Robert Moses was the man responsible for building and destroying much of New York City in the middle of the Twentieth century
, which in turn served as a model for other American cities of the era. The power and influence that he wielded was immense, and all the more incredible given that everything he did was orchestrated from the humble sounding jobs of Parks Commissioner and head of the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority.
Born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1888, and raised in New York City by Jewish parents, Moses' vision for the city, and probably cities in general, was a bizarre and foul mix of fascism and communism, and of urbanism and suburbanism. He wished for the past to be leveled and replaced by wide highways and vast parks, but between these highways he wanted gigantic sterile monolithic apartment blocks. He didn't believe in doing anything about segregation or inequality, but he believed that everyone should have the same sterile apartment. Unfortunately, he was able to shape some of New York City in this twisted image, and destroyed other parts trying.
He was first appointed to the parks commissions of New York and Long Island in 1924, where he oversaw the construction of some of the early expressways (under the guise of 'parkways') to Long Island, making suburbanization possible. In 1932 he was appointed Parks Commissioner of New York City and head of the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority, another city agency, jobs he would simultaneously hold for 25 years. He took the job as head of the bridge and tunnel authority as a mandate to build highways within the city, and head of the parks commission as a mandate to build parkways, neither of which he was challenged on.
He set about designing highways, parks and parkways in order to level as much of the existing outer boroughs as possible in accordance with his vision. In Coney Island, Brooklyn, for example, the population lived in quaint fishing villages left over from the 19th century. With the construction of Moses' Belt Parkway, the villages were torn down. In their place Moses put giant monolithic high rise housing projects, with each building on a giant grass lot. With none of the previous buildings surviving, there were no commercial areas. The projects were thus horrible, isolated places to live, and the grass lots, as public space requiring impossible amounts of maintenance at the city's expense, deteriorated over time. This model of 'development' was repeated wherever Moses was able to put a highway, parkway, or park. Other examples include Red Hook and Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, which were in the path of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, East New York in Brooklyn, which was on the Belt Parkway, many parts of Queens, some along the BQE, some along the Long Island Expressway, some along the Grand Central Parkway, and others along the network of interconnected sterile parks and parkways that Moses was able to build, and also much of the Bronx, which was cut up by the Cross Bronx Expressway, the Mosholu River Parkway, the Bronx River Parkway, etc…
In the immediate post-war years, this vision of 'progress' was copied throughout America. Often the construction of a highway or park was no longer needed as a pretext to tear down existing neighborhoods and build unfunctional, disgusting projects. We see the mark of Robert Moses throughout the country.
After the war in New York, he continued his highway program. He is famously cited as saying that New York would not have traffic problems if we could just build enough roads. At the time, many did question his vision of New York. He would respond to the charge that by devoting so many resources to highways he was short-changing public transportation by saying 'subways are someone else's problem.' Far from being laizzez-faire with regard to the subways, however, Moses was influental in making sure they were not adequately funded.
Moses was perhaps the most influential proponent of an automobile based society in the middle twentieth century. Ironically, he never learned to drive! He was transported about town in a chauffer driven limousine, and thus never experienced the inconveniences of traffic, or of walking across a windswept parking lot.
This madness finally met its match in the residents of Brooklyn Heights. In the early 50s, Moses' plan for the final piece of the BQE called for leveling this superlatively beautiful 1840s era neighborhood of cobblestone streets and grand brownstones, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. The residents of the neighborhood organized protests, and unlike many of the other neighborhoods that were in Moses' way, Brooklyn Heights was well connected. The city overruled Moses and moved the freeway to the waterfront, covering it with a promenade. The controversy ignited an interest in historic preservation nationwide, and signaled the beginning of the end, too late of course, for Moses' vision of development.
Moses left his commissions in 1959 and became the chairman of the World's Fair committee, and then had various state jobs. He died in 1981.
In addition to all of the freeways noted above, Moses was responsible for the Triborough Bridge, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, the Verazzano Narrows Bridge, and others in New York City. He also did do a bit of what he was supposed to do, design parks. It has been estimated that the sum total cost of his projects was $120 billion in inflation adjusted dollars*. It is said he did more to encourage the use of the automobile than any other American, with the possible exception of Henry Ford. There is a famous picture of a shirtless, muscular, hairy-chested Moses standing on the Coney Island beach with his projects in the background, which appropriately sums it up.
* The Power Broker
, Robert A. Caro, 1974.