The exhibit covers the infamous Cross Bronx Expressway, for example, just one mile of which ruthlessly displaced 1,530 families and countless businesses and institutions. The community and every elected official from the governor and mayor on down urged a straighter route a block and a half away, but Moses refused to budge from his ill-conceived plan.
It spotlights the “Battle of Central Park” when, despite well-publicized opposition, Moses had the 67th Street playground demolished in the middle of the night to expand parking for Tavern on the Green. Until that time, the press loved him uncritically. This episode brought Moses his first negative publicity, eventually forcing him to cancel the parking plan and build a new playground.
And it cites his failed attempts to demolish Castle Clinton and to build a Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. And it includes his best known projects-that-weren’t: the road through Washington Square Park and an expressway across lower Manhattan. Opposition to the park road was sparked by two Greenwich Village housewives and then championed by urbanist Jane Jacobs. Jacobs went on to lead the fight against the Lower Manhattan Expressway, probably Moses’ biggest defeat.
This is all presented through a fascinating array of renderings, maps, photographs, models and documents, illustrating Moses’ countless projects – from residential towers built under the rubric of urban renewal, to parks and playgrounds, to Lincoln Center, the United Nations and more.
The exhibition is provocative and should stimulate passionate debate on how to define appropriate new development, on what scale it should be mounted, and through what public process final decisions should be made. Most people know little more than hearsay about Moses, unless they have read – at least once – Robert Caro’s definitive biography “The Power Broker.” This is one of the most extraordinary research accomplishments imaginable, with details probably even the author can’t remember. Even two readings are not enough to grasp the complexities of this Yale-educated New Yorker who out-powered every governor and mayor “under whom” he served and overcame every elected official who ever got in his way, sometimes destroying them with true McCarthyite tactics.
The exhibition, masterfully curated by Columbia University architectural historian Hilary Ballon, clearly presents Moses as more constructive than destructive, more builder than demolisher, and the man probably most responsible for the city’s greatest large-scale built achievements. He is shown in a film clip at the ribbon-cutting of Lincoln Center making one of his most quotable comments: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg.” He also said, “If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?”
In the end, this exhibition is a celebration of what Moses got done because of his expressed love of New York. He declared that cities were in trouble – and the exhibition seems to accept this view unquestionably – and that “the city must be saved.” His vision was the only way to do it.
So yes, this exhibition is revisionist in that it puts a more positive face on Moses than the Caro opus. Understandably, given Ballon’s expertise, the focus is on the physical results of more than 40 years of power and it does not try to probe the source of the power that allowed him to ride roughshod over anyone standing in his way. And, indeed, the physical achievements, whether judged good or bad, are undeniably mighty in breadth, scale and obstacles overcome.
But the danger in a revisionist view of history is that it takes on a life of its own. That life often then becomes myth, like the incorrect belief about Mussolini that “at least he got the trains to run on time.” Clearly, no one is all good or all bad, and Caro’s book, despite what is often said, does have positive things to say about Moses. Of Robert Moses one must ask if the damage he wrought outweighs the good.
The exhibit does not give us permission to ask this question because it accepts Moses’ own view of his era and rationale for his actions. The city needed saving, he said – but the question should be “from what?” After the war, cities had problems that needed to be addressed – the infrastructure of existing roads and transit, deteriorated buildings that needed upgrading and some replacement, public facilities that needed repair. Urban vibrancy dimmed when resources were directed to the war effort, but the solution wasn’t to demolish whole swaths of the urban fabric and hope that what remained wouldn’t fall apart.
Mending the urban fabric, repairing and replacing different pieces around the whole city, could have included many new projects – but never on the ripping scale of what Moses proposed. And it wasn’t as if parks, roads and housing didn’t get built before Moses, or wouldn’t have without him, especially during Works Progress Administration and after when the faucet of government money was fully open and good designers needed work.
Until World War II, Moses built beautiful “parkways,” not “throughways.” Parkways were for leisure driving and major roads went around cities, rather than through them, without steamrolling the residents and businesses in their path. The car culture was emerging, not yet booming. In fact, a photo in the exhibit of Broome Street where the Lower Manhattan Expressway was supposed to go, has what by today’s standards would be light traffic.
The automobile industry was to be the vehicle to put the nation back to work. An assortment of post-war national policies, including the 1956 Highway Act, purposely spurred on that emerging car culture. Moses’ roads created traffic, as all new roads inevitably do. Experts told him this. They told him to build transit, too. He refused to listen.
And while the exhibit acknowledges that Moses neglected “the values of mass transit,” that is an understatement. He starved the transit system, which was at its optimum when he came to power, diverting funds to build roads. The federal government provided 90 percent of highway funds but the city had to come up with the other 10 percent and cover things the feds would not.