Robert Moses still bestrides New York like a colossus. More than three decades have passed since Jane Jacobs and Robert Caro tore down Moses's once pristine public image, but his physical legacy remains standing. Our New York is Moses's New York. He built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today's dollars. If you are riding the waves at Jones Beach or watching the Mets at Shea Stadium or listening to "La Traviata" at Lincoln Center or using the Triborough Bridge to get to the airport, then you are in the New York that Moses built.
If we are to realize Mayor Bloomberg's plans for a city of 9 million people with newer, greener infrastructure, then New York will again need to embrace construction and change. We will need again builders like Moses, who can put the needs of the city ahead of the opposition of a neighborhood. Yet Moses's flaws, which were emphasized so eloquently by Jacobs and Mr. Caro, have led many to see nothing but evil in Moses and his works. Moses's supposed villainy has established its place in the iconography of the preservationists who stand against growth.
The opening of a three-part exhibition on Moses — at the Queens Museum of Art on January 28, at the Wallach Art Gallery of Columbia University on January 31, and at the Museum of the City of New York on February 1 — gives us a chance to reappraise his achievements. We should avoid the excesses of Moses's early hagiography or his later vilification. The successes and failures of this master builder teach us that great cities need great builders, but that we must check their more Pharaonic excesses.
The lessons of Moses's life are taught by his projects. His best work, such as the parks and pools that had large benefits and modest costs, happened early in his career. When he was starting as Governor Smith's park tsar, Moses could get public funding for his projects only if they were popular. The need to build support didn't stop Moses from taking risks. Indeed, Smith accused Moses of wanting to "give the people a fur coat when what they need is red flannel underwear," but Moses's bold vision was just what the public wanted. Society was getting richer, and those parks and pools helped New York succeed as a place of consumption and as a center of production.
Most of Moses's bridges and expressways are also major successes. New York is a city of islands. The city's waterways were ideal in the ages of sail and steam, but they became a major headache in the age of the car. Despite his lack of a driver's license, Moses understood that New York needed to adapt to the automobile. His bridges made it easier for cars to cross between the city's islands. His parkways made it more pleasant to drive into New York. Boston's Big Dig should remind us that it is hard to retrofit a pre-car city for the automobile. By comparison, Moses's achievements look cheap and effective.
Some say Moses was wrong to build for the car. Some say the city should have bet exclusively on public transportation that would better serve the poor. But those critics ignore the millions of people who fled the older cities that weren't car friendly. Every one of the 10 largest cities in the country in 1950 — except for Los Angeles and, miraculously, New York — lost at least one-fifth of its population between 1950 and today. Moses's bridges and highways helped to keep some drivers living and working in New York. Those middle-class drivers helped New York to survive and grow, while every other large, cold city in the second half of the 20th century shrank.
Not all of Moses's transportation projects were winners. To build the Cross Bronx Expressway, Moses took thousands of apartments using the power of eminent domain. Neighborhoods were shattered as the highway smashed through a once-vibrant area. I cannot tell whether the benefits to the millions who have used the expressway outweigh the costs to the thousands who were evicted, but I am sure that the process was deeply flawed.
To any friend of liberty, Robert Moses's use of eminent domain represents big government at its most terrifying. At the stroke of a pen, entire communities can be wiped out because someone in government thinks that this removal is in the public interest. Without eminent domain, however, large-scale projects will either flounder or cost as much as the Big Dig. Mayor Bloomberg's dream of a renewed New York will need eminent domain.
But I hope that eminent domain in the post-Bloomberg era will become much fairer than it was during the era of Robert Moses. The state should develop better legal infrastructure to oversee takings. Perhaps there should be a state-level commission, independent of local government, with both elected and appointed members, that can subject each use of eminent domain to cost-benefit analysis and determine just compensation for the evicted. The right response to Moses's excesses is not to renounce eminent domain, but to strengthen the process so that it can play its needed role.
Mr. Caro criticizes Moses for catering to the prosperous by destroying low-income housing to build roads, housing, and amenities for the rich like Lincoln Center. This criticism may be apt, but the problem lies not in the man but in his situation. Moses was an appointed official whose career depended on the approval of elites, not the votes of the poor. While elected officials have an unfortunate tendency toward shortsighted populism, appointed officials have a tendency to cater to the well-connected. One of the most bizarre responses to the unelected power of Moses was to create the unelected power of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which seems almost designed to empower the most eloquent of squeaky wheels. A better response would have been to seek pro-growth solutions that combine the involvement of appointed and elected officials.
Moses's greatest failures were his housing projects. More than 40 years ago, Jacobs attacked Moses for replacing well-functioning neighborhoods with Le Corbusier-inspired towers. She was prescient. Moses spent millions and evicted tens of thousands to create buildings that became centers of crime, poverty, and despair.
A simple but stark lesson emerged from Moses's travails as housing tsar: The government is not good at the housing business. New York is filled with apartment buildings that provide decent housing and a comfortable social environment for their residents. Almost none of them were built by the government. New York has an affordable-housing problem, but it is the result of government intervention in the housing market that has limited housing supply. Rent control and an increasingly anti-growth regulatory environment have ensured that new supply has not kept up with the demand to live in reinvigorated New York. We need people with the vision of Robert Moses building homes in New York, but they should come from a private sector that is less fettered by government constraints. Moses was at his best when he had to make sure his projects would fund themselves or would really appeal to the people of New York. When Moses acquired vast federal funding, he also acquired the freedom to pursue his own vision, and that vision wasn't always in the interests of the city. Mr. Bloomberg's plan for New York in 2030 needs its own Moses-like master builders, but the city will be best served if those builders are funded by and accountable to the city. Those builders must not be beholden to every neighborhood group or cadre of unelected elites. While Moses's successes would have been impossible under such conditions, his failures could have been checked if he had faced a greater degree of citywide oversight.
Mr. Glaeser is the Glimp professor of economics at Harvard, director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.