January 25, 2007

A HIGHWAY IS A MONUMENT TO SELF, A RAILWAY TO SOCIETY:

Rehabilitating Robert Moses (ROBIN POGREBIN, 1/23/07, NY Times)

FOR three decades his image has been frozen in time. The bulldozing bully who callously displaced thousands of New Yorkers in the name of urban renewal. The public-works kingpin who championed highways as he starved mass transit. And yes, the visionary idealist who gave New York Lincoln Center and Jones Beach, along with parks, roads, playgrounds and public pools.

This is the Robert Moses most of us know today, courtesy of Robert A. Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography from 1974, "The Power Broker," which charts Moses' long reign as city parks commissioner (1934-60) and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1946-68). A 1,286-page book that reads like a novel, it won a Pulitzer Prize and virtually redefined the biographical genre by raising the bar for contemporary research. Today it remains the premier text on the evolution of 20th-century New York, a portrait of a man who used his power without regard for the human toll.

But according to the Columbia University architectural historian Hilary Ballon and assorted colleagues, Moses deserves better -- or at least a fresh look. In three exhibitions opening in the next few days -- at the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art and Columbia University -- Ms. Ballon argues that too little attention has been focused on what Moses achieved, versus what he destroyed, and on the enormous bureaucratic hurdles he surmounted to get things done. [...]

As for Mr. Caro, 71, he said he was not informed of the exhibitions in advance, nor is he part of a symposium Thursday at the Museum of the City of New York or other panel discussions pegged to them. Asked how he felt about having been excluded, Mr. Caro said: "When I am writing a book, I try always to give all sides a chance to express their viewpoint. I guess they didn't want my viewpoint expressed, and not inviting me is certainly an effective means of accomplishing that."

He will make a solo appearance at the museum on Feb. 11, but only because one of the exhibition's financers, the philanthropist Roger Hertog, argued that Mr. Caro should be included.

"The exhibition elevates Moses' achievements to historic -- almost grandiose -- accomplishment, yet he's a complicated person," Mr. Hertog said. "If you're going to really think about this, there is this looming presence, this thousand-pound gorilla, in the middle of the room, and it's Caro. His interpretation has to be heard as well."

Mr. Caro spent seven years on his book, conducting 522 interviews and combing thousands of personal and public documents. To scholars who take a revisionist approach, he urges caution. "The enduring legacy of Robert Moses includes magnificent achievements, which I celebrated in 'The Power Broker,' " he said. "But it is also necessary to look at his overall impact."

He cited the ouster of more than half a million people from their homes in the Bronx, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, in Sunset Park in Brooklyn and on Long Island farms for the sake of new highways or "slum clearance": evictions that largely could have been avoided by using alternate routes and that in some cases helped create new slums.

"His highways and bridges and tunnels are awesome all right, but no aspect of those highways and bridges and tunnels is as awesome as the congestion on them," Mr. Caro said. "Congestion was always going to be inevitable in New York, but it could have been substantially less had he only combined his roads with the mass transit suggested by so many planners."


Caro's story, of a humanist who becomes anti-human is perhaps the great novel of the 20th Century, all the more poignant because biography instead.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 25, 2007 4:34 PM
Comments

"A HIGHWAY IS A MONUMENT TO SELF, A RAILWAY TO SOCIETY"

Yes, you meet real people on a train or subway

Posted by: h-man at January 25, 2007 5:06 PM

Times I've drawn my gun in self defense while using public transportation: 2; beaten and robbed (no gun then!) 1. While using my car: 0 and 0.

I'll stick with the car, thanks anyway.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 25, 2007 6:31 PM

Since the 70s....

Posted by: oj at January 25, 2007 6:45 PM

Classic, h-man. No wonder oj likes the train (which one was he?)

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 25, 2007 11:07 PM
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