Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York

By Keating, Dennis | The Town Planning Review, November 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York


Keating, Dennis, The Town Planning Review


Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson (eds), New York and London, W.W. Norton, 2007, 336 pp., US$50

2007 saw three related events in New York City:

* in March, Columbia University hosted a conference on the life and legacy of Robert Moses (to which Robert Caro was originally not invited) in conjunction with a three-part exhibition that had opened in January;

* in April, on Earth Day, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled his plan for a greener, greater New York City which included $50 billion for transit (including congestion pricing for the central business district following the lead of London);

* in September an exhibition entitled 'Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York' opened at the Municipal Art Society.

These events revived the longstanding conflict between Moses - the master builder portrayed in Robert Caro's monumental The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, published in 1974 - and his nemesis Jane Jacobs, who became famous with the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. Jacobs argued for the preservation of diverse, dense, older urban neighbourhoods, not their clearance for mega-buildings and super-blocks, as favoured by Moses. She was the subject of a mostly favourable biography published in 2006 after her death (Alexiou). Moses, the builder of numerous roads, parks, pools, bridges, urban renewal and housing projects and infrastructure that reshaped New York City over three decades, was portrayed by Caro as an undemocratic and racist bully who tolerated no oversight or opposition to his projects, even though he started as a good government reformer in the Great Depression era. As Robert Fishman notes in his essay entitled 'Revolt of the Urbs: Robert Moses and his Critics' in Robert Moses and the Modern City, Caro barely mentions the successful fight of Jacobs and other Greenwich Village mothers to stop Moses from building an expressway through Washington Park in Lower Manhattan. This and other examples showed that Moses was not omnipotent, as recounted in this book.

However, according to the editors Kenneth Jackson, renowned historian, and Hilary Ballon, an urban architectural historian, Moses deserves reconsideration for his contribution to enabling New York City to compete and thrive in the modern world, citing the city's comeback from the dark days of the 1970s when Caro's book was published. In his introduction, entitled 'Robert Moses and the Rise of New York: The Power Broker in Perspective', Jackson argues for a revisionist view of Moses, despite his faults: 'He was what he was and on balance he was a positive influence on the city. …

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