A Moses for our Time
There’s a kinder, gentler image of Robert Moses in circulation these days, helped along by the much talked about exhibits on the master builder now on display at the Museum of the City of New York, Columbia, and the Queens Museum of Art. We have been released, Phillip Lopate suggested in a recent essay in the Times, from the “Satanic” Moses portrayed by Robert Caro in his classic work, The Power Broker. Given the enormous influence of Caro’s version of Moses’ career, some sort of re-interpretation was inevitable. But unfortunately, much of this newfound appreciation is based less on history than on boosterism.
The cheerleading is not just for the master builder and his works, but for the “safe,” Wall Street driven, neo-liberal prize of a city that New York is now—and, if Michael Bloomberg and his deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Dan Doctoroff, have their way, will continue to be. Consider the scale of the duo’s major projects: the Olympics and its West Side Stadium; the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn; the malling of the Bronx Terminal Market; the upzoning of Williamsburg/Greenpoint; and the high-rising of Hell’s Kitchen. Whether their projects succeed or not, Bloomberg and Doctoroff continue to insist that the time is right to plan and build big. Surely the rehabilitation of Moses is welcome news to them.
Dreaming the Global City?
In the elegant companion book to the exhibits, Hillary Ballon, Columbia architectural historian and chief curator for all three exhibits, argues that Moses was ahead of his time, most dramatically so with Lincoln Center. Sure, there was a human cost, in terms of the removal and painful relocation of the people who lived in the “slum” that would become Lincoln Center. But Moses anticipated what city officials and planners today see as essential for urban well-being, beyond the standard markers of economic prosperity: capacity to project to the world beyond that New York is a city offering opportunities for great financial and cultural reward. We have Moses to thank for New York’s “revival,” for the thriving global city we now have. Or so suggest Ballon and others, including eminent Columbia historian Kenneth Jackson (who co-edited the companion book with Ballon and wrote its introduction).
Leaving aside whether such a city is anything to be thankful for, it’s actually a stretch to say that Moses was so prophetic. If Moses had a vision, it was that of Napoleon III’s Haussman, tempered by Le Corbusier’s insistence on social and moral improvement through planning and design. The problem that Moses the Title I slum clearer set out to remedy was the congested haphazardness of the existing city, and the solution was clean lines and open, sanitized spaces. Moreover, Moses loved to beat naysayers over the head with his impressive record of “getting things done.” In Title I projects, that often meant new forms of housing, some of it financed by union pensions and committed to what we now call “affordability.” If there was “vision” at work here, it was the socialist tinged vision of Abraham Kazan, of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the United Housing Federation.
More to the point, Ballon’s own research suggests that Lincoln Center came to be less because of Moses’ understanding of the long-term importance of such a project and more because most commercial developers were scared off by the red-tape of the Title I process. Thanks in part to Moses’ finagling of Title I, Lincoln Center was what could get done with that space at that time. What Caro also showed and the new work on Moses downplays is that Moses was a PR master. His interest was in putting resources together with developers so things would get built. Knowing full well that most of the press, especially the New York Times, was in his corner, Moses could simply serve up post facto rationales about his projects’ benefit to the greater good.
The promoters of the new Moses also insist that we need to see him as a product of his time. Of course. We are told he wasn’t the only racist in town, that he worked within the confines of a changing federal and state policy toward cities. It’s true that Caro’s book did not delve sufficiently into how postwar racial politics shaped the federal government’s shifting attitudes toward, as well as support for, cities. And he could have examined in more detail how broader trends in the development of postwar capitalism structured the Moses agenda.
But we are not getting a more complicated, historical Moses. Instead we’re getting a simplified figure, a portrayal far too informed by an image of what the city has since become. And importantly, this image—in which the endless accumulation of capital both real and cultural represents true progress for the whole city—has no memory, long- or short-term. In embracing it, we lose sight of what Caro, in a very diplomatic speech at the MCNY a couple of weeks after the exhibits opened, referred to as the “invisible cost,” in shattered lives and missed opportunities, of Moses’ forceful transformation of so much of the visible city. We also turn our backs to the vast, indeed globalized, field of political-economic inequality that makes the glittering city of today possible.
The License to Build
In his keynote address at the “Learning From Robert Moses” symposium which opened the MCNY exhibit, Dan Doctoroff revealed one important use of this selectively updated version of Moses. Doctoroff was sure to say that, yes, he and others involved in city planning had learned from Moses’s heavy-handedness. Now, he said, the city will listen better. As Doctoroff went on it became clearer that this was not the only lesson learned. The deputy mayor praised Moses’ efficiency and adeptness at harnessing public and private resources and negotiating bureaucratic tricks and traps. Also, Doctoroff indicated his appreciation of the bigness of Moses’ projects, the way they entailed a vision that looked beyond the lived particularity of urban life and conceptualized the city as a whole.
This sounds reasonable, even necessary. But we need to remember that to the degree Moses even had such a vision, it was never more than a claim, and an ideological one at that. The key lesson of the Power Broker is not simply that Moses didn’t like poor people, especially poor black people, or that the lives he intended to improve belonged to those who didn’t need improvement the most. It was his ability to convince himself and many others in positions of influence that the work he did as chair of all those “independent” commissions was above the self-interested struggle for advantage that for most defined city politics. This is where Moses’ potency came from. For quite a stretch, Robert Moses embodied disinterested public service, and this reputation was his license to build.
When thinking about Doctoroff’s conception of planning, this claim to be above politics, to represent the broader public good, is the most important part of Moses’ legacy to keep in mind. Times have changed. However big the Deputy Mayor’s plans, they aren’t really like Moses’, and won’t be executed like Moses’. The federal money simply isn’t there. Moreover, Doctoroff is not that much like Moses—he made his own bundle on Wall Street and then went into the public sector without doing any trench time at all. Hell, he isn’t even from New York. But he wears the “independence” that both his and his boss’s extreme personal wealth has bought as a badge of public honor. The rough-cut neo-liberal revanchism of Giuliani may have ended, but Bloomberg is now pursuing much of the same agenda, albeit with a softer touch, and many among the political, economic and cultural elite of the city seemed to have drunk the Kool-Aid. The “disinterested farsightedness” of Bloomberg and Doctoroff is their license to build.
Hyperbole aside, what we have in the program of Bloomberg/Doctoroff is not a vision for the development of the whole city, but a vision for real estate development masquerading as a broader, more inclusive vision for economic development. This masquerade is nothing new; as the planning theorist and historian Susan Fainstein has shown, it has been the main ingredient of urban “growth” policy in New York since the great fiscal crisis of the mid-70s. Since finance capital drives the economy to the point of having blackmail power over city authorities, developers naturally gravitate toward projects involving state of the art trading floors, or perhaps roomy but less cutting-edge “back office” space. Suites for the army of lawyers, underwriters, PR firms, and accountants that now service the financial sector also look pretty attractive. And then there’s always the top-end apartment complexes needed to house the higher-ups in this burgeoning white-collar service sector. With visions of Bilbao, luxury boxes, and Big Box store convenience dancing in their heads, some space for Frank Gehry, the Nets, and IKEA might make bottom line sense as well. The token contributions to the “affordable” housing stock and green/public space seem, for now anyway, a reasonable price to pay for various tax breaks and abatements handed out by the city as inducements to build. It’s Doctoroff’s task not only to help orchestrate deals with developers, but also to put a public face on it all, to articulate some sort of greater good rationale for the subsidization of yet another ten million square feet of office space, yet another shiny tower draped in banners advertising luxury rentals and condos, and grandly scaled stadium complexes.
Doctoroff’s most telling use of Moses during his speech at MCNY built off that famous Moses line about how one couldn’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Doctoroff claimed that now, because the city was listening to people in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, on the Westside and Downtown, we could make that omelet without breaking eggs. But the metaphor, of course, just plain doesn’t work without broken eggs. Re-building a city requires broken eggs, and the really important question is: Whose eggs will be broken to make what kind of omelet? Doctoroff’s disingenuousness does elicit a touch of nostalgia for the Power Broker himself. At least Moses admitted that someone would have to pay the price for roads to be built, for slums to be cleared, for a less congested, more mobile, more “rational” city to be created. That, for better or worse, was the omelet Moses had in mind. The Doctoroff/Bloomberg dream, it seems to me, is for New York City to win the global competition among urban centers to house the infrastructure and communications circuitry of finance capital, and to insure that the after-glow of consumer spectacle has enough room to burn. The idea is to continue building “New York” as a brand. All else will trickle down in the form of short-term construction work, low-paying service jobs, and small batches of “affordable” housing. For the vast majority of New Yorkers, it’s thus a rather unsavory dish, indeed.
JUNE 2021 | Critics Page
Serubiri Moses is an Ugandan writer and curator, based in New York.
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