Rehabilitating Robert MosesBy Robin Pogrebin from NYTimes.com
FOR three decades his image has been frozen in time. The bulldozing bully who callously displaced thousands of New Yorkers in the name of urban renewal. The public-works kingpin who championed highways as he starved mass transit. And yes, the visionary idealist who gave New York Lincoln Center and Jones Beach, along with parks, roads, playgrounds and public pools...
With the city on the brink of a building boom unparalleled since Moses’ heyday — the reconstruction of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, an overhaul of the Far West Side, sweeping redevelopment downtown — Ms. Ballon and other scholars argue that his legacy is more relevant than ever.
“Living in New York, one is aware there has been no evident successor or successors to Moses,” she said. “There aren’t master builders. Who is looking after the city? How do we build for the future?” All around New York State, she suggests, people tend to take for granted the parks, playgrounds and housing Moses built, now generally binding forces in those areas, even if the old-style New York neighborhood was of no interest to Moses himself. And were it not for Moses’ public infrastructure and his resolve to carve out more space, she argues, New York might not have been able to recover from the blight and flight of the 1970s and ’80s and become the economic magnet it is today.
“Every generation writes its own history,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a historian of New York City at Columbia who with Ms. Ballon edited “Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York” (W. W. Norton), the catalog accompanying the exhibitions. “It could be that ‘The Power Broker’ was a reflection of its time: New York was in trouble and had been in decline for 15 years. Now, for a whole host of reasons, New York is entering a new time, a time of optimism, growth and revival that hasn’t been seen in half a century. And that causes us to look at our infrastructure.”
“A lot of big projects are on the table again, and it kind of suggests a Moses era without Moses,” he added...
The institutions involved in the exhibitions say they never sought to whitewash Moses’ legacy. “We set out to come to terms with the enormity of Moses’ achievements,” said Tom Finkelpearl, executive director of the Queens Museum. “I really anticipated that the show was going to be a major indictment of Moses, and I was genuinely surprised at the result.”
Each of the exhibitions has a different emphasis. “Remaking the Metropolis,” which opens at the Museum of the City of New York on Feb. 2, focuses on Moses’ roads, like the Henry Hudson Parkway and the Cross Bronx Expressway; major buildings and monuments (Lincoln Center, the United Nations); and parks (the expansion of Riverside Park, East River Park and recreational spaces in Central Park). Opening Feb. 4 at the Queens Museum of Art (whose forbidding stone building Moses had built for the 1939-40 World’s Fair), “The Road to Recreation” documents his expansion of roads and recreation in the 1930’s: some 416 miles of parkways and 658 playgrounds. “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution,” which opens on Jan. 31 at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, focuses on Moses’ ambitious 1950s urban renewal program.
In today’s frenetic real estate market, some of those projects are now in the hands of private developers. “Look at what is happening to Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town,” Mr. Finkelpearl said, referring to the middle-class apartments that were recently sold, driving rents up. “That is so out of the spirit of Moses and the public-mindedness of Moses.”
The shows also document the Moses projects that were never built, like a controversial extension of Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park, a bridge between the Red Hook section of Brooklyn and Battery Park, and two expressways, one slicing across Midtown and the other across Lower Manhattan.
MS. BALLON, who spent three years on research for the exhibitions and catalog, said she came away clear-eyed about Moses’ flaws, including his failure to grasp the social devastation caused by some of his projects. “He was perfectly positioned to recognize how any one thing had multiple consequences, like clearing a slum,” she said, yet “he purposely chose to ignore these things.”
But as she studied the archives and traveled the city, Ms. Ballon said, she “became more and more interested in the tangible things he accomplished,” feeling they were somewhat underrepresented in the Caro book.
“I wanted to investigate Moses with this emphasis on the physical form,” said Ms. Ballon, who specializes in 17th-century European architecture as well as American urbanism and architecture of the 20th century. She said she was impressed by the majesty and durability of projects like Jones Beach’s state park, with its costly brick and sandstone bathhouses; Orchard Beach in the Bronx, designed in a graceful crescent (after private bungalows were destroyed); and the city’s vast and stately public pools.
“The grandeur of those buildings — all for the public,” Ms. Ballon said. “He executed 17 urban renewal projects in nine years. That’s staggering.”
At Kips Bay Towers, the architect I. M. Pei “brought reinforced concrete construction to a new level of refinement,” Ms. Ballon added, “and the interior garden is a jewel.” And even the Moses-era housing projects and public buildings that were once scorned as grim and soulless are winning some appreciation because they were built fast and built to last.
At the same time the catalog she jointly edited includes some pointed criticism. Martha Biondi, a professor of African-American history at Northwestern, faults Moses’ prominent role in supporting MetLife’s decision to exclude blacks from renting apartments at Stuyvesant Town; Ms. Ballon notes his “antidemocratic methods and indifference to community values.”
As Mr. Jackson puts it, “He looks like a pretty good public servant who was in many ways a jerk.”
Yet Mr. Finkelpearl of the Queens Museum said the exhibition did not set out to make judgments on Moses’ character. “This show is not about Moses, the guy,” he said. “It’s about what Moses did.”...
Mr. Caro, though, argues that drawing such a distinction is impossible. “The man is inseparable from the story of the city of New York,” he said. “The city now is trying to come to grips with the problems he left.”
Much of the city’s current development seeks to redress Moses’ legacy, including efforts to reclaim the West Side waterfront (where he built the Henry Hudson Parkway) for public use. To improve mass transit, the city is trying to extend the No. 7 line to 11th Avenue, as well as finally create a Second Avenue subway 50 years after Moses passed over that possibility by funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into roads and bridges for automobiles.
Similarly, a major redesign of Lincoln Center by the architects Diller, Scofidio & Renfro aims to open up that campus and make it more inviting, rather than what was originally envisioned: an ivory tower for the performing arts with its back turned on Amsterdam Avenue.
Economically and psychologically it has taken city planners decades to forge the resolve to break ground again on a substantial scale. “We are in a period of time when we have finally overcome a fear of overdevelopment that was in part the result of Moses’ excesses,” said Daniel L. Doctoroff, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding. “Part of the reason we haven’t been able to do as much is because people overinterpreted the lessons from that period of time.”
THOUGH the city is building big again, the process by which it’s doing so is forever changed. Planners point out that whether a project is driven by the city, like the Javits Convention Center expansion; the state, which initially led efforts to redevelop the World Trade Center site; or a private developer, like the Related Companies’ Time Warner Center (or any number of architecturally ambitious condominium projects), checks and balances now guarantee that no one planner can wield the power of Moses.
With his multiple hats and broad authority as parks commissioner and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman, Moses managed to steamroll community opposition and ignore preservation concerns. Today the Landmarks and Preservation Commission, established in 1965, reviews projects like the proposed 30-story tower by Norman Foster in the Upper East Side Historic District, whose height the commission rejected this month. The Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, adopted in 1975, ensures that a project undergoes a thorough public review process.
“Can there be another time when you can get big projects done all over the city?” Mr. Doctoroff said. “I think the answer is yes, and we’re in one now. Could you ever have one person who with imperiousness, with concentrated power, with lack of community input, could get things done? The answer is no.”
Nonetheless “with the exception of the stadium” — the Jets arena rejected for Manhattan’s Far West Side — “there hasn’t been a single project we have pushed through that hasn’t been approved,” he said of the city’s pet projects.
“This is by far the most ambitious development agenda since the 1930’s, but we do it with ample public input to ensure that we get things done sensitively,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “We have really learned to listen very carefully.”
And while Moses had no interest in aesthetics (which may be one reason he could move so quickly), the current city administration emphasizes design in its approval of projects, with standards imposed by officials like Amanda M. Burden, the city planning commissioner, and David Burney at the Department of Design and Construction.
The subtitle of Mr. Caro’s book is “Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.” But ultimately, the exhibitions’ organizers say, they felt it was important to judge Moses’ impact on New York in the context of what happened across the nation during his tenure, like middle-class flight from cities and the construction of highways that spurred the rise of suburbs.
“What was happening in Detroit and St. Louis?” Mr. Finkelpearl said. “Those cities died. Maybe the city was in decline, but not relative to other cities.”
Ms. Ballon said: “Moses was symptomatic of a larger historical pattern. What was happening in New York was not so different from what was happening in other places.”
So if these exhibitions restore some of Moses’ stature, will they have the opposite effect on Mr. Caro’s? Not according to Mr. Jackson, who describes himself as a great admirer of Mr. Caro and uses “The Power Broker” in his courses on New York history. “I wish I’d written the book,” he said. But, he added, he also believes the times may call for a new take on Moses. “Did he get everything right?” Mr. Jackson said. “Of course not. He blazed a trail. Nothing stands forever. Not even ‘The Power Broker.’ ”
...It takes a nation of one to hold us back...That's the sign of a master...