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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mass transit and highways of NYC

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New York City is considered the capital of the world. It is home to members of every ethnic origin, age, creed, and lifestyle. The buildings comprise a vast majority of architectural styles. The museums house artwork and artifacts from all the four corners of the globe. It is the Mecca of the millennium. One must wonder how did this place evolve from rustic tracts of land and mud streets to super highways outlining block after block of buildings. One man can be held responsible for the modern composition of the five boroughs and much of New York State for that matter. That man’s name evokes terror and admiration in men to this day. His name was Robert Moses. His life and his work are the subject of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Caro explicitly expresses his recognition and moral repugnance for Moses’ public and political projects. His viewpoint is succinctly stated in this title.


The first and more pronounced point ‘The power broker’ implicates Robert Moses as a good deal more than another urban planner. Moses is given the title of a Wall Street man, suave and calculating. The phrase portrays the persuasive and political nature of Moses’ physical achievements and dynamic deals. The former half of the book focuses on how Moses mutated from an idealist to a myopic mastermind of manipulation. The steady upward climb of the stratified ladder to success, the struggles he encountered and the lessons he never forgot, indeed impacted New York just as much as Central Park and the West Side highway. The structures he created and destroyed coupled with the tactics he used to deploy them were manifestations of his formal education and his ‘baptism by fire’ into the public service system.


Educated at Yale, followed by Oxford Moses maintained a conservative elitist view of civil service. Although he demanded complete reform in his acclaimed thesis, he also proposed that only educated gentlemen be employed in the public arena and judged solely on the basis of merit. His career was off to a jumpstart at the training school for public service. A result of the reform movement taking the foreground of New York politics against the oppressive Tammany Hall, was the creation of the Bureau of Municipal Research. The chief aim was to reform the civil service and create a pure form of public service. Moses was recognized as “the man who understood civil service the best.” At a time when there were relatively few experts on the subject he was the top of his field and fresh out of graduate school. His work enabled him to have a firsthand knowledge of political inefficiency, corruption, and legal loopholes. His effort to reform the civil service rating system and simplify the job market was met with strong silent opposition by the patronage favoring fat cat politicians of Tammany. These men taught him how to bury a public endeavor. They also taught him the inescapable necessity of powerful political support to accomplish goals of any size.


“Power built highways and civil service systems. Power was what dreams needed, not power in the hands of the dreamer himself necessarily but power put behind the dreamer’s dream by the man who had it to put there, power that he termed ‘executive support’.”


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This realization took the precedence of Moses’ noble idealism. No longer were truth, beauty, goodness and logic the omniscient gods of his sphere. Power became the absolute deity that he would need to worship in order to achieve his ambitious aspirations. The stages of Robert Moses the man coincide with the degrees of his political involvement. In college while he thought about public service, he was a dreamer of the highest rank. At the Bureau in the city he was a frustrated dreamer, the most dangerous kind. In Albany, working under the Governor’s he compromised idealism for results and worked with the very men he had denounced as competent politicians. He learned the art of graft and lies of omission. There he harnessed the power of men like Al Smith to implement the policies he advocated and in a timely fashion. The gradual progression from dreamer to puppeteer would be complete upon his appointment as ‘City Construction Coordinator’. The power was now in the hands of the dreamer and not merely in his sight.


The establishment of Title 1 in the post-war era gave the federal government a role equal to city hall’s in the new conception of urban renewal. The demand for reformatting of the ever-expanding metropolis coupled with O’Dwyer’s okay for Moses to draft his own powers created a center of control over New York City untouchable by any institution. The man who had once been dubbed the ‘best bill drafter in Albany’ used his talents to slip in a clause,which would alter the face of public service powers for decades to come.


“. . . ‘represent the city in its relations with cooperating state and federal agencies.’ Moses used this phrase, so innocent in appearance, as authorization to deal, thereby making certain that it would be he and he alone who was presenting the city’s position-or his representation of the position-to federal and state officials,. . . to be in other words the sole broker between the city and the governments on which the city was relying for desperately needed funds.”


Essentially Moses became the representative of the city for the federal government and the representative of the federal government for the city. This enabled him to twist facts and omit words in order to convey the response he desired for his proposed projects. Projects such as the major expressways of New York City running traffic to the suburbs and through the metropolitan area called for the eviction of a substantial portion of borough voters. Regardless of opposition from O’Dwyer and other members of The Board of Estimate, Moses created the Cross Bronx Expressway and left a void where there had once been neighborhoods of family businesses and corner culture. This was the single most debilitating act committed against the residents of the underclass residents of New York City by an official they had never elected. Conversely, this expressway enabled traffic to flow more smoothly and created simplicity between suburbs and the urban center. In utilitarian terms, the suffering of these ‘minority’ group were a small price to pay for the long-term benefit to the transportation network of the future.


The paralyzing nature of evicting residents from their homes during an apartment shortage created short-term devastation. The latter half of the title, ‘the fall of New York’ applies to the detrimental impact of Moses’ public service projects, which actually dislocated and discomforted a significant number of the public he claimed to serve. The term ‘fall’ can be interpreted as literal or figurative dependent upon the reader’s opinion of Robert Moses. The literal interpretation would be taken to mean the urban disintegration of a city’s culture and charm. Caro clearly views Moses’ creations of highways and his actions through Title 1 as lethal to the people and the city. The fall could be considered a fall from greatness to a cold, heartless, collaboration of power and politics which is the current image of Manhattan. However I consider the word fall to have two implications. The first being the concept of rock bottom, Moses facilitated the 170’s decline of the city. It is not possible to truly achieve superiority and greatness prior to falling down a vast dark hole. Moses was familiar with this concept. He did not begin to rise in the political sphere until after he was publicly humiliated and stripped of employment by Tammany Hall. He quickly learned the lesson of if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. The second interpretation would be to define the word fall in figurative terms applicable to the season. Autumn is associated with decay, glorious change that spurs a time of drab darkness we know as winter. However this decay is a sort of cleansing process which is necessary to bring the fruitful rewards of spring. This is how I interpret Moses’ action and the title of the book. An eruption of firy colors, as apartment complexes were blasted to burn the old and usher in the new. Public Parks, beaches, mass-transit, and the highway system are all innovations we have to thank Robert Moses for. These innovations have a lasting effect on men and women today and for generations to come. Eventually these systems will be diseased and decrepit and they too will go through a process of resurrection and renewal. That is the simple cycle faced by every living organism on this planet, which includes the urban organism.





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