Caro spends thankfully little time on Moses’ early years, which are generally the worst part of any biography. What little he does say, however, really highlights the case for picking your own biographer. Now, in theory I am all in favor of historically significant people opening up their archives to allow broad scholarly access, and to not put in place limiting copyright restrictions that only allow an authorized biographer to access your papers. On the other hand, God forbid our teenage selves are described by someone who doesn’t like us very much. Caro comes awfully close to name-calling at many points, referring to Moses the minor as arrogant, stubborn, a loner, spoiled, a recluse, and emotional, while strongly implying epithets like “bully” and “poseur” (had the latter word existed in 1974). About the only positive thing he can find to say about Moses is to quote someone calling him “an attractive Jew.”
To outline his early life briefly, however: Moses’ grandparents, cousins (which is really irrelevant, but Caro emphasizes it), immigrated from Bavaria to New York and were married in 1849. Moses’ grandfather started a dry goods business and expanded into real estate, becoming a millionaire and a member of the New York Jewish upper class. Moses’ grandmother was, in Caro’s somewhat troubling depiction, a cold (never visited her dying daughters in the hospital!), intellectual (read newspapers in multiple languages!), “imperious” (cut in the front of lines!) shrew (bullied her husband!). Her daughter, Moses’ mother, seemed to take after her, although—and Caro actually says this—“her looks weren’t as impressive.” Rowr! She married Emanuel Moses, who owned a department store in New Haven, and moved to Connecticut with him for a while, then moved the family back to New York. (To do so, Emanuel was forced to sell the business, and spent the rest of his life in retirement, something he was apparently unhappy with.) Moses’ mother became heavily involved with the Settlement House movement, which moved poor immigrant Jews into newly-built housing. She became a very hands-on member, designing buildings, patrolling the grounds to find maintenance problems, and lecturing the residents on proper cleaning procedure.
Moses grew up his mother’s favorite, but had a harder time of it at Yale, which he picked because he missed the New Haven of his youth. Still dominated by prep-school Episcopalians, Moses was largely shut out of any of the major organizations, from the main literary magazine to the social groups, though he did not help his case by being younger than most and spending the majority of his time in his room reading. But this studiousness eventually attracted friends, fellow nerds, and Moses seized leadership positions at the second-tier organizations that were open to him. In the most memorable instance, he organized the minor sports teams at Yale into an organization that would be able to get better financing, and tried to trick one of the major donors, though his teammates blocked him. (Moses’ college career is weirdly similar to those of Presidents Nixon and Johnson.) He then went to Oxford, which treated him much more kindly, on the assumption that if you got into Oxford, you were already part of the elite.
Psychobiography aside, the most interesting parts of this section concern his time at Oxford, particularly as regards his thesis. In it, he endorsed the ideas of Woodrow Wilson, who had just been elected President. Believe it or not, this is a real present-at-the-creation sort of moment. Wilson is generally thought to have theorized and instituted the “administrative state,” and after Moses graduated from Oxford, he worked for the Bureau of Municipal research, which essentially implemented the ideas of public administration in the United States. (“One of his friends wondered, quite seriously, whether Bob Moses was not the man best educated in public administration in the entire country.”) For those of you who are not dating someone with a Master’s in public administration, this is all a pretty big deal. Public administration created the modern state, shaping our assumptions about how government should function and what it should be able to do. Despite my usual suspicion of claims that things now are different than they used to be, this really was a new way of doing things—more businesslike, more professional, more transparent, more efficient, and more responsive, but also far more active. The administrative state allowed the federal government to become the interventionist, active provider of services that we all know (and rely on, even if we don’t love it) today. (In the next entry, I’ll get into this a bit more, and talk about our how judgments about how well government works are sometimes rooted in a pre-administrative state understanding of government.)
This system holds great power, obviously, and Moses came very close to diagnosing the problem that he himself would later represent: what if someone with the wrong idea of how to do things gets in control? Moses thought that America should scrap the patronage system represented by the Tammany machine and put in its place something like the British Civil Service, which would award positions based on merit rather than political affiliation. (Caro accuses Moses of raging Anglophilia, though given that Moses seemed to encounter far less antisemitism at Oxford than at Yale, it’s hard to blame him.) This would open up government positions to anyone who could meet the requirements. But what if the wrong sort of person managed to get in? By this Moses did not mean someone like himself—in fact, he meant the exact opposite. He thought that only people educated at the best universities should be eligible for the civil service, as was the case in Britain at the time. At an Oxford debate, he even started a near-riot by arguing that colonial subjects were not really fit to take the civil service exam, and should not be allowed to self-govern.
This attitude is odious to us, of course. (Even on a self-interested level: I went to a fairly good college, but it would not have met Moses’ standards and I would have been barred from government work.) But, looking at how things are now, it’s hard not to wonder if he has a point. A class of governors who had all shared an experience and a training could do much to alleviate many of the problems people detest in our modern politics. If legislators had all gone to the same school, they would have longstanding relationships they might be more loath to violate, they would have a shared background that could be appealed to, and they would all have been required to at least think about some higher purpose for what they do, something beyond partisan or personal goals. Despite idealistic visions of legislating as something anyone could do, the complex instrument that the modern state has become is not something you can just walk into. No amount of training could ever eliminate corruption—nothing can eliminate corruption—but our elected representatives seem to enter government service with very different ideas of what government is supposed to do, and how it’s supposed to function. But there is something like a neutral consensus on those issues, at least in broad terms, and just as we don’t really want our EMTs working under different conceptions of the EMT’s role (what if some thought that they best serve the public by letting them heal themselves?), it seems like it would be nice to have our public officials working under a shared understanding of what it means to serve the public.
Still, Moses is the ultimate counterexample. Exquisitely educated, obviously brilliant, he sincerely wanted to help the less fortunate, and had their best interests at heart. And yet his ultimate actions ended up doing irreparable harm to hundreds of thousands of people. This sends a chill through my good liberal soul. Like Moses, I am overeducated and I want to help people, and like Moses, I believe in using the power of the government to solve large-scale problems. I think power is a good thing, as long as it is used well and carefully, and toward a specific set of goals. But does that road inevitably lead to Moses?
I think there’s another element to the equation: sensibility. Caro makes a good case that Moses’ upbringing instilled in him a restless intellect and a desire to help the less fortunate, but also a patronizing way of looking at the less fortunate and a contempt for the opinions of others. This particular brew, combined with power, created the results it did. But if Moses had a different sensibility, if he had done better things with the opportunities he was given, then he would be hailed as a hero today. After all, Frederick Law Olmsted, who was also Parks Commissioner and also exercised his power to change the way New York looks, is spoken of reverently. Without the power—as Caro points out—there would have been nothing, and we would be able to legitimately criticize the city for not changing things, for leaving in place problems of public health and disgraceful living conditions. The power wasn’t the problem. What he did with it was.
It seems to me that when we talk about democracy, we tend to think of it as a system of values, as an ideal. But it’s not, really. It’s just an empty vessel, a system of rules inside which actions are taken. It should impart a concern for the will of the people, but as the most basic business of politics is deciding between legitimate competing interests, that’s not much of a help. Yes, the will of the people: but which people? Democracy simply draws a smaller circle, putting certain things (just doing whatever the fuck you want) out of bounds, but the original circle was limited too (to what you can actually get away with). True democracy is only possible on a small scale. But there are values that are important, a sensibility that we want our leaders to cultivate if they want to rule well. Education may be one way to get that across; life experience may be another. And they may very well be competing sensibilities. But the example of Moses suggests that some should be shared. As Rachel puts it, Moses’ argument is a tempting one for anyone with power, but it’s ultimately self-defeating. Even if you have the best of intentions, everyone messes up eventually, gets the details wrong or misses an unintended consequence. Without the sensibility that values debate and discussion—one that Moses absolutely lacked—you are eventually going to get something wrong, and that will result in the failure of your policy and/or the end of your career (and your associates’). It is ultimately in your best interest to be open to consultation and contrary ideas; no matter what you thought of them politically, it’s undeniably true that it was precisely this tendency in the last Bush administration that caused such ruin to his party.
And, of course, if you really want to serve the public, you have to see every member of the public as a real and important human being. This by no means requires you to do no harm; that’s essentially impossible in politics. But to really do what’s best for the people you represent, you need to acknowledge the harm you’re doing with your decisions, be aware of it, honestly conclude that, despite the harm it’s doing, it’s still the best possible policy, and then own up to it afterwards. Politics is always about limited resources, and that means not everyone is going to get what they want. And that means, always and especially, that political leaders shouldn’t always get what they want, either.
A fifth floor fire escape yields the perfect people-watching vantage. You can discern the pattern on a guy’s shirt but not the stains on it; you can observe the fact that a woman is wearing toenail polish without parsing her bunions.
The front seat contents of cars are visible, and interesting parts of conversations are often audible. Pleasant cooking smells make their way up but the stink of melting garbage mainly stays streetbound.
Then there’s the building across the street with the bald woman, the kid flying paper airplanes, the vegetables drying out on the ledge and the girl who sits and stares out creepily until you realize that a tiny laptop actually rests in the window sill and the creepy stare is directed not at you, on the fire escape, but at Facebook.
Owl’s Head Park was originally private land, purchased by the city in 1930. Moses remade it in 1934 along with several other parks, including Fort Greene, McCarren, and the Prospect Park Zoo. Geographically, it was the pivot point of Moses’ Circumferential Parkway plan. For several years, the BQE did not connect to any of the southern expressways; it wasn’t until the aftermath of Moses’ battle to build a Battery crossing that a connection was finally approved. The first segment, the Belt Parkway, ran along the southern shore of the island and looped around the western shore to stop at Owl’s Head, and was completed in 1940. The second segment, from Owl’s Head to the Prospect Expressway and Battery Tunnel, was completed a year later. Unlike what you may be used to from interstate highways, these transitions are far from seamless.
Broadly speaking, the park is located at the western edge of Bay Ridge, a couple miles north of the Verrazano Bridge, at a bend in the shore. It’s directly across the bay from the northeastern tip of Staten Island. It received its name because the point once looked like an owl’s head.
The park is bound on the south by 68th Street, on the east by Colonial Road, and on the west and north by essentially an entrance ramp to the Belt Parkway. If I could think of a better-known analogue, it would be the area by Riverside Drive in Manhattan: a quiet, pretty neighborhood right next to a major expressway, but largely isolated from it. You can also see the 69th Street Pier here, which will be mentioned below.
The park’s design is very Moses. The walls, shown above, are solid and classical, blocking off the park from the street.
A playground has a prominent place, sitting just inside the park’s main entrance at the corner of 68th and Colonial. There is also a dog run at the opposite end, but it seems to have been recently tacked on.
The landscaping is open and pastoral, with few spaces for public interaction. The emphasis is more on quiet contemplation, or on opportunities for play or picnicking.
True to Moses form, the only building on the grounds is a bathroom facility, referred to on the sign as a “comfort station.”
The centerpiece of the park is supposed to be this terrace at the top of the hill, from where you would be able to view the bay. Unfortunately, it is under construction. Says the Parks Department website:
The upper overlook terrace and paths are closed. We are reconstructing the 70-year old terrace with new paving, benches, fences, landscaping and lighting. A new path will make the terrace accessible to everyone. We are also adding a drinking fountain and bike rack. In addition, we will be pruning and fertilizing the trees and cleaning the drainage system. The result will be a lovely, tranquil spot to relax and enjoy nature, or to participate in special events.
You can still sit on benches outside the terrance and see the bay, however, as these boys are doing.
This is actually a view of the Belt Parkway, which is just on the other side of the park. That you can’t see it is a perfect example of Moses’ method of design. He used the land he appropriated for expressways to build public facilities, so playgrounds abut six-lane highways, and need to be separated somehow.
What happens after the park ends is the real point of interest here, though the park is absolutely lovely. At the southwest corner stands a sign pointing motorists to the on-ramp to the BQE, but if you cross Shore Road, before you hit the Belt Parkway you encounter a bike path lined with trees, bushes, and flowers. This is, obviously, a recent addition, park of the Greenstreets program:
The Greenstreets program is a partnership between the Department of Parks & Recreation and the Department of Transportation. Launched in 1996, Greenstreets is a citywide program to convert paved, vacant traffic islands and medians into green spaces filled with shade trees, flowering trees, shrubs, and groundcover.
This is a good catchall term for a number of projects that have sprung up around Owl’s Head in the last ten years. One, a skateboarding park, was proposed but failed to come to fruition. Another, a bike lane on Shore Road, was there when I visited. But that bike path, and its continuance alongside the water, is actually an original feature from the 40s, though it was recently renovated. This is the confusing thing, of course. I was all set to write about how Moses’ works cut people off from each other and the city, representing an overly romanticized view of human interaction that put play pastoralities into urban spaces, whereas more modern design brought people together and sought to connect them with the actual environment in which they lived. But that pedestrian and bike path is exactly the kind of thing that’s being proposed now, and Moses thought to put it in when he built the expressway. I didn’t know that because of the renovations, which seemed to bring it in line with more recent projects. New York’s history, which seems so visible, is often an illusion. But, as for those other projects:
Known more colloquially as the 69th Street Pier, it served for many years as the embarkation point for the ferry to St. George on Staten Island. That ferry service closed when the Verrazano Bridge opened, perhaps reasonably. The wooden pier fell into disrepair, but was reconstructed in the 70s as a concrete pier, and was briefly used to provide ferry service to Manhattan in the 80s. It’s hard to figure out exactly when the current version of the pier came about, but the Forgotten New York page, written in 2001, gives no mention of the pier’s current use, but it was apparently shut down for safety reasons in 1997 and reopened sometimes later as…
This! Nicely designed, full of picnic tables and benches, it’s apparently a popular spot for fishing and provides absolutely lovely views of…
…the Verrazano Bridge, and…
…the Manhattan skyline.
This is what you see in the foreground of the previous shot. Despite its seemingly environmentally-friendly name, it is really a sewage plant.
The people fishing on the pier all seemed to know each other.
Ultimately, nothing in New York is new. Though the pier seemed like a trademark 00s feature, and in many ways it was, it was there at all because of New York’s old transportation system, the one that predated Moses. The bike path, which seemed modern, was Moses; and the other green spaces (like the one above, just down Shore Road from the pier) are from who-knows-when. Everything is just layers, and everything new is just a modification of the old: the park as a modification of private space, the pier a modification of a transport network. Even when things are demolished, the very fact of their bounded space imparts some of that history on whatever springs up in its place. The tyrrany of lots, of airspace, and of the shore all conspire to force everything to be a variation on a theme. Moses could mount such monumental works, but that’s no longer possible, or even desirable. Now, we work with what we have.
See the full Flickr set here.
Triborough Bridge. Image: Rodney McCay Morgan. 1941.
We took the train to Washington Heights on Saturday, and since we didn’t feel like spending two hours getting back, we took a car instead. Going down the Harlem River Drive to the FDR very late at night, as I have done many times now, I looked out the window at the widest stretch of river to see the Triborough—now RFK—Bridge hovering in the distance on its way to Queens. While that particular sight, all light and water on a cloudless night with a bright moon, had struck me before, it had always seemed like just another arrow in New York’s quiver of awe, the particular “hey that’s nice” moment on that stretch of the FDR, just before the tunnel under Bellevue and just after the Harlem Lift Bridge. But now, seeing it live and in person, Caro’s description popped into my head: “the towers of the Triborough Bridge, marching like the facades of twin cathedrals across the East River.” And thinking that, the bridge suddenly looked different. It no longer looked inevitable or neccessary, something as defining of New York’s shape as the countours of Brooklyn’s shoreline, but as almost a folly—albeit a beautiful one. This is not usually how one would think of the Triborough, at least if you’ve driven on it. From street level, it’s a mess, crumbling and crowded and dirty. But here, quieter and more lonely, the warning lights could shine through. Time had allowed it to become anonymous, to shed its history, its personality, and the Nietzschean facts of its creation to become simply part of the road, or part of the landscape. Forgetting this sort of thing is why we protest so strongly when someone wants to change New York. But New York is always changing, after all, and in this particular spot one could rewind 60 years and see a very, very different picture. But those improvements are chosen, too. There are always other options.
Caro’s introduction is an absolute masterpiece, a showstopper of a thing that bears down upon his subject to give us a 21-page distillation of Moses’ absolute essance, and it’s perhaps the best piece of writing I’ve been exposed to in a good couple years. Bracingly, lyricaly, and relentlessly, he catalogues Moses’ incredible acheivements, laid out in my previous post, and his equally incredible sins. Moses’ organization, known as the Triborough Commission, was a government entity that was legally a corporation, with its records sealed to public view. The justification for this was that it financed all its projects entirely with private bonds and tolls, requiring no taxpayer money, and while this was absolutely untrue, the veil of secrecy allowed Moses to function as an emperor. He flew phalanxes of dignitaries to the openings of new projects for weekend-long receptions. He displaced perhaps half a million people from their homes in order to build his works. He used the same techniques as J. Edgar Hoover, amassing dossiers on any and all public figures full of misdeeds or family scandals that could be released to the media if they crossed him. He kept a yacht driver on call, seven days a week, paid for with public money. Triborough secretaries received higher salaries than did city commissioners, and had their own chauffers. He gave a four-million dollar stadium at Jones Beach to Guy Lombardo, his favorite musician, so that he would be on call. He used the funds at his disposal to help out other politicians, placing himself at the center of New York City political life, essential to its operation and thus unremovable. And he received a tacit veto over all public works projects in the state of New York. This was corruption on a massive scale, benefitting not constituents, as the Tammany system at least occasionally did, but only a select few.
Caro argues that, though we may disapprove of what Moses did with his power, it was absolutely essential to the development of New York City that someone come along and find a way to construct public works in a coordinated and efficient way. “It had become a cliche by the mid-twentieth century to say that New York was ‘ungovernable,’” Caro writes. The city is so huge and complex and sprawling and combative that it is impossible to manage the whole thing. A mayor, with political considerations and a limited term, can never unite the warring factions of business, labor, neighborhoods, and preservationists needed to make any large development project happen. This may have seemed true at the time, but it seems to fall prey to the same sort of romantic (or, maybe, Randian) fantasy that allowed Moses to do what he did. The argument here is that Moses’ problem wasn’t the power, but what he did with it. It would be nice to have a powerful figure who could, say, institute a development plan that made the city greener, created livable public housing, broadened mass transit, and reduced sprawl, all within a short period of time and all in a smart and unified way, without any compromises. But this, it would seem, is only a fantasy. Democratic politics is inherently slow and inefficient, and while certainly an occasional backroom deal needs to be (and, to be honest, always it) cut, I would argue that to do things Moses’ way inevitably produces Moses’ kind of results. Though some of Bloomberg’s power grabs have been productive, his development fiats would favor pro-developer monstrosities, and his opinion that living in Manhattan is a priviledge echoes Moses’ construction of middle- and upper-class housing and amenities that displaced the poor to other boroughs, or to housing projects far from Manhattan’s commercial opportunities. Public works decisions just have too big and direct an impact on people’s lives to be made quickly.
It was easy to see, in 1975, how Moses’ policies had fucked up New York City. By starving public transportation, constructing expressways that displaced the poor into ghettos, developing Long Island as a suburban paradise accessible primarily by car, and taking land off the tax rolls, he created the bankrupt wasteland that was New York in the 70s. But, for all his faults, this may be placing too much blame on the man rather than the system that allowed him to exist. New York was run by the Democratic Party until, arguably, very recently (or maybe still is), which prevented real political competition from taking place. Moses created a public image that valorized him for not being a politician, pulled this way and that by interests, but as one man making the best decisions for us all. But if Moses had not been coddled by the party machine that had a vested interest in his continued dominance (Democratic judges affirming Triborough as a non-public entity, for instance), he might have made better decisions. Moses was a very smart guy who, at least at first, genuinely had good interests at heart. If he had been forced to take the public’s reaction into account, as he was for instance when he wanted to build an expressway through Soho and the Lower East Side, he might really have been able to concoct a good, long-lasting development plan. Instead, he was rewarded for being a mercurial solo actor, gaining more power for his unpredictability and willingness to go against neighborhood will. If we want to affix blame here, it might be the machine at fault.
New York might be legendarily ungovernable, but in these non-legendary times, it’s actually looking pretty goddamn governable. Things are far from perfect, of course, but they’re not too bad. And as much as we might complain about Bloomberg and Giuliani—legitimately so!—they weren’t part of the machine. And while they certainly had their own particular interests that they pursued, those interests at least were not those of the machine. The machine is only interested in perpetuating itself enough to reap the spoils, in keeping the right people happy and the rest of them happy enough not to vote them out. Our recent Republican administrations, largely isolated in a Democratic city, have been motivated instead by winning over a lot of people who might not otherwise vote for them, and this at least meant having the best interests of a large part of the city at heart. This is not to say they did not make many mistakes, or that they always pursued that goal. But it does make a difference that their motivation laid in gaining public approval rather than pleasing other government officials. Moses accurately saw where the power was, and he pursued that; if the power was in the wrong places, it’s hard to say that was his fault.