Cbr13Bingo – Cityscape!
I didn’t grow up in New York and I’ve only been a handful of times to the city. I spent several years living in Central Tier, where some of the legends of the city don’t quite permeate, but I suppose I still experienced my share of Robert Moses projects. Robert Moses held around a dozen different posts in and around New York City and New York state from the early 1920s through the late 1960s. If you’ve basically stepped foot in New York state, you’ve most likely experienced a project he headed up and if you’ve spent any time in New York City at all, you’ve come across multiple of them. Movies and tv will supply you will plenty of others. So to say who Robert Moses was is a little challenging because while he was a public figure for most of his tenure, his specific role(s) in government were carved out through bureaus, appointed positioned, chairmanships of trusts and financial groups, and other non public-facing organizations. I’d have to go back and check, but I am fairly certain he never held a single elected post. What this did and meant is that once he held the reins of power, he did so mostly under the eyes of other powerful people in the city and state, and because he was almost never beholden to any kind of plebiscite, that power stayed with him. He begins his career more or less pursuing a dream or a vision of more parks. The way it’s described in this book, Moses was riding a commuter rail out to Long Island and he noticed that there were tons of undeveloped land out there that he envisioned could be used for public good. He envisioned public beaches, huge park systems, parkways to drive to these places, and small train systems to get there. A few problems: one, Long Island was not part of NYC (and he worked for the city) and two, a lot of very rich and very powerful people owned a lot of the land in Long Island, and purposely kept it mostly undeveloped. Through a combination of creative interpretations of law and careful and seemingly benign new laws, Moses began to transform large parts of Long Island to complete his vision. He helped to create the modern definition of “eminent domain”; he both legally and illegally used public funds to force private citizens and local governments to give up properties and resources; he rigged elections (more or less) to cause towns to sell off public land; and he did all this with no real mandate, legal power, or backing. He learns a valuable lesson early on: if you break ground on a project almost immediately, it forces politicians to either say you tricked them by underselling the cost or risk government funds to go wasted. He weaponized sunk cost. And all this for parks.
What happens next over the next few decades is that Robert Moses’s specific love for parks, which worked because the concept of parks was hugely popular and therefore became an issue that politicians would run their campaigns, gave way to his broad love of holding power. He saw himself as a builder, first of parks, but this vision opened up especially to roads and highways, bridges, huge parks (like Flushing Meadows), and other similarly large and, most important, visible building projects (not buildings really, although he built lots of those two). By carefully manipulating public and private funding concerns he built up his own power to where he controlled through his influence a three term governor and then a whole series of New York City mayors. Sometimes these politicians were willing participants, sometimes they were unwitting, and sometimes they were essentially extorted into appeasing him because of the power he held. The ways in which this power was built is complex, and takes the space of the book to really understand, but to give one example of its potency. If you can imagine Battery Park in Manhattan, at the southern tip just past Wall St, Moses envisioned connecting that space to Brooklyn by way of a giant bridge. He had the votes, he had the builders, he had the design (which he deliberately undersold the cost), and the only opposition was a tunnel plan that was superior in almost every way. The tunnel would take longer, but would be more efficient, cheaper, and important to the opponents of the bridge, wouldn’t mar the historical vista of the spot with one more bridge. Robert Moses was on precipice of beginning the project, having secured the backing of the state. But there’s no bridge there today? Why? Because Franklin Roosevelt stepped in and quashed it and was only able to do so because he claimed that New York harbor was essential to the war effort. So only largest war in the history of world and personal animus of the most powerful president in US history could stop Robert Moses. And FDR only did this because he and Moses hated each other from FDR’s time as New York governor.
Moses only ran for office once and got thrashed. He lost a bid for governor in 1934 and was a disastrous public speaker. He hated anyone who questioned him and sought to personally destroy them or things they loved, not only for crossing him, but also for failing to fully acquiesce.
It’s really hard to overemphasize how readable and compelling this 1200 page book is. There’s almost not a single moment or detail wasted with unnecessary or inconsistent information and narrative. I won’t say more because I really do recommend it. It’s long, but readable. A very slow marathon of a book that’s compelling to the last page.