2007-11-14 / Book Review

'Robert Moses And The Modern City' Looks At Builder



Robert Moses and the Modern City:
The Transformation of New York
Hilary Ballon and
Kenneth T. Jackson, editors
W.W. Norton Company, New York
ISBN 13:978-0-393-73206-1
February 2007/304 pages/Cloth $50
Among the many events taking place to herald the start of the new year

this past January was

an exhibition concerning the work of one man held in three museums around the city concurrently. "Robert Moses and the Modern City", the exhibition's collective title, documented the ambitious projects that Robert Moses spearheaded and examined his legacy within the context of contemporary New York.

For those who missed the exhibition at any or all of its venues, Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, a collection of photographs and essays, was published to coincide with the opening of the exhibition of the same title. The first book to examine Moses' career since Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York was published in 1974, Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York is co-edited by Hilary Ballon, curator of the three exhibitions and an architectural historian and professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, and Kenneth T. Jackson, Columbia University Jacques Barzun Professor in History and the Social Sciences. Ballon and Jackson co-wrote the introduction and contributed essays to the book, Jackson, "Robert Moses and the Rise of New York, The Power Broker in Perspective" and Ballon, "Robert Moses and Urban Renewal, The Title I Program".

The three great bridges built under his tenure as the head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA), the Triborough, pictured at right, Bronx- Whitestone and Throg's Neck, along with the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge and his road-building projects had some of the greatest and lasting effects on the borough... The three great bridges built under his tenure as the head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA), the Triborough, pictured at right, Bronx- Whitestone and Throg's Neck, along with the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge and his road-building projects had some of the greatest and lasting effects on the borough... The exhibition was accompanied by scale models, many never before exhibited or seen for the first time in decades, historic objects, plans, and vintage and monumental new photographs by Andrew Moore, Dartmouth College artist-in-residence, intended to show how Moses' projects have been absorbed into the fabric of the city. Many of Moore's photographs make up "Robert Moses Projects: A Portfolio of Photographs" that comprises the first section of Robert Moses and the Modern City. Seven essays on Moses and his work, including those by Ballin and Jackson, follow: "Equipping the Public Realm: Rethinking Robert Moses and Recreation" by Marta Gutman, an architectural historian on the City University of New York faculty; "Rebuilding New York in the Auto Age; Robert Moses and his Highways" by Owen D. Gutfreund, an expert on highway construction and an urban historian at Barnard College, Columbia University; "Robert Moses, Race, and the Limits of an Activist State" by Martha Biondi, professor of African American history at Northwestern University, Chicago; "Revolt of the Urbs: Robert Moses and His Critics" by Robert Fishman, a writer on urban topics and University of Michigan professor of architecture and urban planning, and posthumously, "Robert Moses and City Planning" by Joel Schwartz, who had been an urban historian on the faculty of Montclair State University in New Jersey.

The book also includes the first comprehensive catalogue of the building program Moses planned for New York City. "Catalog of Built Work and Projects in New York City, 1934-1968" occupies nearly half of the 336 pages of Robert Moses and the Modern City and is perhaps the best place for the reader to start if the intent in reading this book is to come away with some idea of the magnitude of Moses' work and his impact on the city his family moved to in 1897 from his birthplace, New Haven, Connecticut, when he was a boy of nine. His impact on Queens alone boggles the mind- Astoria Pool, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and its zoo (now known as the Wildlife Conservation Center) and the Panorama of New York City, Jacob Riis Park and Beach, Rockaway Beach, Jamaica Bay and Marine Park, the Rockaway Improvement Project, the Daniel M. O'Connell and Howard A. van Dohlen War Memorial Playgrounds and numerous other smaller, unnamed sites throughout the borough.

The three great bridges built under his tenure as the head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA), the Triborough, Bronx-Whitestone and Throg's Neck, along with the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge and his road-building projects had some of the greatest and lasting effects on the borough and give rise to much of the controversy surrounding his reputation. While the Grand Central, Interborough (now Jackie Robinson), Marine and Cross Island Parkways and Long Island, Van Wyck, Whitestone, Clearview and Brooklyn-Queens Expressways connected the borough to the rest of the city and made travel into and especially out of the city much faster and easier than had previously been the case, many of Moses' critics felt he imposed his ideas of a society in which everyone owned a car and public transportation was a mere afterthought on a public and a landscape which were more injured than improved.

From 1924 until 1968, Moses built public works- city and state parks, highways, bridges, playgrounds, housing, tunnels, beaches, zoos, civic centers, exhibition halls and the 1964-65 New York World's Fair through several appointive offices, at one time holding 12 positions, including City Parks Commissioner, State Parks Council head, the State Power Commission head and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority chairman. The Caro biography showed Moses in an unfavorable light, accusing him of wielding enormous power to destroy much of the urban fabric that had made up New York City. Robert Moses and the Modern City, in contrast, shows how Moses reshaped the fabric of New York City and emphasizes Moses' impact through the structures he built, from Lincoln Center to the Triborough Bridge, the West Side Highway to the Cross Bronx Expressway. His public projects, reassessed in Robert Moses and the Modern City by notable urbanists, continue to exert a strong influence in the lives of New Yorkers, one that is not entirely negative.

The contributors to Robert Moses and the Modern City stress that Moses accomplished what he did because of the favorable combination of circumstances- WPA work-relief funds to finance his park projects in the Great Depression of the 1930s and Title 1 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1949 that allowed him to lead the nation's largest slum clearance program in the 1950s are two examples- and his seemingly endless drive and determination to make New York City truly the capital of the modern world. He did not originate the idea of the public works authority, an agency seemingly answerable to no one, but once he saw the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in action he realized that the concept could give him the money to finance his projects and so he created and led the Triborough Bridge Authority to finance and build the bridge of that name. Its revenues helped bankroll his other pet project, the 1964-65 World's Fair on the site of its 1939-40 predecessor.

Moses began to fall out of favor in the 1960s, starting after a dispute about a project when then Governor Nelson Rockefeller accepted his resignation from some of the public positions Moses held, a previously successful tactic in getting his own way, in 1962. His efforts to put a superhighway through Washington Square were stymied- by "a bunch of mothers" in his phrase- and his obstinacy and single minded pursuit of his ends did not prevail. In 1968, when he stepped down- or was forcibly removed- from his position as head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, the power and influence he had wielded so successfully toward his ends were gone. Moses died in July 1981 at the age of 91, largely ignored by the public he claimed to have served for decades.

Robert Moses and the Modern City is a work of scholarship by scholars. It is extensively footnoted, indexed and cross-referenced, and its drawings and photographs have been carefully chosen to illustrate the underlying premises of the text. A little more text to explain the significance of some of the photographs might have been helpful and the text itself can seem bland and even a little dry at times. Such instances, however, are few. While this book will not fit comfortably in a pocket or backpack, it will adorn the coffee table or the library shelves of anyone who wants a look at Moses that differs from that of Caro and who is willing to look at all sides of an issue.

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