This Day in History |

1888: The Man New York Would Love to Hate Is Born

Robert Moses: The man who beautified New York, or pampered its wealthy at the expense of its poor? 126 years later, the jury's still out

David Green
David B. Green
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Robert Moses with a model of the Battery Bridge.
Robert Moses with a model of the Battery Bridge.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

December 18, 1888 is the birthday of Robert Moses, who did more than any other single individual to shape 20th-century New York, earning both censure and support.

Despite being neither an architect nor an elected official, Moses was New York’s public-works czar from 1924 to 1968. Holding as many as 12 appointed city and state positions simultaneously, he oversaw the construction of parks, roads, bridges, beaches and swimming pools. He was also responsible for bringing Lincoln Center, the United Nations, the 1964-65 World’s Fair and the majestic Verrazano Narrows Bridge to the city.

More than 30 years after his death, Moses remains a divisive figure for New Yorkers, although the especially bad reputation bestowed on him by Robert Caro’s monumental 1974 biography, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” has undergone some revision and softening in recent years.

Robert Moses was the second of Emanuel Moses’ and the former Bella Cohen’s three children. Emanuel, the Cologne-born descendant of Spanish and German Jews, made a small fortune owning a department store and real estate in New Haven, Connecticut. Bella, the American-born daughter of prosperous Bavarian Jews, began longing to return to New York almost as soon as she joined her husband in New Haven.

In 1897, at his wife’s urging, Emanuel sold his business interests in Connecticut and moved the family to New York, where, at age 46, he retired. Robert and his siblings went to private school. Bella had little patience for Jewish tradition; neither Robert nor his brother, Paul, were circumcised or had a bar mitzvah, and she was active in the Ethical Culture Society.

The Unisphere from the New York World's Fair 1964/1965.

Robert Moses graduated from Yale University in 1909, received a Master’s in political science from Oxford University in 1911 and earned a doctorate in the subject from Columbia University in 1914.

Drafting his own laws

His initial interest was in government reform. After working briefly for the Municipal Research Bureau, a nonprofit organization, in 1914 Mayor John Purroy Mitchel hired him to help reorganize the city’s civil service. After Mitchel lost his reelection bid in 1917, Moses was recruited by Al Smith, who was elected governor for the first time in 1918.

It was in Smith’s second gubernatorial term, after he was given responsibility for parks and highways, that Moses found his métier. His first great project — and the one of which he remained most proud all his life — was the creation of Jones Beach, a stunning ocean beach on a Long Island sandbar with tastefully appointed facilities.

During the Depression, vast amounts of federal money poured into New York. It was Moses who decided how to allocate it, initiating thousands of projects — parkways, pools, playgrounds and more — in a period of months.

Moses almost always got what he wanted, whether by being a bully or by quietly drafting the laws for the projects in a way that left him in control. Funding for large projects often came from bond issues rather than budgetary allocations, making him independent of the politicians.

Criticisms of Moses ranged from anger over his imperious style, a retroactive realization that he (like nearly all his peers) favored automobiles over public transportation and a sense that some of his highways (the Cross-Bronx, for example) and public housing developments ran roughshod over the city’s poorer and less powerful citizens.

Moses had little basis for empathy: He never learned to drive, and had multiple limousines and drivers to take him everywhere; he wasn’t dependent on his civil servant’s salary to pay his bills.

Moses never backed down, even when his powers began to wane. It was Governor Nelson Rockefeller who finally called his bluff, accepting his resignation in 1962 from several positions — something no other mayor or governor had ever done — and finally making him retire for good in 1968.

Robert Moses died of heart failure on July 29, 1981, aged 93.

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