Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Mark of Robert Moses

Yesterday I went to the first of Robert Caro's three lectures on "The Shapers of New York" at the New-York Historical Society. This one was called "The Mark of Robert Moses." Caro talked generally about the power Moses amassed between 1924 and 1968, how his building projects and highways and bridges altered the physical landscape of New York City, and what affect he had on the lives of New Yorkers then and now. A lot of what Caro talked about, unsurprisingly, came right of his book The Power Broker.

Caro also talked about what made him want to write The Power Broker. He said that when he was a young reporter at Newsday in the 1960s, he would write about how City Parks Commissioner Moses was planning to build the Long Island Expressway. Why would the Parks Commissioner of New York City be building a highway out on Long Island? This was something Caro wanted to investigate at length and what inspired him to write about this man and his awesome power.

About the human impact of Moses on this city, Caro gave several tragic examples, particularly about how the Cross Bronx Expressway basically destroyed the only New York City borough attached to the mainland.

But there was another example Caro gave that was just as sad. When he was Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia wanted to build street-front clinics for poor pregnant women. Every year he would propose several millions dollars to the city budget for these clinics. Yet as the Board of Estimate was reviewing the budget, about to approve them, a fleet of limousines would roar up to City Hall. Out would pop Moses and his engineers, brandishing their blueprints for some highway or another, and they would head into the Board of Estimate meeting. Moses would tell them that he could get $90 million in Federal money for his project just so long as the city could kick, oh, about $10 million or so. Moses influence was so great at the time that the Board of Estimate would relent ... and slash the money for the clinics. This went on year after year and the clinics never got built. But the highways did.

Moses' power was, as Caro said in the lecture, not only in the things he built in the city but in the priorities he set for it. Cars over people. Highways instead of public transportation. Housing projects instead of communities.

"What is a city?" Caro asked at the end of the lecture. "If Rome is power and Greece is glory, then New York City," Caro said, "is home." And he's right. New York is not only my home and the home to more than eight million people, but it's a place where anyone from anywhere can come and be accepted. New York embraces all, rejects no one, says that no matter where you come from, you can have a life here. This city can be anyone's refuge. Anyone's "home."

By destroying and warping the city's priorities, Robert Moses worked to undermine that sense of "home." He didn't destroy it completely obviously -- NYC will always be resilient and will always be "home" -- but he lessened this city's sense of community, sense of home. And we've been paying the price ever since.

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