I never thought I would see the day, but here it is: a glowing New York Times story on three new museum exhibits set to polish up the image of Robert Moses. This is the person who bulldozed countless urban neighborhoods, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, starved mass transit while he poured money into highways, and would have paved over Greenwich Village if not for the valiant efforts of a young Jane Jacobs and other urban activists. When I visited Jane in her Toronto home a few years before her death, she told me of her one meeting with Moses. It was during hearings over one of his many mega-projects. After Jacobs finished speaking, Moses, red-faced with anger, hands clenched around the courtroom banister, admonished the entire hearing room: "How in the world can you listen to her? She's just a mother!"
Here's what the Times has to say, referencing architectural historian, Hilary Ballon.
Moses deserves better — or at least a fresh look. In three exhibitions opening in the next few days — at the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art and Columbia University — Ms. Ballon argues that too little attention has been focused on what Moses achieved, versus what he destroyed, and on the enormous bureaucratic hurdles he surmounted to get things done. With the city on the brink of a building boom unparalleled since Moses’ heyday — the reconstruction of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, an overhaul of the Far West Side, sweeping redevelopment downtown — Ms. Ballon and other scholars argue that his legacy is more relevant than ever. “Living in New York, one is aware there has been no evident successor or successors to Moses,” she said. “There aren’t master builders. Who is looking after the city? How do we build for the future?” All around New York State, she suggests, people tend to take for granted the parks, playgrounds and housing Moses built, now generally binding forces in those areas, even if the old-style New York neighborhood was of no interest to Moses himself. And were it not for Moses’ public infrastructure and his resolve to carve out more space, she argues, New York might not have been able to recover from the blight and flight of the 1970s and ’80s and become the economic magnet it is today."
But New York's recent success has little to do with Moses' disastrous vision. The city and region have succeeded in spite of Moses, coming back because of a combination of economic and structural change, demographic forces, and bottom-up neighborhood rebuilding. In the 1970s, Moses' disciples like Roger Starr were arguing that the only path to renewal lay in "benign neglect" - essentially letting vast swatches of the city run so far down that property would become cheap enough to enable another round of top-down rebuilding in the image and likeness of the suburbs. So now we have this rewriting of history in its most banal form -- a "great man" with his "great projects" did it. Come on.
But it's just what the doctor ordered, really, in booming New York City: Someone to make the case anew for a new generation of soulless, top-down, a-human mega-projects, where only the visions of "great" architects, designers, and developers count, where living neighborhoods can be run roughshod over and human beings don't matter. It's as if Jane Jacobs simply did not exist and never wrote her classic critique of such megalomaniacal urbanism, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
The ever thoughtful Columbia historian Ken Jackson provides the relevant context: “A lot of big projects are on the table again, and it kind of suggests a Moses era without Moses.” So let's invite his rehabilitated ghost back to the table. The Times story notes that somehow they've managed to bar Moses' biographer, the Pulitzer prize-winning Robert Caro, from the festivities.
Take heed of the old adage: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." Or as Jane Jacobs apocryphally told me: "When a place gets boring" - as just these sorts of mega-projects which damp down street-life and human energy will doubtless ensure - "even the rich people leave."
Beware of what you wish for, New York.