Robert Caro's spellbinding study of Robert Moses, "The Power Broker," appeared 33 years ago. Mr. Caro's subtitle tilts his hand: "Robert Moses and the Fall of New York." In the 1970s, New York seemed to be in freefall. The city was on the verge of bankruptcy. Crime and unemployment were steadily increasing. Public parks and public housing had fallen into disrepair, and the subway cars were covered with graffiti. New York City had become the symbol of the urban blight plaguing the entire country. And Moses, who was the man most responsible for shaping the urban landscape as we know it today, was also guilty of hastening New York City's decline, at least according to critics such as Mr. Caro and the late Jane Jacobs.
In 2007, the world regards New York as a major urban success story. Five years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with construction booming all around the city, and with large-scale development projects such as the Atlantic Yards in the works, a re-evaluation of Moses's legacy seems in order. And that's just what we're getting at the month's end when the Museum of the City of New York, Columbia University, and the Queens Museum team up for a major exhibition, "Robert Moses and the Modern City."
As New Yorkers today fight over the best uses for our waterfronts, and as big waterfront-park projects have existed mainly on paper for several years, it's bracing to visit Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to see an example of comprehensive waterfront redevelopment that's the best thing of its kind in the city.
At 68th Street and Colonial Road, the charmingly named Owl's Head Park (though many locals call it Bliss Park) sits atop the beginning of the great glacial moraine that cuts a swath across Brooklyn. Like Fort Greene Park, Owl's Head is largely in the form of a hill, with breathtaking views across New York Harbor. The park had been part of the estate of the redoubtable Brooklyn civic leader Henry Murphy, then of industrialist Eliphalet Bliss. In 1928, after Bliss's death, the city purchased the land. Moses shaped the park when he became parks commissioner in 1934. Less than half the Bliss land went to the park; the rest got swallowed by other uses, including Moses's Belt Parkway, construction of which began in 1934.
Moses completed the parkway in 1940. The New York Times called it "the greatest municipal highway venture ever attempted in an urban setting." The Belt Parkway begins at Owl's Head Park and arcs 34 miles along the edges of Brooklyn and Queens to the Nassau County border. Along the Bay Ridge stretch, from Owl's Head to Fort Hamilton (at 101st Street), the Belt Parkway parallels old Shore Road — in much the way the Henry Hudson Parkway parallels Riverside Drive.
Moses had recently built parks and parkways farther out on Long Island, opening up formerly inaccessible lands for recreational uses, such as his Jones Beach. The Belt Parkway provided city dwellers with a means to access the amenities of Nassau and Suffolk counties. In addition, Moses saw the Belt Parkway as an opportunity to build new parklands between Shore Road and the Upper Bay. Today these parks contain recreational piers (like the one at 69th Street), playgrounds, bike paths, jogging courses, the beguiling Narrows Botanical Gardens, and more. Benches in the parks and on Shore Road provide mesmerizing views, unlike anything else in New York.
Moses made the views more awesome when he added the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to the picture in 1964. Nowadays a New Yorker can take the R train to Bay Ridge, enjoy a lovely dinner in one of that neighborhood's many good restaurants, then sit dreamily on a Shore Road bench watching the lights of the bridge twinkle in the dusk. That perfect New York evening is ours in part by way of Robert Moses.