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Whenever I read Robert Moses’ name I hear it spoken with a sneer. I first heard that sneer in a class about Race & Politics, the kind of class colleges make you take because nobody knows about race and politics and maybe a freshman seminar will fix that. Moses was the urban planner who redrew New York City from the 1920s through the 1960s. Besides being the dictator of concrete, he’s also remembered as a bigot.

This was the guy who built swimming pools in affluent areas and then said “You can pretty well keep them out of any pool if you keep the water cold enough.” [1]

When I first came to Manhattan, I hated him. I hadn't yet connected him to the hills that are too steep, the overpasses that are too short for busses to cross, so what I thought I hated was disorganization. It turned out to be the opposite.

"Cities are for Traffic"

After the incident at the General Grant Houses, I was looking up the New York City Housing Authority, and a link branched off to Robert Moses, the "'master builder' of mid-20th century New York City." I hadn't thought about him since that class. The Wikipedia page was against him, and so was a Google search. In fact, everyone seemed to agree about hating him. I was glad I'd lined up a scapegoat for the bad parts of Manhattan; it's hard to be mad at "disorganization." I felt justified, imagining him asleep with nightmares of traffic jams and changing lanes.

He got his start in parks, and as he got shrewder, his nose getting redder and his pictures looking more staged, he consolidated the powers of New York's various public authorities to entrench himself so deeply in charge of the city that President Roosevelt couldn't dig him out. He was in charge of almost every bridge out of Manhattan, the expressways, Lincoln Center, and, of course, the parks. He built the parks like he knew what was good for the people, like a father giving his son a toy truck so the kid won't grow up a sissy. A friend said, "he loves the public, but not as people. The public is just the public...it needs to be bathed, it needs to be aired, it needs recreation, but not for personal reasons—just to make it a better public." He didn't build the housing projects himself, but by the time they were built everyone knew he'd had the last word. Onlookers remember him "mentally readjusting houses as though they were so many toy building blocks." Tetris hadn't yet been invented, so no screen blinked to tell him when he'd failed.

New Urbanists

For that, he had critics. They found the symptoms of their city's Robertmosis; it's hard to disagree with their picket signs, like how grids aren't the way people naturally build cities and that our bodies and social systems haven't figured out how to cope with cars. You still have to give everyone a quick route to the Financial District, they admit, but maybe highways shouldn't surround places where people are supposed to live. People need to be able to interact the way they want to, they say, and no amount of master planning can anticipate all of social life. To them, Moses was the teacher who told kids to be quiet instead of making class interesting, the child who suffocated a frog trying to make sure it wouldn't hop away, the zookeeper whose cages were too small to keep his pets healthy.

And I agreed with them until two things happened to me one night. First, a Macedonian cab driver told me to look up his capital, Skopje, where New Urbanists are about to pave the strange and struggling city over with statues. Then, I found myself up the block from Riverside Park, where I'd spent a memorable hour without ever knowing or caring that it was "artificial". The New Urbanists, I decided, are common-sense theorists who can't always push something useful through legislation. And Robert Moses was a bad man who built bridges and parks.

Prejudice

The day after I read his wiki and clicked around to his critics, I went to the library on a temporary card and picked up "The Power Broker," Robert Caro's biography that sourced all those rumors about Moses. Every article had gotten its information from that book, and the awed contempt that I found in every discussion could be traced back to Caro's biblical imagery and tight writing. I wondered how much his good lines had swayed public opinion on their own.

The moment that tipped me off was reading the title of the chapter, "Driving." Caro's favorite wordplay, up until that point, had been comparing Moses to a pharaoh. For the "Driving" chapter, though, I knew before I'd even read it that it was going to be a pun on driving across expressways and driving ambition. And it was malicious. If you describe cars with the same words you use to describe ambition, especially in a book about failed ambition, you've stacked the deck a little bit. As I read, I started to notice more and more rhetoric. Caro called Moses' public authorities "an embodiment of his personality, an extension of himself," and suddenly I started seeing Moses' personality in his billion-dollar works. I found myself sneering at a picture of a bridge the way I'd sneer at a racist. I checked myself. When I found out the book had been written in the early 1970s, when public opinion of Moses was at an all-time low, I started to feel sorry for the "master builder."

So I read his response to the book.

Comment on a New Yorker Profile and Biography

Moses doesn't cover up the racism, and it festers like a track mark. Even in his public response, he admits that he called Mayor La Guardia (yes, the airport) "Rigoletto," and talks about "Welsh fantasy" when he describes Frank Lloyd Wright. [2] Caro doesn't distort any of those details. What he and Moses don't agree about is whether the roads a racist planner builds can themselves be racist.

Moses' "Comment" insists he was "never in charge of mass transit." He wishes somebody would have done something about the decay. It's like saying the only reason expressways to Long Island got more attention than subways in Harlem was that nobody like him was working on the subways. And if he's telling the truth, it's hard to disagree. Laypeople who can't build freeway interchanges sneer when he writes, "in the absence of prompt decisions by experts, no work, no payrolls, no arts, parks, no nothing will move." But nobody pretends to disagree. We know his job was to build roads, and he was better at it than anyone in history. We know he often spoke of "centuries." We know engineering isn't compassion. We feel discouraged, because we can't hate bridges the way we hate racists, and we feel oppressed.

He's right to call us out. We can assume that bad men build bad roads, but that's prejudice too. As I thought about it, I started to calm down about the General Grant Houses. I remembered an hour I'd spent at Riverside Park. A day ago, I hadn't known that everything was his fault, and now I knew again that it wasn't.

His critics had always attacked his personality, and in the "Comment," he set things straight. If he was going to be attacked, it should only be because of his building. He should only be their adversary, not their enemy. “It is well in this context," he said, "to remember the nameless, forgotten pitcher in Casey at the Bat, the anonymous hero who struck Casey out.” Somewhere, a team is cheering.



  1. By “them,” he meant dreams of racial equality.
  2. Wright was born in Wisconsin.

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