Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Robert Moses

A strong proponent of suburban sprawl and urban renewal, this article is a great historical overview of his New York work.

The Godfather of Sprawl

In 1929, when Long Island celebrated the opening of Jones Beach—the 2,413-acre recreation area carved out of a remote sandbar—the spot was instantly popular as a summer escape for New York City's sweltering masses. It has remained so—but in many ways the beach and the access road, built by the New York uber-planner Robert Moses, inaugurated a troubling era of urban sprawl.

Moses isn't just known for Jones Beach, of course—it's not much of an exaggeration to say that if you can name it in New York, Moses built it. There are the Long Island Expressway, the Harlem River Drive, the Triborough and Verrazano bridges (to name just a few of his contributions), the patchwork of state parks, the masses of housing developments, the legacy of two World's Fairs (1939 and 1964)—not to mention Shea Stadium, the United Nations, Lincoln Center, and the New York Coliseum. It's a staggering legacy for one man—and an increasingly unpopular one in some circles. This seems a fitting time, therefore, to look back at some of the writing in The Atlantic by and about Robert Moses.

In February of 1939, at the height of Moses's popularity, Cleveland Rodgers painted a glowing and comprehensive portrait of the man as an adept and sacrificing public servant with a remarkable ability to get the job done ("Robert Moses: An Atlantic Portrait")"In a period of prodigious public expenditures," Rodgers wrote, "Robert Moses emerges as the most farsighted and constructive of public spenders. He has demonstrated in brilliant fashion that democracy can be made to work by skillful, resolute handling, and that 'public improvements' can be given a surprising amount of beauty." (Although his tone was adulatory throughout, Rodgers did recognize Moses's tendency to irk his fellow bureaucrats, noting at one point that "Mr. Moses frequently finishes and dedicates parks before submitting his plans for ... approval.")

Six years later, in January of 1945, Moses himself contributed to The Atlantic, attacking New York City's real estate operators for the perpetuation of slum conditions ("Slums and City Planning") Oozing contempt for any opinion but his own, and in a style as purposeful and relentless as one of his bulldozers, Moses blamed the shortage of decent low-cost housing on real estate developers' disregard for zoning and safety regulations—and on "misguided" investment in public transportation. "If in New York City," he wrote, "we had refrained from building so many miles of subways at twenty million dollars a mile and had put some of this money into rehabilitating and making livable and attractive the older and central parts of town, millions of people would not today be crowded like cattle into hurtling trains during the rush hours."