How Power Hungry Car Lover Single Highhandedly Destroyed New York

The Power Broker; Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert A. Caro, 1975
This classic Pulitzer Prize work at 1162 pages details the 44 year career from 1924 to 1968 of Robert Moses, the most powerful builder in New York history. Born in 1888, Moses grew up at the birth of the automobile, was educated at Yale and Oxford and earned a PhD degree from Columbia. Starting his career as a reformer helping Governor Al Smith reorganize the government of the state of New York, he asked Smith to be named Commissioner of Parks and Parkways for Long Island and Moses drafted the legislation creating the position from which he could not be removed and in which he had absolute power of property condemnation, which he called “appropriation”. He built a reputation for incorruptibility and non partisanship; a man who got things done. Politicians including FDR in 1932, while disliking Moses and his methods, relied on his accomplishments in their campaigns. Moses took over New York City’s parks consolidating the system into a single commission under his total control. He next took over the stalled Triborough Bridge effort drafting his own Triborough Authority legislation to allow his absolute control including bond issuance. His legislation allowed him to hold simultaneously state and city positions, previously not allowed.

Robert Moses Building Randalls Island in 1936
He completed the Triborough system and the West Side Highway including the Henry Hudson Bridge. When traffic levels assured that the bonds could be repaid in eight years or less Moses redrafted the legislation to extend the Authority to cover any bridge or highway in the New York Area and to allow the bonds to be refinanced which allowed the Authority to live forever. The surpluses from tolls were to give Moses a funding power independent of city, state, or federal influence.

The entrance and exit ramps would have required demolition of historic Castle Clinton and much of Battery Park.

Ole Singstad Rendering of the Battery Park Bridge

Just before WWII, Moses proposed a huge bridge connecting Battery Park in Manhattan to Brooklyn. A tunnel, designed by Ole Singstad who finished the Holland tunnel and designed the midtown and Lincoln tunnels, was already planned for the same route. Conservationists were unable to stop Moses proposed destruction of the historic park and contacted Eleanor Roosevelt who told FDR of the plans. The bridge required War Department approval which was denied. Moses was never able to prove FDR was behind the War department decision. For revenge, Moses moved the hugely popular at 2.5 million visits per year, free, Aquarium out of the CLinton Castle and threatened to destroy the Castle itself. He didn’t and Battery Park was later given to the Federal Government for preservation.
Moses added the East River New York Tunnels to his bridge and highway authority and Singstad, who played a significant role in defeating the bridge never designed or built a tunnel in New York again. His existing tunnel plans were implemented exactly as he had drawn them up.
In the mid 1950’s Moses joined with the separate Port Authority, which operated the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson river tunnels to New Jersey, to take advantage of the new Interstate Highway Federal program. Moses was nominal head because of his long relations with Washington. Under the agreement, the Port Authority would add a second level to the George Washington bridge and build interstate highways in New Jersey and connect Staten Island to New Jersey to handle traffic from Moses Verrazano Narrows bridge which he would build between Long Island and Staten Island as well as connecting highways. Tolls were not allowed under the Interstate Highway program.
The Port Authority had opened, in 1950, a multi level commuter bus station on 8th Ave one block from the Lincoln Tunnel entrance. The buses had their own road connecting the station to the tunnel and dedicated lanes through the tunnel assuring that bus commuters would never be stuck in traffic. Under the station was a subway station. When the Port Authority planned the World Trade Center they made provision for subway stations directly under the Center with high capacity escalators to the mall and offices. They also planned a direct PATH link from Hoboken NJ to the Center. Hoboken NJ was the location of the commuter train and bus station connecting to PATH. Imagine if Moses had this foresight into mass transit when he was building Idlewild and the Expressways.
As if this were not enough power for one man, Moses became head of New York electric power where he built huge hydroelectric dams on the St. Lawrence near Niagara. After WWII he extended his power to include nuclear power generation.
At his peak, Moses held 14 independent power positions simultaneously.
During Moses’ entire 44 year career the city and state of New York never spent a single dime on mass transit development and the city and state even failed to maintain the existing plant. In 1924, when Moses came to government, New York Subways were the envy of the world. By 1968 these subways were perhaps the worst in the world. When building his expressway to Idlewild (now Kennedy) airport Moses refused to consider adding a center median rail system. He did the same for the Long Island Expressway denying requests to add a center rail for mass transit. The long Island railroad was allowed to deteriorate even though large numbers of city commuters were dependent on it. It was around this time that planners discovered that Moses had built his many parkways with bridges and overpasses so low buses were precluded from using them. Moses, who never had a driver’s license and had never experienced a traffic jam doomed the entire New York metropolitan area to perpetual traffic jams. His vision was for scenic drives along the water so he built the West Side Highway right on the Hudson River denying Riverside park users access to the River except for exclusive yachting clubs.

His thinking had been shaped in an era in which a highway was an unqualified boon to the public, in which roads were, like automobiles, sources of relaxation and pleasure. Changing realities could have changed his thinking but he was utterly insulated from reality by the sycophancy of his yes men; by his power, which, independent as it was of official or public opinion – of, in fact, any opinion but his own — made it unnecessary for him to take any opinion but his own into account; by, most of all, his personality, the personality that made it not only unnecessary but impossible for him to conceive that he might have been wrong; the personality that needed applause, thereby reinforcing the tendency to repeat the simplistic formula that had won him applause before; the personality that made it possible for him to relate to the class of people that owned automobiles and were repelled by the dirt and noise, such as the dirt and noise he associated with trains; the personality that made him not only want but need monuments and that saw in highways- and the adjunct suspension bridges (“the most permanent structures built by man”) – the structures that would leave a clean, clear ineradicable mark on history; the personality that, driven by the lust for power, made him anxious to build more revenue- (and power-) producing bridges and parking lots (and highways to encourage their use) and that made him indifferent or antagonistic to subways and railroads which would compete with his toll facilities not only for users but for city construction funds. He was insulated from experience. Most of the millions who used his roads were now using them primarily not for weekend pleasure trips but back and forth to work twice a day, five days a week, and driving was therefore no longer a pleasure but a chore; but for Moses, comfortable in the richly upholstered, air conditioned, soundproofed rear seat of his big limousine, driving was still as pleasurable as it had always been. Robert Moses, who had never had to drive in a single traffic jam, really believed that his transportation policies would work.

This blogger experienced the result of his work in 1977 when a group of us traveled by van from Tarrytown NY, home of Washington Irving, to Kennedy Airport on a Friday afternoon following a week of training. Our driver didn’t use a single highway during the entire trip. When we asked him about the route, he explained that side streets were the only to get us to our flights on time. We traversed the entire city from the north and couldn’t use even one of Moses’ creations.

The press treated Moses uncritically with the New York Times leading the cheers until a couple of young, unintimidated investigative reporters with smaller papers started, in 1959, digging into his Title I Federally subsidized housing and slum clearance programs. Soon the reporters were inundated with tips and material on the corruption and suffering. Targets for slum clearance were often not slums at all but stable well maintained neighborhoods. “Slum” clearance was destroying of lives of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers including hard working respectable families. The resulting deluge of stories of horror and corruption forced even the NYT to assign investigative journalists to the stories.

The Incorruptible, Uncorrupting, Apolitical, Utterly Selfless Public Servant Moses had been a synthetic character, largely puffed up by the press. That character had endured for thirty-five years. But in 1959 the process of deflation by the press-a process that had been going on intermittently for several years-had begun in earnest. In that process there had been a large amount of unfairness. But that process had in the end arrived at the truth. At the beginning of 1959, the Moses image had stood in most of its glory, intact except for a few small chips. At the end of 1959, it lay in unsalvageable ruins. Popularity, Al Smith had warned him, was a slender reed. Now the reed was broken.

Moses resigned his position as head of Title I but his reputation was forever tarnished.

Moses with Nelson
Moses had survived many attempts by governors and mayors to reduce his power and all, including FDR had failed.
Then, in 1959 Nelson Rockefeller became governor of New York. Nelson was 50 and Moses was in his 70’s. Nelson was a Rockefeller, with access to power never before seen by Moses in a mayor or governor. Nelson was tougher than Moses. Rockefeller pressured Moses to give up all his parks posts so Nelson could give them to Nelson’s brother Laurance, a man with impeccable credentials in New York’s conservation movements serving for 27 years on the Palisades Interstate Park Commission. The well conceived and run Palisades Interstate Park had been funded heavily by the Rockefellers. Moses made a huge mistake, accusing Nelson of nepotism in the press. All Moses’ park positions were stripped but in compensation Nelson offered Moses Presidency of the 1964 Worlds Fair to be held in Flushing Meadows.

Moses at Flushing Meadows Park
The position came with very attractive compensation which could help Moses pay for care for his ill wife. Moses took the job thinking he could turn Flushing Meadows into a huge Park after the fair ended. The Fair, as the earlier one in 1930 was a financial disaster complete with Moses lavish contracts to friends. In the end Moses had less than $8 million to pay off $24 million in loans. He used the $8 million to create a small park on the site and the creditors were given nothing. Nelson stripped Moses of his remaining highways position and Moses was down to one title, the one that counted, head of the Triborough Authority.
Nelson moved slowly in his efforts to create the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to encompass mass transit and bridges and highways. Nelson ambiguously offered Moses a significant role in the new setup which Moses interpreted as head of Triborough and a position on the board of the MTA. Moses believed he held a trump card that the bondholders would have to approve any change to their bond contract which they would never do without Moses’ approval. The bondholders had agreed that any dispute which arose would be handled in litigation by Chase Bank’s lawyer Thomas Dewey. Moses prepared the Triborough Authority to bring suit. Chase was at that time a private bank owned by the Rockefellers and controlled by David Rockefeller who Moses had worked with for decades. The Rockefeller brothers met at Nelson’s apartment and agreed to a plan. Moses held fire believing Nelson would keep him on at Triborough but on March 1 1968 Triborough went out of business merging into the MTA. Moses was stripped of control of Triborough and offered a consultant’s position at $25,000 per year plus his limousine and driver and secretaries. He was never consulted or given meaningful work again. Moses, at age 79, took the job. Moses lived to the age of 92 dying in 1981 on Long Island.

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