The Man Who Got Things Done
The intimidating Robert Moses
On January 1st, 1954, Robert F. Wagner Jr. was being sworn in as the 102nd Mayor of New York City in front of a large crowd. After taking the oath of office, he turned to announce who he was appointing to his administration. Legendary public servant Robert Moses, by then a respected veteran city official for over two decades, impatiently stepped forward to hear his appointments. Wagner swore him in to only two roles: City Construction Coordinator and City Park Commissioner. Moses was infuriated. He needed to to have his third coveted position as a member of the New York City Planning Commission. After the ceremony, Moses snatched a blank appointment memo and followed Mayor Wagner into his inner office. He threatened to resign from his two new jobs unless Wagner appointed him to the City Planning Commission immediately. Without further discussion, Wagner quickly grabbed the memo and signed it. Moses was in.
Who was this Robert Moses? And how did he get the power to not only boss around Mayor Wagner, but countless other mayors, city officials, union leaders, governors, and even Presidents for more than 40 years?
Robert Moses, as author Robert Caro puts it, was The Man Who Got Things Done. Only a list of his accomplishments can qualify this statement:
He built 13 bridges in New York, including the Triborough, the Verrazano Narrows, the Marine, the Cross Bay, the Bronx-Whitestone, the Throgs Neck, and the Henry Hudson
He built Shea Stadium of the New York Mets, the 16.3 acre Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts complex, and the New York Coliseum
He persuaded the United Nations to build their headquarters in New York City
He built 416 miles of parkways, and nearly every mile of highway in New York City except for the FDR Drive (but unfortunately including the dreaded Cross-Bronx Expressway)
He built 658 playgrounds, 288 tennis courts, and 673 baseball diamonds in New York City
He built Long Island's first public beach, the massive Jones Beach, and he built the parkways and bridges to get there
After his long tenure as Chairman of the New York State Council of Parks, he left New York state with nearly 3 million acres of preserved parkland
He built the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant in 1961, which was the Western world's largest hydropower facility when it opened
He was instrumental in the building of over 148,000 apartments constructed by the New York City Housing Authority, which at one point housed over a half million people
He organized and ran the 1964-1965 World's Fair, an event that was attended by over 50 million people and left New York City with Flushing Meadows Park
Moses was a man who, at one point, simultaneously held 12 different public appointments within New York City and New York state. From April 1924, when he became President of the Long Island State Parks Commission and Chairman of the New York State Council of Parks, to March 1968, when he was forced out as Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, Moses was an all-powerful public official who not once was elected for public office. New York City initially benefitted from having one ambitious man control all aspects of the city planning process, from housing to highways to parks to bridges. Eventually, however, New York and to some extent the rest of the country came to suffer as a result of Moses's 44-year unimpeded reign and his oppressive policies.
Robert Moses truly earned his reputation as a "master builder."
Despite his accomplishments, his miles of bridges and acres of parks and countless buildings, Robert Moses was extraordinarily controversial. To build the Cross-Bronx Expressway, he needlessly and shamelessly forced 60,000 working class people out of their homes in the Bronx, while providing virtually no re-location assistance. He built hundreds of new parks in the 1920's and 1930's, including Jacob Riis Park and Alley Pond Park, but he barred public transportation to any of these clean, green spaces outside of the city, effectively reserving access for only the wealthy and middle classes. He touted hundreds of new playgrounds and public swimming pools, but conveniently ignored the fact these were almost exclusively built in white neighborhoods. During this time of beautiful new parkland for New York City, the entire three square miles of Harlem, a predominantly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood home to 300,000 people, did not have a single acre of parkland. And he was only planning to build a single new playground there.
Moses's most controversial actions involved his role in planning urban renewal and new highways for New York City. As city Construction Coordinator, Moses was director of the Mayor's Slum Clearance Committee in the 1950's. The goal was, over time, to move thousands of families living in "slum" apartments into temporary housing, re-develop the slum apartments into cleaner, affordable public housing, and then move the tenants back in. In reality, Moses, who controlled the contracts with private developers and contractors to complete the projects, gave highly lucrative deals to his mostly incompetent friends. For example, in the Manhattantown project, Moses sold a plot of tenements worth $15 million to a private developer for $1 million. Instead of moving out the tenants and re-developing the tenements into public housing, the developer raised rents and refused to keep the tenements in living condition. The tenements continued to deteriorate, forcing families either into the streets and into abandoned homes, or to endure their dirty, rat-infested apartments that sometimes had no heat or hot water. Eventually, new developers would be brought in to finish the work that should have already been completed. But the damage had already been done to thousands of residents of New York.
And more damage was to come. Throughout the 1940's and 1950's, Moses embarked on an ambitious plan to build hundreds of miles of new highways criss-crossing New York, Westchester County, and Long Island. With the city booming after World War II, thousands flooded onto the new roads, and Moses charged high enough tolls to make his banker friends, who issued the bonds necessary to build the highways, into multi-millionaires. When traffic immediately accumulated on one of these new highways, he issued more bonds and built another. When city officials protested that the next highway should have a subway running down the center in order to alleviate traffic and service those who could not afford a car, he ignored them, although the ballooning surplus of his Triborough Authority was more than enough to cover the cost. As hundreds of miles of highways were being constructed, New York's mass transit systems were falling into disrepair. The railcars of the Long Island Railroad were literally falling apart, and not a new mile of subway had been built in New York City in decades. During the crucial postwar population and economic boom, New York had an opportunity to effectively plan how millions of new residents would travel to and from work each day. Instead, an over-dependence on automobile transportation, fostered by Moses, encouraged a low-density suburban sprawl to quickly creep through the remaining available space in New York City and Long Island. Moses's loyal engineers, many of whom advanced to careers in other cities, quickly spread this philosophy across the United States. This is part of the reason today so many cities in our country have underdeveloped mass transit systems (we're looking at you Los Angeles) along with horrible traffic problems.
The bridge underpasses of Moses's parkways on Long Island have notoriously low underpasses, preventing buses and trucks from traveling on them. Many argue Moses wanted his parkways reserved for those who could afford their own vehicle.
As Moses's reign carried through the late 1950's and 1960's, cracks began to surface in his previously impenetrable reputation. Commuters were fed up with jammed highways, dilapidated public transportation, and his poor handling of the Mayor's Slum Clearance program. Power-hungry and unyielding to even the most logical critics, Moses continued to make rash decisions while letting others deal with the consequences. He ended a free popular show in Central Park called Shakespeare in the Park and even attempted to pave over a half acre of Central Park to make room for a parking lot (this was a highly publicized battle, dubbed the "Battle of Central Park"). As president of the 1964-1965 World's Fair, he continued his practice of giving lucrative contracting and concessionary deals to friends, which contributed to enormous cost overruns. Investors in the fair received only 20 cents back for every $1 they initially invested. New York taxpayers lost millions from the Fair.
Despite his failures, there is no doubt Robert Moses was brilliant. He graduated second in his class from Yale in 1909, completed graduate studies with honors at Oxford and earned a PhD from Columbia in 1913. His dissertation was groundbreaking, and was even considered a "masterpiece" by eventual president of the New York Civil Service Commission Elliot Kaplan. By 1914, other prominent civil servants had clearly noticed Robert Moses had a bright future ahead of him. As Luther Steward would later remark, there were "very few people in the United States in 1914 who knew much about civil service. Bob Moses really knew." Moses was a brain. Moses was brilliant. He knew so much, yet, he knew so little about the disastrous impacts of his draconian highway and housing policies.
Robert Moses reminds us that a narrow definition of success can be dangerous. Scroll up and look again at all of his accomplishments. It's a list of achievements far above and beyond any city planner in modern times. He is perhaps the most prolific builder ever. By that list alone, Robert Moses was extraordinarily successful. At the same time, his success came at a very high price to taxpayers, working class citizens, minorities, and even residents of many American cities today. Moses used to say "you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs." Even he understood that every public improvement comes with a cost.
Robert Moses also reminds us how dangerous power and ego can be. For decades, he was chauffeured around New York in a special limousine outfitted with a desk so that he could never stop working. His expense account covered pricey lunches at any one of his handful of offices. He surrounded himself with hundreds of worshipping sycophants, creating an echo-chamber devoid of criticism and therefore reality. His incessant arrogance, which allowed him to dominate Fiorello La Guardia, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Robert Wagner Jr., eventually isolated him from former colleagues and destroyed the public reputation he was so proud of for many years. It became impossible for him to admit he was wrong or listen to others, as this might bruise his enormous ego, compelling him to execute the rash decisions that would eventually lead to his downfall.
At the height of his public fame and power, Robert Moses benefitted from the so-called halo effect. So skilled with building roads and parks, it was assumed every aspect of his life was also perfect. It was assumed, with all of his intellectual horsepower and eloquence, he could do no harm to New York City. But like any human, Moses was susceptible to the same emotional undercurrents that plague even our most respected leaders. We may lift up leaders like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg or Lyndon B. Johnson based on their past professional success, but we don't always see what lurks underneath the surface. In the case of Robert Moses, citizens discovered what was lurking underneath The Man Who Got Things Done when he was already firmly ensconced in power and most of his most impactful decisions had already been made.
The writing of this article was greatly influenced by Robert Caro's 1300-page biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. Yes, it's technically a biography, but The Power Broker is really a history of New York City and a lesson on how political power can be attained in the United States. There are many recognizable characters in this story. Al Smith, FDR, La Guardia, and Nelson Rockefeller all make an appearance.