Sunday, March 30, 2008

Robert Moses and The Rise of New York

40 years have passed the since the most important and most powerful man in New York City and New York State politics was removed. 40 years later the political and social state of the city and state of New York are worst now than they were then. The once most progressive city and state of the world is now a bastion of reaction. A city and state once world renowned for human rights and social justice is now a place devoid of anything. A city and state which between the 1920s to the mid 1990s which had prioritised the welfare of it’s poorest and most marginalised citizens is now a place where the poor and the non-white are being driven out.
Robert Moses was the man who single-handedly built New York City and made it the greatest city in the history of the world. Robert Moses was the greatest builder in the history of humankind. With the notable exception of the Austrian Socialists of the First Republic, no other person did more for the poor and working classes in the Western world as Robert Moses. Yet, funny enough, Moses remains the most maligned name in the history of the city and the state. Indeed, one can find millions of supporters of Rudolph Giuliani, the most anti-democratic, dictatorial and reactionary politician ever witnessed on the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Giuliani was a man who took away human rights, destroyed democracy and kicked the majority of the city’s poor out of New York. Giuliani was a man who single-handedly disenfranchised New York’s Black and Puerto Rican population of political, social and cultural autonomy. Yet Giuliani is hailed as the greatest mayor of New York.


The point of this essay is not to assail Giuliani. His political career is thankfully over. This essay is the make the case for Robert Moses. A man who contrary to Giuliani helped to create the most Social Democratic and just city in the United States. A man, though racist and full of contempt for Blacks and Puerto Ricans, did more to create the best city in the Western world for Blacks to live until the arrival of Giuliani in 1994. This essay will make the argument that Robert Moses, despite many flaws that I will highlight, made New York City and New York State a much more humane and egalitarian society, than any other politician in both the city and state since the past 40 years.
There are a couple of motivations behind this essay. Last year, during my brief sojourn in Boston, I was given a book about Moses as a birthday present. The book’s entitled The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro published in 1974. The book was a graduate level political and social history about New York. I had hitherto a very informed and educated awareness of New York State and City politics. However, reading Caro’s book, I realised just how un-aware I actually was.
Another motivation of this essay was out weariness from hearing complaints and put-downs of Robert Moses. Caro’s book has largely influenced this sentiment. The most common complaint was that Moses did nothing for the city except to build highways which no one wanted and in the course of building these highways, he destroyed the city. This is true to an extent. This essay will highlight that. It is true that Moses was responsible for the destruction of The Bronx, which cannot be defended. This essay will not defend the most obvious and treacherous deeds of Moses. However, Moses did many brilliant things for the city, which he is still attacked for. I will defend Moses for his true and remarkable achievements even though they will defy the conventional wisdom of informed New York opinion.
The essay will make the argument that a political figure like Giuliani would have been impossible had Robert Moses still been around. Indeed, Giuliani and his successor Michael Bloomberg are the direct consequences of New York City in the post-Moses era. It would have been very interesting to observe the full scale war between Giuliani and Moses. However, that is beside the point.
Finally, the essay is to disprove once and for all, the right wing argument about the decline of New York in the 1960s through 1980s, was due to the results of liberal “communist” social and economic policies. It has been the mantra of the Reaganites that New York went bankrupt because of its generous welfare and social spending policies. Here is where the argument is most interesting. New York’s economic decline was primarily, though not exclusively, the fault of Robert Moses. It was Moses with his grandiose projects which drove the city to economic ruin. If there is anything really to find fault with Moses, it is that point. It is however, the complete opposite of the fiction that liberal social spending led to New York’s economic decline.
BACKGROUND
Robert Moses was born in New Haven, CT to a middle class family. Though the name would seem obvious, Moses vigorously denied that he was Jewish. Indeed, if he was ever called or identified as Jewish, Moses would fly into a violent rage. He was often branded a self-hating Jew by many New York Jews. He was accused of renouncing his Jewish heritage in order to be assimilated and accepted into white Christian society. Whether this was so or not is not important to this essay but clears the air in case the reader assumes that Moses was a Jew.
Moses attended his undergraduate years at Yale University. He attended Graduate School at Oxford in England. At Oxford he studied Public and Government Administration. Before the First World War, Britain was at its peak as the largest and most powerful empire the world had known since Rome. To administer a global empire, Britain had the largest civil service in the world. The British Empire was considered to have the best civil service and public administration at the time.
Britain, like so many other modern institutions, invented the concept of the “Public Authority.” The “Public Authority” was a large autonomous bureaucracy within the Civil Service loosely connected to politicians or government ministers. The head of the British Public Authorities were appointed by a Minister when the top post was empty, but the Authority had lots of political autonomy. The BBC is the most obvious example of a British Public Authority.
Moses’ British education played a decisive role in his future as the most important figure in New York City and State politics. Moses imported the concept of the “Public Authority” into the United States. However, he was influenced by the British Ruling Class elites who attended Oxford. Many of his classmates shared a disdain for the lower classes and had extremely racist attitudes toward colonial subjects. Indeed, many of Moses’ peers were in training to be Viceroys, Governors in South Asia, Africa, China and the West Indies.
The imperial and dictatorial manner which would later become his characteristic in running New York, as well as his contempt for Black and lower class people can most likely be traced back to his training at Oxford. Yet, unlike his Oxford peers who sided with the white ruling class unconditionally, Moses would show his disdain for all people from all races and classes. As we shall see, Moses took over the City and State of New York by destroying the Robber Baron rich elites of New York.
AL SMITH AND THE POLITICAL RISE OF THE NEW YORK WORKING CLASS
A film on Robert Moses would be most interesting if it highlighted the contradictions of a brilliant yet flawed character. The first of many contradictions of Robert Moses was that even though he hated the working class people of New York, he helped to orchestrate the political rise of the working class in State Politics while breaking the political monopoly of the rich ruling class. As we shall see, Robert Moses had no allegiance to any class, race or anybody else for that matter. Moses was out only for himself and for absolute power.
Al Smith was a New York City Councillor and State Assemblyman before becoming Governor of the New York State. He was a product of the corrupt and crooked and criminal Tammany Hall Democrat Party of New York, whose last vestiges were ultimately asassinated by Rudy Giuliani in the 1980s. Smith was an Irish immigrant who settled into New York’s Lower East Side. Tammany Hall had built a political empire in New York City, by giving jobs to thousands of immigrants who faced racial discrimination at the hands of the “Native” white Protestants who controlled the New York economy. In other words, Tammany Hall bought the votes of white ethnic immigrants in the city. Tammany Hall controlled not only City Hall but practically all the State-wide seats in New York City. Most of the Assemblymen and State Senators elected from the city to Albany were from the Tammany Hall machine.
Without doubt, Tammany Hall was a criminal organisation. However, it did so much for the white non-protestant immigrants, that all of its politicians were elected despite a string of indictments and convictions. Most residents of New York didn’t care whether or not their elected figures were ethical or not. The politicians knew the people who were their constituents. Many of Tammany Hall politicians were often seen every night in the saloons and other working class social centres drinking, smoking and laughing with their constituents. The Tammany Hall politicians knew their constituents on a first name basis and knew their families as well. People knew if they ever needed to get a loan or find a temporary job to earn quick cash, they only had to drop into their neighbourhood Democrat office and ask. The only condition was that they registered Democrat. So even if the politicians were indicted or convicted for operating illegal gambling or prostitution rings or for bribery; their constituents were not the in the least troubled. Needless to say, this irked and raised the indignation of the Protestant elites and other circles of sober puritan patricians.
After losing a close election as Mayor of New York, Tammany quickly found Al Smith a job as an Assemblyman. In the state capital Albany, Smith quickly learned the tricks of the trade. He realised that the key to passing legislation was in the written language of a proposed bill. This remains true to this day not only in New York State but on the Federal Level as well. So many wretched laws are passed every day in the US because of clever and deceitful language. Many laws, such as the Real ID Act of 2005, are tucked away in budgetary or other miscellaneous legislation which escapes detection.
Al Smith was a rare politician of his time and today. He actually read every word of 200 page bills which were presented for voting. Today most state legislators, as well as members of Congress and the Senate do not bother the read the details of proposed legislation. Most bills are vetted in committees which only the leader ever bothers to scrutinise. Most laws which pass committee are brought to the general floor. The leaders of the political majority and opposition assign their legislative whips to tell the members to vote yes or no, without most of the members even knowing what they are passing or defeating.
Smith became very quick and learnt the ropes of bill writing. He became known as “The Best Bill Drafter in Albany.” However, as a Democrat in a Republican controlled State Government he had little power. New York City was a Tammany Hall dictatorship. New York State was a Republican Party dictatorship. Al Smith convinced Tammany Hall, that it could expand its political empire in the Empire State if he ran for Governor. By all odds, he won the race and became New York’s first Democrat Governor since the Civil War. Now Tammany Hall controlled not only New York City Hall but the 2nd floor of the New York Statehouse as well.
Smith wanted to bring real substantial changes for the State’s working class. The election campaign was rather nasty as the Republicans used reactionary tactics against him by race-baiting that he was Irish. They attacked him for his Catholicism and called his a papist. Finally, they tried to smear him for being working class. Tammany Hall, with its overwhelming Catholic base in the State’s largest city, effectively put Smith into the Governor’s chair.
Smith had a problem. The Republicans still controlled the legislature. The legislature was determined to obstruct and defeat any initiative put forward by Smith. Here is where Robert Moses made his entrance.
“The Best Bill Drafter in Albany
For Al Smith, the biggest misery that the New York working class faced was the lack of recreational facilities. Anyone who has spent a summer in New York can attest to the misery of the city. Most of the city’s working class had to settle for swimming in the polluted waters of the East River to refresh themselves. There was lack of public swimming facilities in New York City. Central Park remained an elite playground for the city’s rich.
New York was an over-crowded city which was slowly being relieved by the expansion of the subway system to the outer boroughs of The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. To escape the suffocating heat and crowds of the city, the few working class people who could afford cars, drove out to Long Island for greener pastures and waters of Long Island Sound and the Atlantic.
There were two main obstacles that working class people faced. There were no highways between the city and Nassau and Suffolk counties of Long Island. There was only one road. It took hours to get out of the city and the roads were clogged. Once they were able to get out of the city, there was no place to rest. Long Island was the private property and feudal dominions of the Robber Baron ruling class. The shore of Long Island Sound was owned by dozens of Robber Barons. The meadows and wooded areas were also the private property of the ruling class elites.
When the working class would pull to a secluded and shaded stretch, the police with guns and clubs would shoot and beat them up for trespassing. The same occurred when working class people had the audacity to swim in the private waters of Long Island Sound. It is not surprising that the ruling class elites felt threatened by thousands of working class trying to find relief from the city.
A political advisor to Smith recruited Robert Moses to solve the political problem. Smith and Moses took an immediate liking to each other, which was strange giving their mutual antipathy to the classes opposite to which they belonged. However, both men saw that they could use each other for their own purposes.
Smith explained that he wanted to build public parks and beaches for the city’s working classes. The Robber Barons were Republicans. The Long Island Republican party controlled and dominated State politics until Smith’s remarkable win. Still, they controlled the legislature. Moses was most eager to help.
Moses came up with the idea to create a State Park and Beach Commission. It was the first Public Authority ever to be conceived of in the United States. Moses came up with a draft bill which Smith with his clever mind found ingenious. Robert Moses proposed to create the Long Island Beach Commission. The Commission would have the power to build parks and beaches all across Long Island. The Commission would have the full and extensive power of the State. Smith agreed to the plan.
Moses wrote the draft bill in the shrewdest manner. It was a bill more than 200 pages long. In the early pages of the bill, it appeared that the Governor would have the power to appoint the Commissioner of the Beach authority. It also suggested that the Authority would be under the control of the State. However, near the end of the drafted bill, it gave the Beach Commissioner absolute power and control which would not be subject to the jurisdiction of the Governor or State Legislature.
In essence, Moses created a parallel State. However, the details of were buried so far in the draft that it escaped detection. A grateful Smith appointed Moses Commissioner of the Long Island Beach Commission. A position Moses would occupy for more than 40 years.
MOSES VERSUS THE ROBBER BARONS
Moses was well aware that he had the power of God in his hands set out to work. He created the most elaborate system of public parks, beaches and highways the United States had ever seen. He had several ideas in the mind. First, he needed to get the land to build the State Parks and Beaches. Second, he needed to build a network of highways to get the masses of the city out to Long Island. He developed plans to build 14 State Parks in Western, Central and Eastern Long Island as well as the North and South Shores.
When Robert Moses looked on a map, he didn’t see people. He only saw empty spaces to build upon. It didn’t occur to him nor did it faze him in the least that the parks and beaches he wanted to develop were on the property of the richest and most powerful people in the United States. He had in mind to build the biggest parks to accommodate the millions of New York City residents who would use them.
The law which created the Long Island Beach Commission gave him unlimited power. It gave him more power than the State itself. When the Republican Robber Barons got wind of Moses’ plans they quickly tried to oppose him. He laughed in their faces and told them to go to Hell. He proceeded to declare all the lands to be confiscated and cleared in the name of “imminent domain”. Imminent Domain is a legal term used by municipal, State and Federal governments to take over private land and property to any use that it sees fit.
The Robber Barons were not only incensed but in shock. How dare some unknown civil servant take over their property? To add insult to injury, he told them that they had no say over the matter at all. The Republicans who had passed the law creating the Long Island Beach Commission were convinced that they had the legal means to stop Moses. They told him that he was subject to the will of the State government. Moses laughed at him and told them to re-read the law.
To their utter astonishment, they realised that Moses was right. Moses as Commissioner of the Long Island Beach Commission could do what ever we wanted regarding the building of parks. Suddenly, thousands of acres of pristine land were snatched out of the hands of the Robber Barons. The Republicans complained and appealed to Governor Smith, who was not in any mood to hear it. It was sweet revenge and it was class warfare.
A delegation of Robber Barons went to Moses’ office in New York City to beg and plead with him. Moses, by all accounts was a nasty man. He seemed to hate everyone besides his wife and his coterie of assistants who were simply yes men and of course Al Smith. He not only insulted and rudely cursed out the Robber Barons; he also kicked them out of his office by physically threatening them.
In his book on Moses, Robert A. Caro recounts dozens of incidents throughout Moses’ career where he not only threatened people with physical harm but actually injured a few of them. Moses had a violent temper. He was a large man with a strong physique. No one except for a prize fighter could beat him in a fight, and no one dared to challenge him.
Never before had the Ruling Class elites been insulted, mistreated, abused and spit upon as Robert Moses had done to them. After all, they had long been used to politicians and State Officials in subservience to them. Things were only going to get worse for them.
When Moses announced his plans to build highways through the private lands of the Robber Barons, they quickly realised that they were facing the greatest threat to their wealth and power. The Republican Legislature quickly passed legislation to prevent the building of highways on Long Island. Smith vetoed the bill. In a rare move, the Legislature had overridden Smith’s veto. The Robber Barons thought they had at least won half the war. Moses might be able to take their land to build parks and beaches, but they were sure that without any highways, the masses of the city would be unable to use them
They were wrong. Moses simply altered his plans slightly. Rather than name them highways, they were named parkways. Since they had the word “park” in them and they were State projects, they fell under the domain of the Beach and Park authority. Robert Moses added that little knolls of grass and a few bushes and shrubs to be built next the highways thus magically transforming them into Parkways.
The Robber Barons were horrified. There was no way to stop Moses. There was no legal recourse. Finally, the Robber Barons tried to wine and dine Moses. At a large working dinner, they convinced Moses to build his Parkways along the borders of their lands. Rather than cutting right in the heart of their lands, they looked at Real Estate maps to divide the sections which bordered one property to the next. Moses, with his British upper class sentiments was open to compromise. He would build the Parkways on the borders. He would also build fences between the parkways and the private property. He would ensure that the Beach and Park Authority Police, which he controlled, would prevent motorist from stopping in case they had the idea to trespass on the land. Finally, in properties that were still in the way of his roads, he would build overpasses so that the Robber Barons could still ride horseback over on their land.
The Robber Barons were lucky that they did not lose it all. However, their close brush with death signalled the end of their political domination over New York. The New York State Ruling Class suffered a setback which lasted for 40 years until they were able to regain control of the State politically in the 1960s with the election of Nelson Rockefeller.
MOSES VERSUS FDR ROUND ONE
What was most remarkable about Robert Moses was his ability to make enemies. He amassed so many enemies against the most powerful men in the United States for 40 years yet he had defeated all of them except two. His biggest nemesis and the one who nearly destroyed him on two occasions was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I only mention their epic battles for two reasons. The first reason is that it’s a great political story about the two greatest political titans in American history. Never before and never since has there been a more epic political feud in American history as between these two men. They were after all, the two greatest political minds and figures in the United States.
The second reason why I mention it is that it’s a funny story and to show just how lucky Moses was. Moses almost lost it all. His war with FDR almost killed him physically. Had FDR defeated Moses in 1936, New York would have turned out differently.
Al Smith was the most progressive Governor that New York and quite arguably the United States ever had. He was the father of New York and American Social Democracy. He created the State University of New York public system which offered free tuition until Nelson Rockefeller became Governor in the 1960s. New York was the first state in the country to introduce public welfare. There were many other progressive achievements under Smith which go beyond the scope of this essay. Robert Moses actually drafted and wrote most of these laws for Smith.
Smith vacated the Governor’s office to run for President in 1928 which he lost. Smith was succeeded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR and Moses hated each other on sight. FDR saw Moses as a Smith crony. FDR liked Smith but wanted to have his own administration.
When FDR arrived in Albany, he observed Moses walk around town and the Statehouse as if he owned it. Moses was used to entering the Governor’s office as he liked. FDR told him that he was now the boss and knocked Moses down a few notches. FDR kept Moses waiting outside his office for hours, sometimes instructing his secretary to tell Moses he had no time to see him.
Moses would yell and try to intimidate FDR. Though FDR was not a big man himself, he was much smarter than Moses. FDR would ring rings around Moses leaving him spinning and confused. Moreover, FDR seemed to take a special delight in provoking Moses. Moses would swear at FDR and storm out of the office like a spoiled brat.
FDR was well aware of Moses’ power. There was one thing that the law did allow. It allowed the Governor, the sole power to hire and fire the Commissioner. However, since FDR entered office on the coattails of the very popular and successful fellow Democrat, he knew better than to fire Moses. Moses was Smith’s pet. If he touched Moses, then he touched Smith. FDR could not politically afford to fall out of favour with Smith or Tammany Hall in New York City. After all, FDR would never have been elected Governor without New York City.
FDR wanted to build more State Parks in his home region in the Mid- Hudson Valley. He also wanted more highways to be built linking that region with the city. FDR came up with his own proposals to do so without Moses and the Long Island Beach and Park Commission. There was going to be a clash and it came.
When Moses got wind of FDR’s park plans, he reminded the Governor that as Commissioner of Long Island Beach and Parks and that the plans should come under his jurisdiction. FDR reminded Moses that as Governor of the State, he could do whatever he damned pleased. If he wanted to build a park without Moses or the Long Island Beach and Park Commission, that was his prerogative. Relations between the two men deteriorated.
FDR announced his own proposals for his Mid-Hudson Parks. His plan would be under the auspices of the State Department of Public Works. It was a deliberate slap to Moses. Moses on the other hand first seeing the threat to his fiefdom threatened, whined and cried to the press. Moses had argued that a new State Park Authority modelled after the Long Island Beach and Park Commission, should have the responsibility for building and regulating all parks. Since Moses had obvious success on Long Island, he should be appointed Commissioner. Moses lobbied everyone he knew to oppose FDR’s plans.
Moses called in a favour from Al Smith. Smith asked FDR why he wouldn’t let Moses take over the State Park Authority to develop the plan. FDR told Smith that he simply didn’t want Moses on the project. Also, he just didn’t like Moses. Moreover, there was no law that stated that all parks built by the State had to fall under the Park Authority. Smith asked FDR to re-consider. Smith and Moses then drafted another bill which closed the loophole. The new bill did two things. First, it stated that all parks built by the State had to be under the State Parks Authority. Second, it gave the State Parks Commissioner more powers over development of land.
In the usual manner it was tucked away in a bill and passed. FDR was incensed and was about the fire Moses on the spot. However, FDR had bigger ambitions. Albany was just temporary layover for his ultimate destination: The White House. He could not afford the time and political energy to fight the nasty little prick. So, FDR signed the bill into law giving Robert Moses even more power. Moses was now the most powerful person in the State of New York.
FDR let Moses have that little victory. However, FDR was not through yet. He was going to have his revenge. If he didn’t have it then, he would have it in the future. There was no doubt about it.
THE CONSOLIDATION OF POWER: TRIBOROUGH BRIDGE AND CITY PARKS
With Smith out of politics after his crushing defeat to Herbert Hoover in the 1928 Presidential Elections and having made enemies with FDR, Moses turned his attention to New York City. Smith still had influence within Tammany Hall so Robert Moses thought he would try his luck getting power in the city.
The problem was that the Great Depression struck. The city was devastated. The roaring 20s ended in a bang and crash. The prosperity of the decade and the further development of New York made life much easier for the working class. Moses’ highways, State Parks and Beaches increased the quality of life for all New Yorkers. The booming economy led to a real estate boom. Many of the children of immigrants were now assimilated white American citizens. Many flocked to the spacious pastures of The Bronx and Queens.
Tammany Hall was running on fumes. The boom economy made the workers more prosperous and less reliant on the neighbourhood bosses. The workers still voted Democrat out of habit. The workers enjoyed the boom times just like the Tammany Politicians did. The crash changed it all. Destitute workers resented the greed and criminal activities of Tammany. Tammany did not have enough money or jobs to bail people out of economic misery. Its days were numbered.
Moreover, good government reformers driven by the spirit of Puritanism which infected the US like the emotional plague after the First World War finally gained strength in New York. The same spirit which led those to Prohibition of alcohol led them to fight against corruption in New York.
The Feds were cracking down on Tammany politicians known for running speak easies and bootlegging. Once again, during the boom times the majority of New Yorkers didn’t care but the Depression changed things quickly.
Fiorello LaGuardia ran as an anti-Tammany left wing reformist for Mayor of New York in 1933 and won. Robert Moses quickly latched on to LaGuardia. In typical fashion Moses convinced LaGuardia that the key to working class happiness in the city was to build recreational facilities. LaGuardia set up the Parks Department and appointed Moses Parks Commissioner.
Moses set out to renovate Central Park. He installed lights in the park. He built Tavern on the Green. He built the Delacorte Theatre where to this day free Shakespeare plays are staged. Moses also built the Wollman Ice Skating Rink. He built the swimming pools in the park.
Outside of Central Park Moses built all the playgrounds in the city. Before Moses, the children of New York had no option but to play in the streets. In addition to playgrounds, Moses built all the basketball and handball courts as well as baseball diamonds. Moses built dozens of swimming pools in each neighbourhood of the city. This was to accommodate the poor people who could not afford to go out to Jones Beach and the other beaches he had built on Long Island.
Moses built additional beaches within the city. He built Orchard Beach in The Bronx, which to this day remains the primary beach for the city’s Puerto Rican population. He also built Jacob Riis Park and Beach out in Rockaway.
Moses built additional parks throughout the city. He built the city’s largest park, Van Cortlandt up in The Bronx. He also built Bronx Park which houses The Bronx Zoo. The Bronx Zoo remains one of the best zoological gardens in the world today. His greatest park was Flushing Meadows Park in Queens. The land was marshland and ashes until he transformed it into one of the most interesting parks in the world. Flushing Meadows Park is the home of the U.S. Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open is held. Finally, Moses built Riverside Park on the western shore of Manhattan.
With the success of public parks and swimming facilities, Moses’ success was perceived to be LaGuardia’s. After all, LaGuardia was the Mayor and he had appointed Moses as Parks Commissioner. To this day, LaGuardia is considered to be the best mayor New York ever had. Indeed, Rudy Giuliani tried to model himself after LaGuardia. (It is beyond the scope of his essay to compare and contrast LaGuardia and Giuliani. It is only to be said that LaGuardia actually did more to benefit the poor and working classes of the city while Giuliani drove them out. Enough said.)
Robert Moses convinced LaGuardia that what the city needed most was a super bridge to link three boroughs. Once again Moses drafted a law which created the Triborough Bridge Authority. This was the first municipal Authority in the United States. We see that once again, Moses used the political ignorance of American politicians to obtain massive power. In theory, the Triborough Bridge Authority was a City agency. The reality was that Moses had created another parallel state which would have more power than the City itself.
The Triborough Bride remains one of the architectural wonders of the world. It is a Y shaped elevated highway consisting of 4 bridges linking 4 islands of New York to the mainland. Robert A. Caro derisively calls it the “world’s largest traffic machine.” That might be so, but it modernised the city and unified it. In the essay on this blog “New York Fell”, I write that the Queens-Wards Island portion of the Triborough Bridge over Hell Gate remains one of the nicest promenades of the city which most tourists and natives are unaware of. It’s true that the Triborough Bridge during Rush Hour is a massive traffic jam. On the other hand, it is also a pedestrian bridge. One of the healthiest activities that a person in New York can do is walk or jog along the Triborough Bride between Harlem and Astoria with one of the greatest views one can see in the world.
The Triborough Bride Authority had its own toll booths and could charge as much as it wanted without regulation from the City and State of New York. It was from the tolls collected that Moses was able to build a financial empire which gave him power over the entire City and State governments. Moses became the de-factor power and money broker in the city and state. He not only lent the City and State money but he also lent money to the banks and ruling class elite in the city. The result was that Moses set up a quiet economic and political revolution.
Moses was the most successful Anarchist revolutionary. He saw no need to smash the State by force. He was a right wing Anarchist. He smashed the power of the State economically. He created an Authority which superseded the State. He not only bled the State dry but he made the State powerless. On the other hand, as a right wing Anarchist, he smashed the power of the city’s bourgeoisie. They lost all political and economic power over the City as they had over the State. Moses was the most powerful man in the City and State of New York. The billions of dollars he acquired over decades with unregulated tolls made him the biggest money lender in the State. The banks and rich became dependent upon Moses. As the old cliché goes, “He who pays the fiddler calls the tune.”
Moses was well aware of the corruption of the politicians and the greed of the bourgeoisie. With the capital and cash he accumulated with his Bridge and later Tunnel Authority, along with his genius for bill drafting, Moses seized power away from the State and the bourgeoisie.
Moses was a man who detested everyone. He hated Black, white, poor and rich. When the city bourgeoisie tried to stop Moses, he smashed them. When Wall Street tried to stop Moses, he nearly destroyed it. New York capitalism was nearly destroyed by Robert Moses. Had Moses had his way with the Brooklyn Battery Bridge, New York would not be the global financial centre that it is today. The World Trade Center would have never been erected. There was only thing which saved the New York capitalist class from destruction by Robert Moses: President Roosevelt.
MOSES VERSUS FDR ROUNDS 2 AND 3
There have been lots of political feuds throughout history. The modern era has had more than it’s share of them. However, as the principles of The Enlightenment and Humanism took root and Liberal Democracy was ascending, the feuds became less violent. They did not involve murder and death. However, the level of intrigue had not diminished.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt handled his political enemies effortlessly. Most of his enemies self destructed and he was able to outmanoeuvre them quite easily. Robert Moses made friends with his enemies in order to gain their confidence before he turned on them. Roosevelt was a Liberal Democrat in the essence of the term. Moses was something else. There had never been and has yet to be anyone in the shape of Robert Moses. He was so devious and so slick that he would’ve made Machiavelli gasp. He was not in the spirit of his times. He was not a totalitarian. That was not his interest. He wasn’t a monarchist. Titles were simply licenses to power. Moses defies any Marxist classification. Moses was not a capitalist. Profit was not his motive. He could have become the world’s richest man. Instead he had a total combined income of about $20-25,000 in today’s value. Robert Moses did not represent any class interest. Moses comes closest to Anarchism. Naturally, many Anarchists will object but any critical observer of Anarchists will clearly see political traits of Robert Moses. This is a debatable point and digression.
Robert Moses ran for Governor of New York State as a Republican in 1934 and caused the State and City Republicans the biggest losses they had suffered until the 1980s. His personality was too nasty even for New Yorker’s tastes. He ranted and shouted. Unlike Hitler and Mussolini, he lacked rhetorical and oratorical skills. He pounded his fists when he talked. He ranted about Democrats in the same manner that Anarchists today rant about the State. What do most people do when they hear Anarchists rant? They get turned off. Moses had an abrasive voice, which in the age of radio, did not help him. He lost to Herbert Lehman in the largest Republican loss in New York State since the 1860s.
FDR being a shrewd politician decided it was time to settle accounts with Moses. As typical with Moses, the Triborough Bridge cost ten times the projections that Moses always insisted. The city did not have the funds to complete the construction of the bridge. LaGuardia applied to the Federal government and the Works Progress Administration for additional funds.
FDR told his Cabinet Secretary of the Interior that WPA funding would be conditional if Robert Moses was taken off of the Triborough Bridge Authority and if he was also fired as New York Parks Commissioner. The Secretary passed this on to LaGuardia who readily agreed.
LaGuardia hated Robert Moses. Both men were nasty. LaGuardia was a petty tyrant. However Moses dominated La Guardia. After all, the primary reason why LaGuardia was popular was due to the projects of Moses. Hence LaGuardia thought it was a good opportunity to get rid of Moses and have all the power himself.
When Robert Moses discovered that FDR was out to smash him, he fell deadly ill. Moses was a very lucky man. LaGuardia was too clumsy and FDR was exposed. When the media heard that LaGuardia was about to fire the popular Parks Commissioner, LaGuardia acted like the ex- Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. First he wouldn’t comment. Then he denied that he had any intentions to fire Moses. Then he said that he had thought about doing so. He cracked under pressure and blamed the WPA Secretary.
Now, this was becoming national news. The story was being framed of an aggressive Federal government interfering with the affairs of a city. The WPA Secretary didn’t deny that he had stated that funding for the Triborough Bridge was conditional upon the resignation of Moses. The national press had a field day. The Secretary of course could not state that it was the President’s initiative.
The WPA was denounced in the media as Fascist. It smacked of Bolshevism. A Federal Bureaucracy was dictating who could be officials in New York City. Moses had cultivated relationship with the publishers of the New York Times. The New York Times was the personal propaganda organ for Robert Moses. Moses sent out a communiqué from the Triborough Bridge authority which stated that FDR was the instigator. FDR was on a personal crusade simply because he did not like Moses. It was the truth.
At this time, the City Bourgeoisie were supporters of Moses. Moses had taken them into his confidence only to turn on them later. The New York ruling class reminded FDR that he was the President of a Democracy. FDR could not use his office to carry out petty and personal political revenge. Robert Moses, the city’s bourgeoisie said, was the best thing that ever came along in New York. The decisive battle was when Moses had his back in the corner. FDR was about to crush him. In desperation Moses called in a favour from Al Smith. Al Smith publicly stated that he would be shocked that the President of the United States would try to remove a competent municipal administrator for personal or political motives. FDR surrendered. Moses kept his power and the PWA provided money for the Triborough Bridge. Robert Moses won round 2.
It never fails to amaze me how stupid people are politically. All one has to do is observe each election in the Western World to see how deep the stupidity is. Time and time again, people support political figures that are not in their interests at all. It is obvious but apparently not to the majority of people. Moses was keenly aware of the public’s stupidity. In many ways, I can understand his contempt for the masses. I believe it was Henry David Thoreau who stated “The Masses are the asses.” If the politicians were stupid enough to give him absolute power without reading the details, why should he respect them? If the ruling class propped him up because they saw him as a class ally when it should have been otherwise obvious, why should he care about them? 5 years after being the life savers of Robert Moses, he made his move to destroy them.
It was time for Moses to have a sequel to the Triborough Bridge. He had already bullied LaGuardia into handing over the proposed Queens-Midtown Tunnel to the Triborough Bride Authority. That was the beginning of its permanent name: The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. However, Moses did not like to build many things underground. He wanted to project his grand ego onto the city landscape. For him a tunnel was simply a large tiled bathroom.
Moses decided to build the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge which would have linked South Brooklyn with the southern tip of Manhattan. However, under his proposal, Battery Park would be destroyed. It was to be the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world. It would have cut the edifice of the financial district.
The Ruling Class panicked. Battery Park was home to the original New York Aquarium. It was built within and around Castle Clinton, the old military fort, which still stands today and is the reason why the area is named Battery. It was the most popular attraction for native New Yorkers. The ruling class tried to stop Moses. He spit on them.
Wall Street was deeply alarmed. The bankers saw the threat to the property values in the financial district. The arm of the bridge would have cut right across South Ferry, Water and South Streets. The property assessors estimated that the property values would decline so far that eventually there would be nothing left of value. That meant the headquarters of Chase Manhattan and JP Morgan Banks as well as the New York Stock Exchange would see the value of their property bottom out. The Brooklyn Battery Bridge spelt the death of Wall Street.
Moses had the city under absolute control. During an extraordinary session of the municipal government, the entire Ruling Class; liberal, democrat, republican, conservative packed the chamber and demanded that the Board of Estimate not approve the Brooklyn Battery Bridge. The best lawyers of the city denounced the plans. For two hours, the Ruling Class attacked, charged and denounced Moses with arguments, statistics, and rhetoric in excel of anything ever seen before or since.
In reply, Moses brought the entire political, social, and economic Ruling Class of the city down to the dirt. He made vicious, nasty, cutting and devastating insults. He swore at them with the greatest venom in their faces. He verbally assassinated the oldest member of the city’s ruling class. “He’s a shrivelled up prune!” Never before had the ruling elites of New York been spit upon, mocked and dismissed as Robert Moses had done.
The Board of Estimate passed the Brooklyn Battery Bridge unanimously in front of an astonished and castrated ruling class audience. It was clear who The Boss of New York was. However, the Ruling Class elites who had little political sense appealed to their great enemy, FDR for help.
A brief recap. In the early 1930s, Robert Moses was the great icon of Ruling Class Liberals and Reformers. When he was attacked with justification by FDR, they rushed to his defence against the Bolshevik President. Now that Moses had turned on them and threatened to kill them economically, they crawled on their hands and knees begging to FDR.
There was only one last hurdle for the Brooklyn Battery Bridge to pass. It had to get permission from the Navy Department. Usually the Navy wanted to be sure that the Bridge gave enough clearance room for its larger and taller ships. The bridge was certain to pass the clearance room. However, the Navy was part of the War Department. The President of the US is the Commander-In-Chief of all armed forces.
The Ruling Class, now aware of their earlier political stupidity, realised it was time to bring Moses’ greatest enemy back on side. They appealed to Eleanor Roosevelt, who in her weekly nationally syndicated column asked Mr. Moses to re-consider his plans and listen to the concerns by people of the city.
FDR had Moses’ number and knew it quite well. He ordered a special personal Executive review of the plans. The bridge was going to get WPA funding. FDR failed with that strategy against Moses before. He decided to delay the Navy from making a decision. Moses fumed at the delays by the Navy. He called the Navy personally and had all of his close associates browbeat and harass the Navy with calls. Moses stomped around Randall’s Island. The same Secretary of the Interior who had been used as FDR’s pawn against Moses was also keen to get the project approved one way or the other. He liked Moses personally and thought the bridge was a good idea. He pushed FDR until the latter simply stated that he just didn’t like it. When The Commander-In-Chief doesn’t like an idea it means that the Navy cannot approve it. The Navy rejected the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge for “national security” reasons. The old con line which still resonates today. It was a joke back in 1940 as it is today. Moses knew it. FDR won. Moses was forced to build the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Wall Street was saved from economic disaster. Battery Park remained.
Still, Moses had to remind the Ruling Class who was in charge of the city. He made up a false reason to demolish the Aquarium in Battery Park. Though the Ruling Class were saved economically they lost all political influence. The great symbol of Bourgeois New York City was demolished. The demolition of the old New York Aquarium destroyed the ruling class emotionally. Tears of anguish ran down Wall Street and Park Avenue.
THE PARADOXICAL RELATIONSHIP WITH BLACK AND PUERTO RICANS
It was certainly true that Robert Moses despised Black and Puerto Rican people personally. Robert Moses did not want Black people going to Jones Beach in the 1920s. The Parkway police harassed Black drivers. When Blacks arrived at Jones Beach, they were directed to the far end of the Beach. They were kept far apart from white swimmers. The areas that Black people were allotted did not have lockers and showers as the main part of the Beach. The white beach patrollers would make sure that Blacks did not get close to the white areas. The same policy followed for the municipal pools which were under the control of the Parks Department. Blacks were not allowed to go to the pools in white neighbourhoods.
That was how things were in the US in the 1920s and 30s. The North has always boasted hypocritically that it didn’t have segregation as The South. America was and remains a segregated country. There are pockets of integration across the country but the US is by and large segregated. When FDR as Governor of New York was told about Moses’ racial policy at Jones Beach, didn’t respond or react. Fiorello LaGuardia was also notorious for his anti-Black racism. However LaGuardia found out by the end of the 1930’s that Harlem was a political force in the city.
The greatest paradox about Robert Moses was that he did more for the Black and Puerto Rican population of New York than any other politician has before or since. It was ironically his disdain of Black people which enabled them to become an organised and large political force in the city. It was the physical space which Moses had created for them formed the social and political forces which would one day result in the election of the city’s first Black Mayor.
As the city’s Black were gaining political power and were moving economically upward, many moved out of the over-crowded housing of Harlem and out into Brooklyn. There was large influx of Black migrants from the South who were desperately poor and needed housing. The State Constitution over which Al Smith presided added a clause that New York State provides benefits and social assistance from the State. LaGuardia passed a municipal law to the same effect.
Between the end of the First World War until the end of the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of Blacks fled the South in terror and desperation. They went to all the cities and towns in the Northern States. New York and Chicago were the destinations of the vast majority of these migrants. Both cities found themselves with a large Black population. New York became the largest Black city in the US. However Chicago had an elected dictatorship under Richard Daly and New York had the apolitical legislated dictatorship of Robert Moses. The results could not have been any more different.
When LaGuardia created the first Public Housing Projects of the city, he tried to find ways to build large numbers of housing for a couple of million low income residents of the city. Once again Moses drafted the legislation of the city’s second public authority. The New York City Housing Authority was created. Though Moses did not have seemingly any direct control, as City Planner (another authority that Moses shook LaGuardia down for), he could appoint the majority of members to the Housing Authority Board.
Moses has been castigated for the design of some of the New York City Housing Projects. However, the New York City Housing Authority houses more low-income people than any other city in the United States. Over 1 million people live in public housing in New York. That is quite an accomplishment. It is hardly enough but it is nevertheless impressive. The New York City Housing Authority has been the top ranked by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for decades.
With the exception of Vienna, Amsterdam and possibly some of the Scandinavian cities, Public Housing is generally inferior housing. They are meant to not to look aesthetically pleasing. They are meant for poor people. Most of the time, they are built far away from the rest of the central city. Generally, the building material is inferior. Oftentimes, there are mechanical failures. They are usually desolate zones of desperation and utter alienation.
In this respect, Moses housing projects have remained one of the most stable and successful public housing examples in the Western World. Moses never built anything shoddy or substandard. His ego wouldn’t allow for it. His job was to build housing for poor people. Moses wasn’t cheap. All of his projects cost up to hundreds of millions of dollars. Moses spent more money building housing projects in New York than anything other municipal authority in the United States. Chicago, by contrast, built its projects in the cheapest way possible.
Since the projects and the Housing Authority were flush with cash, the result was many clusters of projects built all over the city with good materials. There was crime in many projects but not really any more than in the rest of the city. Heat and electricity were included in the rent. If neither heat nor hot water worked, the Housing Authority corrected it quickly. If vandals removed the lights from the elevators, the Authority would always replace them. With money coming from the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, cash was not a problem.
The locations of many of the housing projects are some of the best spots in the city. From 14 Street to the Brooklyn Bridge, the entire East Side waterfront is lined with projects that Moses built. Most astonishing are the miles of housing projects which line the beaches of The Rockaways. Tens of thousands of poor people in New York with a beach front onto the Atlantic Ocean.
It would not be far-fetched if the reasoning behind building the projects along the Lower East Side banks of the East River was because the land value at the time was considered cheap. The Rockaways are the most remote part of New York City. On the weekend, it can take no less than 2 hours to reach Far Rockaway from Midtown Manhattan by subway. Moses built housing projects on a remote beach far away from everything. His racist motivation might have been to place tens of thousands of Blacks in exile away from civilisation out in Rockaway.
Nevertheless, there still remains a contradiction. Moses was an excellent swimmer. Jones Beach and the building of beaches was his primary passion. He loved beaches. He hated Black people. So why would he build housing on beaches for Black people? The same question runs with Orchard Beach. He built Orchard Beach on the northeast coast of The Bronx where Pelham Bay coincides with Long Island Sound. Orchard Beach became the primary beach of choice for the city’s Puerto Rican population. He did not intend for that but that was the result.
Robert Moses built most of the largest housing projects in Brooklyn. In a wide swath across Brooklyn are clusters of housing projects. However, there are surrounding streets with market housing. The majority of New York’s Blacks live in this “Black Belt”. It was here that Blacks were able to organise and rise politically not only within Brooklyn but along with Harlem, citywide.
These were probably not related to Moses’ motivation for building them. After all, even if Blacks were one day able to obtain political power, if he were still in charge Black Power wouldn’t change anything regarding Moses’ power. In the event that it might and eventually did occur, then he would e dead. Either way, Moses had no interest pro or con against the political rights and organisation of Black people in the city.
I will compare Robert Moses with Richard Daly and the respective racisms. Daly did not only hate Black people but he intentionally kept them oppressed. When Daly built Chicago’s housing projects he intentionally designed them to be high-rise dog houses. For Daly, the projects were to be nothing more than caged zoos for the Black poor to live and suffer in. The Chicago Housing Authority was run by known crooks tied to Daly’s Democrat Party Machine in the city. The Chicago Housing Authority had no interest at all in public housing. The residents were simply animals to ignore and abuse. If a housing project’s boiler broke down, the attitude from the CHA was “too bad, so sad.” The housing projects of Chicago were purposely designed for misery and suffering.
Moses did not want to oppress Black people. He had no intention or desire to see Black people suffer and be miserable. Though he considered them to be apes, he did not build the projects to be the Primate’s House at The Bronx Zoo. He thought Blacks were inferior but did not build them inferior housing.
The Housing Authority put many Black people who needed emergency housing in empty apartments with market rent buildings all over the city. Whites were stunned to find Black people suddenly around them. Many of the Blacks were recent migrants from the south who were really poor. Robert Moses initiated a plan of forced integration throughout the city. That was part of one of the causes of the so-called “white flight” to the suburbs in the early 1960s.
Not all projects are equal. Some are really nice. Others are really bad. Most of them do not look very nice. However, they lack the squalor that you find in many Social Housing in North America and large parts of Western Europe.
In the early 1990s, the Federal government had to take over the Chicago Housing Authority because of mismanagement. The Feds uncovered a stench of sordidness. Robert Moses’ NYCHA is the best managed and honest public housing agency in the United States.
Unlike Chicago, France and the UK, the housing projects of New York are places of relative social peace and calm. There have not been many reported serious incidents of social unrest in the New York projects. The NYCHA does not keep the projects in squalor. Most projects were built in close proximity to the subway. The residents of the projects were allowed free mobility. Even the projects built on Rockaway Beach are served by frequent subway service to and from the rest of the city.
In the enormously complex mind of Robert Moses, his individual racism was not manifested in the manner in which he built and established public housing for Black people. In the 1950s, the courts ruled that segregation in New York public housing was illegal. So a handful of projects were filled with Blacks, Irish, Jews and Puerto Ricans living together. However, that did not last very long as many of the Irish moved to the suburbs. However, the New York Housing Authority remains the only agency left in the US where hundreds of thousands of poor people are decently and adequately housed at affordable rent.
THE END OF ROBERT MOSES
The New York Times was for decades the PR firm for Robert Moses. However, the popular anger in the city was starting to build. The projects for his many highways destroyed and uprooted many neighbourhoods. The Bronx was destroyed by him. Moses was called “The Hitler of New York.” Moses’ political hero was actually Abraham Lincoln. That partly helps to explain his policy with Black people. Lincoln hated Black people and did not believe them to be equal to whites yet he was forced to emancipate the slaves.
Moses faced two more political challenges. The first was against a young Liberal Republican Mayor by the name of John Lindsay. Lindsay ran against the entrenched Democrat Political Machine. After LaGuardia lost the mayoralty in New York in 1945, the Democrats came back. Tammany had been replaced with former American Communist Party members and graduates now accustomed to the political reality of Moses’ New York. Lindsay was elected in 1965.
He tried to bring Moses in line but the old lion devoured him. In one of the most incredible scenes ever played out in the New York Statehouse, Moses led Lindsay into a trap. Lindsay went to Albany thinking that he would find allies on the State level against Moses. However, Moses controlled had controlled Albany for 40 years since Al Lewis. In his political coup-de-grace, Moses lured Lindsay to a special joint session of the State Assembly, Senate and Governor to hear Lindsay complain about Moses. It was one of the cruellest and most elaborate practical joke ever played out in and Democracy in the United States. Lindsay was laughed out of the Statehouse by the entire State Political establishment. Moses made a monkey out of Lindsay. The State political leaders set Lindsay up just to laugh and mock him publicly and politically. Lindsay was destroyed politically. Moses effortlessly isolated and de-clawed the Mayor of New York City. The Mayor of the World’s largest city at that time was wrecked because of one person. Robert Moses held more power over a Liberal Democratic State than anyone else in history.
Yet Moses had no political mass formation in the form of a party. He simply had Authority. He was politically and economically autonomous. The Parks, Beach and Bridge and Tunnel Authorities were his sole political and economic base. He was not even a profiteer. He had a modest salary of only $10,000 a year. He was not personally a rich man nor did he desire to accumulate personal wealth. Here comes another paradox.
Moses had acquired free capital from the State and City of New York. He used the tolls of his bridges, tunnels and parkways to accumulate close if not more than one billion dollars over 34 years. The capital that the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority accumulated was used to influence and obtain power. Moses wanted power for power’s sake. He did not have economic motivations. He cannot be called a capitalist by any stretch of the imagination. Rather he manipulated capitalism and politics to obtain absolute power. He could have become the world’s richest man. Instead he chose to be the most powerful man in the most powerful city and State in the US.
Nor was Moses in it for political power. He had no need to run as a politician. He learnt to legally manipulate the legislation that gave him more power than the State. Robert Moses smashed the power of municipal and state government.
The 1964-65 World’s Fair was his Waterloo. At the time, it was regarded as a fiasco but it remains today fondly remembered by New Yorkers who attended it. The New York Times turned against him.
Lindsay fired him from all city commissionerships. Moses didn’t care. He still had his Bridge Authority. He built 3 more suspension bridges. Two of them linked Long Island with the mainland. The third bridge linked remote Staten Island to Brooklyn. This bridge, the Verranzano-Narrows reigned as the longest suspension bridge in the world for 20 years.
The Rockefeller’s entered into politics. Nelson Rockefeller, a son of John D. was elected Governor of New York. Rockefeller was the beginning of the upstate Ruling Class to re-assert political power back in New York State. Rockefeller liked Moses but felt that it was time for Moses to retire. Moses refused. Rockefeller on many occasions asked Moses to retire. Moses said no. Rockefeller than plotted a plan.
Rockefeller wanted to invest more in public transit. He wanted all highways and public transit to be directly regulated by the State. Rockefeller announced plans to create a Metropolitan Transportation Authority which would be a State Authority in charge of regulating public transit in New York City and surrounding suburbs within the State.
Moses saw the warning sign. Moses had bleed public transit in the city dry with the costs of his highways and bridges. He wanted everyone to drive cars so he could keep his power. State investment in public transit was against Moses’ philosophy. Moses asked Rockefeller whether or not the MTA was a plot to remove him. Rockefeller at first reassured him.
Moses realising that the end was about to come jumped the gun. He went to the media and attacked Rockefeller. He then accused Rockefeller of having a conflict of interest because his brother David was the head of the family owned Chase Manhattan Bank. That was a fatal provocation.
Nelson Rockefeller was a man of great ambition. He was keen to become President. He was going to have to build a political legacy to become a contender for President. He was not a man to cross politically. Though he and his brother had inherited their father’s wealth, who obtained that illegally, the children acted within the law. Rockefeller could’ve tolerated a direct personal attack. He wouldn’t tolerate having his brother brought down to the dirt with implications of criminality.
The Governor had made up his mind. Moses had to go. He was still willing to help Moses save face. The MTA would take over the Triborough Bride and Tunnel Authority. Moses would still be able to have his office on Randall’s Island but he would have no decision making power. Moses refused and threatened to resign. Rockefeller fired him. All his power was snatched away. Liberal Democracy had finally regained legitimacy on the State level. The Governor was once again the most powerful figure politically in the State. Supreme power no longer rested with an un-elected and unaccountable Commissioner of Parks, Beaches and Bridges.
ROBERT MOSES’ LEGACY: ANARCHY IN NYC
The fall of Robert Moses created a power vacuum in New York City. Suddenly the most powerful figure, The Boss was gone. Mayor Lindsay was rendered impotent by Moses’ last power play. The humiliation of Lindsay had knock on effects throughout the city. The Mayor was seen as a joker. Authority became a joke. New York entered a period of 15 years of anarchy.
The development that still has baffled anthropologists, criminologists and sociologists alike was the absolute breakdown of authority in New York between 1967 and 1982. The city government and its principal agency of social control, the police force, had lost control over the city. The people of New York no longer obeyed the law or authority. The government and the police were rendered impotent in the face of such defiance.
Not long after the fall of Robert Moses, New York was hit by its first power failure. The 1968 Blackout was quite symbolic of the Moses’ power being suddenly clipped. The same year, the New York City public schools were hit by a crippling strike by the teachers. It was the largest strike ever staged by teachers in the United States. Close to half the academic year was lost due to the strike. The United Federation of Teachers became a political and potent force in the city and remains so today. Columbia University was rocked by violent student protests. The following year 1969 came the Stonewall Uprising and the beginning of the Gay and Lesbian political movement. Black parents, emboldened by the Teacher’s Strike, organised student strikes to demand community control of the schools. Parents of Black pupils withdrew their children and kept them home. Blacks occupied school buildings and the Board of Education Headquarters to demand community control over the schools. The Board of Education ceded to the demands and the birth of Community School Boards in New York came about. This was followed up with the demands to end segregation in the City University of New York. City College, Hunter College and Queens College within CUNY were shut off to Black students. Radical direct action ended racial segregation within the City University system.
The economic collapse of Industrial Capitalism in 1973 was one of the factors that led to a decade long depression in New York. The subway started to disintegrate. Public transit bus service deteriorated. A cultural response to the social and economic disaster was to express resistance to the system which produced the crisis. The appearance and subsequent explosion of Graffiti was nothing other than young people saying “Fuck You!” to authority. With rising and mass unemployment and little economic prospects, the crime rate increased dramatically in New York. Crime was and remains caused by economic deprivation. People were so poor that some resorted to stealing light bulbs from elevators and subway stations. John Lindsay’s political career ended in 1973 when Abraham Beame was elected Mayor. Beame took office and saw that the city had no money left. The Board of Estimate had no choice but to cut back as much as possible. Sanitation took the biggest cut. The city would no longer afford to keep the streets clean. Rubbish removal was reduced to once a week in affluent areas and bi-weekly in most other areas. The city had no money to finance the subways and buses.
Beame went to Albany to beg for money but the State was nearly as strapped as the city. Moreover, the Upstate Republicans who controlled the State government wanted to see New York City die anyway.
By 1975, the Nixon fiasco had just passed. Gerald Ford was President and Nelson Rockefeller was Vice President. Since Rockefeller was appointed Ford’s VP directly from the Governor’s seat, Beame went to Washington, D.C. to lobby Rockefeller. Rockefeller promised to send emergency funding to the city. These were the good old days when the Vice President had little power, a decade before the George H. Bush Vice Presidency and 3 decades before Dick Cheney’s. Back in the 1970’s, the President was still the one in charge of the White House. Ford refused to sign any executive order to bail out New York City. The results of that decision created what remains the most famous headline from the tabloid New York Daily News: “Ford To City: Drop Dead”. Both the Federal and State governments had decided to let New York City die economically.
There was no authority what so ever vis-à-vis New York City. The City government was bankrupt. The police force had no money and corruption was so deep, that in certain parts of the city, entire police precincts were places where drugs were dealt and bought. The police officers themselves were breaking the very laws they were designed and paid to protect. There was no State authority because the State Government wanted nothing to do with the city. It showed no interest in running or managing New York City. There was no Federal authority because the Federal government pursued a policy to let the largest city in the country to collapse. The President, Governor and leaders of the State Legislature were all Republicans.
1976 was the most critical year of the city. The financial Bond rating companies were about to downgrade the city’s bonds to 0 value. That meant that New York City would not have been able to borrow money. Donald Trump entered the scene and bailed out the city. For the first time since the end of the First World War, the bourgeoisie was back in power. Since Donald Trump re-financed the city out of own pockets, he had in effect bought it. Donald Trump replaced Robert Moses as The Boss of New York. On the Federal level, Rockefeller was furious with Ford for leaving New York City to die. Ford then made the fatal mistake of dropping Rockefeller from the ticket in the 1976 election. Rockefeller saw his ambitions to become President sunk and his political career unceremoniously destroyed. He vowed revenge against Ford. Rockefeller twisted the arms of every Republican county boss in New York State. In one of the closest Presidential elections, Jimmy Carter narrowly beat Ford. Carter won New York State, still the largest at the time, and Ford went into history as the only un-elected President of the United States. (George W. Bush is the second un-elected President legally speaking but not officially.)
1977 was an election year for Mayor of New York. There was no way that Beame would run again. He was considered to be the worst mayor the city ever had. The entire Democrat Party establishment ran for Mayor. The Democrat bosses of all the boroughs ran. By the 1950s, Harlem had taken control of Manhattan politically. Blacks were the most powerful political group in Manhattan. Percy Sutton, the Black Manhattan Borough President was one of the contenders. The two other main contenders were Mario Cuomo and a Greenwich Village Congressman named Ed Koch. 7 people ran for Mayor of New York in 1977. Koch came out on top. 9 years after the fall of Robert Moses, the city had fallen into such disarray and the political and power vacuum so acute that 7 people, all from the same party competed for the top spot of political power in the city.
There was another Blackout in 1977. A psycho serial killer who called himself the Son of Sam struck terror in the city. The Bronx went up in flames. Crooked landlords paid arsonists to burn down their buildings in The Bronx so that they could collect insurance money. No one obeyed the law. From the top to the bottom of New York society, authority was non-existent.
Ed Koch spent his first term as Mayor like most people in New York in the late 70s did. He partied, danced, had sex and took drugs. It was an open secret that Koch was gay. He was never open about it politically but everyone knew. Particularly with those who were in the Disco scene. Koch was famous for having sex with as many men as possible. Gay men in the Disco scene liked to boast that they had slept with the Mayor. Mayor Koch and the Disco scene was a direct political and cultural result of the Stonewall Uprising.
Koch partied through his first mandate and easily won re-election in 1981. Between 1977 and 1981, New York had reached its bottom. The murder rate was the highest in the western world. Muggings, slashing, robberies had become epidemic. Back in 1973, Rockefeller emptied the State Mental Wards. Beame followed suit in 1974. Thousands of psychopaths, homicidal and criminally insane, descended onto the streets of New York. Robert Moses died in 1981 at the top of the city’s anarchistic period.
Despite the epitome of anarchy, New York underwent its greatest cultural and artistic revolution since the Harlem Renaissance and Tin Pan Alley of the 1920s. Punk, New Wave and Hip Hop were the cultural results of the city’s anarchy. Despite the fear and terror of criminality, the young people of city danced, djayed, rapped, made music and created graffiti art.
Koch was not serious about being Mayor. He became Mayor for two reasons: The first was that as Hizzoner, he would be able to get into the best clubs and Discos for free as well as to get laid anytime he wanted. The second reason was that City Hall was only a stepping stone for the State House. In 1982, he ran for Governor. In the Democratic Primary, he faced off again with his old nemesis, Mario Cuomo. Cuomo went on the win and would remain Governor for 12 years. Cuomo and Koch made a pact. Cuomo would never again run for Mayor and Koch would never again run for Governor.
It was at the end of 1982 that Koch got serious about running the city of New York. It was Koch, who by 1983 reasserted authority of the city. His first crackdown was against Graffiti. The Transit Police were directed to take excessive measures against Graffiti artists. Koch began to demonise and portray Graffiti artists as the most dangerous criminal villains. The result of this crackdown was the first death of a Graffiti artist, Michael Stewart, who was hog tied and beaten to death by the Transit Police. By the beginning of 1989, the subways were clean of graffiti.
It was during Koch’s second term that the Ruling Class managed to regain complete control over the city. Donald Trump had all but in name owned the Title and Deed of New York City. The banks, real estate and insurance industries networked together. With Robert Moses dead and out of power, the New York capitalist class was able to dominate and call the shots once again. The bankers and real estate establishment began plans to remove the city’s poor, Black and Latino population. Luxury condos were built. Landlords who owned rent-controlled buildings would keep apartments vacant until most of the units in the buildings were empty. Then the landlords converted them into Condos. The homeless crisis in New York was artificially created. There was always more than enough apartments to house everyone. However, profit and not affordable housing became the new economic and political law of New York. Real Estate prices increased. Rents became astronomical. No affordable housing was built. More and more homeless started to populate the streets of New York.
Crime started to decrease by 1989 and declined steadily for a decade. Giuliani took the credit for it but the crime rate dropped mostly during the David Dinkins years of 1990-1993. What was remarkable was that despite the heavy economic burdens of the city, the municipal government did not cut welfare or other social services. That began when Dinkins was Mayor, who by the time, had to do whatever Donald Trump and the other bankers told him to do. Of course Giuliani followed and the implementation of the Corporate Feudal State with the economic ethnic cleansing of the poor, Black and Latino people of New York. The rest of the story continues to the present.
CONCLUSION
Robert Moses built and made New York City. The aesthetic of New York is that of Robert Moses. Moses was one of if not the greatest builder in the history of the world. The world class and famous city became so almost exclusively because of Robert Moses. When one flies in or out of the two airports within the city, one is in a Moses structure. When one takes a taxi to or from JFK and LaGuardia Airports, the highways that one rides on were built by Moses. The United Nations headquarters was built by Robert Moses. When one drives into New York from all directions, 3 of the vehicular tunnels were built by Moses. When one drives through New York City on any Interstate, one is on Moses ground. When one sees the New York Mets play at Shea Stadium or watches the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, one sits in a Robert Moses structure. The Central Park Zoo, The Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium are all the results of Robert Moses. When one goes to Grant’s Tomb or takes a stroll through Riverside Park, one is on Moses ground. All that remains interesting and good to this day in New York is the result of Robert Moses.
The biggest lie told by the reactionary right and supporters of Giuliani is how New York’s Liberal Social Welfare system left the city bankrupt. The second biggest lie they tell, is that civil rights led to a breakdown in respect for authority. This was a statement that Tony Blair made back in 2004.
Of all the reactionary cheerleaders and supporters of Rudy Giuliani, John Leo is the most honest. John Leo is a syndicated right wing columnist. In an article defending Giuliani, Leo detailed the political, social and economic reality of the city before Giuliani, just as I have done. Leo is absolutely correct about New York City. I can respect an honest review. However, he and I disagree about the legacy of Giuliani.
My point is this. It was not Liberal “Socialistic” programs that bankrupt New York City. Nor was it due to the misguided politics of left wing Democrats. No. Robert Moses was single-handedly responsible for it. It was the building of his bridges, highways, tunnels and World’s Fair which bankrupt the city. As we see clearly, Robert Moses was a right wing Republican. He was not some lefty quasi-Socialist. Moses used to scam the city by reassuring nervous Mayors and Comptrollers alike that his projects wouldn’t “cost the city a penny.” He was linguistically correct. His projects didn’t cost New York one penny but rather billions of pennies.
An example was the construction of Riverside Park. Moses would always underestimate the costs. He browbeat the city to raise million dollar bonds. The money would run out. Riverside Park was only half completed when he would ask the city for more money. When the City Comptroller would refuse, Moses would say fine but he was not going to clear up the construction work. The Comptroller and Mayor were faced with a dilemma. Give Moses more money or let a huge chunk of the city lie torn apart. The politicians always gave in.
With Moses sucking the city’s finances dry, the city could not spend money on keeping the aging subways in repair. Other essential services had to be scaled back. By 1976, 8 years after the fall of Moses, the city went bankrupt. The blame lies squarely at the feet of Robert Moses. It had nothing to do with Socialism or Liberalism.
This logically leads to the issue of social disorder and the practical disappearance of authority. As I have tried to show in this essay, Government authority in New York City and State had vanished by 1940. That was the doing of Robert Moses and the fault of stupid and gullible Republican Party politicians. Robert Moses single-handedly destroyed the authority of two levels of government and that of the entire bourgeois class. The only authority in the city and state of New York was the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority
When Robert Moses was removed by Rockefeller in 1968, the only figure of authority in the city was gone. When the head is cut off, the body dies. The economic collapse of industrial capitalism hit all of the Western Industrial countries and had nothing to do with Robert Moses. However, due to Moses, the economic crisis hit New York especially hard. With the city bankrupt and the loss of jobs severe, crime was bound to increase. Combined with Republican Rockefeller releasing all the mental inmates, violence also increased. It was two Republican Party politicians who removed Moses. The breakdown of authority in New York City occurred on the watch of a Republican Mayor and Governor. It was not the results of liberals or Democrats.
On to the issues of race and class, Robert Moses inadvertently helped the Blacks of New York politically. Moses did nothing to take away the social and political rights of Blacks. He actually increased the quality of life for Black New Yorkers. Giuliani was the exact opposite. Giuliani ran on a campaign to oppress Blacks. On the first day as Mayor he publicly stated that the poor should move out of the city. Robert Moses benefited the poor and Black people of the city. Giuliani repressed and oppressed them. The vast majority of Robert Moses’ the victims were white people from the working class whites of The Bronx and Brooklyn to the Robber Barons of Long Island.
In his book, Caro gives a glaring contradiction in his analysis of Robert Moses. On one hand Caro shows Moses’ racism but then later he himself insinuates a racist point. Caro blames Moses for bringing poor Black people in middle class white areas of the city. Caro perpetuates the justification for white flight out of the city. By bringing in poor Black criminals in stable middle class white areas, whites fled, neighbourhoods became slums and the crime rate increased.
Robert Moses did more to integrate New York racially than anybody else in the history of the city. And thank goodness for Moses’ clever law making because the only reason why Black and Latinos will remain in Harlem is because of his housing projects. The only reason why the city’s poor Black and Latino population will not be economically cleansed in the foreseeable feature is due to the housing projects that Moses built. The most important legacy of Robert Moses is that he has ensured that poor, Black and Latino people will have a right to live and stay in New York City. Within 10 years from now all the privately owned apartment buildings in Harlem will be cleansed of Blacks and Puerto Ricans. However, those will remain in the projects. The same is true on the Lower East Side. The only reason why the L.E.S. has not been 100% gentrified to due of the housing projects that Moses built.
Make no mistake about it. The bankers and real estate elites, as you read this, are formulating schemes to either tear down public housing or to convert them to market rate units of wealthy people. For the past 15 years there have been various and serious attempts to do so. However, Moses’ law creating the New York City Housing Authority makes it almost impossible. Giuliani had a scheme that involved first forcing all NYPD officers to live in public housing. Then he planned to offer cheap or free housing to police officers in the projects. All of his plans failed. First, the cops and their families would sooner jump in front of a subway train than to live in the projects. Second, though police officers do not make a large salary, they are hardly low-income. Legally, public housing is for low-income people only. To allow the police and their families into public housing would contravene the law. To change the law would be very complicated and tricky given how Robert Moses had written it. The current Mayor, Michael Bloomberg is probably trying to figure out a way to dismantle public housing. He could try a clever scheme in the same manner as he destroyed the Board of Education. However, that would require action on part of the State government. Given that the Governor is now a Black Democrat from The Bronx and the Speaker of the State Assembly is from the Lower East Side that looks unlikely to occur. The Speaker of the Assembly is Sheldon Silver. Half if not more than half of his constituents live in the public housing projects of the Lower East Side. That would be political suicide.
There are more than one million public housing residents of New York City. To remove one million people would be too risky in any democracy including a sham one as in the US today. Most people in the projects do not vote. This was most evident in the 1993 Mayoral election which Giuliani won. If all the residents of only two housing projects voted, Giuliani would never have become Mayor of New York. As I stated above, it was the housing projects of Harlem that gave Blacks the political power in New York. If any politician tried to abolish public housing, they would face two serious revolts from the projects. First, they would face electoral revolt and they could possibly face violent revolt. Thanks to Robert Moses, poor Blacks and Latinos have an emergency resource in the ballot and have a physical mass that can be potentially revolutionary.
Although Robert Moses destroyed the most beautiful borough of the city, the long term consequences are positive. The Bronx remains the only part of New York City which hasn’t changed politically or socially. Gentrification is barely making its way into The Bronx. The Bronx will be the last part of New York City to be cleansed of poor, Blacks and Latinos. The Cross Bronx Expressway has reduced property values and kept them at the bottom. Not even the most devious and slick Real Estate crooks can manipulate or change that. The Bronx remains the most left wing part of New York City. It is also a potentially revolutionary part of the city that the Corporate Feudal rulers of the city should tread with extreme caution.
The world’s most popular music today, Hip Hop was a creation of both the IRT subway trains and the housing projects of Robert Moses. In fact, due to the bankruptcy of the city, many of the youth in the projects took up Djaying, break dancing and rapping. Old School Hip Hop and Rap is also the aesthetic of Robert Moses. The Blacks lived in his housing projects. Their social development, language and culture were created in the projects. This is probably one of the biggest indirect cultural legacies of Robert Moses.
New York has many highways, 95% of them built by Robert Moses. However, New York is not Los Angeles, Toronto or Atlanta. With the exception of The Bronx and parts of Queens, highways take up very little of the city’s urban surface. One can walk in Manhattan and never encounter a highway. When most people think of New York, highways are the last thing that comes to mind. New York connotes skyscrapers, bridges and subways. Indeed, when one flies over New York landing into Moses built LaGuardia Airport; one does not see highways all over the landscape. Moses is blamed for turning New York into one giant highway. I do not see it. The highways are there but New York remains a public transit and pedestrian city and not a car city.
Finally, New York and Manhattan in particular has turned into and is turning into an artificial Walt Disney World. The structures and parks of Robert Moses have prevented and will prevent New York from turning into a plastic and fake city. New York is socially and culturally plastic today. Anyone that knows New York for decades will easily see this obvious fact. Though Giuliani and Bloomberg have politically and socially turned New York into Indianapolis and Cincinnati, they will never be able to turn the city physically into a provincial American city. To destroy the real New York would entail destroying the entire city edifice. The World Trade Center was built by the Rockefeller’s after Moses was removed. Had Moses not been thwarted by Franklin Roosevelt to build the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, the twin towers would never have been built. Or if they had been, their location would have been different.
Robert Moses was a mean, nasty and vicious man. He was a racist and held all people from all races and classes in utter contempt. He subverted democracy yet he made New York into the most liberal and free society the world has ever known. He smashed the Ruling Class yet at the same time he made the material life for poor and working class people the best in North America. He displaced close to a half million people with two of his highways yet he provided one million poor people housing.
I am a child and product of Robert Moses. The New York City that I was born and raised in was that of Robert Moses. The New York City that I love and miss was the design of Robert Moses. I used to go twice a year to Jones Beach. I am fan of the New York Mets baseball club and Shea Stadium is part of my identity. My favourite park in the world is Flushing Meadows Park. The first ten years of my life, I lived in an anarchist city where there was no authority. Is it any wonder that I detest authority and refuse to abide to conformity? My city was destroyed by Rudy Giuliani. If Robert Moses had been around during the Giuliani years, he would have destroyed him. Long live Robert Moses! Long live New York!

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