In our previous explorations on NYC Landmarks and NYC World Fair, the one name that seems to keep coming up is that of Robert Moses. Known across the city as the “Master Builder”, Robert Moses is one of the most influential and polarizing figures in the history of urban planning and real estate development. His life’s work has fundamentally shaped not only the infrastructure of New York City, but on the design of urbanization itself.
Robert Moses was born in 1888 and held political power across the New York Metropolitan Area for the better part of a half century from the 1920s to the 1960s. He is known most prominently — and controversially — as a fervent supporter of the automobile culture and the original city planner responsible for the phenomena of urban sprawl. Over the course of his lifetime, Robert Moses has led public projects in the construction of 13 bridges and 416 miles of parkway across the Tri-State Area. These include the Triborough Bridge, the Verrazano Bridge, the Long Island Parkway, and the West Side Highway.
He is equally known — or at least he should be — for being a tremendous supporter of public parks. The Jones Beach State Park and the Flushing Meadows Corona Park are his more famous and biggest projects, but over the course of his career Moses has built a total of over 2.5 million acres of state parks (for reference, that’s the size of like 3,000 Central Parks put together…) and 658 public playgrounds.
So who was Robert Moses? How was he in such a position to get all these projects done? Robert Moses was one of the powerful people in city government who never held elected office. At the height of his power, he held 12 simultaneous positions as the New York City Parks Commissioner, the New York City Construction Coordinator, the Chairman of the State Council of Parks, and mostly, as the Head of a number of “Public Authorities” that included the Hudson Bridge Authority, the Crossbay Park Authority, the New York City Housing Authority, the New York State Power Authority, the Marine Parkway Authority, the Lond Island State Parks Authority, and his flagship position, the Triborough Bridge Authority. In fact, Robert Moses is considered to be the first person in the history of New York City politics to have leveraged the institution of Public Authorities to position himself in power.
See, a Public Authority is a type of public benefit corporation that maintains public infrastructure. They can issue taxes and tolls just like a government agency, and they can maintain a large degree of independence from municipal regulations just like a private corporation. Robert Moses used this dynamic — and particularly in the case of the Triborough Bridge Authority — to collect tens of millions of dollars a year in city revenues and subsequently raise hundreds of millions of dollars by issuing bonds that he used to fund other public projects that formed into their own subsequent Public Authorities for him to control.
Alas, for people of massive ambitions and who back these ambitions up with getting massive things done, they inevitably get themselves met with massive opposition. Robert Moses became increasingly controversial over the span of his career as his various urban renewal projects became infamous for displacing local residents of his sites. The greatest opponent against his master-building career was a journalist named Jane Jacobs. Moses and Jacobs fought a very public war over a project to be known as the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The project would have replaced a significant portion of today’s Soho, Little Italy, and Greenwich Village streets with an expressway running from the Westside Highway to the FDR, as well as displace about 2,000 families and 1,000 local businesses when the walk-up buildings along the expressway were proposed to be torn down and replaced with upscale high-rises.
Jane Jacobs was an acclaimed urbanist and a frequent contributor to magazines like Fortune and Architectural Forum. She was a strong critic against the Lincoln Center project, but as a Greenwich Village resident, she took to actively fighting against the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs formed and became the leader of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a committee made up of local residents of the Village and other neighborhoods that would be affected by the project. Their victory over Robert Moses in ultimately having the LOMEX project cancelled ended up being the biggest setback of Moses’ career. In the end, Moses considered himself to have never broken through with shaping the island of Manhattan to his vision, and that has for better or worse, left a legacy of Manhattan being one of the very few major urban centers in the world where one can truly live a commuter life without needing a car.
See you at the next exploration!