Sunday, August 11, 2013

78. The Hercules of Parks

     The Verrazano Bridge, its graceful span linking Brooklyn and Staten Island ...

File:New York - Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Air.jpg
                                                                                                    Roger Wollstadt

... Lincoln Center, that amazing complex of cultural institutions, its structures and fountain coming magically alive at night ...

File:Lincoln Center Twilight.jpg
                                                                                                            Nils Olander

... the United Nations Headquarters, looming dramatically close by the East River ...

File:United Nations Building NY.jpg
                                                               Ad Meskens

File:Jones Beach WantaghPkwy Approach.jpg

... Jones Beach on the south shore of Long Island, with its broad expanse of sand and elegant bathhouses, accessed by a landscaped six-lane parkway with the Jones Beach water tower soaring in the distance ...

... the massive looming structures of Co-op City, the vast housing complex beside the Hutchinson River in the Bronx ...

File:Co-op City Hutch River.jpg

... and countless other parks, beaches, throughways, housing projects, and playgrounds in and about the city -- all this and more, much more, is the work of one man, said to be the world's greatest builder since the pyramid-building pharaohs of ancient Egypt.  And many of his works bear his name.

File:Robert Moses State Pkwy Shield.svg

File:Robert Moses Cswy Shield.svg

File:Robert Moses with Battery Bridge model.jpg
Moses with a model of his proposed
Brooklyn-Battery Bridge.
     Robert Moses was just a name to me, until I read his biography (see below).  Then I realized that his works are all around us, that New York City's character and history are inseparable from the story of Robert Moses, a man whom I have never had any contact with and whom I wouldn't have wanted to know, but a giant in the history of this city.

     I have said that all these achievements were the work of one man.  This reminds me how Bertolt Brecht, when he encountered a statement like "Caesar conquered Gaul," would comment, "Really?  All alone?"  Of course Moses had assistants -- a whole army of them -- and allies.  But he was the initiator, the innovator, the guiding spirit of these projects, and without him, few of them would ever have been realized.

     Robert Moses (1888-1981) pursued his public works projects under six New York State governors and five New York City mayors, all of whom found in him an invaluable ally and a formidable opponent, but one that they could not do without.  He more than anyone shaped the city of New York; his achievements are everywhere in the city today, as well as throughout Long Island and in upstate New York.  Ambitious, impatient, and arrogant, he gave his life to public works projects, was always burning up with new ideas that he was determined to realize.  And early on he learned that dreams, no matter how vast and dazzling, were not enough; one must have power to make them happen.  So he learned to acquire power and use it.

     Consider a few of his achievements:
  • In the 1920s, when state parks were unknown throughout most of the country, with Governor Al Smith solidly behind him he created 40,000 acres of state parks on Long Island, linking them by landscaped parkways to the city, thus setting an example for other states to follow.
  • In a mere two years he transformed a desolate sandbar on the south shore of Long Island into the vast sandy expanse of Jones Beach, with elegant bathhouses, a boardwalk, a restaurant, and parking lots accommodating tens of thousands of cars.
  • As Park Commissioner under Mayor La Guardia, using thousands of laborers in one year he refurbished every park in the city, removing litter, painting structures, planting trees -- an accomplishment that astonished the press and the public.
  • In Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx he used landfill to join Hunters Island and Twin Islands to the mainland and transformed skimpy little Orchard Beach into a mile-long crescent with gleaming white ocean sand dredged up off the Rockaway beaches and brought in by barge.
  • He completed the Triborough Bridge, a huge project comprising four separate bridges linking three boroughs and two islands, thus creating the first direct link between the Bronx and Queens, and making Long Island and its parks accessible from the city.
  • As part of his West Side Improvement plan he transformed Riverside Park in Manhattan from a mass of mud and dirt into a lush green park free at last of the New York Central tracks and their smoke-belching engines, which he covered over and so made disappear.
  • As part of that same grandiose plan, he created the West Side Highway, built the Henry Hudson Bridge to carried it over the Harlem River into the Bronx, and continued it north to the city line, linking it up with the Saw Mill River Parkway and so at last giving the city a convenient outlet to the north.
  • He was also responsible for the creation of Lincoln Center, the United Nations Headquarters, Co-op City, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, and the New York Coliseum, as well as 416 miles of parkways radiating out from the city into the suburbs, and a massive power dam across the Saint Lawrence River.

     Is it any wonder that for forty years the press and public idolized him as the Hercules of Parks, a zealous and fearless achiever who sought only the public good, free from any political considerations?  And that he himself, immune to modesty, was sure that he would be blessed by future generations, that his works would make him immortal.

     How did he do it?  How did he cope with governors and mayors and bosses, and even at times with presidents?  How could he do anything in a city whose bureaucracy, second in size only to the federal government's, has been described as a huge spongy mass into which good intentions and noble projects sink, never to be seen again?

     The answer is: through power, sometimes blunt and naked, sometimes veiled and discreet, but always and unmistakably power.  He functioned for years as Park Commissioner, Construction Coordinator, and member of the City Planning Commission.  But his greatest power lay in the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, whose board he dominated.  An authority is a strange creature not fully understood by the public (myself included).  It has powers akin to those of a large private corporation and even, to some extent, the powers of a sovereign state.  Unlike a public agency, it needn't show its books to the public, and Moses never did, so no one knew what the authority's revenues were (and they were vast), or how Moses used them.  

     Essential to Moses' power was the praise of press and public, a mighty weapon to wield against critics and reformers who challenged him; throughout his career he cozied up to newspaper owners, editors, and reporters.  But if press and public adored him, it was because he delivered.  He drove his architects and engineers hard, pounded his fist on his desk, demanded quick results.  Those who couldn't take it quit, but those who remained were fiercely loyal, convinced that this was more than a job, that their work really mattered and would greatly benefit the public.  The result: fourteen-hour work days, and when plans for a project were urgently needed, all-night sessions with short naps at intervals on cots that Moses thoughtfully provided.  The only one who could drag him home was his wife; if she showed up, he surrendered instantly and ended the day's work.  But politicians were soon telling one another, "That Moses fellow, he gets things done!"  And nothing so pleases politicians at election time as some new park or highway or bridge that voters can make use of and enjoy.

     Discretion was not his thing; in dealing with public officials he was ruthless.  Unknown to the public, to get his way he used not only charm, bribes, and legal loopholes and technicalities, but also threats, insults, lies, even character assassination.  He once shouted over the phone at Governor Thomas E. Dewey that he was a stupid son of a bitch and hung up.  But his greatest weapon of all was the threat to resign; so necessary was he to mayors and governors, they surrendered instantly.  

     But this was not enough.  When the law empowering the Triborough Authority was amended in 1938, Moses snuck into the text hidden clauses that gave him still more power and made it practically impossible for him to be removed.  He could now issue bonds, acquire land, retain tolls, and hire and fire unrestricted by civil service regulations.  No one realized at first how the amendment had made him practically invincible, but when challenged, he could refer critics to such-and-such a clause, rendering them powerless.  Moses was henceforth independent of mayor and governor, city council and legislature alike.

     The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority was now his fiefdom and private empire with its own flag and great seal; its own laws and regulations; a self-contained communications network; a fleet of yachts, cars, and trucks; a uniformed army of bridge and tunnel officers responsible only to him; a steady source of revenue from bridge and tunnel toll booths -- as high as $213 million a year, far more than what was needed to maintain its operations; and hundreds of skilled architects, engineers, contractors, and developers -- "Moses men" -- whom he often made millionaires.  Favored secretaries had bigger cars and higher salaries than city commissioners, and round-the-clock chauffeurs so they could be on call twenty-four hours a day.

     The monarch presiding over this private empire had no less than four offices, one on Randall's Island in the East River, one in the old August Belmont mansion on Long Island, and two in downtown office buildings.  Adjacent to each office was a luxurious dining room where Moses could wine and dine visiting dignitaries lavishly.  At Randall's Island invited guests would be ushered into an anteroom whose walls featured photographs of Moses with various presidents; at the Belmont mansion the anteroom's walls were covered with plaques and trophies honoring the host.  White-coated waiters served drinks, and a Moses aide would appear to regale the guests with stories of his boss's triumphs.  Finally Moses himself would appear, followed by a suite of eight or ten aides.  The doors to the dining room would then be thrown open and Moses would lead the guests inside, where the aides would be seated on his right in seats prearranged in order of rank and favor in his eyes. (From week to week, observers could tell who was up, who was down.)  As for the quality of the food served, guests spoke of it afterward in tones of awe.

     In the Moses empire these lunches were almost routine.  But whenever a new dam or park was opened upstate, chartered planes flew hundreds of guests to a whole weekend of lavish celebrations well covered by the press.  Such affairs won Moses more praise and respect, but he was taking no chances.  He also hired investigators ("bloodhounds") to create files on local officials so as to keep them in line; if lavish entertaining didn't do the trick, blackmail would, and he didn't hesitate to use it.  All of which reminds one of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI; Hoover too presided over a private empire through many administrations, kept files on public officials, and used blackmail to get his way.  Hoover's operation was more far-reaching, involving national affairs as it did, but in the domain of public works Moses had just as much power and used it just as ruthlessly.  But even the Hoover comparison falls short.  How about Louis XIV at Versailles?

Al Smith greeting crowds during his ill-fated
1928 campaign for the presidency.  The face --

hearty, coarse, open -- shows him to be Moses'
opposite.  Al Smith was too wet, too Irish, too 
Tammany -- in short, too New York -- to win
a national election.
     The governor he most admired and felt closest to was Al Smith, his polar opposite.  Born in New Haven, Moses grew up in comfortable circumstances, a secular Jew who later converted to Christianity.  He was well bred and well educated, a graduate of Yale who did postgraduate work at Oxford.  Al Smith was a Tammany man from the streets of New York, an Irish Catholic with little education, harsh-voiced, blunt, uncouth.  But both were fighters, and both wanted to accomplish things that would benefit the citizens of New York.  So Smith backed Moses completely in his battles with local municipalities and robber baron landowners as he created a vast system of parks and parkways on Long Island in the 1920s.  To settle one ongoing dispute about a proposed appropriation by Moses on the south shore, Smith summoned Moses and several landowners to a conference, so he could hear both sides.  When one of the landowners explained that they didn't want to be "overrun by rabble from the city," Smith looked at him coldly and replied, "Rabble?  That's me you're talking about," and signed the appropriation form on the spot.

     The next governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, differed vastly from Smith.  A patrician and upstate landowner with an old and honored name, he was smooth, educated, urbane, WASP to the core, subtle, devious, and vindictive.  He and Moses disliked each other intensely, but he couldn't remove Moses from his park posts and soon realized that he needed Moses, a man who got things done.  So they developed a working relationship that continued when Roosevelt became president.

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La Guardia addresses the citizens on the radio.

     Another prima donna that Moses had to deal with was Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York (1934-45) through the bleak Depression years and beyond.  Cocky, truculent, impulsive, and ambitious as well, the mayor was not the easiest man to get along with, but he was a champion of the have-nots and of public works, and like Smith and Roosevelt could see that Moses got things done.  In private Moses referred to the Little Flower as "Rigoletto," and La Guardia called him "His Grace."  Strong-willed and hot-tempered, they tangled often, but they also admired each other and shared the dream of making New York City beautiful.  But in time the mayor came to realize -- too late -- that the man he had made Park Commissioner had acquired too much power by far.


     Slowly, over time, Moses' accomplishments began to be appraised more critically.  He built new parkways on Long Island to relieve congestion on the old ones, but the result was congestion on the new and old parkways alike.  The Triborough Bridge was soon clogged with traffic, but the old East River bridges remained congested as well; Moses' proposed solution: build another bridge.  But the city planners gradually came to realize that the more facilities you provided for vehicular traffic, the more traffic there would be.

     Increasingly, Moses ran rough-shod over the mounting protests of reformers and preservationists.  In building the West Side Highway he put it right through Inwood Hill Park, destroying much of the last virgin forest in Manhattan, instead of putting the highway along the edge of it, as the park's defenders urged.  In the Bronx his highway destroyed as well a once tranquil residential neighborhood in Riverdale, and cut right through Van Cortlandt Park.  I have hiked in both those parks and can testify that it is hard to find a spot in their leafy expanses free of traffic sounds, where one can experience silence with only the faint sounds of nature. 

     Moses' projects were in fact not meant to benefit all the citizens, but only the affluent middle class with cars.  (Which is why many of his achievements are beyond my carless reach.)  All the Long Island parks had huge parking lots, but could not be accessed by people without cars, because Moses vetoed a proposed Long Island Railroad spur to Jones Beach, and made sure that the parkway overpasses were just low enough to block passage of city buses.  He had no interest in small parks for the slums, and of all the hundreds of playgrounds he built, only one was in Harlem, where playgrounds were most needed.  Clearly, he didn't share Al Smith's affection for the "rabble," whom he saw as dirty and unruly.  In the name of "slum clearance" he was quite willing to drive thousands out of their homes into overcrowded slums elsewhere or into areas that would soon become slums.  He destroyed neighborhoods and flooded the city with cars by building highway after highway, while starving the city's subways and suburban commuter railroads.  For every improvement he made, there was a high price to be paid, though that price was often hidden from the public.

     Rarely, Hercules was stymied.  In 1941 he proposed a Brooklyn-Battery Bridge that would have ravaged Battery Park, one of the few spots in Manhattan affording a fine glimpse of the harbor.  Many forces combined to resist the plan, preferring a tunnel, but he would not compromise.  Finally his opponents appealed to the Roosevelts, and the President got the War Department to declared a bridge vulnerable to air attack in wartime, which settled the matter; the tunnel was built, and not with him in charge.

     This rare defeat enraged him.  The Roosevelts were beyond his reach, but he could and did attack the preservationists by suddenly announcing that old Fort Clinton (formerly Castle Garden), a circular sandstone fort at the Battery completed in 1811, and the city Aquarium it housed, were structurally unsound (a dubious assertion) and therefore slated for demolition.  Generations of New Yorkers had been taken to the Aquarium as children, and had in turn taken their children there, so the place was enshrined in their memory.  The fort was preserved by transferring it to the federal government, but the Aquarium was indeed demolished: an act of pure spite.  Only in 1957 would the city get another Aquarium, a fine installation that my partner Bob and I have visited many times, but located in distant Coney Island, so that those without cars could only reach it by a long subway ride through Brooklyn.  I mean no disparagement of Brooklyn, but it's quite a journey -- the main sight I recall being the stellar beauty of the Gowanus Canal -- in order to witness walruses and seals.

 Fort Clinton and, within its walls, the old Aquarium.
On the right, a fire boat.
     Another fight developed in April of 1956, when a mother sitting on a bench in a tranquil glen just inside Central Park between West 67th and 68th Streets noticed some men nearby with surveying equipment and blueprints.  Leaving for lunch, the men left their blueprints spread out on the ground, and the mother, stooping to look at them, saw their title: "Detail Map of Parking Lot."  So it was discovered that Park Commissioner Moses was planning secretly to destroy the glen -- a quiet, shady spot where little children loved to play -- so as to build another parking lot for the Tavern on the Green, the pricey nearby restaurant he had created in 1934 as a part of his Central Park renovation.  Local opposition immediately materialized, with a petition signed by 23 mothers sent to Moses, with a copy to Mayor Robert Wagner.  Having just completed the Coliseum, Moses, then at the height of his power, saw this fuss over a small parking lot as trivial.  He determined to proceed as usual in such situations by starting the work of demolition at once, thus rendering any opposition futile.

     Early one morning another mother looked out her window and saw a bulldozer starting to tear out the roots of trees in the glen.  Within minutes 30 to 40 mothers were rushing to the park with pets, kids, and baby carriages in tow.  The bulldozer operator, finding his path blocked, halted the demolition.  A policeman came, then patrol cars, then five newspapers, and seven radio and five TV stations.  Momentarily stymied, Moses sent the bulldozer back twice, but was always blocked by the mothers.  MOMS  VS.  MOSES  and  FIGHTING  PARK  MOMS  blazoned the press.  For the first time in thirty years, Moses' ruthless tactics were evident to all, and in a battle against mothers with young children who wanted to save a slice of the city's beloved Central Park.  Moses was now more Goliath than Hercules.  Nothing daunted, Goliath sent uniformed park employees by night to erect a fence around the glen, then brought in the bulldozer, guarded by police who held the mothers off, when they discovered what was happening.  The press went wild, calling Moses a bully and sneak, while flaunting photos of weeping mothers and falling trees.  Moses was now seen as a destroyer, not a defender, of parks.  Yet when Mayor Wagner got nearly 4,000 letters of protest in a single day, he declined to intervene.

     For the first time ever, Moses was facing opponents who were sophisticated and media-savvy, well heeled and well lawyered, opponents who knew how to play the game of protest.  A court injunction soon stopped the demolition, and stories appeared in the press about the Tavern's high prices, its customers arriving in chauffeur-driven Cadillacs, and Moses' cozy arrangement with the restaurant's owner, who quite legally paid the city a pittance for his lucrative concession.  Faced with an ongoing barrage of criticism, Moses retreated as gracefully as an autocrat can, agreeing to build a playground instead of a parking lot in the ravaged glen.  MOSES  YIELDS,  MOTHERS  WIN  screamed the press.  Moses' legend as the Man Who Gets Things Done was still intact, but with flaws: he obviously reveled in power, was neither infallible nor incorruptible.  From then on, his name was linked to the bulldozer.

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Moses' nemesis.  That firm jaw says 
it all: stubborn, determined, ruthless.
     Moses' rule was further threatened by a growing movement for neighborhood preservation, as opposed to massive projects causing thousands to be displaced, and by an increased awareness of the importance of public transportation, subways and buses as opposed to highways.  But his nemesis proved to be Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York (1959-73), who, planning the Empire State Plaza in Albany (see post #18, July 2012), fancied himself a builder on the scale of Moses himself, and who, for all his surface charm, was just as arrogant, stubborn, and ruthless.  State employees were required by law to retire at age 65, but could get extensions from the governor, and over the years Moses got many.  In 1962 Rockefeller suggested to Moses, then almost 74, that he resign from one of his many posts so the governor's brother Laurence could have it.  True to character, Moses threatened to resign from all of them -- a ploy he had used for decades -- and stormed out of the meeting.  When Rockefeller phoned him, Moses, confident that he had won, refused to take the call, then sent the governor a letter repeating his threat of resignation.  To Moses' surprise, Rockefeller, professing regret, accepted all the resignations, stripping Moses of most of his power.  This time no public outcry resulted; the man was, after all, in his seventies.  Concealing his chagrin, when Moses saw the governor at a bridge dedication two weeks later, he threw his arms around his enemy, who hugged him back in turn.

     Moses was still chairman of the board of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, but in 1968 Rockefeller proposed to merge that authority with the newly created Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which would place greater emphasis on mass transportation.  Since the governor promised to make Moses the head of it, Moses didn't oppose the merger, as he might have with a good chance of success.  But once the merger had been completed, the governor offered him only a post as consultant, which would let him keep his limousine, chauffeurs, and secretaries, but without any exercise of power.  Humiliated, Moses, now 79, accepted what was really just a face-saving gesture.  After 44 years of power, he was shorn of it.  

     Moses had trouble adjusting to his new situation.  He still had his Triborough office, but his memos to the MTA chairman were answered by underlings or ignored, and promised jobs never materialized.  He was a consultant whom no one consulted.  His mind was still active, but he watched in dismay as his beloved parks deteriorated, and little housing and no highways were built.  In time, speaking invitations and mail dried up.  His former lieutenants reported now to other superiors, were allowed little contact with him.  His pride kept him from showing his bitterness in public, but bitterness there was.  Robert Caro's lengthy biography, The Power Broker, published in 1974, did further damage to his reputation, showing his ruthlessness and scheming.  By now Moses knew that Rockefeller and the MTA were waiting for him to grow too feeble to pester them, were waiting for him to die.  In 1981 he did.

     Moses' legacy is debated to this day, the dazzling accomplishments versus the price the city and state had to pay.  He was an autocrat, but history suggests that great achievements are the work primarily of autocrats.  The Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the network of roads binding the Roman Empire together, the palace and gardens of Versailles -- all were the work of autocrats.  It seems unlikely that New York City and State will ever again see an autocrat of Robert Moses' stature, and just as unlikely that any one builder will ever achieve what he did.  He dreamed big and got things done -- a myriad of things all around us that we can see and use and enjoy.  The lengthy proceedings involved in the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site -- proceedings that have dragged on for years -- he would never have tolerated.  Democracy has many fine things about it, but getting big things done quickly and efficiently seems not to be among them.  I mourn the loss of woodlands and tranquility in Inwood Hill and Van Cortlandt Parks, which his throughways have sliced up savagely, but I am dazzled by Lincoln Center at night.  Should I hate Robert Moses or love him?  Maybe a bit of both.

File:Robert moses niagara power plant 01.jpg
 Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Power
Station, Lewiston, N.Y.
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Robert Moses State Parkway.

File:Picnic tables along the Saint Lawrence River in Robert Moses State Park - Thousand Islands in northern New York.jpg
Robert Moses State Park, along the Saint Lawrence 
River.  Another park named for him is on Fire Island.
Matthew Trump

      Source note:  For much of this post I am indebted to Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, an interminable but fascinating opus that treats its subject exhaustively and exhaustingly, but fairly.  The author, having done an amazing amount of research, commits the fatal sin of biographers by not leaving enough of it out.  The book should have been cut by a third; even the paperback edition is ponderous.  But for all that, it is a rich and informative read, showing not just Moses and his ways, but how things get done -- or not done -- in this city, how men of power use one another and the public, how this crazy city sort of works.

     Wienie update:  It's amazing the attention that mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner continues to get, even after collapsing in the polls.  Last Sunday's Review Section in the Times had no less than two substantial articles about him, and he is often mentioned on the radio.  And a more recent Times article noted his and fellow sinner Eliot Spitzer's continued popularity among black voters, attributing it to two things: black churches' emphasis on forgiveness, and the frequency with which black leaders have been accused of similar indiscretions.  And why do I persist in publishing these wienie updates?  First, my waggish sense of humor can't resist.  Second, it's an ongoing New York story, and that's what this blog is all about.  And third, morbid curiosity.

     WBAI terminal?  WBAI is in such dire financial straits that it has terminated its award-winning evening news program and the whole news staff, the last program having been last Friday.  This amazes me, for I thought that time-honored program would be the last to go.  Now I have no reason to listen to the station in the evening, since most of what they're now doing is pleading for donations.  Their news program made me aware of issues neglected or ignored by the mainstream press.  When I mention ALEC and the Transpacific Partnership to friends, or tell them Monsanto is the company I love to hate, they don't know what I'm talking about.  Where now will I get such information?  WBAI professes to being optimistic about continuing, but in the light of this cancellation I have to wonder.  If you jettison one of your most significant and listened-to programs, does that mean the station is terminal?  I hope not, but I can't help but wonder.

     Coming soon:  Next Wednesday, Tweed at the End: "I have tried to do some good."  Next Sunday, Famous New York Streets: Broadway.  In the works: Colorful New Yorkers (the Queen of Mean, Texas Guinan, the Mad Poet of Broadway, and others), and a look at who made money in New York in the Civil War (three kinds of profiteers), plus a search for their equivalents today.

©  2013  Clifford Browder


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