Claims that planner’s NYC vision was motivated by bigotry fall far short.
The name Robert Moses inspires rage among right-thinking New Yorkers and bike-lane enthusiasts everywhere, who claim the master builder of New York was a racist and segregationist. The mania for purifying history to reflect the present day has now led to revisionist demands that we cancel him, removing his name from parks and public works around the state..
But the passionate hatred for Moses is rooted in urban legend, a shallow understanding of New York City history and a misreading of “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s biography of Moses. Some clarity is in order.
One commonly repeated factoid about Moses is that, while he built 11 swimming pools around the city, he did not want minorities to use them. Thus, according to a recent op-ed in these pages by Jason Haber, Moses “purposely set those built in Harlem to colder temperatures, believing, for whatever reason, that African Americans didn’t like to swim in cold water.”
But Haber doesn’t even get Caro’s cockeyed version of the story right. According to Caro, “while heating plants at the other pools kept the water at a comfortable 70 degrees, at the Thomas Jefferson Pool, the water was left unheated.”
But the Thomas Jefferson Pool was in East Harlem, which in the 1930s was mostly an Italian neighborhood — it was the “white” pool, while Colonial Park Pool (now Jackie Robinson Pool) in Central Harlem was the “black” pool. So, because he was a racist, Moses built a nice, heated pool for black Harlemites, and kept the white pool uncomfortably cold. Funny way to show your racism.
Seth Barron is associate editor of City Journal and director of the NYC Initiative at the Manhattan Institute.