Robert Moses

Robert Moses (1888-1981), New York City's controversial impressario of public works, did more to reshape his city and, by example, to influence the course of American urban development than did any other figure of the mid-20th century. Moses, who by training was neither planner, architect, nor engineer, attained unprecedented power without ever being elected to public office.

Born December 18, 1888, in New Haven, Connecticut, Robert Moses was the second of three children of Emanuel and Bella Choen Moses. The elder Moses, a Jew of German extraction, retired in 1897 from the department store business which made him a millionaire and moved with his family to New York City. Young Robert was sent to private preparatory schools and graduated from Yale University in 1909. He received a Master's degree in political science from Oxford University in 1911 and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1914, with a dissertation on the British civil service system.

Moses promptly went to work for the Bureau of Municipal Research, a business-dominated New York political reform body which stressed the importance of the application of business management principles to the conduct of municipal affairs. Here Moses met Mary Louise Sims, whom he married in 1915. The couple had two daughters, Barbara and Jane.

Upon the election of reform mayor John Puroy Mitchell in 1914, Moses was appointed technical adviser to the Mayor's Civil Service Commission. Moses and his staff produced a report calling for the complete revision of the city's civil service system along what may be described as meritorcratic lines. The report occasioned much controversy and was not implemented. Moses was removed from office when Mitchell lost his bid for re-election.

Learning to Use Political Power

After working briefly again with the Bureau of Municipal Research and with the United States Food Commission, Moses became chief of staff to Belle Moskowitz, who had been appointed by newly-elected New York governor Alfred Smith to head a commission charged with reorganizing the state's administrative structure. Moses became a key adviser to Smith, and during Smith's first two terms (1918-1920 and 1922-1924) he gained essential experience in practical politics. This, combined with his expertise in the theory of government, prepared Moses for his role as New York's "Master Builder."

In 1924 Smith appointed Moses to the presidency of the newly-created Long Island State Park Commission, a body whose enabling legislation Moses himself had drawn up. Together with the State Parks Council, of which Moses became chairman, this body had unprecedented power to appropriate land and build park highways. Special purpose non-elective governments such as these were a well-worn progressive device for removing public works and services from the direct control of politicians and from what many considered an unthinking electorate. Moses' contribution, aside from the extraordinary powers given the bodies he helped to create, was his ability to build a public, political, and special interest constituency for such bodies. This made them, and him, truly independent forces in state and local administration.

During the remainder of the 1920s Moses used this power to fight for automobile highways and recreational facilities on Long Island, and each success increased his power. The Northern and Southern State parkways on Long Island embroiled Moses and Smith in a bitter contest with the island's wealthier residents, who feared an influx of what one described as "rabble." This, along with the multi-million dollar development of the island's Jones Beach for public recreation, helped cast Moses, as well as Smith, as a promoter of public works for the masses.

In 1928 Smith left office to run for the U.S. presidency and was succeeded in the governorship by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had come into conflict with Moses during Smith's administration. Roosevelt could not, however, remove Moses from his positions in the park system. As popular with the press and with some reformers as he was disliked by many state politicians, Moses had begun to build a power base independent of electoral outcomes.

The Great Depression and the New Deal brought Moses fully into his own. His mastery of the details of legislation and of public works planning made Moses invaluable to New York City's activist mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, and Moses' growing network of connections made him increasingly invulnerable to political change. After Moses' disastrous defeat as Republican candidate for the governorship of New York in 1934, LaGuardia appointed him commissioner of the newly-created New York City Park Department, with power to "coordinate" all city parks and "related developments." In effect this gave Moses an important voice in transportation and public facilities policy throughout much of the city. Within a few months of his appointment, 1,700 projects large and small had been completed.

The "Master Builder" at Work

Even more important, Moses was the dominant member and, from 1936, chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority, charged with creating a 22-lane auto-sorter between three New York boroughs. As later modified, this authority had the power to construct tributary roads and became effectively self-perpetuating because it could begin new projects with revenues from the original bridge. Even Roosevelt, now president of the United States, was unable to have Moses removed from the chairmanship of this powerful body, whose first project called for $44 million in federal funds. When Roosevelt, through his secretary of the interior, attempted to make Moses' removal a condition of federal assistance, Moses took the matter to the press and forced the administration to back down.

By the end of World War II Moses had accumulated posts which gave him the most important single voice in park, bridge, and road construction in the New York area. Appointed New York City construction coordinator in 1946, Moses also presided over public housing and urban renewal policies, which increasingly emphasized austere high rise housing for the poor and expanded use of renewal land for private development. He had a controlling hand in many other public works of the 1945-1965 period, including the building of the United Nations Headquarters, Lincoln Center, the New York Coliseum, and the 1964-1965 World's Fair facilities.

Moses encountered increasing opposition beginning in the late 1950s, when massive "cut and burn" urban renewal tactics began to lose favor nationally. Community opposition to his Cross Bronx Expressway (which displaced 1,500 families in a single one-mile stretch) was followed by revelations of scandals involving the use of urban renewal land in which some of Moses' associates were implicated. Moses' press support had waned by the early 1960s as, for the first time, his vision of the urban future seemed badly out of step with contemporary values. When Moses threatened to resign his park posts in a dispute with New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, the governor accepted. Having been required to relinquish his New York City posts in order to accept the presidency of the World's Fair, Moses retained only one important part of his power base, the Triborough Bridge Authority. He was phased out of this post as well when the authority was merged into a new Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1968.

Moses spent the remaining 13 years of his life promoting projects which he favored and defending himself and his policies against the opponents of large-scale autocratic planning who held public attention during the 1970s. Robert Caro's massive 1974 biography of Moses, The Power Broker, helped fix the reputation of Moses as an anti-democratic policymaker who fostered the auto-mobilization of American cities and the piecemeal destruction of the urban environment he proported to improve. In fact, Moses' legacy was mixed.

Robert Moses left behind 2.5 million acres of state parks, 416 miles of parkways, a dozen bridges, two dams, 568 playgrounds, and numerous important public buildings. He spent the equivalent of $27 billion and displaced at least a quarter of a million people. He spread his approach to urban public works through consultancies in seven other cities and, by example, nationwide. Yet while Moses' power and impact were unique, his aims were not. He promoted parks in the age in which parks were widely seen as a cure for urban ills. He fostered automobile use during the half-century in which middle-class Americans seem to have seen the private car as an unmitigated good. His ruthless approach to urban renewal and apparent disregard for the traditions and opinions of poor city dwellers were not untypical of the 1940s and 1950s. Moses accentuated, but did not create, the approach to urban public works with which he is identified.

Further Reading on Robert Moses

The classic work on Moses is Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974). Moses' own story is in Robert Moses, Public Works: A Dangerous Trade (1970). Alternative views of Moses may be found in Eugene Lewis, Public Entrepreneurship: Toward a Theory of Bureaucratic Political Power (1980), and Cleveland Rodgers, Robert Moses, Builder for Democracy (1952), a pangyric which contains some priceless Moses quotations. For the period after 1974 see New York Times, March 8, 1978; April 29, 1978; and July 30, 1981.