Robert Moses and New York: Planning for Failure

A Moses mosaic, by Andy Warhol, installed at Flushing Meadows.  Courtesy Flickr user Wally Gobetz. http://bit.ly/1eEq223

A Moses mosaic, by Andy Warhol, installed at Flushing Meadows.
Courtesy Flickr user Wally Gobetz. http://bit.ly/1eEq223

Failure can often be attributed to inaction–“failure to plan,” the overused saying goes, “is planning to fail.” But sometimes, even forthright goals can lead to actions with calamitous results–commendable efforts to curb society’s ills can cause more problems than they hope to solve.

In the case of Robert Moses, New York City’s proclaimed “master builder,” the man responsible for reshaping America’s largest city with massive bridge building and infrastructure projects,  it would take decades before the true cost of “progress” could be assessed.


Moses didn’t suffer from a failure to plan. Far from it. While Moses never served in an elected position, instead seizing power of numerous New York municipal authorities and commissions during his half-century tenure, he nevertheless wrought huge change on the city’s landscape. His plans for massive public works projects manifested themselves in a state-wide parkway system, in the Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone and Verrazano-Narrows bridges, in vast urban renewal programs including the “towers in the park” style Stuvyesant Town housing project, in the 1964 World’s Fair and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, in Shea Stadium and Lincoln Center. Moses influenced the destiny of even the United Nations, exerting his influence and power to secure, prepare and ultimately build the international organization’s world headquarters on 44th St.

Moses' proposed Battery Park bridge--narrowly defeated by critics.  Courtesy Flickr user Josh S. Jackson. http://bit.ly/1a8hKyC

Moses’ proposed Battery Park bridge–narrowly defeated by critics.
Courtesy Flickr user Josh S. Jackson. http://bit.ly/1a8hKyC

Moses never failed to plan. Instead, he planned on a grand scale. Conspicuously missing from his plans, however, were the people they intended to serve.

While Moses never obtained a driver’s license, like Le Corbusier, his work often turned to considerations for the automobile, and planning for its use in society. He envisioned transforming the city landscape with limited-access expressways, some winding through skyscraper-lined canyons. At the southern tip of Manhattan, Moses’ plans called for a massive Battery Park bridge and a bowl full of spaghetti-like access roads. Similar proposals were designed to criss-cross the island. According to critics, his plans were deaf to stakeholders–in Battery Park, plans would have destroyed the park’s historic value.

Robert Moses and a model of his unrealized Battery Bridge project. Source - Library of Congress.

Robert Moses and a model of his unrealized Battery Bridge project. Source – Library of Congress.

Moses’ plans lavished millions on major infrastructure investments and engineering feats–with little consideration for the people living in those places. Highway and bridge projects made open spaces accessible for city residents, but conversely, made New York’s core accessible from previously isolated areas.

Once implemented, the glossy plans for bucolic roadway and parks projects drafted by New York’s so-called “master builder” often had unintended, insidious consequences. Including and especially, as the quarter-billion-dollar Cross-Bronx Expressway project revealed, for New York’s historic neighborhoods.

As detailed in Robert Caro’s seminal Moses biography, The Power BrokerMoses’ Cross-Bronx was a colossal feat. Slicing below-grade between rows of existing buildings, an army of workers cut “a deep gash in the earth 120 and more feet wide and a mile long,” wrote Caro. Residents of East Tremont, just one of the diverse working class neighborhoods of the South Bronx subject to Moses’ scalpel, described a life during the construction process as nothing short of living in a war zone. Coupled with Moses’ power to build great freeways was a largely unfettered authority for eminent domain–the Cross-Bronx Expressway drove residents out of East Tremont as fast as it could truck new asphalt in.

“As they left,” reports Caro, “the chief reason for staying in the neighborhood left with them. ‘To me, East Tremont was friends,’ Cele Sherman says. ‘When there was a Jewish holiday, you met your neighbors on the street, walking. Well, one Rosh Hashanah, I walked down from my house down Clinton Avenue to Southern Boulevard, crossed over and walked back, and didn’t meet one person I could say ‘Hello’ to. What was the sense of staying?'”

The Cross-Bronx Expressway cuts a swath through the city. Courtesy Flickr user Josh S. Jackson. http://bit.ly/1aA2asm

The Cross-Bronx Expressway cuts a swath through the city.
Courtesy Flickr user Josh L. Jackson. http://bit.ly/1aA2asm

Thousands of families were displaced to make way for the Cross-Bronx corridor. Neighborhoods were permanently destroyed. The true costs of the project were never weighed against its benefits. Moses did not, perhaps could not, factor the social costs (the value of strong families, strong neighborhoods) or cultural costs (the value of strong religious, cultural and social traditions) into the overall equation. Robert Moses once said: “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize.” Residents of the South Bronx were powerless to do either.

How could Moses and others behind massive public improvement projects have equitably incorporated the thoughts of residents into decision-making? Can the intangible benefits of a thriving community be weighed against the marketable value created by a freeway? These questions went largely unasked in the city planning practiced during Moses’ career–in New York and elsewhere.

The Cross-Bronx Expressway was not the last of Moses’ projects. However, as Caro notes, it marked a turning of the tide. Moses would encounter formidable opposition–including the legendary urban advocate Jane Jacobs–as he approached later projects.

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2 thoughts on “Robert Moses and New York: Planning for Failure

  1. Thanks Andrew!

    Apparently, the corollary to Moses’ saying, “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize.” should be, “And, those who can’t criticize (or listen to critiques), administrate.”

    For a person who never deigned to acquire a driver’s license (or, apparently, pick up a hammer) he seemed to have driven a lot of construction activity. I suspect that if he had known how to drive (and understand the associated costs) he would have been less enamored with the prospect — the same goes with construction and its attendant disruptions to people’s lives.

  2. Great comments, as always, Dean. Always appreciated.

    Maybe we should be glad Moses wasn’t out putting rubber to pavement or swinging hammers–while sitting in traffic, he probably would have found plenty more places to expand highways, build double decker bridges and otherwise turn over public funds to the facilitation of private means of transportation. 😉

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