Moses absolute power corrupts absolutely Essay

It has been said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. This has been the case for the life and accomplishments of Robert Moses. As it is the case with most dictators, and many would consider Robert Moses to have been a dictator, they do end up contributing to a positive degree, somewhat to their sphere of influence. When Robert Moses was first hired by Governor Al Smith, Moses, a reformer, sought to bring a real paradise to the city of New York. The Worlds Fairs in 1939 and 1964 were cultural triumphs, if not economic ones and Jones Beach was regarded as a masterpiece in which the Master builder, Robert Moses, was hailed as its hero. The United Nations being placed in New York; Robert Moses had influence in that matter and New York has been reaping the benefits from that every since. However, what seemed like a promising career in which the people were his first concern, soon began to be pushed to the side in favor of the automobile and its rising importance within the city. Francis Perkins, the former Secretary of Labor for the Roosevelt Administration, stated about Moses: “He likes the public but he hates people.”[1] This was the case with Robert Moses. The life of Robert Moses can be divided into two separate and distinct halves; Pre WWII in which his parks projects brought beauty and contentment to the city, and after WWII in which his projects were for the sole use of meeting his own desire to build, and to “hit them with a meat ax”[2] all those who opposed his plans for building. In the end, what was a promising career, turned out to produce a great deal of harm as urban renewal and Title I and II, gave way to the upsurge in crime that the city saw in the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s as his projects, sought to cut huge swathes through important and tightly held neighborhoods. Most times, he was successful, but sometimes, he was not, even though that would be the exception rather than the rule. Robert Moses held almost absolute power for almost fifty years and in that time, reshaped New York City into a modern city of the 20th century; modern thinking, modern buildings, modern crime and modern discontentment with the world.

Robert Moses was born on December 18, 1888 to German-Jewish parents in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1897, the family moved to New York City. Moses’ father was a successful department store owner and real estate speculator. His mother was a reform minded woman who loved to build as well. Both aspects of his parents would come into the form of Robert Moses and the competing ideas of building as it relates to people, would come to a head during Moses’ reign. Moses earned a PH.D in political science from Columbia University and it was then where he first became attracted to the reform politics of New York City. The Progressive Movement, which had its hey day at the turn of the century, still could feel its impact throughout the city as the working class sought to acquire better wages and safer working conditions. Also, the patronage hiring practices which the Democratic Party machine; Tammany Hall depended upon, would be challenged by Moses at this time.

At this time, Moses would rise to power under the sweeping legislation and reform with Governor Al Smith had promises the people of New York. Also, Moses was in touch with the progressive ideals that Smith was trying to put into place at this time. As a result, Robert Moses became head of the Long Island State Park Commission on April 18, 1924.[3] This would be one of his first public ally held positions. He would hold up to twelve positions at the same time.[4] However, at this time, the beautification of New York City was his prime concern. As a result, the 1929 opening of Jones Beach was hailed as a great achievement for the city and its master builder: Robert Moses.[5] Through this, the young builders and architects who were coming out of college and onto the professional scene at this time came to New York to work for Moses and to learn from the most influential master builder in the country at that time. There was reason for this optimism as the opening of Jones Beach was seen as one of the most important building projects in New York City up to that time.

What allowed Moses to continue to build at the speed which he sought to change the face of New York City, was the unequal percentage of federal money that New York City was receiving from the New Deal. On January 19, 1936, Moses was named the Parks Commissioner.[6] As the Parks Commissioner, New Deal money would be spent at his sole decisions. Also, Moses could then draft additional legislation which further expanded his power as this new legislation would require that all decisions first be passed by the Parks Commissioner who was Robert Moses. However, at this time, so many people were making so much money and great things were being done to the city, nobody really complained. Before Moses became the Parks commissioner and the New York City Zoo was reconstructed, the facility was so run down that Tammany would hire men to stand guard at the cages of these various animals with orders to shoot if any should escape rather that simply fix the cages.[7] This was the ideology at the time in New York City before Robert Moses came. It was also the appeal of Robert Moses at this time, that he did everything in his power to starve Tammany of patronage. This was in tune with the tough major: Fiorello H. LaGuardia; the most unique New York politician of all time. Both were hauled for their efforts in cleaning up New York by cleaning out all of the grafting politicians which were creating for the city, an inefficient bureaucracy in which no real accomplishments ever occurred. It would be ironic that Moses, would depend upon patronage and insider deals in order to secure funds for his various buildings. At this time however, the mayor and Moses were in tune with each other in this venture. However, this would not last for long.

The 1930’s was a time that, despite the crippling effects of the Great Depression, a hope and optimism was arising in the city. This is due to the New Deal and with particular attention to New York City: Mayor LaGuardia and Robert Moses. If the career of Moses had ended after WWII, he would be hailed in every book and magazine from that time until now. The production of Jones Beach and the New York City Zoo or any of the other 1700 projects that Moses was responsible for during his career; hope was rising from despair.[8] Two of these specific projects which were hailed as great achievements of man: the Triborough Bridges in 1936 and the 1939 Worlds Fair. The bridge was really three bridges in one. One of the bridges would lay claim to the being the largest vertical lift bridge in the world. In order to construct the bridge, entire forests in Oregon were destroyed, three steel mills were utilized to make the steel for the bridge and over 5,000 workers, completing over 31 million man hours were needed in order to finish the bridge. 134 cities in 20 states and the supplies which they could provide were needed in order to complete the bridge.[9] In this, Robert Moses was seen as the master builder which was providing for the city, a modern approach to the world. In this, Robert Moses was the most important figure in the history of New York in the 20th century. This is due to the fact that Moses modernized the city into a city in which the automobile would be hailed as the most important invention in the history of mankind and as a result, needed to be given its rightful place in the city of New York.

In all of this excitement, the public failed to realize that with the production of these bridges in an attempt to decrease the traffic of the city, Moses was in fact, creating even more traffic by the creation of these bridges. The public might not have been aware of this but Moses surely was and this would not be a problem for him. It was realized that in effect, Moses was keeping himself relevant as the need for more bridges, tunnels and other public works in which it was seen as an effort to decrease the flow of traffic in the city, Moses would ensure the demand for his skills for many years to come. Also, it had been published, that the tolls from these bridges, would only be in use until the cost of the bridge had been paid off in full. The public; those who handed over their hard earned nickels and dimes, hardly knew that one of the headquarters from the Triborough Bridge Company was housed deep below the ground, underneath these tolls and in which Moses could not plot and plan his new works projects.[10] As a result of this constant flow of funds, coupled with the fact that Moses, as the head of more than a dozen commissions, did not have to ask any review board or commissioner for approval to build what he wanted, a large percentage of the time in which Moses was in power, that power was completely unchecked. This would lead to his downfall but for now, the desires of Moses to do what he wanted, there existed at that time, no sizable impediment in order to stop him.

One of the last building achievements before WWII, was the 1939 Worlds Fair. The Fair was an economic disaster, but a cultural triumph. The scale and model of the displays were awe inspiring. One of the chief exhibits was called “The World of Tomorrow” in which a scale modern of what life might look in the year 1960, was put into place in an amazing scale and size.[11] Of this miniature exhibit which encompassed hundreds of square feet, there existed two distinct characteristics: the prediction that the growth of the suburb would be the wave of the future and that the expansion of the car and its influence, would be the tool in which this would be accomplished. The predictions of the Fair were correct concerning the importance in the car and its relation to the formation of the city. The change which Moses sought would be met with calls of racism, elitism, patronage and placing the automobile above people in relation to what was more important.

With the end of WWII, Moses, unable to build during the war years, let loose on a number of projects. He had his hand in the production of the United Nations Building but that would be one of the last achievements which the world would come to hail him for during his long career.  Now a dark shadow was to come over the career of Robert Moses and would eventually lead to his downfall. Robert Moses, at one time, had more than 80,000 people working under him.[12] In 1946, LaGuardia left office, to be replaced by an ex police Officer William O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer would not create any resistance against Moses and he was therefore, allowed to pursue an even greater pursuit of his. This occurred when Moses became the head of the Housing Authority; a post which he had wanted for many years. It would create an escalation of his own personal power, as well as incite a strong resistance from the people of New York in ways which were not present during his days under Mayor LaGuardia. In this, Moses sought to clear the slums in what would later be known as: Title I and then Title II.  The slums of New York, first detailed in Jacob Riis’s 1890 Book: How the Other Half Lives, showed New Yorkers, and the rest of the world, the horrors of living in these tenements.[13] There have been some improvements since then but the slums were still just that: slums. As a result, Moses’ plan to demolish the slums and create affordable and livable housing the for the poor of New York City, showed for a time, that Moses had returned to his former role as a reformer. However, this was not the reality of the situation. The slums were replaced by middle class housing which the previous tenants; mostly African American and Hispanic, could not afford. There was little resistance to this because with Moses and all of his power, the money used to finances these projects, were spent at the sole decision of Robert Moses. It has been his plan along to create this authority as he knew, he would never be elected to any post by the will of the people but would have to take and then create these positions in order to further increase his power as well as eliminate all of the naysayer in the process.

The slum clearance projects, it was soon discovered, was a sign of the racist feelings of Moses. Of the more than one hundred parks that he had overseen the construction, only two were in traditionally black neighborhoods.[14] Moses, not only had negative feelings towards minorities but realty most people and did all that he could to avoid the contact with people. Moses felt that people were out to get him and it served as an impediment towards the realization of what a good Robert Moses could have accomplished. However, the mostly negative aspects of urban renewal and its utter failure, came from the efforts of Robert Moses. In the 19560’s and 1960’s, the interest of the public was being pushed away from parks and more to highways as the Interstate highway program was under way.  Moses therefore, sought to create what he had had always imagined; three major road ways which would cut a swath across the city of New York with the production of three major roadways: The Brooklyn-Queens, The Cross-Bronx and the Staten Island Expressway. What occurred with this, and still is one of the major marks against the goodness of Robert Moses, was the effect that such projects had on the people and more specifically, the neighborhoods of New York City.

New York City, which in 1960, had a population of 12 million people inside 2100 square miles, was in reality, dozens of small communities which came together to be called Greater New York.[15] The 1898 incorporation which allowed New York City to annex Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens and the Bronx, did make New York City the largest city in the nation and the center of culture for the country, but in reality, it was its strong neighborhoods which helped to define New York City.[16] This created a support community for those who, without it, would have been completely lost in such a big city. This was also especially true for those living in the poorer sections of New York but who still were part of strong communities. It was believed, and further proved in reality, that without this support structure, these individuals would be lost and would be further led to a life of hopelessness which in turn, would translate into higher crime. This occurred in reality.

The 1811 grid that the city planners made in order to organize the city, was still in effect over a hundred years later. It has not taken into account, the invention of the car and its mass production. As a result, the grid posed an impediment to Moses and others who tried to modernize the city into the 20th century. In the mind of Moses, this meant that the automobile would be placed higher in importance than the individual as it became imperative to him that the city of New York be made a modern city. Moses would way: “There are people who like things as they are. I can offer no hope to them. Let them move to elsewhere.”[17] This is exactly what happened as Title I broke up neighborhoods and the crime in the city rose exponentially at that time. It would only be in the early 1960’s that Moses would finally incite any sizable resistance. In the past, he had rode rough shot over all resistance as he brought together all of the powerful friends that he had made. The 1960’s would be different as the city would finally begin to recognize that Moses had become a dictator and his policies were becoming counterproductive to the city.

Nelson Rockefeller, the reform minded Governor of New York who privately, and then public ally, hated Moses and the sentiments which were evoked by Jane Jacobs, the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities in which she detailed the failures of urban renewal and Title I, came together and promoted Robert Wagner, the mayor of New York City, to vacate the positions which Moses had used to come to power.[18] This would not occur without a fight but it was a fight that Moses was bound to lose. Public opinion was now squarely against Moses and with the demolition of Penn Station in 1963, the public now realized that not only cities, but historic buildings needed to be preserved and in 1965, the Historic Preservation Act was passed in New York City. The road which he sought to build would displace over 10,000 residents from their homes and thus, tear apart yet another neighborhood. That defeat, signaled the beginning of the end for the career of Robert Moses and in 1968, the Triborough Bridge transit authority was dismantled and with it, so too was the career and power of Robert Moses.

The end of the career and especially, the life of Moses in 1981 signaled a debate over the effects of Moses and his policies. Public opinion turned further against Moses when the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Robert Caro The Power broker was written in 1974. Caro did give credit to the policies of Moses while under Smith and LaGuardia but was very harsh in Moses’ personal dealings with those who would resist him and those who were minorities and which Moses regarded as unimportant. It would really be al high percentage of people that Moses did not like and whom he though was plotting against him. The legacy of Moses, in recent years, has enjoyed a resurgence as the current governor New York City, Eliot Spitzer, as well as famed historian Kenneth Jackson who have applauded the life and achievements of Moses as a man who got things done. Jackson credited the success of The Power Broker to the time in which it was written and contrasted it to the current time in which people have become more optimistic and enjoyed to a greater degree, the building projects which had Moses has been credited with achieving. It really depends upon the person and what he or she places as important.[19] Did Moses have racist tendencies and did his best to avoid people? Did try to do some horrible things and succeeded in achieving some horrible and counterproductive policies in many different levels? Yes, but did he also help to employ tens of thousands of people who would otherwise would have been unemployed during The Great Depression and help New York City to modernize into the 20th century? The answer to the latter is also in the affirmative. An individual that lives over 90 years as Moses did, it is hard to sum up his life as being either all good or all bad. What is undisputable is the importance that Moses had on the 20th century in New York City as well as his influence upon the architects of the other major cities in the country. In this sense, Moses is an important figure in the history of New York and the effects of his policies and projects, whether good or bad, have remained within the city and what defines a city in the 20th and 21st century; good and bad.







Berman, Marshall All That is Solid Melts Into Air. New York: Penguin Books

Burns, Ric. New York: City of Tomorrow. Burbank: Time Warner  1999

Burns, Ric New York: The City and the World. Burbank: Time Warner  1999

Cavo, Robert The Power Broker New York: Alfred Knopf. 1990

Jackson, Tom. Robert Moses a & The Modern City. New York: W.W. Norton 2007

Krieg, Jo Ann. Robert Moses: Single Minded Genius. New York: Intertoken Pub. 1992

Moses, Robert. Public Works: A Dangerous Trade. New York: McGraw Hill 1972

Robert Moses Obituary  New York Times July 30, 1981

[1] Robert Moses Obituary  New York Times July 30, 1981
[2] Moses, Robert. Public Works: A Dangerous Trade. New York: McGraw Hill 1972 pg. 144
[3] Burns, Ric. New York: City of Tomorrow. Burbank: Time Warner  1999
[4] Burns, Ric New York: The City and the World. Burbank: Time Warner  1999
[5] Jackson, Tom. Robert Moses a & The Modern City. New York: W.W. Norton 2007 pg. 225
[6] Cavo, Robert The Power Broker New York: Alfred Knopf. 1990 pg. 855
[7] Burns, Ric. New York: City of Tomorrow. Burbank: Time Warner  1999
[8] Burns, Ric. New York: City of Tomorrow. Burbank: Time Warner  1999
[9] Ibid
[10] Cavo, Robert The Power Broker New York: Alfred Knopf. 1990 pg. 893
[11] Burns, Ric New York: The City and the World. Burbank: Time Warner  1999
[12] Krieg, Jo Ann. Robert Moses: Single Minded Genius. New York: Intertoken Pub. 1992 pg. 87
[13] Burns, Ric. New York: City of Tomorrow. Burbank: Time Warner  1999
[14] Burns, Ric New York: The City and the World. Burbank: Time Warner  1999
[15] Burns, Ric New York: The City and the World. Burbank: Time Warner  1999
[16] Krieg, Jo Ann. Robert Moses: Single Minded Genius. New York: Intertoken Pub. 1992 pg. 188
[17] Moses, Robert. Public Works: A Dangerous Trade. New York: McGraw Hill 1972 pg. 89
[18] Jackson, Tom. Robert Moses a & The Modern City. New York: W.W. Norton 2007 pg. 167
[19] Jackson, Tom. Robert Moses a & The Modern City. New York: W.W. Norton 2007 pg. 209

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