Land of Moses
The shrewd visionary who remade New York
In 1907 an amateur poet and Yale University student published a simple verse full of yearning and wonder: "There's a glimmering path mid the glowing sea / Which gently sways and beckons me."
He graduated and went on to build the notoriously unglimmering Long Island Expressway.
Robert Moses, arguably the most powerful municipal official in New York history, also gave the city the congested Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the choked Bruckner and Cross Bronx expressways, and the jampacked Triborough and Verrazano bridges. Over a 44-year career, he built more than 400 miles of highways and 13 bridges that bulldozed through slums and vibrant neighborhoods alike. A new book even blames him for driving baseball's beloved Dodgers out of Brooklyn.
But traffic jams were not Moses's only legacy. He was the force behind such well-received projects as the United Nations building and plaza, the Lincoln Center arts complex, the New York Coliseum, and more than 600 city playgrounds. He virtually invented the idea of state parks; perhaps his finest is the seaside wonderland of Jones Beach on Long Island, whose wide stretches of sand have beckoned sweltering city dwellers for years. "Moses is part of what we've done, right and wrong, what we've dreamed and what we've failed to dream," says David Perry, director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "He's New York, warts and all."
Most important for Gotham, the roads that Moses built moved people and their cars from city to suburb, utterly transforming the region socially and economically. For that--for anything he did, in fact--Moses made no apologies. "I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without moving people," he told his critics late in life (he died in 1981), "as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs."
The power of authority. Moses was, at various times, head of state and city parks, the city's construction coordinator, chair of its slum clearance commission, and chief of 12 different agencies responsible for construction. He held all these jobs with no background in engineering or architecture. It didn't matter: He was the man who hired the engineers and architects, told them what to do, then found the money to do it.
His tool for doing this was the public authority. Governments were beholden to special interests, and politicians were scared to ask voters for higher taxes to finance construction. "Moses separated building from City Hall politics and Tammany Hall corruption," says Jameson Doig, professor of public affairs at Princeton University. To do so, Moses turned to authorities, quasi- official institutions that combined the ability to sell bonds to finance projects with the power of a government to charge the public tolls to use those projects. After creating one such authority to build the Triborough Bridge, Moses figured out that the nickels and dimes rattling into its tollbooths--millions of dollars each year--provided a continuing stream of revenue he could use to sell new bonds for new projects. With this kind of leverage, his authorities were constantly shifting from bridges to parkways to beaches to public housing.