Skip to content

Public Works And New York City’s Robert Moses: Lessons From History For Chicago

March 12, 2007

No matter your training and interests as an historian, I’m of the opinion that, if you live in a large city, you can’t avoid thinking about urban history from time to time. In fact I’d be disappointed in a fellow, urban-based historian who didn’t share that occasional inclination. I’d be inclined to think that you may be segmenting your professional life too much from your surroundings.

With that, the Chicago Tribune ran a perceptive, historically-informed article from its architecture critic, Blair Kamin. Kamin paralleled the activities of Chicago’s current mayor, Richard M. Daley, with New York City’s former public works maven, Robert Moses. What instigated for Kamin’s comparative review are Daley’s activities aimed at making Chicago a host for the 2016 summer Olympics.

In the piece Kamin highlights not just what Moses accomplished, but how those accomplishments occurred. The piece is partly a book review of recent works on Moses, partly a comparison to Daley, and partly an attempt to answer the following question: “Should every city have a strongman?” My focus will be on Moses. With that, here are some excerpts from Kamin’s article:

– “Americans are torn ‘between the desire to exercise our democratic influence and the desire to have some strong person or government in charge to get things done,’ said Henry Binford, a Northwestern University urban historian. These issues are coming into sharp focus as scholars take a fresh look at . . . the strongman phenomenon of city-building . . . [and] Robert Moses of New York City, who was and remains America’s greatest builder.”
– “From his rise to power in 1934 to his forced exit in 1968, Moses built scores of public works – expressways, parkways, bridges, apartment buildings, public housing projects, pools, parks, playgrounds, beaches, golf courses, garages, a stadium, a cultural center, a convention center, expansions of universities and the list goes on. He did it all without ever being elected to public office.”
– “Moses operated instead in a variety of appointed posts, most notably as New York City’s commissioner of parks and as head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, in which he shrewdly – his critics would say ruthlessly – manipulated the levers of power, amassing more of it, in the end, than even the mayors under which he served.”
– “Since 1974, the public’s understanding of Moses has been shaped by The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert A. Caro’s brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography that casts Moses as a tragic figure right out of Shakespeare – first, in the years before World War II, an idealistic public servant who built parks and parkways that uplifted the lives of the urban masses; then, in the postwar years, the tyrant who lusted after power and kicked hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes in the name of urban renewal.”
– “The iconic counter-figure to Moses became Jane Jacobs, the Greenwich Village activist and author who died last year (Moses died in 1981). She was St. Jane to his Dragon. And she helped slay – or, at least, stop – him in 1958 when he tried unsuccessfully to force an expressway through Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. Her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, would codify the intellectual lessons of that clash, championing neighborhoods, not traffic; the ground-level view of the city, not the one from the plane; small-scale street life rather than large-scale housing projects and highways; activist citizen participation instead of the dictatorship of the planner. Everybody knew the subtext; the planner was Robert Moses.”
– “In recent years, Moses’ star has risen along with those of the city he did so much to shape. Caro’s book was published during the dark days of the 1970s, when the South Bronx had become a national metaphor for urban chaos, New York was on the verge of default and then-President Gerald Ford told the city (in the shorthand of tabloid headline writers) to ‘drop dead.’ “
– “As if to underscore his allure, New Yorkers seem frustrated with the absence of strong public figures who can hack their way through the city’s thicket of community boards and bureaucracies. The hole in the ground at ground zero remained a hole, for example, while Chicago converted a comparably sized hole into dazzling Millennium Park.”
– “Moses, ‘we imagine, would have capitalized on the opportunity to rebuild lower Manhattan after 9/11,’ write two Columbia University scholars, architectural historian Hilary Ballon and urban historian Kenneth Jackson, co-editors of the new book Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York.”
– “In their illuminating, perhaps too forgiving, view, Moses deserves to be seen as a pivotal figure in New York’s rise, not its fall. They and other scholars who contribute essays to the book lend fresh attention and perspective to Moses’ achievements.”
– “At the same time, the authors do not shy from examining Moses’ flaws, such as his decision to exclude African-Americans from some of those middle-class apartment complexes. Throughout, they wisely place Moses in a national perspective that reveals that, for all his power, he was not omnipotent. Postwar federal highway standards, for example, forced his shift from graceful parkways to massive, neighborhood-destroying expressways.”
– “Daley has alternatively exhibited flashes of both archetypal figures – his small-bore beautification efforts helping to revitalize neighborhoods in the Jacobs mode, his pre-emptive large-scale moves (such as the 2003 midnight raid that bulldozed Meigs Field) coming right of Moses’ fiendish playbook. Sometimes, the mayor has even tried to be Jacobs and Moses simultaneously, as when he recently addressed the idea of resurrecting the Crosstown Expressway. He said it should be a two-lane road that would allow truck traffic to bypass downtown (Moses), but that it should minimize displacement of existing residents (Jacobs).”
– “The weakness of the revisionist look at Moses is that it puts more emphasis on the long-term products of the power broker than the short-term processes that produced them. To make an omelet, Moses knew, you had to crack eggs. But whose eggs should be cracked, whose lives disrupted, to achieve the greater good? Architectural monuments endure. But people live day-to-day, and they often suffer the human cost of building those monuments. ‘I think you need strong leaders,’ Binford said, ‘but strong leaders need to be checked and balanced. The key to having a good city, in my view, is not having a strong leader, but having adequate representation for lots of different folks in the city. Then you need strong leaders to mediate and get things done.’ ”

Do check out Kamin’s piece at the Tribune site. There’s much more in it on Daley.


Kamin’s assessment about the short-term processes versus the long-term effects is right on the mark. I also found his Jacobs versus Moses dichotomy to be valid.

One of the overall problems that I see, as evident in thinking about the history of urban public works, is the relative absence of republican institutions in urban areas. There needs to be more public officials involved in administrating a city than just a mayor’s office, his or her appointees, and a city council. There needs to be branches of government in cities over a certain size, say 200,000. Large urban areas need long-term elected officials, like a city senate, as well short-term ones (like city councils). I guess I’m advocating for “city senates.” There needs to be elected officials and a bureaucracy in place that can stand up to mayoral power.

How is it that New York City seems to operate without the “elected kingship” that Chicago has? It’s not so much that I’m opposed to Daley: he gets things done, with occasional flashes of unfairness (i.e. the Meigs Field fiasco). I’m opposed to the seeming ensconcement of one type of political power in the city. As Northwestern’s Henry Binford suggested, we need checks and balances.

But would Chicago just elect an overwhelming, single-party bloc to my proposed “city senate?” I don’t know. I do suspect, however, that a city senate that would not have to worry its short re-election cycle might not fear acting independently of the mayor. That’s perhaps one of the biggest problems with Chicago’s current, Robert-Moses-like “strongman.” – TL


From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: