This week and next no fewer than three museum exhibits will be opening in New York City examining the work of Robert Moses. His job titles seem prosaic: New York City Parks Commissioner, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Chairman, and the like. However, in those positions Moses created the highways and bridges now integral to the New York experience, and peppered the city with playgrounds, parks, and pools.
I have been obsessed with Moses since tackling Robert Caro’s doorstop biography of him, “The Power Broker.” Reading it during a six-week stay in Helsinki when I had more down time than I expected, I was struck by how central to the warp and woof of my own existence the works of Moses are.
Like one afternoon when my nowwife and I were taking a walk around Harlem and I got hungry and bought some chicken at a KFC and she watched me eating it in a nearby park. We spontaneously noticed what a gem of a park it was; turns out Moses built it. Not to mention Riverside Park, which we lived next to, where one day a Rottweiler a lady was walking saw me sitting on my bench and made a quick 90-degree turn to come over and give me some licks hello.
Moses also built Lincoln Center. When I was a younger soul newly encountering opera, classical music, and theater, I thought that somewhere in front of its fountain was where I would like to expire.
One is supposed to condemn the center for having its “back to” an Amsterdam housing project. But my first apartment in New York five years ago happened to be a block from those projects, for which reason I recall that reaching Lincoln Center’s entrance meant walking one block and turning a corner. In one essay Ralph Ellison mentions black laborers in that neighborhood before Lincoln Center was built casually discussing the merits of various opera divas. I doubt that block and a half meant they never went to the opera again — in fact, since the Met used to be further downtown, they now were even closer.
And to me, for five years the Triborough Bridge has been not only what I cross to get to the airports, but also a thing of great beauty.
Moses built all of this and so much more in just a few decades. Even his detractors concede that no one, when municipal funds were always sparse, could have pulled off so much in so little time.
Moses was a kind of genius, slipping a clause into the Triborough Authority’s charter granting him authority over all roads leading to the bridge — which, technically, meant any road that could be traced to it even from multiple miles away, i.e., all roads in New York.
It is hard to imagine that anyone could have done so much after Moses’s downfall in the 60s, when Washington was famously telling New York to drop dead.
Yet as Mr. Caro teaches us, socially Moses was a friendless, hobbyless, racist boor and pitiless class snob. As such I have also been struck by how he has polluted my life and that of others.
He was numb to the benefits of public transit. My once-weekly early morning trek to do NPR’s “News and Notes” at Second Avenue and 43rd is so long because Moses had no interest in building a Second Avenue subway line. I missed the plane I first booked to that Helsinki stay because I got stuck in Long Island Expressway traffic — and wouldn’t have if Moses had allowed a rail line to be built down the middle of it.
The splendor of Riverside Park tapers off in Harlem because Moses did not consider its residents worthy of it. And never mind how his expressways, pushing aside countless apartment buildings in working-class neighborhoods, drove cash-strapped people to festering tenements elsewhere.
Grievous mistakes. But ultimately, my evaluation of Moses is in the vein of all of those TV showings of “It’s a Wonderful Life” a month ago. What would New York life be without him?
I got a lively sense of the answer the other day, stuck on one of Manhattan’s cross streets in the 30s designated, with poignant optimism, as throughlanes. Manhattan without Moses might well be an island the automotive bypassing of which would require, other than in the wee hours, 60 minutes-plus of putt-putting through a video-game onslaught of crazy taxis, lethargic buses, and clueless dodos blocking the box — with maybe seven playground parks and no Triborough.
And, I do not accept that I should never approach Manhattan in an automobile at all. I ride the subways plenty — but sometimes, carrying a bunch of presents to Connecticut or a chair up to a friend’s on 86th, I salute Moses in an assertion from his riposte to Caro’s book: “We live in a motorized society.”
Considering the benefits of so much of his work, I cannot help standing in awe of Moses as an antihero, and I can’t wait to get to the exhibits in February.
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