Lost in History, Vol. 24 

Robert Moses: Saint and Sinner?

You can’t drive a mile in this city without veering onto Robert Moses’ terrain. The man responsible for (deep breath here) the FDR drive, Henry Hudson Parkway, the BQE, Cross Bronx Expressway, Belt Shore Parkway, Gowanus Expressway, the LIE, the Grand Central Parkway, The Major Deegan Expressway, Prospect Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway, the Interboro Parkway, the Northern and Southern State Parkways, Lincoln Center, the United Nations, Shea Stadium, Coop City, Jones Beach, and countless more inter-city highways, byways, parkways and big-building construction projects has recently been the subject of a revisionist history to the revisionist history. Or, as Brian Lehrer so aptly put it a month or so ago on his self-titled WNYC talk show, “It seems that New York City is finally awakening from its Robert Moses hangover!” But what does this all mean?

To start with, it means that our great metropolis is finally shaking off the bad vibes incurred from the Master Planner’s ramrod method of destroying and building anew. That NYC is no longer afraid to tackle massive projects that encroach upon public-use land that will affect all bodies involved (ahem, Atlantic Yards, cough). That we can, with a clear eye towards the past, assemble the various benefits and detractions of the man who, over almost half a century, shaped this city like no one before or since. We are in no way going to attempt to define Moses’ stranglehold on this city, nor are we going to provide a comparative study on the three concurrent exhibits on this titan’s work (Remaking the Metropolis at the Museum of the City of New York, through May 28th; The Road to Recreation at the Queens Museum of Art, through May 27th; and Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, through April 14th). No way is that possible within this space. What’s more, we read Robert Caro’s 1200 page masterpiece The Power Broker – Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, the original revisionist history on Moses, and it only took us a year.
No, what we plan to do here is to get down and dirty describing a tete-a-tete last week up at Columbia, a war of words between two men who hadn’t spoken in 50 years. Enter Phillip Schorr — a lawyer working for Moses and who was in charge of relocating on-site residents during the Lincoln Square and Fordham projects of the 1950s. On the other side of the ring, Harris Present, a vocal community leader who mobilized residents against Moses’ Title 1 Housing Slum & Clearance projects and wrote excoriating letters to Moses which were widely reprinted in the Times Editorials pages. As one would expect, the two men were cordial, gracious, and stood staunchly in their respective camps with the intellectual battle for the hearts and minds of the audience. However, we were no fools. Although Schorr was clearly the superior speaker and crafted far more salient points, and although poor Present came across as a bumbling, repetitive, old-script reader, murmuring about how “the primary purpose of government should be: ‘What can we do to provide housing to New York City’s poor, from slums?’” we savvy New Yorkers in the audience were not to be fooled. Schorr’s giveaway was the line “ We got two things going for us – Robert Moses and eminent domain.” Us in the crowd didn’t like that one.

It wasn’t until the final twenty minutes that these two men really ripped into each other, cutting each others’ sentences short, with rebuttal following rebuttal, and a peculiar Schorr lording physically over the perplexed Present. Schorr made a stronger case for the greater good of the city trumping the individual rights of its citizens, but that methodology, in its very essence, cuts off the nose to spite the face. What good is relocating tens of thousands of people if the end product is shabbier, more dangerous, less enticing places to live that the original, long since torn down?

Moses is most certainly a tough cookie to crumble. As a licensed NYC tour guide and native New Yorker, I know full well the battles of traffic congestion horrors and under-funded public transit systems mostly already taxed to the limit. However, on the flip side of the coin we have this past Sunday morning. I was hungover on four hours of sleep and had a 2-hour student tour from ten to noon, meeting the group at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I also had my father’s car, which required a return to Dad that afternoon, following the tour. My plan was to drive the car from my apartment in East Bushwick to Williamsburg, where I would park, then ride the train into the city making good time all around. It wasn’t until I got to the ‘burg at 9:25am that I realized the tour wasn’t starting at St. Pat’s, but rather the Cathedral of St John the Divine, in Morningside Heights, Amsterdam and 110th. And there was no motherfucking way I would have made it on the subway. So, I drove. Over the Wburg bridge, onto the FDR drive, and I made it, from Houston to E 125th street, in eight minutes flat. No fucking exaggeration. I was pushing 70 mph the entire way, no cops, no traffic, no nothing. I made it to St John the Divine with 10 minutes to spare, from East Bushwick to Morningside in 40 minutes even. So on the blast up the east side, I found myself shouting GOD BLESS YOU, ROBERT MOSES!


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