April 22, 2014



I had first been drawn to Robert Moses out of curiosity, in a very idle, fleeting form. As a new reporter at Newsday during the early nineteen-sixties, I would, as the occupant of an extremely low rung on the city-room totem pole, occasionally be assigned to write a short article based on one of the press releases that poured in a steady stream from one or another of the twelve governmental entities he headed, and as I typed "New York City Park Commissioner Robert Moses announced today . . ." I would wonder for a moment what that title had to do with the fact that he was also building something that was not a park, and was mostly not even in the city -- the Long Island Expressway. I would type "Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Chairman Robert Moses" and it would cross my mind that he was also chairman of some other public authority -- actually the New York State Power Authority -- that was building gigantic hydroelectric power dams, some of the most colossal public works ever built by man, hundreds of miles north of the city, along some place with the romantic name of the "Niagara Frontier." It gradually sunk in on me that in one article or another I was identifying him as chairman or "sole member" of quite a few authorities: the Bethpage State Park Authority, the Jones Beach State Park Authority, the Henry Hudson Parkway Authority, the Marine Parkway Authority, the Hayden Planetarium Authority -- the list seemed to go on indefinitely. And as, within a few months of my coming to Newsday, my interest began to narrow to politics, I began to wonder what a public authority was, anyway. They were always being written about simply as non-political entities that were formed merely to sell bonds to finance the construction of some public work -- a bridge or a tunnel, usually -- to collect tolls on the work until the bonds were paid off, and then to go out of existence, and, in fact, a key element of the image of Robert Moses that had for forty years been created and burnished by him and by an adoring press was that he was the very antithesis of the politician, a public servant uncompromisingly above politics who never allowed political considerations to influence any aspect of his projects. After all, the reasoning went, he built most of his projects through public authorities, which were also outside politics. 
No journalist or historian seemed to see authorities as sources of political power in and of themselves. I remember looking up every article on public authorities that had been written in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals for some years past; there was not one that analyzed in any substantial way the potential in a public authority for political power. Yet, in some vague way, they certainly seemed to have some. Moreover, Robert Moses held still other posts -- city posts, such as New York City Construction Coördinator, and chairman of the city's Slum Clearance Committee; and state posts, such as chairman of the State Council of Parks, and chairman of the Long Island State Park Commission. I began to feel that I was starting to glimpse, through the mists of public myth and my own ignorance, the dim outlines of something that I didn't understand and couldn't see clearly, but that might be, in terms of political power, quite substantial indeed.

Then I was drawn to Robert Moses by my imagination -- by an image that lodged in it, and grew vivid.
The more I thought about Robert Moses, and about the power he exerted, and about my ignorance -- and, it seemed to me, everyone's ignorance -- concerning the extent of his power, and the sources behind it, the more it became apparent to me that trying to determine the extent and identifying the sources, and then to explain what I found out, was something beyond the scope of daily journalism; no newspaper, in the journalistic practices of that day, would give you the time to conduct such an exploration or the space to print what you found.

It would be necessary to do a book. And, while I was trying to decide whether I really wanted to write one on Robert Moses, I began reading material on him, and one of the things I read, in a typescript in the Columbia University Oral History Collection, was the oral history of Frances Perkins, who would later be Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, but in 1914 was a young reformer, who often spent her Sundays walking around New York City with another young reformer, Robert Moses.

Born on December 18, 1888, to a wealthy German Jewish family active in the settlement-house movement, Moses had been educated at Yale and Oxford, and had returned to New York to earn his Ph.D. in political science at Columbia and join a municipal-reform organization as a researcher. In 1914, at the age of twenty-five, he was filled with idealism -- he had devised an elaborate plan to cleanse New York of Tammany Hall's influence by eliminating patronage from the city's corruption-ridden civil-service system -- and with ideas, many of them about public works. "Everything he saw walking around the city made him think of some way it could be better," Miss Perkins had told her oral history interviewer. "He was always burning up with ideas, just burning up with them." 
The biggest idea of all concerned the western shoreline of Manhattan Island from about Seventy-second Street up to about 181st Street. That six miles of shoreline, below the high cliff of Riverside Drive, was popularly called Riverside Park, but, unlike the park's landscaped upper level, in 1914 the part along the edge of the Hudson was nothing more than a six-mile-long wasteland of mud and rapidly eroding landfill, and through its entire length ran four tracks of the New York Central Railroad, lined by high, sharp-edged fences that for seventy years had cut the city off from its waterfront. Since the locomotives that towed the endless trains carrying cattle and pigs south to the slaughterhouses downtown burned coal or oil, the "park" seemed continuously covered with a thick, gritty, foul-smelling black smog. Huge mounds of raw garbage lay piled there, waiting for scows to collect it and carry it out to sea. There were several large shantytowns in it, inhabited by derelicts so intimidating that their shacks were avoided even by the police; at night, the residents of Riverside Drive apartment houses could see the derelicts' open fires glowing in the darkness by the river. But one Sunday in 1914, as a group of young men and women were taking a ferry to a picnic in New Jersey, Robert Moses was standing beside Frances Perkins on the deck, and as the ferry pulled out into the Hudson, and the bleak mudflats shrouded in smog spread out behind them, he suddenly said excitedly, "Isn't this a temptation to you? Couldn't this waterfront be the most beautiful thing in the world?" And, Miss Perkins was to recall, he began to talk, faster and faster, and she realized, to her amazement, that "he had it all figured out. How you could build a great highway that went uptown along the water. How you'd have to tear down a few buildings at Seventy-second Street and bring the highway around a curve," how the railroad tracks would be covered by the highway, and cars would be driving serenely along it with their passengers delighting in the river scene, how there would be long green parks filled with people playing tennis and baseball and riding bicycles, and elegant marinas for sailboats.
Looking up from the typescript (bound, I still remember, in a gray loose-leaf notebook), I realized that what Robert Moses had been talking about on that long-ago Sunday was what I knew as Riverside Park and the West Side Highway -- the great park and road that, as long as I could remember, had formed the western waterfront of Manhattan Island. Although many other plans had been conceived for this waterfront, this immense public work would be built by him -- in 1937, almost a quarter of a century after the ferry ride. And it would be built -- this urban improvement on a scale so huge that it would be almost without precedent in early-twentieth-century America, this improvement that would, in addition, solve a problem that had baffled successive city administrations for decades -- in very much the same form in which he had envisioned it as a young municipal reformer just out of college.

At the same time, moreover, from other oral histories, and brief references in articles, I was learning how Robert Moses had envisioned it -- where he was standing when he did so, even what he might have been wearing. He lived then with his parents on Central Park West, but often, after work, he would tell his taxi-driver to take him instead to Riverside Drive, at the end of Seventy-sixth Street, overlooking the Hudson. And then, as the sun set behind the Palisades across the river, he would get out and stand staring down at the smog-covered wasteland below him. He was a striking young man -- tall, very slim, darkly handsome, with olive skin and deep, burning eyes, elegant and arrogant -- and fond of white suits, wearing them from early spring well into the autumn. And he was passionate when, defending his plan for civil-service reform, he talked night after night before hostile, Tammany-packed audiences, speaking into storms of invective -- so passionate that another reformer was to say, "Once you saw him on those nights, you could never forget him." In my mind, I saw him now, staring down in the evenings on the Hudson waterfront, and I couldn't forget him. 

Sometimes, in my imagination, I saw him from below -- a tall, handsome, haughty figure in white, standing on the edge of a high cliff and gazing down on a vast wasteland with the eyes of a creator, determined to transform it into something beautiful and grand. Sometimes, I saw him from behind -- a tall black silhouette against the setting sun. Robert Moses gazing down on Riverside Park lodged in my imagination and, in my imagination, became entangled in a mystery. I had previously been aware only of the Robert Moses of the nineteen-fifties and sixties: the ruthless highway builder who ran his roads straight through hapless neighborhoods, the Robert Moses of the Title I urban-renewal scandals -- some of the greatest scandals of twentieth-century New York, scandals almost incredible both for the colossal scale of their corruption (personally "money honest" himself, Moses dispensed to the most powerful members of the city's ruling Democratic political machine what one insider called "a king's ransom" in legal fees, public-relations retainers, insurance premiums, advance knowledge of highway routes and urban-renewal sites, and insurance-free deposits in favored banks, to insure their coöperation with his aims) and for the heartbreaking callousness with which he evicted the tens of thousands of poor people in his way, whom, in the words of one official, he "hounded out like cattle." Now I saw something very different: the young Robert Moses, the dreamer and idealist. How had the one man become the other?

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Posted by at April 22, 2014 5:00 AM

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