Tuesday, November 15, 2016

From the Archives: When New York’s Legendary “Power Broker” Spoke at the Joint Center

by David Luberoff
Senor Associate Director
Fifty years ago today, Robert Moses, the legendary “power broker” who reshaped New York City in the mid 20th century, gave a lunchtime talk at the Joint Center for Urban Studies of MIT and Harvard. Thanks to Adam Tanaka, a 2015 Joint Center Meyer Doctoral Fellow who was doing research for his thesis on the construction of large-scale, middle-income housing in New York City, the Joint Center recently received a copy of his speech.

Given today’s debates about housing, transportation, and other issues related to urban development and urban policy more generally, it’s instructive to look back at Moses’ remarks, which were given at the predecessor of today’s Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. Moses, whose language was florid and at times supercilious, asserted that most major municipal problems could be solved “by genuine courage as distinguished from braggadocio, empty millennial problems, buck passing to Washington and yielding to every obstructionist group, every Johnny-Come-Lately planning expert, every editorial pundit, and every racial, religious and sectional minority. Water supply, sewage and waste disposal, roads, parking, schools, hospitals and health, all are the same category of works requiring an honest, factual, fearless approach and attack by officials with at least a thirst for martyrdom and an instinct for the jugular.”

Robert Moses

The remarks and the harsh judgments are particularly striking because Moses – whose importance is sometimes compared to Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s impact on 19th century Paris – was a singularly important figure in New York specifically and American cities generally. Working from a series of appointed state and city positions (many of which he held at the same time), Moses oversaw the construction of 13 bridges (starting with the Triborough Bridge, now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge), 416 miles of highways (including the Long Island and Cross-Bronx Expressways), 658 playgrounds and parks (including Jones Beach State Park), key cultural and non-profit institutions (including Lincoln Center and the United Nations), and 150,000 mainly high-rise housing units for the city’s low- and moderate-income residents (including Trump Village, a 3,800 unit complex in Coney Island built by Donald Trump’s father). These changes not only transformed New York, they also provided a template for redevelopment and highway projects throughout the country.

Image by Hassan Tahir (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

However, such changes came at a huge human cost. In The Power Broker, a critical and seminal biography of Moses that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, Robert Caro estimated that taken together, Moses’ road, bridge, housing, and urban renewal projects displaced about 250,000 people, most of them poor and many of them blacks and Puerto Ricans. Moreover, Moses strongly supported policies that did not allow blacks to move into many of the new housing projects, such as Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan – a private moderate-income housing development built on land cleared by a city entity that Moses oversaw.

By the time that Moses spoke at the Joint Center, his power had begun to wane largely because of increasingly intense disputes about his aggressive approaches to urban development and growing feuds with key elected officials, particularly then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. His opponents, who included Jane Jacobs, author of The Life and Death of American Cities, had stymied his efforts to radically transform lower Manhattan via the construction of an elevated expressway from the Hudson River to the East River and to use urban renewal powers to clear parts of Greenwich Village for high-rise middle-income housing developments. As a result, by the time he gave his Joint Center talk in 1966, Moses, who once simultaneously held 12 separate city and state positions, had only one official post, chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, a self-financed public entity that he had chaired since he had led the effort to create it in the 1930s. When Moses spoke at the Joint Center, the authority owned and operated nine bridges and tunnels, including the Verrazano-Narrows, Throgs Neck, and Bronx-Whitestone bridges as well as the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown tunnels.

In his remarks, Moses – who was fond of the French aphorism (sometimes mistakenly attributed to Joseph Stalin) that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” – made it clear that his recent defeats had not changed his views. He began by hailing the approach to urban problems taken by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who headed the Joint Center from 1966 to 1969 and who went on to several prominent posts, including serving as one of New York’s U.S. Senators from 1976 until 2000. “I like Mr. Moynihan’s approach to our municipal problems,” Moses said, “because it is honest and forthright at a time when solutions are mainly the province of demagogues screaming for perfection, smooth politicians with new catchwords and slogans appealing to every racial, religious, sectional and economic faction and minority, image makers, fanatics, self-appointed wowsers, reformers with direct links to Higher Regions, far-out critics with long claws and venomous serpent’s tongues, ponderous editors, computer analysts, and just plain nuts.”

Moses went on to endorse his support for what had become a common, but inaccurate reading of “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the controversial report Moynihan had prepared in 1965 while working in the Johnson Administration. Moses began by restating – and expanding – the report’s best-known assertion. “If I understand him,” Moses said, “Mr. Moynihan says, and quite rightly I believe, that family, church, and other ancient responsibilities and disciplines must be restored if we hope to meet the problem of negro, Puerto Rican, and other slums and ghettos.”

However, like many conservatives who embraced Moynihan’s assessment of the state of black families, Moses did not repeat Moynihan’s assertion that the problems were largely caused by “three centuries of unimaginable mistreatment” of blacks by whites. Nor did Moses support Moynihan’s proposals to address those problems via large-scale government programs focused on strengthening black families. Instead, Moses asserted that responsibilities to family, church and other institutions had to “come first, ahead of improved housing, schools, recreation, the Four Freedoms, integration and even human rights.” He added, “But our political and opinion-making leaders don’t go for such simple and sane reasoning because it represents restraint and, like charity, begins at home.”

Moses, who was forced out of the TBTA in 1968 when the agency became part of the newly formed Metropolitan Transportation Authority which used some of the TBTA’s revenues to subsidize the region’s subways and commuter rail lines, concluded with a somber assessment of the then-current urban policy landscape. “Almost no one in high office wants to be told that a motorized civilization is bound to glut the roads and that the best we can do will not meet the problem short of approaching much more drastic regulation which will require sacrifice,” he said. Then he returned to some familiar critiques of others’ ideas, asserting, “Careless experts say we shall meet the demands by preferring rails to rubber, substituting regionalism for states, master planning, super duper departments run by administrative giants of an elite corps of experts who are also seagreen incorruptibles, trained to be public tycoons, more business in government, the repeal of Parkinson’s Law, rebuilding everything without hurting or discommoding anybody, and combining immediate, uncompromising slum clearance with revolutionary social objectives.”

Moses, who died in 1981, concluded by noting, “Here endeth the lesson, if I have any to offer, and the beginning of the interrogation which will enable you to get even with me.” While we haven’t yet found a transcript of that discussion we’re sure that, like Moses’ remarks, they not only would be an informative historic artifact but also would highlight many of the urban issues that we are wrestling with today.

Read the speech transcript.

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