and a necklace of highways and parkways that would weave the city and region into one.
He tore down tenements to make way for giant clumps of middle-income housing, from Kips Bay and Stuyvesant Town on the East Side of Manhattan to Co-op City in the northeast Bronx. And that’s not to count mammoth icons like Lincoln Center and the United Nations, and the expansion of the campuses of the Pratt Institute and Fordham and New York Universities.
Where else can one find barrier-island public beaches — Jacob Riis Park, Jones Beach and Robert Moses State Park — within hailing distance of a cacophonous world capital?
Moses was a creature of his time; the revisionists emphasize this. By midcentury, planners wrestled with suburbanization, decaying urban cores and the dominance of the car. Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles: Each claimed its own power broker.
But few were so powerful, visionary and devious. Decade after decade, Moses helped New York gobble up a lion’s share of federal money, and before anyone could raise much of a protest, he spent it.
That there was a human cost, that half a million people were displaced and neighborhoods broken to realize his vision, is beyond question. But, revisionists ask, does history hold a brief against Shah Jahan, who set thousands laboring for 20 years to build the Taj Mahal? Is the Cathedral of Chartres testament to grandiosity or grandeur?
“My hunch is that the more we distance ourselves, we will forget the costs,” Professor Ballon said, “just as we look at ancient monuments and forget the labor that was expended in building them.”
The sands of time slowly covered Moses’ more egregious tracks. He built his most elegant playgrounds for the white and comfortable, but because of demographic shifts, some now are thick with black, Asian and Latino children. Orchard Beach and Riis Park long ago became working-class havens.
“It was totally inadvertent, but Moses’ legacy is that he created great beaches for poor people,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.
A whiff of overstatement can cloud the revisionist perspective. It’s argued, for example that Moses’ racism was a product of his time. He was “a pragmatist, cavalier as too many were in his day about racial prejudice,” the essayist Phillip Lopate wrote in a recent article for The New York Times, and so was more intent on building apartments than on objecting to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company’s desire to bar blacks from renting in Stuyvesant Town.
Professor Jackson also challenges two allegations in “The Power Broker”: One is that Moses chilled the water at a swimming pool in East Harlem based on his belief that blacks disliked cold water. The other is that Moses built low bridges to keep buses — ostensibly carrying black passengers — away from Jones Beach.
But in the collection of essays, Martha Biondi, a professor of African-American history at Northwestern University, concludes that Moses was an enthusiastic and “leading supporter” of a whites-only policy at Stuyvesant Town even as civic leaders urged integration.
As for the pool-cooling, Mr. Caro interviewed Moses’ associates on the record (“You can pretty well keep them out of any pool if you keep the water cold enough,” he quotes Sidney M. Shapiro, a close Moses aide, as saying). Such accounts, Professor Biondi says, gain “credence from the very well-documented history of racial discrimination and exclusion that surrounded so many of Moses’ undertakings.”
To reappraise a man so complex as Moses, and a book so ambitious as “The Power Broker,” demands great discipline. Setting aside one’s cultural lens is not easy.
“When I read of the heroic building of the 1930s, I brought to mind the stalled projects of our day,” Professor Ballon said. “It’s easy enough now to realize that New York hasn’t fallen down, as Caro thought. Look at this resurgent city. It’s spectacular.”
Ask Mr. Caro about the Cross Bronx Expressway and the price paid for progress, and the author cannot contain himself. This neatly attired man with hair still more dark than gray leans forward and scoops up a dogeared copy of “The Power Broker,” which sits on his desk like the King James Bible of municipal history. (It was at the time the largest book Random House could physically print.)
“Turn to Page 19,” he says as he turns the pages. “When I speak, I’m imprecise.”
So he quotes from his book:
“To build his highways, Moses threw out of their homes 250,000 persons — more people than lived in Albany or Chattanooga, or in Spokane, Tacoma, Duluth, Akron, Baton Rouge, Mobile, Nashville or Sacramento. He tore out the hearts of a score of neighborhoods.”
He slaps the book shut and closes his eyes to concentrate on his words.
“Robert Moses bent the democratic processes and the city to his will,” Mr. Caro says. “There were lots of people who didn’t want to gouge a highway through East Tremont, and they couldn’t stop him.”
Mr. Caro fluctuates between two poles. He is immersed in a multivolume study of Lyndon Johnson — the first three volumes are in print; he typed each on his Smith Corona — and he wishes that “The Power Broker,” now in its 44th printing, could stand on its own against the critics. “It’s a compliment, really, that they are still debating my book as if it was new,” he says.
But impatience wells up. Mr. Caro, a lifelong New Yorker, declined to participate in the revisionists’ forums on Moses; he says his only invitation came too late and as an afterthought. But he gave a speech on Moses at the Museum of the City of New York in February. And he follows up an interview with a reporter with phone calls every few days, poking at the revisionists. “I understand each age looks through its own prism,” he said a few days ago. “But the revisionists are not coming to grips with this man.”
Mr. Caro came to his epic pursuit of Moses as a young newspaper reporter in the 1960s, a moment when a national revulsion was growing against the depredations of urban renewal and unaccountable officials.
“The Power Broker” opens with an image of Moses as the progressive dreamer. His first decades in public life are a reformist blur of building pools and creating parks from wasteland. His understanding of finance is complex, his manipulation of the levers of power nimble, and Mr. Caro gives him his due.
Mr. Caro peers at a reporter — he wants to be very clear this isn’t a book about an evil man. “It’s about a genius who was blinded by his own arrogance,” he says.
Inevitably, power corrupts. Moses gouges highways through neighborhoods, secures the loyalty of venal politicians and hoards bridge and tunnel receipts, starving subways and schools. His dreams grow gargantuan: He envisions a mammoth highway stretching from Staten Island through Brooklyn and Fire Island to Montauk Point. Two bridges would gird Long Island Sound, and a highway would slash into Greenwich Village.
It was never enough. SoHo, TriBeCa and the meatpacking district are the city’s hottest neighborhoods; Moses wanted to flatten them. Community opposition killed his final project, the $1.7 billion superhighway proposal known as Westway. Opponents took the money and poured much of it into a transit system then near collapse.
“People remember Westway as a symbol of how we couldn’t build,” said Gene Russianoff, founder of the Straphangers Campaign, who says “The Power Broker” persuaded him to take up a career in public advocacy. “For me, it is a symbol of how David held off Goliath and saved the subways.”
Mr. Caro can be a careful guardian of his own flame. He has a legion of admirers, but some say his book overstates the dominance of Moses and understates the constraints on his behavior.
For all his highways and failures to extend light-rail lines to eastern Queens and Long Island, Moses did not turn the city into Los Angeles East. “I’m left thinking that it’s not just light and then darkness,” said Rick Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “His legacy is more complicated.”
Mr. Caro insists he has always seen Moses as a complex character. But he shakes his head at the notion that New Yorkers pine for a new master builder.
“I don’t think there is a cultural shift, not at all,” Mr. Caro said. “The culture would be repelled to see his methods.”
He caught himself and added: “The great problem posed by Robert Moses is whether this city can build what’s needed while adhering to democratic principles. We’re about to find out if we’ve solved that problem.”
The truth is, New York never was so paralyzed as the revisionists imagine. Rebirth began even as the metropolis fell. In the 1980s city officials poured billions of dollars into rebuilding vast swaths of working-class housing in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority renovated the subways, and the 1990s saw the privately financed construction of a tennis center with acres of public courts in Queens. There are the capitalism-on-hallucinogens makeover of Times Square, the greening of the West Side waterfront and maybe even the Second Avenue subway, along with refurbished parks and pools across the city.
Whatever his manifold faults, Moses nursed a faith in the power of government to throw up public works. He was a public servant with the temperament of a czar.
And a book by his most eloquent critic ensures his immortality.
“Caro wrote a grand tale and made Moses famous,” Professor Jackson said. “As much as Moses detested Caro, ‘The Power Broker’ has become his monument.”