Robert Moses

Robert Moses

(1888-1981)

DJ Name: Mosey On Over

You might know New York as the concrete jungle where dreams are made, but do you know who made that concrete jungle? OK, maybe Robert Moses didn’t create New York City, but for nearly half a century, he found that he was king of the hill, top of the heap. We’re mixing up our NYC songs here a bit, but the point is Robert Moses is credited with building several bridges, an underwater tunnel, 416 miles of parkway, 2,567,256 acres of parkland, numerous public housing projects, 17 public swimming pools and 658 playgrounds – all of which transformed New York from Manhattan to Long Island. He was a busy boy. But though he had racked up quite the impressive resume by the time he died, the debate remains: Did Robert Moses create a thriving, bustling city, or did he ruin it? 

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Robert’s life, he asks that you queue up this playlist that he curated and demanded all of his drivers play as they hurdled through the streets and over bridges that he was the mastermind behind.

Robert Moses was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 18,1888, to Emanuel Moses, who was of Spanish-Jewish descent, and Isabella Moses, who was of German-Jewish descent. Emanuel ran a successful department store in New Haven, the precursor to Shein, according to many retail analysts, allegedly. However, the fam waved goodbye to their “bridge and tunnel” days and moved into Manhattan when Isabella’s father, Bernard Cohen, who was a prosperous New York merchant and member of the Commission of Education under William L. Strong, the last Republican mayor before the creation of Greater New York, died in 1897 and willed his home to his daughter. 

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, as Mama Moses – who was wealthy and imbued with a desire to reform the city – took part in the settlement movement, helping to build “settlement houses” to provide education and healthcare to poor people. 

In 1905, Robert made his way back to Connecticut and started school at Yale, competing on the track and swimming teams. He was also really into shotgunning beers and doing keg stands, but he wasn’t very good at them. Alas, we can’t all be Phi Beta Kappa honorees AND Keg Flipper Extraordinaires. Though he’d come to be known for his bridges and parks, Robert didn’t study engineering or public planning in school. Instead, he studied jurisprudence (fancy word for the law™)  at Yale and then at Oxford before getting a postgraduate degree in political science at Columbia. Because who needs practical building skills when you can instead finesse the system in your favor and get your underlings to do the grunt work instead?

Robert’s career began in 1913, when he took a job working for New York City’s Bureau of Municipal Research. Six years into his job there, Governor Alfred Smith appointed him as chief of staff of the New York state reconstruction commission, which sought administrative reforms in the state government. Then, in 1924, the governator – oh wait, wrong city – named Robert as the head of both the New York and Long Island state park commissions, effectively making him the State Park Overlord, trademark pending. His mission: create a unified park system. There were plenty of parks for city slickers to visit, but many were not well preserved. Long Island on the other hand only had Fire Island, located on a sand reef. Basically it was a no boat, no beach situation. 

That was until Robert got his hands on a plan to transform an inaccessible stretch of sand on Long Island into what is now Jones Beach. Robert’s plan created two miles of toes in the water, a$$ in the sand beach by dredgin’ up sand from the State Boat Channel. What was once a mosquito haven was now a spot to soak up some sunshine. Robert went on to develop 13 more parks on Long Island which totaled 10,631 acres that stretched from Montauk to the city line. Though these new spots offered places for members of the community to enjoy some good ol’ clean family fun in nature, it must be known that many farmers and also the Long Island millionaires, of course, with big estate energy were not so thrilled. The land used for parkways and parks often limited land use for farmers for harvesting corn and the rich families for maintaining their clubs. After a few years working on the development of Long Island, Robert turned his attention to Manhattan. 

Early on, Robert faced some roadblocks in his vision for the city’s infrastructure. The Great Depression meant NYC was strapped for cash (happens to the best of us!) but FDR’s New Deal – which, quick refresher, was a series of public works projects, financial reforms and new regulations that FDR enacted starting in 1933 to combat the country’s financial crisis – loosened the ol’ purse strings and Robino’s department was suddenly flush with cash.

One of his first projects was constructing the Triborough Bridge, now known as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, which links Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx (and under which Emmy ate a chocolate croissant earlier today). Completed during the Great Depression, Robert instituted tolls along the bridge, thus makin’ it rain dolla dolla bills and indicating that bridges in NYC could generate significant revenue for the city (with other bridges soon following suit).

After World War II, Robert again spearheaded multiple roadway construction projects, building vast expressways that took sidewalks away from pedestrians and dedicated more space for cars, which, in turn, more people decided to purchase. The next time you New Yorkers want to scream at all the drivers blocking intersections, you now know who to direct your carefully chosen string of expletives at. 

The irony here that we should note is that though Robert repeatedly chose cars over people and built tons of roads that totally revamped NYC, Robert never actually learned how to drive. He said, “License? Never heard of her” and instead, he was chauffeured everywhere he went, often demanding that the police clear the streets before leaving his driveway. On second thought, this sounds extremely ideal and we will soon be pursuing this degree of power to wield so we never have to get stuck in traffic again.

Also on Robert’s list of creations were the Lincoln Center, where you can see the New York Philharmonic perform, and Shea Stadium (RIP), where you could see the Mets play (until 2008, when they moved to Citi Field and the city paved paradise (the stadium) and put up a parking lot (because baseball fans want to tailgate, OK). However, not everyone was a fan of this establishment because Walter O’Malley, who owned the Dodgers, which, at the time, played in Brooklyn, wanted Robert to build his team a new stadium but Robbo said no no. Walter said “fine, be that way,” and he and his team dodged Robert’s denials and headed to sunny Los Angeles. 

Besides pissing off Walter O’Malley, Robert ruffled the feathers of many others, too, especially as more information has come to light about how he gained and wielded power and how he opted to construct certain projects. For example, Robert was pretty hateful toward poor people. Perhaps Mama Moses’ obsession with trying to fix impoverished people’s circumstances and claiming to know exactly what they needed without actually asking anyone in those communities rubbed off on young Robino, as he routinely created infrastructure that systematically discriminated against the poor and people of color. He built parkways leading out to the beaches of Long Island (thus opening up routes for the city slickers to experience some gosh darn fresh air) but then built bridges over his parkways that lacked sufficient headroom for buses to clear. Therefore, only people wealthy enough to own cars could make the trip out to the Hamptons or Montauk. This is, in fact, still an issue today, and New Yorkers have to either drive or take the Long Island Railroad in order to splish-splash on the beaches outside of the city.

However, despite his power, Robert Moses never held public office. He ran once, in 1934, for governor, and lost by 800,000 votes. After that substantial loss, he never put his name on a ballot again. And to be honest, we probably wouldn’t either. Moses did, however, mosey on up to hold other city offices which gave him all that power over funding for new infrastructure. Some of his titles included but are not limited to Commissioner of the New York City Planning Commission, Chairman of the New York State Power Authority, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and allegedly Founder of New York Hot Dog Stands. He used that degree in jurisprudence to convince NYC celebrities and (real) housewives to fund fancy bridges and parks friendly for ladies who lunch. Ok, maybe not. Rather he appealed to stakeholders like unions and banks for support, both financial and maybe even moral.

Not all Robert proposed was glitzy, glam and gold, though. A lot of new ideas that he pitched during the midpoint of the century faced criticism because they were less about building bridges and parks and more about bulldozing certain city squares for lots. As a champion for cars, Robert wanted to create more parking lots and expressways. Jokes on him today because how many New Yorkers actually have their license? Robert proposed the Lower Manhattan Expressway to run through Greenwich Village and SoHo, but that was wrongo in the eyes of many activists who opposed his idea and saved the future of window shopping. 

Robert’s plans transformed city parks, though, after years of neglect and indifference. Many old parks were redesigned and gussied up, which made them all the more enjoyable for ladies who lunch, pigeons and kids who flipped around on brand new monkey bars. These projects beautified NYC and created new jobs for 75,000 men. It was a boomin’ time and along with parks and parkways Robert replaced tenement slums with public housing towers. 

But Robert’s power began to fade in the 1960s. Manhattanites were not happy to hear that Robert doth protest the free Shakespeare in the Park program as too much. Around this same time he also proposed demolishing a shaded playground in Central Park to pave a new parking lot for the fancy Tavern-on-the-Green restaurant. Criticism of Robert’s work throughout his long career was catching up with him after several instances of ignoring public feedback and proceeding with urban development projects. The cookie began to crumble when the 1964 World’s Fair came into the picture. 

Robert projected that 70 million people would attend the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. However, this projection was seen as wildly optimistic. This Fair was also not sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions which supervised events like these. Robert refused to accept their requirements and charged exhibitors rent. In return, the Bureau told its member nations like Canada and most major European nations not to participate. Those that did end up showing out at the 1964 World’s Fair were smaller nations like Vatican City and Spain. Though the show went on, NYC faced major money losses. Toll revenues began to cover the city’s deficits but Robert opposed this. But Mayor Lindsay said, “You’re Fired” and removed Robert from his post as the city’s chief advocate for federal highway money. 

A year later, a man named Robert Caro published a 1,200 page book about how Robert Moses destroyed NYC. The Power Broker highlighted Moses’ early achievements such as Jones Beach and the New York State Park system, but proceeded to focus on his hunger for power and disregard for public input. Caro won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for this book. 

Robert spent the later years of his life quietly and swam daily at the Colonie Hill Health Club. He died of heart disease on July 29, 1981 at the age of 92. So did Robert Moses actually create a thriving, bustling city, or did he ruin it with his pursuit for power via parks and parkways? 

“Master Builder” Robert Moses has gone down as a controversial figure in New York history. His development of the city where dreams are made of cost a total of $27 billion. He was praised at first for his restoration of parks and public spaces, but over time as the city evolved communities grew concerned about his urban infrastructure obstructing neighborhoods. Robert’s impact is still all over the Big Apple from expressway to bridge, park to playground, but if you want to take a bus to the beach: good luck. As for the answer to our question, that’s for you to decide.

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