Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A blast from the past...Robert Moses in his own words

The document at this link --

 -- is an amazing artifact of urban America in the half century from the 1920s through the 1970s. (h/t Steve Lawton) 

Born in 1969, I literally grew up in the place that Robert Moses left me -- a disfigured but still magnificent New York. I can safely say my anger and awe at reading the man at length in his own words are in equal proportion. He is revealed as a perfectly magnificent bastard in every way. Each purported defense against a supposedly false accusation, each instance of Red-baiting, and every quotation from other angry old men (I mean -- Leo Durocher!) just seals the verdict of history tighter, and the lack of self-consciousness and introspection is complete and utterly impregnable. This is a man who never gave anything he did a second thought and was proud to have done so. Reading this, I have the distinct feeling Caro was too easy on Moses in The Power Broker…and that is saying a lot.

Now, I've touched on Moses at this weblog before -- 2011-18 (Reviewing an Anthony Flint piece in The Boston Globe) and 2010-13 (Reconsidering Jane Jacobs' Legacy). But I don't think I've indicated quite how visceral my distaste for and disappointment at the man and what he represents are. I think I was in 9th grade when I got The Power Broker as a Christmas present from my mother and it became a kind of Rosetta Stone for finally understanding the everyday world of late 1970s/early 1980s New York -- a place demonstrably in decline with abandoned and burned out neighborhoods, graffiti covered and broken-down subways, sprawling highway infrastructure that had been punched through neighborhoods and used to seal off the waterfront from the rest of the city already crumbling due to lack of maintenance, and big project failures like Westway showing that the party was over and the hangover was well underway. 

All of it suddenly made sense -- we had had choices, and we had routinely chosen the wrong things. And in the area of infrastructure, Robert Moses was largely responsible for decades of bad choices, both in the major mistakes actually made and in the meaningful opportunities squandered, and there were many of both. For every Cross-Bronx or Gowanus Expressway, there was also the failure to save Penn Station or expand the subway system. It may well be true that had Moses not existed, the zeitgeist would have had to create him, so perfectly did he embody the mid-century's headlong rush to both refashion our cities in the image and likeness of a happy motoring republic (credit: Jim Kunstler) and then to abandon those same cities at the earliest opportunity on the auto infrastructure thus created. But that does not absolve him from responsibility in gutting a great and good city and leaving the remains at the side of the road. The pattern repeated itself over and over across this great land -- New York was not unique in this respect, it's just that its problems were that much more pronounced because they were at that much greater a scale.

Blog Post No. 2015-3.

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