Friday, July 05, 2013

He got things done

Robert Moses seems to have been one of the most loathsome characters who accumulated power and unmerited prestige in the 20th century United States. Or so I felt after reading Robert A. Caro's monumental 1974 biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Though I passed my childhood driving on the Robert Moses Parkway past the Robert Moses Power Plant near Niagara Falls, I had only a dim idea of this guy's impact on the shape and quality of life of the New York City I lived in during the early 1970s.

I picked up this volume because I wanted to immerse myself in a really long historical narrative. Caro is not a man of few words. This book is some 1300 pages of fascinating exposition beginning with Moses' upbringing in the Gay Nineties of the 19th century Jewish Connecticut and New York; his early efforts of reform the New York City civil service (always from the outside and top down); his adoption into mayor and later state governor Al Smith's political coterie; and his successful domination of successive New York City mayors and New York State governors for some 40 years. In that time he organized the political clout to build highways, bridges, and parks where he wanted them, and only where he wanted them, while ensuring that hardly anyone else had any say over these public works. He was a master manipulator of government finance and bureaucracy who lived like a king without taking a salary. His faithful allies profited handsomely from his bond deals and construction contracts. Moses apparently thought cash was for the toadies he bought off -- the currency he wanted was power. As he acquired more and more of it, he seems to have become more and more prepared to treat people he had power over with dismissive cruelty.

Robert Moses never learned to drive, only experienced his highways, bridges and cloverleafs as a chauffeured passenger whose way was cleared daily by a police escort. He hated Black people, poor people, working people -- and the facilities that made city life work for them: affordable housing, accessible neighborhood parks, mass transit. For decades, through the Depression, World War II, and the mid-century prosperity, he hoarded government funds to build for upper class white people. And even they were to be brushed aside if their desires conflicted with his grand designs. He understood that journalists could be counted on to become invested in the narratives he fed them, remaining the great public spirited builder of civic projects long after any generous impulses he had begun with had faded into cynicism.

If Moses hadn't been Jewish, he'd have fit right in with Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, who ended up running the war economy in Nazi Germany. Not that Moses wanted anyone to think of him as Jewish …

The dysfunctional New York City in which I lived in the early 1970s -- car choked, broke, and seething with racial resentment -- was very much a product of Robert Moses' decades of mastery of the city's development. The scale of the city's problems seemed then too much to grasp; I had no idea how many of those troubles -- some since ameliorated, others not -- had been the product of autocratic urban planning that bulldozed communities in favor of concrete, steel and grand edifices.

Like Caro's current long running project The Years of Lyndon Johnson, this volume encases its subject in a grand story of an entire political epoch. Anyone who has the time would do well to take on reading it.

And the trajectory of Robert Moses still has lessons for us today. The man's redeeming ability, recognized by smart politicians in government especially early in his career, was that his projects got built, finished, broke through the red tape. During the Depression, his work crews in the New York City Parks Department and on Long Island highways kept multitudes employed and they opened on schedule. This is hard to achieve. In the San Francisco Bay Area, we are living with the embarrassing saga of the Bay Bridge that cannot be completed 24 years after the old structure failed in an earthquake. Maybe someone who can get things done -- who "could make the trains run on time" -- might be worth the offense against democratic process such characters embody?

The lesson of Moses seems to me to be "probably not." Caro does not spare the reader the stories of displaced people and devastated communities that accompanied Moses' projects. And we all live with the car culture and crumbling infrastructure these enthusiastic suburb and highway builders left us.

These days the San Francisco Bay Area faces one of those grand, broad scale regional design efforts that Moses would of have delighted in (as long as it was his ideas) in the One Bay Area Plan. I've been at several meetings at which local citizens struggled to get planners to think much harder about possible impacts and side effects that their grand plans simply rushed past. Unfortunately, that's what a democratic process usually looks like: messy, inefficient, hard to complete, the opposite of utopian. But if the alternative is that we lose control of the quality of life in our communities, then we're stuck with these downsides. The alternative is the sort of ugly, idiosyncratic results Robert Moses imposed on New York. Yes, there's a lesson here: Moses got things done, but what things?


janinsanfran said...

My friend Kalpana wrote about this at Facebook: "There's a well known article in my field entitled "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" in which the author, discussing the political implications of large-scale technologies, uses Moses' oversight of a bridge to Jones Beach, NY as an example of how architecture reinforced racism. Moses had the bridge made low enough that only cars (owned by wealthy white people) could get to the beach, but buses couldn't. I used this article for undergrads all the time."

janinsanfran said...

All Moses' parkways were like that, designed to enable white folks with cars to escape black and brown people. He built to actualize his prejudices.

Civic Center said...

To this very day, Robert Moses State Beach at the western end of Fire Island has a parking lot the size of Rhode Island but the last public bus going back to the city leaves around 5:30 PM. No sunsets for you, carless peons. I got about two-thirds through the Moses biography and had to stop because it was too depressing. Very impressed with your gulping the book whole, speed reader.

Hattie said...

Wow. I must read this. I was in the NYC area from 1969-71 and had no idea that Moses was the one mostly responsible for the mess that the city was in then.
I lived in suburban NJ, though in Plainfield, not one of the "nice" aka all white towns. I remember a woman from one of those enclaves who grew up in Queens saying she hoped the day would come when NYC would be a ghost town. Isn't that awful?
Thanks for this excellent reading tip.
BTW: It seems that Rahm Emmanuel is doing a similar wrecking job on Chicago.