New Yorkers love to hate Robert Moses, the city's "master builder" from the 1930s to the 1960s. But while Moses remains anathema to your typical Community Board attendee, in recent years the hatred has abated for many others.
I encounter students and young architects every day who admire Moses. A group of German architecture students visiting New York recently asked me to show them only things Robert Moses had built. He did not, they told me, ruin the city by bringing the automobile into it; he figured out how to save the city while bringing automobiles into it. For these young intellectuals, Moses belongs to that moment in the history of modernism that is again all the rage - from Le Corbusier to Wallace K. Harrison. Moses fits right into the delirious weltanschauung of Rem Koolhaas.
Moses projects that were once chicly lambasted are being praised by a new generation of critics. In a New York Times Op-Ed in 2003, Columbia University professor Hilary Ballon, one of the country's leading architectural historians, lauded Moses's vision in creating Lincoln Center. The eminent New York historian Mike Wallace, in his eloquent book "A New Deal for New York" (2002), wrote that post-September 11 New York needed something like the three-way relationship among FDR, Fiorello La Guardia, and Moses to pull the city out of its funk.
The former New York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, summed it up: "Today," he said, "many people are less inclined to judge Moses so harshly. The decay of the city's infrastructure has made it easier to look back with appreciation at a figure who was able to get so many public-works projects off the drawing boards."
And early next year, a massive exhibition called "Robert Moses and the Modern City," curated by Ms. Ballon and the well-known urban historian Kenneth Jackson, will occupy three venues: Columbia University, the New-York Historical Society, and the Queens Museum.
This is quite a journey in 30 years. In 1974, New Yorkers were perhaps eager to find a lightning rod for their discontent. Arrogant old Robert Moses fit the role beautifully. In that year, Robert A. Caro's "The Power Broker" burst onto the scene as few biographies have ever done. This beautifully written 1,246-page book is the sort of breathless page-turner one wishes one had the stamina to read in a sitting. But there was something else.
The book's phenomenal resonance with New Yorkers in the 1970s is evident in the subtitle: "Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. "The "Fall of New York" was on just about everyone's mind in 1974.
For a few years after World War II, New York stood paramount among the cities of the world - as perhaps no city had since ancient Rome. New York's industrial output outstripped any other city on earth. The seaport and wholesaling sectors boomed. The number of Fortune 500 headquarters based in New York was at its peak. And, for the first time in its history, New York became the undisputed culture capital of the world.
Yet New York rapidly squandered this capital - financial, social, and, broadly speaking, moral. Chaos and decay were the keynotes of the 1960s and '70s. Manufacturing steeply declined, the seaport moved to New Jersey, crime skyrocketed, and, amid financial chicanery at high levels, the city's physical plant endured shocking deterioration.
Moses was the public face of the changed New York. For Jane Jacobs, Mr. Caro, and just about everyone in the 1970s, Moses had ripped the heart out of New York. He had overseen the proliferation of high-rise housing projects and "high-speed" roadways that altered the cityscape forever. Mr. Caro's most acclaimed chapter, "One Mile," was the meticulous recounting of the building of one mile of the Cross-Bronx Expressway and its devastating impact on the East Tremont neighborhood. That expressway, Mr. Caro wrote, destroyed the soul of the South Bronx, and paved the way (no pun intended) for the galloping deterioration that followed.
Yet the mid-1970s consensus was, in turn, was a tremendous shift from what many had thought of Moses 30 years before that. Critics cheered what Moses accomplished in the 1920s and 1930s, and his work riveted world attention. Cities across the globe wished to emulate New York, as they had once wished to emulate Paris.
When Moses worked for the state in the 1920s, he built Jones Beach. Before Moses most of Nassau and Suffolk counties was inaccessible to the public. Meager country roads separated vast private landholdings, whether farms or country-house grounds. Moses changed all that, by building parks and parkways that transformed Long Island into a domain of pleasure for the city dweller with a motorcar. Seldom had a government built for its people something so splendid as Jones Beach. It was a great gift from on high.
In the 1930s, Mayor La Guardia got Moses to work for the city, initially as Parks Commissioner. In the summer of 1936, the mayor dedicated 11 municipal swimming pools that Moses had built. Like Jones Beach, these pools were unprecedented. No city had ever created such a thing, much less in the midst of a depression. Not only was there no comparable system of municipal pools in the world, but some of the pools, like the ones in Astoria Park in Queens and McCarren Park in Brooklyn, were among the most splendid individual pools ever built.
Again, Moses gave a great gift to the people. No wonder schoolchildren danced and sang songs of praise to Commissioner Moses in the 1930s. And no wonder Moses was allowed to mold the world's most prosperous city to his own vision of modernity.
To see the quintessential Robert Moses cityscape, both good and bad, you need only drive up the FDR. Moses built the drive itself, before the war. It is not felicitous in the way it cuts neighborhoods off from the riverfront. Starting from the Brooklyn Bridge, on the drive's west side is mile after mile of red-brick high-rise towers-in-a-park. This is the "Bad Moses" of the postwar years, the Moses of the Lower East Side projects and of the Cross-Bronx and Brooklyn-Queens expressways.
Tenements and row houses once occupied those miles along the FDR. In 1961, Jane Jacobs came to the defense of tenements and row houses in her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." Ms. Jacobs made the case that the Lower East Side, had "urban renewal" (i.e., Robert Moses) left it alone, possessed the same capacity for "spontaneous unslumming" as her own West Village. She led the fight against the Moses-proposed Cross-Manhattan Expressway on the line of Broome Street, which would have wiped SoHo and Little Italy off the map.
Beyond Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village (Moses's brainchildren, but built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company) stands the United Nations. When Nelson Rockefeller made his 11th-hour purchase of the land to keep the United Nations from moving to Philadelphia, he knew there was but one person who could in a day expedite what might otherwise be months of red tape in transferring the land, and that person was Robert Moses.
Farther north one drives beneath the cantilevered esplanade of Carl Schurz Park, built by Moses. To the right is Moses's Triborough Bridge, which when it was completed in the 1930s was the greatest bridge-building project in history. Carl Schurz Park predated Moses. But it was redesigned when the FDR Drive was built. Moses liked formal gardens. The 86th Street entrance, off East End Avenue, leads to an allee culminating in a stone wall with symmetrical curving stairs. The wall blocks the view ahead, but the stairs, beautifully designed, beckon the pedestrian upward. At the top, at the esplanade cantilevered over the drive, the river and its islands and bridges burst into view in a controlled architectural sequence that's nothing short of brilliant.
This is "Good Moses."
On the other side of the island from Carl Schurz Park lies Riverside Park, which many New Yorkers think of as an Olmsted creation. Olmsted did design Riverside Drive and the easternmost half of the park. But his park pulled up far short of the river. That's because the busy tracks of the New York Central Railroad separated the park from the water. In the 1930s, as part of his "West Side Improvement," Moses "completed" Riverside Park.
He ingeniously encased the railroad tracks inside a great concrete box, on top of which he built the long, landscaped pedestrian path that is, in fact, what most New Yorkers think of when they think of Riverside Park. Then Moses inserted the Henry Hudson Parkway, the epitome of the gorgeous sinuous landscaped parkways he liked to build in the 1920s and 1930s. Pedestrian underpasses lead to the water's edge, where Moses built a long es planade. Near its southern end, at 79th Street, Moses created a marina, accessible from within the park via an arcaded circus that also serves as a traffic rotary for the parkway.
The West Side Improvement also yielded the High Line. This was an elevated track for freight trains, leading south from the New York Central yards in the West 30s as far as the Moses-built St. John's Park Freight Terminal in Tribeca. The High Line ingeniously weaved among or passed straight through warehouses and factories along what was, in the 1930s, still one of the busiest working waterfronts in the world. After the line became obsolete, its southernmost portions were razed. (And so might the rest of it have been but for the Friends of the High Line, who wish to transform it into an elevated linear park like the Promenade Plantee in Paris.)
Finally, in Brooklyn, Moses built the Belt Parkway, opened in 1940. Along its Upper Bay path he created "ribbon parks" that are not only splendid in their own right but afford breathtaking views of the Moses-built Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Long Island and Staten Island. Even finer, Moses built Owl's Head (or to the locals "Bliss") Park, right at the northern edge of Bay Ridge. The hilly Owl's Head may be the least known of the city's great parks, and was carved from the grounds of the former estate of E.W. Bliss, who left the land to the city.
There is certainly much more "Good Moses" than most New Yorkers have given him credit for. But I cannot entirely get behind this revival of his reputation. The seeds of "bad Moses" were there from the beginning, even in the 1920s and 1930s.
But in those days Moses, who had come up in reform politics and had enjoyed the patronage of left-liberals like Belle Moskowitz, delivered his goods with value added: parkways not expressways, beaches, playgrounds, waterfront esplanades, marinas, swimming pools. La Guardia kept a rein on Moses's excesses: Moses served a vision that was not his alone, but also La Guardia's. Later mayors - O'Dwyer, Impellitteri, even Wagner - would be dupes of Moses.
Moses was obsessed with Baron Haussmann, the master builder of Paris of the 1850s and 1860s. Aesthetics aside, where the comparison breaks down is that the comparatively weak regimes that followed that of Napoleon III, Haussmann's patron, continued the rebuilding of the capital, the grands projets, without missing a beat after Haussmann left office as prefect of the Seine. After Moses, public works in New York ground to a halt. Westway, anyone?
This, more than anything, is what is behind the new nostalgia for Moses. With his unexampled mastery of public administration, Moses knew the window of opportunity was short when it came to the massive projects not only he but many others felt essential to the city's future. The ruthlessness he exhibited after World War II points to the sad fact that in a city like New York major public works are extremely difficult to do, and if you're going to do them, you've got to be pretty ruthless about it.
And that, alas, points to faults with our city's political culture. As Moses came to see it, it wasn't a question of a good highway design versus a bad one, but a question of highway or no highway. He felt that if he didn't build it, then it would never get built - and he was probably right.
It's just too bad he didn't care for subways.