lower-manhattan-expressway-robert-moses-nyc-untapped-citiesA strapping Robert Moses in 1938. (Images via Library of Congress and The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Bridges and Tunnels Special Archives)

Today, December 18, 1888 is the birthday of Robert Moses, one of the most influential and controversial figures in the history of New York City’s growth and decay. In his day, Moses was an urban planner associated with many of the capital projects we still see today throughout the five boroughs. However, his legacy is checkered due to biased policies and negative criticism, despite the fact that he helped take the city out of the Great Depression. Here are five things we can blame on Robert Moses and how they reflected his flawed politics. Happy birthday, Robert!

1. The Cross Bronx Expressway

The “Cross Bronx,” as it is known colloquially, was the brainchild of Robert Moses. But historically it has been blamed for bisecting the Bronx roughly in half causing a migration of middle and upper class residents to the north and leaving the south portion to become an underserved slum of low-income residents. It displaced as many as 5,000 families when an alternate proposed route along Crotona Park would have only affected 1-2% of that amount. Robert Moses is accused of favoring “car culture” placing an importance on building highways instead of subways in order to grow the city. This can be seen as a segregationist ideology since it ignores the needs of the large population in NYC that can not afford a car. Also the construction of large highways like the CBE shelved greater NYC Transit projects including the Second Avenue Subway. Not only did it have these ill effects, but to this day the expressway remains a headache for commuters with stacked and entangled roadways such as the Highbridge and Bruckner Interchanges. This MIT report has a few more examples of Moses’ failures associated with the CBE as well as a few more of his projects Massachusetts that were shelved after his reputation plummeted in 1968.

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17 Responses
  1. Dave Stewart Reply

    While usually vilified, Moses did manage to complete several arterials, and bridges, that if they had not happened, would have resulted in a city even more congested and polluted. In hindsight, several could have been constructed differently, and had a mass transit component built in. The Gowanus and Cross Bronx could have been moved a few blocks, affecting far fewer residents. Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, lacking an allowance for subway / rail extension to Staten Island.
    The Cross Manhattan, and Lower Manhattan should have been constructed. As a combination of cut and cover, and or bored tunnels facilities in most of their entirety. Moses did apparently have a strong aversion to tunnels, referring to them as similar to a bathroom.
    A good article, nevertheless. Thanks!

  2. Traffic would have been even WORSE without the Cross Bronx Expressway, Moses never got to build the Lower Manhattan (or Mid-Manhattan) Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway was turned into a stub by anti-highway activists (it should’ve gone straight up to Pelham), the parking lot Moses wanted to build could still have been used by fans if they took the BMT Brighton Line, and the Belt Parkway should’ve been relieved by the Bushwick and Nassau Expressways, not to mention the unfinished Clearview Expressway.

    • Moses was adamantly against putting public transit into any of his plans. He built hundreds of low-clearance bridges over his parkways with the express purpose of preventing buses from ever being able to use them. In every project where spending a few percent more on a project would’ve allowed future planners to add rapid transit alongside his roads, he not only refused, but he used all his power and every trick he knew to prevent that from happening. And he succeeded – no new rapid transit lines were built during his reign, and the subways in existence were allowed to decay to the point that, because of worn-out equipment, they had one of the worst safety records and slowest speeds in the world. People died. Meanwhile, billions were spend on roads like this one – roads whose congestion could’ve been reduced if only Moses hadn’t hated public transit.

      • If Moses was that much against public transit, why did he urge making the former LIRR Rockaway Beach Branch into a subway line? Why were there bus lanes added to the parkways of Jones Beach? Why didn’t he restrict truck or bus traffic on the expressways? The way to reduce congestion was to let him finish those roads, not truncating them as expressways and parkways with four and six lanes. And you’re also wrong about new subway lines not being built when he was in power.

  3. Wow, even urban planning blogs have become liberal and using though control tactics. Some people in this country actually support car-centric cities. I cannot believe Google would blatantly feature Jane Jacobs on its home page. She believed in mixed-income housing! Where are we-Russia or something? This article demonizes a person for their conservative beliefs and is low key persecution of a person for their personal opinions that in communist states becomes aggravated against dissidents. I am not a right wing lunatic who believes in conspiracy theories. I just do not think it is right that everything I experience in school and the media starting in kindergarten is infused with cultural marxism.

    • Moses destroyed entire neighborhoods in such a ruthless fashion that no Stalinist could match him in his wildest dreams.
      Conservative my ass. A conservative preserves and questions. Moses was not concerned with any of those things and especially not people and more specifically people of colour.

      • Anonymous Reply

        Moses never built anything simply to upset “people of colour.” More than likely, if he was hostile towards them it was because they were hostile towards him. “Entire neighborhoods?” Give me a break! None of the roads he wanted to build were wide enough to destroy entire neighborhoods, and many neighborhoods he was blamed on destroying were in decline before he built the roads he wanted. Furthermore, there were roads he never had the chance to build which were supposed to go through neighborhoods that declined anyhow. The result of rejecting his proposals has caused more traffic jams and air pollution than anyone could possibly have imagined.

  4. Since the groundbreaking publication of the Power Broker, the legacy of Robert Moses has rightly been questioned, reassessed and explored. However, it is troubling when listcles such as this oversimplify 1950’s urban policies, and blithely dismiss critical components of NYC’s economic well-being. Moses was a builder – not an urban planner – and many argue against planning while wrongly citing Moses as the reason why.

    As a professional land use columnist who is based on Long Island, I find it troubling to see not only Moses’ many accomplishments outright dismissed by the author, but “the Long Island Suburb” being listed as the fifth and final entry. The simple truth is that Moses enabled unprecedented suburban growth in one of the most desirable regions of the country. On Long Island, his legacy is found in the landmark preservation of Jones Beach, and various other open space and state park properties that would have been consumed by the sprawl he recognized he created.

    His legacy is also found with his various roadways, which serve as the economic arterial of the region – so much so, that a 1988 Hofstra University Symposium argued that Moses was the downstate region’s first environmentalist.

    For more on regional land use issues, #GetaFoggyIdea at my site, http://www.TheFoggiestIdea.org, and LIKE my page The Foggiest Idea.

    • I’m not sure about your distinction between ‘builder’ and ‘urban planner’ here. Perhaps Moses should have been more of an urban planner as the worst of his projects caused permanent damage to the cityscape.

    • Much of Moses’ work in his first ten to fifteen was admirable. In the latter decades of his reign, however, his growing power made him something of a megalomaniac, with dreadful consequences for the people New York City.

      • Anonymous Reply

        Many of the things Janos mentioned were built during the very period where you refer to him as a megalomaniac.

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