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The Power Broker Reconsidered

A recent exhibit on New York's master builder, Robert Moses, underscores the city's current inability to execute big projects.


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

It was just a short time after the Vietnam War ended that American neo-conservatives began talking about a Vietnam Syndrome: a failure of nerve in response to military disaster that had made us too timid to exercise our rightfully assertive role as a super-power in world affairs.

I don't know if there really was a Vietnam Syndrome. If there was, we're certainly over it now. But the general idea makes sense, not just in foreign policy but in any aspect of civic life: Government gets overconfident, takes on a job it can't handle, refuses to listen to its critics and ends up humiliated. For years afterward, the response to the public fiasco is relatively simple: Whatever you do, don't overreach like that again.

In New York City, they know all about this phenomenon. They even have a name for it. It's the Moses problem. In 1975, the same year that Saigon fell to the Vietcong, the legendary urban planner Robert Moses fell to his own guerrilla nemesis, Robert Caro. In "The Power Broker," a 1,300-page masterpiece of reporting and scholarship, Caro argued convincingly that the great Moses, builder of New York's parks, bridges, roads and housing projects for nearly a half century, hadn't been a master planner but a master bully - burdening the city with architectural monstrosities, ramming highways through in the face of public opposition, destroying viable communities that could have been saved by minor changes in his blueprints.

New York has done remarkably well in the years since then, but there's no denying the city has been skittish about big projects. It's never started the East Side subway it badly needs; it's backed away from the planned West Side highway that even many preservationists favored; it's dithered on the new Moynihan train station that virtually the whole city wants; and nearly six years after the World Trade Center tragedy, it hasn't been able to break ground on anything to replace it.

Some of that is a matter of money, of course; all of those are billion-dollar projects, and the Big Apple isn't exactly flush with cash these days. But it's not just money -- it's the memory of Moses. The man who built 20th-century New York did it so arrogantly and recklessly that nobody in public or private development wants to risk trying something really big and getting accused of Moses-like hubris. And even if someone wanted to, a whole web of legal and procedural impediments has been put in place to stop him.

That's the theory, at least, behind "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder," the unusual assemblage of exhibitions and public discussions that have been held all over the city this winter. The organizers of the project, Columbia University professors Kenneth T. Jackson and Hilary Ballon, offer an unabashedly revisionist take on the whole Moses question. They believe that Caro was unfair, and that the great builder actually did far more good than harm. And they are blunt in expressing it. "Whatever the cause of the New York turnaround," Jackson says, "it would not have been possible without Robert Moses." In his view, it's high time that New York City got over its Moses fetish and started thinking big again.

Being an instinctive contrarian, I went to New York prepared to buy in to at least a portion of this argument. After all, it's a new century; the man is entitled to a fair reappraisal. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of actually seeing the exhibitions. However much the curators may want to rehabilitate the reputation of Robert Moses, the exhibits don't do that. If anything, they vindicate Caro.

It's true that as you wander down the corridors, you see impressive photographs of the parks, playgrounds and swimming pools that Moses built in his capacity as city parks director in the 1930s. I have no reason to question the judgment that these facilities brought pleasure to thousands of inner-city children and families during hard urban times. But treating the creation of swimming pools as morally equivalent to the destruction of neighborhoods is a hideous misapplication of priorities.

What's most powerful and memorable in the exhibit is the physical evidence of the damage Moses did to New York -- and the much greater damage he would have done had he not been stopped in the early 1960s. There is, for example, a large model of what lower Manhattan would have looked like had Moses succeeded in building a multi-lane expressway along Canal Street, from the East River to the Hudson. The neighborhoods of Soho and Tribeca, which Moses considered eyesores but which now boast some of the most valuable real estate in the United States, would have died.

This is in addition to the highway he planned to push through Greenwich Village, right down the middle of the park in Washington Square -- and the one he wanted to create in mid-town Manhattan, a massive piece of concrete that would have driven a wall between everything north of 30th Street and everything south of it.

And it is in addition to the harm Moses actually managed to do when he built the Cross-Bronx expressway by demolishing the viable and stable neighborhood of East Tremont even after it had been demonstrated to him that an alternate route could have saved it. All of this is in Caro's book. It's also in the revisionist exhibit, if you're interested in looking for it. Owen Gutfreund, another Columbia professor recruited to write a revisionist essay for the exhibition catalog, concedes in it that if Moses had been able to complete his master plan for Manhattan, "he might have pushed the city past the proverbial tipping point."

It's undeniably true, as Jackson says, that the city is doing much better now than it was when Caro subtitled his book "Robert Moses and the Fall of New York." New York didn't actually fall. Then again, China has done quite well in the 30 years since the death of Mao Zedong. I wouldn't give Mao credit for that. And I wouldn't give Moses much credit for the revival of New York. As even the exhibit ultimately makes clear, the city has recovered more in spite of him than because of him.

If that's true, then why have all these intelligent people gone to such lengths to try to defend a man whom even their own exhibits largely discredit?

The answer, I think, was provided on the final day of the symposium by Robert Fishman, a University of Michigan historian. In his view, Moses revisionism doesn't reflect a nostalgia for multi-lane freeways or huge housing projects but a concern about the decline of authority in the public realm.

The inability of the city and the New York region to plan, finance and execute major projects is a troubling issue these days, one that inevitably recalls the speed and efficiency with which Robert Moses managed to get decisions made, contracts signed, shovels in the ground, and roads, bridges and buildings up and running. If Moses were in charge, most urbanists seem to feel, there would now be a new building on the site of the World Trade Center. Revulsion to Moses and his tactics has created a system of multiple public vetoes so intricate that even the most competent and ambitious planners and developers cannot negotiate their way through it.

Fishman is actually more apocalyptic than that. He believes that the coming decades will be a time of continuing environmental crisis, in New York and in the rest of the country, much of it triggered by climate change. Disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina will do to other urban neighborhoods what Katrina did to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Painful decisions will have to be made about what to rebuild and what to leave as a memory. It will require a restoration of authority -- a rediscovery of public officials who can give orders and make things happen. It will require -- even Fishman sounds a little sheepish as he says it -- someone with the clout of Robert Moses.

I don't know enough about climate change or environmental policy to have any idea whether Fishman is right about the imminence of natural disasters. But I get his point. The past quarter-century has seen a revolt against the kind of strong public authority that can make decisions in the public interest and stick to them in the face of local opposition. The next quarter-century may be a time when that sort of attitude will come to be an unaffordable luxury. That's what I think the Moses revisionists are essentially trying to say, albeit less eloquently and persuasively than Fishman.

In other words, what we need in the 21st century is a Robert Moses who can reassemble civic power and then use it benignly, rather than arrogantly and destructively. We need a Robert Moses who won't act like Robert Moses. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Lord Acton was on to something when he wrote that power corrupts. He wrote that 120 years ago. I don't think any reasonable person would argue that his point has been disproved in the years since.

So I'm not optimistic that any city or region will find a benevolent despot who will decide in an unimpeachably fair way what to build, where to build it and how to pay for it. But I think the Moses revisionists have performed a valuable service by returning the concept of public authority to the center of the urban policy debate. We need to discuss that.

I have only one small quibble with the whole project: I don't think their man looks any better in retrospect than he did when Robert Caro wrote "The Power Broker."

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