The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Robert Moses

Robert Moses (December 18, 1888July 29, 1981) was the master builder of 20th century New York City and its suburbs. As the shaper of a modern city, his only peer is Baron Haussmann of Second Empire Paris, and he was easily the most polarizing figure in the history of urban planning. Although he never held elective office, Moses was the most powerful person in New York City government from the 1930s to the 1950s. Moses literally changed shorelines, built roadways in the sky, and turned vibrant neighborhoods into slums. His decisions favoring highways over public transport formed the modern suburbs of Long Island. In New York City, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of people, contributed to the ruin of the South Bronx, the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the decline of public transport, but Moses' projects were also considered by many to be necessary for the region's development. To Moses' critics, however, he will always be remembered for believing that "cities are for traffic," and "if the ends don't justify the means, what does?"


Early life and rise to power

Robert Moses, "the very flower of New York City reform movement," was born in 1888 to assimilated German-Jewish parents in New Haven, Connecticut. Moses' father was a successful department store owner and real estate speculator; his mother was a forceful and brilliant woman, active in the settlement movement, with her own love of building.

After attending Yale University and spending time in Europe, Moses became attracted to New York City reform politics. Moses at this time was an idealist, and hatched several plans to get rid of patronage hiring in New York City. None went very far, but Moses, due to his intelligence, did catch the notice of Belle Moskowitz, a friend of Al Smith.

Moses rose to power with Al Smith. Smith gave Moses jobs, and Moses did the jobs extraordinarily well, such as the development of Jones Beach as a public park. Moses knew the law better than most lawyers, and he knew engineering better than most engineers. At a time when the public was used to Tammany Hall corruption and incompetence, Moses was seen as a savior of government. Shortly after President Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration, the federal government had millions of New Deal dollars to spend, but states and cities had few projects ready. Moses was one of the only people to have plans prepared.


At one point one quarter of federal construction dollars were being spent in New York, and Moses had 80,000 people working under him. Unfortunately, many of Moses's projects were marked by racism and by disdain for the less wealthy citizens of New York City and New York State. He built hundreds of parks and recreation facilities, but just one pool in Harlem. He claimed that he could keep African-Americans from using pools in white neighborhoods by making the water too cold. His highway projects on Long Island followed a circuitous path so as not to cross the properties of wealthy landowners such as J. P. Morgan, while he demolished numerous middle-class neighborhoods throughout New York City.

Moses persuaded Smith and the government of New York City to let him have jobs for the state and the city simultaneously—at one point, he simultaneously held twelve titles. For the city he was parks commissioner, and for the state he was chairman of the Long Island Parks Commission .


He had power over the construction of all public housing projects, but the single position that probably gave him the most power was his chairmanship of the Triborough Bridge Authority.

The Triborough Bridge, actually three bridges, connects the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens. The legal structure of this particular public authority made it impervious to influence from mayors and governors, due to the language in the bond contracts, and since Commissioners were and are appointed for multi-year terms. Since New York City and New York State were perpetually strapped for money, but the bridge's toll revenues were in the tens of millions a year, Moses was the only person in New York who could pick up the tab for big construction projects. (Triborough Bridge)

The battle of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel

Just how powerful was Moses? In the late 1930s it was decided to build an additional vehicular link between Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. The decision was between a bridge and a tunnel. A bridge requires an enormous amount of space where it lands, a tunnel very little. A Brooklyn Battery Bridge would have destroyed Battery Park and harmed the financial district. The bridge was opposed by historical preservationists, Wall Street financial interests and property owners, high society people, construction unions (since a tunnel would be more work for them), the Manhattan borough president, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and governor Herbert H. Lehman.

Moses favored a bridge, however, as it could carry more automobile traffic than a tunnel. More traffic meant more tolls, and more tolls meant more money and therefore more power. LaGuardia and Lehman, as usual, had no money to spend and the federal government had by this point felt it had given New York enough. Moses, because of his control of Triborough, had money to spend, and he decided his money could only be spent on a bridge.

The United States Navy has the power to block anything that spans a major waterway, so President Roosevelt ordered the Navy to assert that a bridge, if bombed, would block the East River. A dubious claim, it nevertheless stopped Moses. In retaliation for being prevented from building his bridge, Moses dismantled the aquarium that had been in Castle Clinton. Ultimately he was forced to settle for a tunnel connecting Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan, now called the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

Post-war city planning

Moses' power increased after World War II, when, after the retirement of LaGuardia, a series of mayors consented to almost all of Moses' proposals. Named city "construction coordinator" in 1946 by Mayor William O'Dwyer, Moses also became the official representative of New York City in Washington, D.C.. Moses was also now given powers over public housing that had eluded him when LaGuardia was in charge. Moses' power grew even more when O'Dwyer forced to resign in disgrace and was succeeded by Vincent R. Impellitteri, who was more than content to allow Moses to excercise his power over infastructure projects from behind the scenes. Moses was now the sole person authorized to negotiate in Washington for New York City projects. He could now remake New York for the automobile. Before Moses, most housing projects in New York were small scale (like the projects on the Queens side of the Queensboro Bridge). With Moses, projects grew to be the spartan, featureless skyscrapers now widely associated with public housing. By 1959, Moses had built 28,000 apartment units on hundreds of acres. Ironically, to clear the land for the high-rises, he often destroyed almost as many housing units as he built.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Moses was responsible for the building of the Throgs Neck, the Bronx-Whitestone, the Henry Hudson, and the Verrazano Narrows bridges. His other projects included the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Belt Parkway, the Laurelton Parkway, and many more. He was the mover behind Shea Stadium and Lincoln Center, and contributed to the United Nations building.

Car culture

Moses himself never learned to drive, and his view of the automobile was shaped by the 1920s, when the car was considered more for entertainment than utilitarian purposes. Moses' highways were curving, landscaped "ribbon parks," intended to be pleasures to drive through.

It is interesting to note that with all of this Moses practically predicted the future of the automobile, and influenced it with his own way of design. He seemed to set a precedent for designers in the future in placing the automobile over the human (especially in his destruction of homes for his projects, but more indirectly in the size and scale of the projects). This type and scale has been reproduced time and time again, and is visible not only in the urban environment torn by highways and the sound of cars but also readily seen in suburbia and sprawl. While Moses did not start the age of the automobile, he certainly cleared the way (literally and figuratively speaking) for the mentality that both urban and suburban space are dispensable for the automobile.

Arguably, some American cities have finally begun to overturn this strand of thought, perhaps most important among them Portland, Oregon, which has shown that a refocus upon the pedestrian in architecture and city planning can create an environment which is safe, productive, and enjoyable for a more balanced variety of transportation.

End of the Moses era

Moses's reputation began to wane in the 1960s, as people began to appreciate the virtues of neighborhoods and smallness of scale. Moses also started picking fights with the wrong people over the wrong issues. Moses's campaign against free Shakespeare in the Park received negative publicity; Moses' effort to destroy a shaded playground in Central Park to make a parking lot for the expensive Tavern-on-the Green made him enemies among the middle-class voters of the Upper West Side.

The opposition reached a crescendo over the demolition of Penn Station, which many attributed to the "development scheme" mentality cultivated by Moses. This caused many city residents to turn against Moses' plans to build a Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have cut through what is now Greenwich Village and SoHo. One of his most vocal critics during this time was the urban activist Jane Jacobs, whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was instrumental in turning public opinion against Moses' plans. Massive public protests broke out over the plan, and ultimately the city government rejected it in 1964.

Moses's power was further sapped by his association with the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair. Moses's assumption of an aggregate attendance for this event of 70 million people proved wildly optimistic. His disdain for the opinions of others led to the fair not being sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions, the worldwide body supervising such events, which led to its ordering its member nations not to participate. It was further revealed that Moses's salary as head of the Fair Corporation was a guaranteed one million dollars, which seemed to many to be very extravagant for a event that was ostensibly being held for a public purpose, and a money-losing event at that. Moses was also linked in the minds of many to the Fair's accounting scandal when it was revealed that all advance ticket sales, even for those sold for use in 1965, were booked as 1964 revenues, even though there seems to be little if any evidence directly linking him to this error. The fair began to be seen in the minds of many New York taxpayers as an attempt by Moses and his cronies to relive their glory days, highlighted by the 1939 New York World's Fair, rather than a useful project for the 1960s.


Moses' image suffered a further blow in 1973 with the publication of The Power Broker by Robert Caro. Caro's 1,200-page opus (edited from over 3,000 pages long) largely destroyed the remainder of Moses's reputation. Caro was deliberately intensely critical of Moses because, in 1973, there were many people who only knew the good Moses had done. Many people had come to see Moses as a bully who disregarded public input, but they hadn't known that he had stolen his brother's inheritance (in the 1930s, before Moses's rise to prominence), nor how cruel he was in the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, nor how he willfully neglected public transit. Moses' reputation today is in many ways how Caro left it.

Caro paints Moses as uniquely destructive to the urban fabric, but other US cities were doing the same thing as New York in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Boston and Seattle, for instance, both built highways straight through their downtown areas. The New York City intelligentsia of the '40s and '50s largely believed in such prophets of the automobile as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe and supported Moses. Many other cities, like Newark, Chicago and St. Louis, also built massive, unattractive public housing projects.


Moses died of heart disease in 1981 in West Islip, New York. The title of his New York Times obituary package is both a found poem and a thumbnail sketch of his life and influence: "Robert Moses, Master Builder, Is Dead at 92; Robert Moses, Builder of Road, Beach, Bridge and Housing Projects, Is Dead Associate of High Officials The Grand-Scale Approach Not a Professional Planner Part of 'Our Crowd' Into the Orbit of Power Fur Coat or Underwear? An Overwhelming Success Long Court Fights Drafted Park Legislation Moses' Tactics Were Both Extolled and Criticized Badly Beaten in Election Built to His Own Tastes A Sampler of Quotations by Moses The Face of a Region and How One Man Changed It". Moses is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Legacy and lasting impact

The bridges of Robert Moses are an exemplary and disputed topic in the sociology of technology . The main question is, how much ideology and politics can be built into technology and infrastructure, such as bridges. (cf. Langdon Winner, "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" in Daedalus , Vol. 109, No. 1, Winter 1980, and reactions on that article, e.g. by Bernward Joerges).

Aside from the sociological view of Moses' 'accomplishments', there lies the question of urban destruction and suburban mobilization. While not singlehandedly responsible for these things, of course, it seems Moses' work embodied many of the things which characterize the suburban revolution—making inner city uninhabitable, and clearing the way for the vehicle instead of human (and thus making it possible for those same inner city residents to travel outward). While at once a good thing (for it allowed those who were cramped in inner city spaces to flourish outward) it was poor for the environment and for people in general (for it began the suburban 'Identity crisis', or lack of sense of place) and has since begun to be reversed to an extent in some locales by careful, planned steps, by the government, private sector and people alike. (Nowhere is this trend more notable than in Portland, Oregon.)

Impact on landscape and urban design philosophy

Clearly, Moses' work contributed to the rash of expansion in the American nation thanks to the spreading of the roadway. While definitely having its advantages in some manners (read: a growing network, physical, governmental, mental and metaphysical), there were ways in which his work actually went great distances to separate people as well. Given that the majority of his projects involved a great destruction of both land and existing houses (not to mention in neighborhoods he deemed 'lower', so to speak), he managed, especially in his later career, to foster great dissent amongst many the people, of New York.

Because of this, however, those aspiring city planners, landscape architects, designers and all manner of civil engineers know what not to do in terms of designing causeways and parks. There should (at least in a city planning spectrum) not be bias towards corporate or otherwise higher-class citizens, as he showed in the planning of Central Park. There should be shown interest and great care when dealing with already existing neighborhoods in planning and design—especially in reference to the lower class. And lastly, but certainly not leastly, planners need to discern what place is the automobile's and what place is designated the person's. This conflict, above all, did Moses epitomize, with his many beltway projects. He made driving enjoyable, and thus spurred on the use of the automobile (not that its use would have died out without Moses' contributions).

His particular view upon the landscape and automobile has gone on to influence other planners to this day. While there is not the same distribution of the particularities of his design (intense urban destruction in favor of auto routes, revitalization of the auto route for the pleasure of driving), one is able to see a residual effect. Roadways are planted, beautified. So the 'necessary evil' driving has become today could become that much more tolerable (for sitting in a traffic jam with nothing but concrete surrounding is certainly not something many desire).

Because of his impact on the urban landscape, Moses is honored and adored in Long Island (where a state park is named after him) but widely reviled in New York City.

External links

Further reading

  • Caro, Robert A., The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York, New York: Knopf, 1974.
  • Lewis, Eugene, Public Entrepreneurship : toward a theory of bureaucratic political power--the organizational lives of Hyman Rickover, J. Edgar Hoover, and Robert Moses, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1980.
  • Rodgers, Cleveland, Robert Moses, Builder for Democracy, New York: Holt, 1952.
Last updated: 08-18-2005 20:43:36