The Daily Parker

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Supposes Moses was an Asshat

Not Moishe, the mythological figure; Moses, the all-too-real figure in New York City history. I'm about halfway through Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, and I want to dig Moses up and punch him in the face.

The thing about really intelligent narcissists is they can, in fact, get their way, even when—especially when—they encounter real criticism. The crowning achievement of Moses' narcissism might be the West Side Improvement, comprising the West Side Highway and Henry Hudson Parkway, which run along the Hudson River from the top of Manhattan Island to the bottom. The story of how and why Moses built it where he built it takes up about 40 pages of the book, but Caro sums it up starting at the bottom of page 565:

Robert Moses had spent $109,000,000 [in 1938, worth $2.05 billion in 2021] of the public's money on the West Side Improvement. Counting the money expended on his advice by other city agencies on the portion of the Improvement south of Seventy-second Street, the Improvement had cost the public more than $200,000,000 [$3.8 billion in 2021].

But the total cost of the Improvement cannot be reckoned merely in dollars. The West Side Improvement also cost the people of New York City their most majestic waterfront, their most majestic forest, a unique residential community, and their last fresh-water marsh.

When the Improvement was finished, all these things were gone forever.

Adding them to the cost of the West Side Improvement, one might wonder if the Improvement had not cost New York City more than it was worth. Adding them into the cost, one might wonder if the West Side Improvement was really, on its total balance sheet, an "improvement" at all. One might wonder if it was not, on balance, a tragic and irremediable loss.

In the pages leading up to that conclusion, Caro spends some time discussing how the park Moses built along highway stopped at 125th Street. From there up to 155th Street, instead of a park, the African-American residents of Harlem got an elevated highway, with one little playground whose finishes included little monkey carvings on the stonework. You will not be surprised to learn that no other park in the project had a monkey motif.

Another thing, of which I can almost excuse him, was Moses' complete rejection of evidence of "induced demand," how increasing road capacity also increases congestion at a faster rate. That is, if you double road capacity, you will more than double the number of cars on the road. I can almost excuse him because traffic planners still ignore this phenomenon much of the time.

So halfway through the book I'm only at the end of 1938. We still have 25 years or so before Moses meets Jane Jacobs—and according to the index, Caro doesn't even cover that.

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