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

Author:Isenstadt, Sandy
Position:Critical essay


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

New York: W.M. Norton, 2007. 304 pp.: 55 color ills., 200 b/w. $50.00

Cities are made and unmade in many ways. They may be designated by fiat on a flat plain as an imperial capital, such as Xi' an, occupied for millennia, and then within a generation skyrocket in population and be utterly reconfigured for modern life, with the artifcats of empire encased in glass for tourists. They may start as a colonial outpost fixed astride a river to assure a stable commercial circuit between, say, North American animal skins and urban markets in Europe. One day, the river might overtake its own banks and inundate the city, destroying it, while the entire world looks on; New Orleans comes to mind. They may, by virtue of natural geography, remain settlements for centuries and then be transformed with a plan, a conceptual tool that anticipatcs and directs change in, ideally, predictable ways. Thus was Miletus gridded in the fifth century BCE to serve afterward as a model for numerous Roman cities but, after more than a thousand years, finally abandoned as its harbor filled with silt. Sometimes, cities may simply appear, gleaming green across a field of poppies, and then gradually recede into a restless dream.

Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York is, despite the specifics of the title, an inquiry into the way that cities, modern cities in particular, are made and unmade. Edited by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, it completes a trifecta of exhibitions on Moses's career, purveyed by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, and Columbia University, all of them curated by Ballon. It consists of succinct, well-illustracted essays, an impressive catalog of projects, a bibliography, and a series of newly commissioned photographs.

The subject, of course, is Robert Moses, New York City's "building maestro," as Ballon and Jackson describe him, from 1934 to 1968, who, in a variety of administrative roles--at one point the held twelve different parks, was responsible for hundreds of public works, ranging from parkways and bridges, beaches and golf courses, city pools, playgrounds, and parks, and tens of thousands of units of housing. As the editors assert. Moses "had a greater impact on the physical character of New York City than any other individual, and ... it is unlikely anyone in the future will match him" (p. 65). Moses's body of public works stands in league with such New York City land-marks as Central Park or the subway system, even the city commissioners' 1811 gridiron plan. Taken together, his varied projects "are so indispensable it is impossible to imagine New York without them" (p. 65). The editors' claims for Moses's importance, which are restated in each of the following essays and attested to in the vast catalog, are irrefutable.

More than an inventory, though, this book puts itself in explicit dialogue with Robert A. Carco's book The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (1) Caro's work is at once a history of New York City and the story of Moses's life, nearly 1,300 pages long (although that was just two-thirds of what he had originally submitted to his publisher), drawn from archival research and more than five hundred interviews (with eighty-three pages of notes), including seven with Moses and many more with his subordinates. Seven years in the making it won the pulitzer Prize for biography the following year, has been reprinted more than thirty times, and is still frequently assigned in colleges nationwide. In taking on such an enormous project, Caro, an urban issues reporter for the Long Island newspaper Newsday, had been struck by the way decision for a wide variety of infrastructural projects on Long Island seemed to lead back to Moses, but then the trail swiftly went opaque in terms of how those decisions were made. He left his full-time job with Newsday to continue following the trail. The book was also outspokenly polemical--"venomous," Moses charged--and became a subject of hot debate as well as the foundation for Moses's reputation for decades to come. Moses's enormous body of public works, costing by some estimates $27 billion and built over forty-odd years, came to be eclipsed by accusations of arrogance, racism, personal excess, and contempt for the poor. When Caro's book is taken as its counterpoint, then, as surely seems intended by the editors, Robert Moses and the Modern City stands as nothing less than an ethics of urbanism for the twenty-first century, with Moses as both maker and unmaker of New York.

To be sure, the book emphasizes Moses's public works rather than his personality or the murky means by which he reached his goals, and the works, so often overshadowed by the man, are overdue for reassessment. It opens with more than fifty pages of photographs by Andrew Moore, whose sharp eye for urban conditions both representative and anomalous, in New York and around the world, is widely recognized. His photographs depict the range of Moses projects in their current state, which vary from refurbishment and active use to decay and desolation: the Crotona pool, more than a foot-ball field in length and at one time in the late 1970s a basin for abandoned automobiles, is pictured here as a joyous escape from summer heat, adorned with stylized aquatic motifs from the 1930s; the elegance and, almost, mysticism of the Orchard Beach arcade shows to good advantage, too, its modern neoclassicism serving as the curved urbane crown of Pelham Bay Park; numerous housing...

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