Robert Moses - getting his fair share of posthumous attention

Robert Moses with Battery Bridge model - Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Moses continues to get his fair share of posthumous attention and his role in NYC's history continues to be cemented, though not along the lines that he would have liked. Untapped Cities recently ran an interesting blog post on 5 Things in NYC We Can Blame on Robert Moses, commemorating his birthday by revisiting some of his controversial legacy. Thankfully, not all of his projects came to fruition, notably the Lower Manhattan and Mid Manhattan expressways.

What is interesting about Robert Moses is that he was never elected to public office. Yet, somehow, he was effectively the most powerful man in New York, a story told in the Pulitzer winning book, The Power Broker. He had developed a peculiar form of institution called “authorities”, which were designed to exert great power with little accountability. This was exemplified by the Triborough Bridge Authority:

"Language in its Authority's bond contracts and multi-year Commissioner appointments made it largely impervious to pressure from mayors and governors. While New York City and New York State were perpetually strapped for money, the bridge's toll revenues amounted to tens of millions of dollars a year. The Authority was thus able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars by selling bonds, making it the only one in New York capable of funding large public construction projects. Toll revenues rose quickly as traffic on the bridges exceeded all projections. Rather than pay off the bonds Moses sought other toll projects to build, a cycle that would feed on itself." (Wikipedia entry on Robert Moses).

All of this meant that Robert was essentially free to do as he pleased - and in some ways he saw New York as his sandbox - to the extent that it took the President of the United States to stop Robert's insistence on a proposed Brooklyn Battery Bridge.

Robert was known for being particularly decisive and stubborn, and dreamt-up grand planning schemes that often occurred at the expense of individual property owners and the poor. He did so, even when slight changes may have spared the aggravation. He met his match, however, with Jane Jacobs, a story told in "Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s master Builder and Transformed the American City". Ironically, stoking the ire of Jane Jacobs could be seen as one of his greatest - though perhaps most unintended - of legacies.