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If the story of urban renewal in New York City were a novel, Robert Moses would be its hero and its villain. If it were a film, the entire thing would be shot from above, the ambient noise from cars and the interlocking parts of expressways superseding human characters, except for Moses who would be implicated in this perspective. If it were a series of short stories, it would be told—as I decided once—through absences, through portraits of the neighborhoods that were decimated by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Major Deegan and other projects he was responsible for, and in this version Moses’s presence would be only ghostly and unnamed.
The story of Robert Moses and New York is well-trod territory. He became active in the shaping of public space of the city in the early 1920s while working for Governor Al Smith in Albany, when he drafted the proposal for the role he would eventually occupy for forty years: first as president of the Long Island State Park Commission, and later as commissioner of the New York City Parks Department. During his first fifteen years in politics, Moses was seen as a reformer. He oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Promenade, the great beaches of Long Island, the renovation of Central Park, as well as dozens of playgrounds, pools, and parkways throughout the city. It wasn’t until later, when he seemingly could not stop building, that he was seen as a tyrant.
In 1936, a couple of years after Fiorello LaGuardia appointed Robert Moses as both Parks Commissioner and Chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority, Moses was undergoing a transformation from the guy who saved New York City from the Depression into “the power broker,” as dubbed by Robert Caro in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Moses had, throughout the 1930s, created a number of different toll-collecting authorities, the TBA being the most powerful, whose revenue was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department, but allocated in full to the various authorities’ infrastructure projects. In addition to the tolls, Moses also had at his disposal President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal funds—he was free now to build and build. This new freedom would be made manifest in the landscape he was engineering. His earlier focus on parks and pools and scenic byways shifted to expressways, bridges, and a public housing plan that looked like a good idea only from the bird’s eye view—drab, twenty-five-story towers that neatly stacked low-income homes to replace those which, many miles away, had been flattened by new pavement.
This second act of his career is what he’s chiefly remembered for today, as citizens of New York continue to forge—by foot, car, or Section 8 application—through a civic landscape he almost unilaterally designed. […]