New Yorkers are asking if our city needs another Robert Moses. It is an appropriate question: Despite his mistakes and his failures, nobody, not even Baron Haussmann in 19th century Paris, has ever done more to improve a city. Today, there is a gaping hole where the twin towers once stood. The entire world is watching New York, demanding that we create nothing short of the best new public place. We will do that and more if we understand correctly who Moses was, what he accomplished, how he did it, and then proceed in a very different way, one that suits 21st century New York City.
Long before Moses was forced into retirement in 1968, opposition to his most ambitious projects generated public mistrust of big plans of any sort. Throughout the 1950s, New York newspapers printed stories about popular backlashes against Moses. "Our Neighborhood Is Not a Slum," read placards outside City Hall, where citizens affected by one Moses project or another would hold regular protests. Community leaders gained prominence by revealing "secret deals" between Moses and undisclosed developers to acquire valuable property, displace thousands of residents, and clear whole neighborhoods.
For his part, Moses pressed forward with customary certainty, issuing handsomely illustrated brochures of future projects, complete with technical data and architect's renderings. Everything appeared official and final. He justified this high-handed approach by saying, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." Moses broke a lot of eggs.
And yet, since he died in 1981, there has been an impatient and growing chorus demanding another Moses who can "get things done." If it took Moses five years to produce the Coliseum (with a convention center, office building, and hundreds of apartments), why, it asks, should it take 23 years to produce its replacement? If in four years Moses was able to build 265 playgrounds, a dozen Olympic-size swimming pools, eight golf courses, and three zoos, why, it asks, should we bother with a messy, time-consuming, difficult public process that empowers community opposition? The chorus only grows with every passing year.
Public Entrepreneur Extraordinaire
First things first: our conception of Moses as all-powerful is seriously distorted, and consequently, the demand for another Moses is similarly flawed. It was Moses himself who initially launched the myth of the idealistic, impatient reformer dashing headlong to implement the public's dreams. His biographer, Robert A. Caro, transformed this fictional hero into a larger-than-life power broker with an astounding ability to make almost anything happen. Unfortunately, Caro's sprawling, twelve-hundred page saga left out anything that would spoil this exciting story.
Yes, Moses was a powerful leader who got an incredible amount done. His achievements fill the maps of the northeast: Jones Beach, Thousand Island State Park, the Niagara Power Plant, the Long Island Expressway, and on and on and on. In New York City alone, he built two tunnels under the East River, seven major bridges, 209 miles of highways; he established Lincoln Center, acquired 20,200 acres of parkland and 17 miles of public beach, created 658 playgrounds, and initiated 23 urban renewal projects that became the sites for 39,871 apartments.
Moses' legacy is not just a vast catalogue of public works. The quality of his work is equally important. He hired skilled engineers, architects and landscape designers and demanded the highest quality, down to the smallest details. The comfort stations, menageries, swimming pools, bridle paths, boardwalks, and concession booths that he commissioned were simple and functional, avoided perishable materials, and stressed low upkeep. Sheathed with common red brick, lined with glazed terra cotta, and paved with hexagonal asphalt blocks, the standardized public works were designed to accommodate rigorous use. Today they are admired for their consistent, handsome design, what the critic Paul Goldberger calls "the comfortable civic prosperity" of a grand public realm.
But it is unbalanced to say that Moses built blindly, and built, and built. Starting in the 1920s, he obtained passage of an act preserving the Adirondack Mountains and began the fight for preservation of the natural landscape from outdoor signs. It is similarly erroneous to say that Moses always got his way. For instance, he had to divert the Northern State Parkways away from a route that would have required condemnation of expensive Long Island estates. After decades of work he was forced to abandon his dream of a highway across Manhattan. And many housing projects he announced during the 1950s never came to fruition.
In truth, Moses was not omnipotent, but rather an unusually gifted public servant who had mastered the Art of Getting Things Done. That art deserves attention more than ever.
The Art of Getting Things Done
Moses learned in the first decade of his career that getting things done required finding talented staff. His own education was impeccable: graduating cum laude from Yale, obtaining two degrees from Oxford and later receiving a Ph.D. from Columbia. At Oxford he became interested in British colonial administration, which became the subject of his doctoral dissertation. In 1913, when John Purroy Mitchell was elected as New York City mayor, Moses went to work for the quasi-public Bureau of Municipal Research. Mitchell had run on a platform of cleaning up city government, and Moses was responsible for developing a program to standardize salaries and personnel policies.
His work on structural reform caught the eye of Governor Al Smith, who in 1919 appointed Moses Director of Research for the state's Reconstruction Commission. True to Moses' ideals of efficiency, the commission recommended vast changes, including consolidating departments, creating an executive budget, and extending the Governor's term. When Smith was swept out of office a year later in a Republican landslide, the consolidation proposals went down with him.
These attempts at improving government had a profound effect on the young reformer. Moses became, as he later wrote, "wary of salvation by organization charts and efficiency installation" and "suspicious of extravagant claims of net dollar savings in government." Having failed at structural reform, he decided that "the ideal thing, of course, is to have first-class men operating first-class machines, but first-class men can operate any machine and third-rate people can't make the best and most modern gadget work."
By the time mayor La Guardia appointed him Parks Commissioner, Moses was on the look out for first-class men. He demanded 500 technically trained engineering, landscape, and construction workers. The administration told him to use the agency's 69,000 relief workers, 20,000 of whom were untraceable. Within a week (and after threatening his resignation), Moses had persuaded the Mayor, the Board of Estimate, and the State Administration to appropriate the funds he needed for tools, materials, and his 500 technical supervisors. The following Saturday 1,300 telegrams were sent to likely candidates, and at two o'clock the following afternoon round-the-clock interviewing began. By Monday 453 had received telegrams ordering them to work that morning.
Moses learned the art of getting things done from Al Smith. They had seen little of each other during the Governor's first term in office, but after the 1920 election both had offices on lower Broadway and met regularly to discuss politics. When Smith won re-election in 1922, he brought Moses with him to Albany to write speeches, draft legislation, and lobby for his reform program. By then the young reformer had come to understand the workings of pluralistic democracy. Whenever possible, rather than compete with the very people whose support he needed and with whom he had to compete for funds, publicity, and public approval, Moses would adopt their agenda and work to implement it. The parkway program of the 1920s and 1930s, for example, came directly from the New York State Association, the State Council on Parks, and the Regional Plan Association.
Working for Smith, Moses became familiar with the ways of the bureaucracy and the doings in the halls and cloakrooms of the legislature. He came to understand the limits of legislative and administrative knowledge. Public officials, especially legislators, have little time to prepare their position on every issue. Given a cogent presentation on an important issue, to which they have not given much time or thought, and in the absence of contrary information, they will accept it. Moses transformed this observation into a central feature of his method for getting things done. He produced glossy brochures that often were accepted as accomplished facts soon after they were published. To this day, New Yorkers remember the urban renewal brochures, but have no idea that sixteen of the urban renewal projects he announced never resulted in any action.
Another important reason for Moses' phenomenal success in building roads, bridges, tunnels, and a variety of other public works was his disdain for the unsavory partnership between a patronage-riddled bureaucracy and public officials seeking support for their favorite projects. Moses used semi-autonomous public authorities to avoid the annual budget ritual between agency supplicants and campaigning politicians. The authorities he established streamlined everything. Money for public works came from bonds they issued. Because tolls and user fees provided the revenues needed to repay the bondholders, projects could be financed without legislative appropriations outside the borrowing limits of either the city or state governments. By eliminating the need for political patronage, Moses could hire the sort of elite professional staff he had learned about at Oxford. But, as he would eventually learn, even semi-autonomous authorities with elite professional staffs and independent income streams are subject to public review.
And finally, the art of getting things done requires knowing when to give up. Moses seldom achieved his objectives without adjusting to political, financial, physical, and functional realities. In 1951, for instance, when he announced the redevelopment of Columbus Circle, it included a music center along with the convention center that was to be known as the Coliseum. Money for the music center could not be raised. He tried to add a theater. Finally a year later, Moses submitted a plan for the Coliseum and two apartment buildings. The project required relocating occupants from 24 tenement buildings, a rooming house, a theater, a hotel, a garage, 18 industrial and commercial buildings, and 74 retail businesses within these buildings. In 1953 a pawnshop sued claiming that its property was not substandard and, therefore, condemnation was unwarranted and prohibited by the state constitution. State courts disagreed. In 1956, the Coliseum, a high-rise office building, a garage, and 606 apartments were completed. This clearly was not what Moses originally proposed.
Lessons From The Fall
Serious disapproval of the "Moses Method" emerged during the 1950s. It coalesced around opposition to urban renewal and highway projects from African Americans, Puerto Ricans, the elderly, and low income families who could not afford to move back to the new housing that was built on sites from which they had been moved; from proponents of mass transit who disapproved of highway construction; from urbanists who were outraged at the insensitivity to the urban landscape; and from local politicians who objected to being screamed at by all the other groups.
Moses' carefully fostered coalition of interests had become an illusion. In his quest for the power to get things done, he had become a hydra-headed bureaucrat. As chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, City Construction Coordinator, member of the City Planning Commission, Parks Commissioner, Chairman of the Mayorės Slum Clearance Committee, and participant in almost every major city decision, he was in partnership with himself and needed the support of only a few elected officials to achieve his plans.
Moses could not see the irony of using agencies that had been successful in building roads and parks along empty, polluted shorelines as a coalition for massive redevelopment of small neighborhoods. How could he the man who designed them see that these agencies were no longer part of the political environment? He had begun his career as an idealistic reformer trying to implement a generally agreed-upon agenda by removing politics from government. In the process he had surrounded himself with an elite civil service that insulated his activities from political pressure.
By the late 1950s Moses had become the sort of insular public official he used to ridicule and fight one without an awareness of contemporary social priorities. As such he became a political liability. In 1960 Mayor Robert Wagner kicked him upstairs to run the New York World's Fair of 1964. Eight years later Mayor John Lindsay followed suit by refusing to reappoint him to the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. This effectively ended his career.
No Longer Enough
Some things have not changed since the days that Moses dominated the scene. Elected officials remain in charge. Bond financing by semi-public entities still removes many decisions from the vagaries of politics. Federal funding and its accompanying mandates still shape many projects. America remains deeply involved in its love affair with the automobile. The demand for housing and parkland is as intense as it was when Moses left office.
Nevertheless, 21st century New York is as different from the 19th century city to which the young Moses moved as it is from the 20th century city that he did so much to transform. Glossy brochures are no longer enough to guarantee action. Political machines no longer play a major role. Much of their power has been transferred to neighborhood groups. Projects now require environmental review and must be examined to see if items of historical significance might be jeopardized. Relocatees receive compensation that goes far beyond moving expenses. And New York City's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure requires most major development projects to undergo 180 days of review and three public hearings. There is no way for "expert" professionals, invisible bureaucrats, or backroom politicians to proceed without widespread public participation in the decision-making process.
Technology has made an even bigger difference. The activities of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) are a good example. Its board meetings and many other events are covered by television. All its activities and major documents are available on its computer web site: www.renewnyc.com. When the Port Authority and the LMDC released the first six concept plans for the World Trade Center site, the event was televised worldwide on CNN. More than 4,000 people per second logged on to the LMDC website to look at the plans.
Learning From Moses
There is much to learn from the success and failures of the Moses Method, particularly when it comes to redeveloping lower Manhattan. With so many stakeholders, with the entire city (and indeed the world) in some way involved, Moses' emphasis on implementing agreed-upon agendas becomes a necessity. Consequently, from the very beginning the LMDC established advisory councils representing a broad spectrum of individuals, including the victims' families, business owners, downtown residents and many others. As a result of the advisory council's work and countless meetings with other groups, the LMDC released in April 2002 its draft "Principles and Preliminary Blueprint for Lower Manhattan." It held hearings to receive public comment and issued a revised Blueprint in early July.
This was followed by the release of six concept plans and a public outreach that included meetings with all the advisory councils, a "Listening to the City" event attended by 4,500 people, public meetings throughout the region, and a month-long exhibit at Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan. Out of this process there emerged a consensus around many of the items that became part of the program for rebuilding the World Trade Center site. These included restoring a distinctive skyline, improving connectivity throughout lower Manhattan, integrating the planning for a memorial with the overall planning of the World Trade Center site, respecting the footprints of the Twin Towers, and creating a grand promenade that would connect the site with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Moses' emphasis on quality design (especially with regard to parks and parkways) has been adopted by the LMDC. It also has exhibited the same willingness to compromise that was essential to the Moses Method. When the six concept plans were released in July, the public expressed a strong desire for bolder ideas that would capture the world's imagination. In response, the LMDC offered architects and planners around the world the opportunity to participate in a design study for the World Trade Center site.
In September, the LMDC issued a Request for Qualifications, which attracted over 400 submissions from around the world. Seven design teams made of 28 firms were selected to join an innovative design study that had been started with a design team already involved in the planning process. The ideas that emerged were presented to the public in December 2002. They contained some of the boldest and most imaginative ideas from the world's finest architects and designers and already are inspiring and broadening the public's thinking regarding the future of the World Trade Center site.
At the start of 2003, the LMDC initiated an international competition for a World Trade Center Memorial. It was based on a mission statement and program intended to provide inspiration and guidance for the widest range of designers. The mission statement and program were arrived at in cooperation with committees comprised of victims' families, survivors, first responders, residents, and employees of lower Manhattan, as well as representatives of culture and architectural institutions.
The planning process for lower Manhattan reflects key ingredients of the Moses Method. It also has been designed to avoid its problems. There is no way the LMDC could go it alone, insulated from politics. There are too many stakeholders who have a say in decision-making. Moreover, the LMDC is the creation of the governor and mayor of New York, so it must reflect the realities of the political environment.
More than four decades have passed since Robert Moses played a major role in the planning and development of New York City. However, wonderful as a second Moses might be, there is no need to recreate this remarkable man. Instead of looking for a single heroic figure to solve all of our problems, we need to understand the ways in which he got things done, while avoiding his own personal failings. We need to find an organizational means, suitable to our own times, for translating the needs and desires of a large and diverse population into public policy and physical reality.
Photographs by Alexander Garvin.
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