Robert Moses

views updated May 18 2018

Robert Moses

Robert Moses (1888-1981), New York City's controversial impressario of public works, did more to reshape his city and, by example, to influence the course of American urban development than did any other figure of the mid-20th century. Moses, who by training was neither planner, architect, nor engineer, attained unprecedented power without ever being elected to public office.

Born December 18, 1888, in New Haven, Connecticut, Robert Moses was the second of three children of Emanuel and Bella Choen Moses. The elder Moses, a Jew of German extraction, retired in 1897 from the department store business which made him a millionaire and moved with his family to New York City. Young Robert was sent to private preparatory schools and graduated from Yale University in 1909. He received a Master's degree in political science from Oxford University in 1911 and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1914, with a dissertation on the British civil service system.

Moses promptly went to work for the Bureau of Municipal Research, a business-dominated New York political reform body which stressed the importance of the application of business management principles to the conduct of municipal affairs. Here Moses met Mary Louise Sims, whom he married in 1915. The couple had two daughters, Barbara and Jane.

Upon the election of reform mayor John Puroy Mitchell in 1914, Moses was appointed technical adviser to the Mayor's Civil Service Commission. Moses and his staff produced a report calling for the complete revision of the city's civil service system along what may be described as meritorcratic lines. The report occasioned much controversy and was not implemented. Moses was removed from office when Mitchell lost his bid for re-election.

Learning to Use Political Power

After working briefly again with the Bureau of Municipal Research and with the United States Food Commission, Moses became chief of staff to Belle Moskowitz, who had been appointed by newly-elected New York governor Alfred Smith to head a commission charged with reorganizing the state's administrative structure. Moses became a key adviser to Smith, and during Smith's first two terms (1918-1920 and 1922-1924) he gained essential experience in practical politics. This, combined with his expertise in the theory of government, prepared Moses for his role as New York's "Master Builder."

In 1924 Smith appointed Moses to the presidency of the newly-created Long Island State Park Commission, a body whose enabling legislation Moses himself had drawn up. Together with the State Parks Council, of which Moses became chairman, this body had unprecedented power to appropriate land and build park highways. Special purpose non-elective governments such as these were a well-worn progressive device for removing public works and services from the direct control of politicians and from what many considered an unthinking electorate. Moses' contribution, aside from the extraordinary powers given the bodies he helped to create, was his ability to build a public, political, and special interest constituency for such bodies. This made them, and him, truly independent forces in state and local administration.

During the remainder of the 1920s Moses used this power to fight for automobile highways and recreational facilities on Long Island, and each success increased his power. The Northern and Southern State parkways on Long Island embroiled Moses and Smith in a bitter contest with the island's wealthier residents, who feared an influx of what one described as "rabble." This, along with the multi-million dollar development of the island's Jones Beach for public recreation, helped cast Moses, as well as Smith, as a promoter of public works for the masses.

In 1928 Smith left office to run for the U.S. presidency and was succeeded in the governorship by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had come into conflict with Moses during Smith's administration. Roosevelt could not, however, remove Moses from his positions in the park system. As popular with the press and with some reformers as he was disliked by many state politicians, Moses had begun to build a power base independent of electoral outcomes.

The Great Depression and the New Deal brought Moses fully into his own. His mastery of the details of legislation and of public works planning made Moses invaluable to New York City's activist mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, and Moses' growing network of connections made him increasingly invulnerable to political change. After Moses' disastrous defeat as Republican candidate for the governorship of New York in 1934, LaGuardia appointed him commissioner of the newly-created New York City Park Department, with power to "coordinate" all city parks and "related developments." In effect this gave Moses an important voice in transportation and public facilities policy throughout much of the city. Within a few months of his appointment, 1,700 projects large and small had been completed.

The "Master Builder" at Work

Even more important, Moses was the dominant member and, from 1936, chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority, charged with creating a 22-lane auto-sorter between three New York boroughs. As later modified, this authority had the power to construct tributary roads and became effectively self-perpetuating because it could begin new projects with revenues from the original bridge. Even Roosevelt, now president of the United States, was unable to have Moses removed from the chairmanship of this powerful body, whose first project called for $44 million in federal funds. When Roosevelt, through his secretary of the interior, attempted to make Moses' removal a condition of federal assistance, Moses took the matter to the press and forced the administration to back down.

By the end of World War II Moses had accumulated posts which gave him the most important single voice in park, bridge, and road construction in the New York area. Appointed New York City construction coordinator in 1946, Moses also presided over public housing and urban renewal policies, which increasingly emphasized austere high rise housing for the poor and expanded use of renewal land for private development. He had a controlling hand in many other public works of the 1945-1965 period, including the building of the United Nations Headquarters, Lincoln Center, the New York Coliseum, and the 1964-1965 World's Fair facilities.

Moses encountered increasing opposition beginning in the late 1950s, when massive "cut and burn" urban renewal tactics began to lose favor nationally. Community opposition to his Cross Bronx Expressway (which displaced 1,500 families in a single one-mile stretch) was followed by revelations of scandals involving the use of urban renewal land in which some of Moses' associates were implicated. Moses' press support had waned by the early 1960s as, for the first time, his vision of the urban future seemed badly out of step with contemporary values. When Moses threatened to resign his park posts in a dispute with New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, the governor accepted. Having been required to relinquish his New York City posts in order to accept the presidency of the World's Fair, Moses retained only one important part of his power base, the Triborough Bridge Authority. He was phased out of this post as well when the authority was merged into a new Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1968.

Moses spent the remaining 13 years of his life promoting projects which he favored and defending himself and his policies against the opponents of large-scale autocratic planning who held public attention during the 1970s. Robert Caro's massive 1974 biography of Moses, The Power Broker, helped fix the reputation of Moses as an anti-democratic policymaker who fostered the auto-mobilization of American cities and the piecemeal destruction of the urban environment he proported to improve. In fact, Moses' legacy was mixed.

Robert Moses left behind 2.5 million acres of state parks, 416 miles of parkways, a dozen bridges, two dams, 568 playgrounds, and numerous important public buildings. He spent the equivalent of $27 billion and displaced at least a quarter of a million people. He spread his approach to urban public works through consultancies in seven other cities and, by example, nationwide. Yet while Moses' power and impact were unique, his aims were not. He promoted parks in the age in which parks were widely seen as a cure for urban ills. He fostered automobile use during the half-century in which middle-class Americans seem to have seen the private car as an unmitigated good. His ruthless approach to urban renewal and apparent disregard for the traditions and opinions of poor city dwellers were not untypical of the 1940s and 1950s. Moses accentuated, but did not create, the approach to urban public works with which he is identified.

Further Reading

The classic work on Moses is Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974). Moses' own story is in Robert Moses, Public Works: A Dangerous Trade (1970). Alternative views of Moses may be found in Eugene Lewis, Public Entrepreneurship: Toward a Theory of Bureaucratic Political Power (1980), and Cleveland Rodgers, Robert Moses, Builder for Democracy (1952), a pangyric which contains some priceless Moses quotations. For the period after 1974 see New York Times, March 8, 1978; April 29, 1978; and July 30, 1981. □

Moses, Robert

views updated May 23 2018

Moses, Robert 1888-1981


Robert Moses is known as the master builder of New York. After receiving his BA from Yale, MA from Oxford, and PhD from Columbia, Moses officially began an extraordinary career in public service in 1924. His career ended in 1968 after he had served under seven governors and five mayors. He held several city and state offices, often simultaneously, including commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and coordinator of construction, as well as chairman of the New York State Power Authority and chairman of the State Council of Parks. His close friend and mentor was the legendary Al Smith, Democrat and four-term governor of New York. Moses never held elected office, although in 1934 he ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for governor.

Mosess public projects in New York City include seven major bridges, 658 playgrounds, seventeen public swimming pools, 416 miles of highway, and over two million acres of parkland and other works throughout the state. He was also an important force in the construction of 1,082 public-housing buildings. The cost of only those projects for which he was directly responsible, from conception to completion, was roughly equivalent to what NASA spent in the 1960s to land a man on the moon. Moses mastered the art of using federal funds and was a pioneer in the development of the public authority, in particular the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, the financial base of his planning empire.

Author of 102 articles in national and regional publications, Moses published little of a theoretical nature. Yet there are parallels between his planning philosophy and that of Le Corbusier, the hypermodernist urban designer (although there is no entry for Le Corbusier in either Robert Caros 1974 The Power Broker or Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jacksons 2007 Robert Moses and the Modern City ). Both viewed averages and aggregates as starting points for understanding cities. Both discounted the role of face-to-face, street-level interactions and the complex social orders that spontaneously emerge from them that for urbanist Jane Jacobs, Mosess great nemesis, are the life of a city. And both promoted efficient cities and massive urban reconstruction, especially for the automobile, at the expense of traditional neighborhoods. Unlike Le Corbusier, however, Moses acquired the political clout to get things done.

Both supporters and detractors describe him as visionary, brilliant, tireless, driven, and ruthless. Thanks largely to Caros 1974 book, the latter have tended to outnumber the former, although over time the pendulum will swing surely in both directions.

Many believe that Jacobs is chiefly responsible for Mosess decline from power, but other factors are also important. First, Moses was approaching his eighties when his defeats began to accumulate in the 1960s. Second, this was also when New York City began facing chronic economic and financial problems that for long afterward soured public opinion against expensive large-scale public projects. Third, the status of Le Corbusierstyle modernism was waning among influential intellectuals. His decline coincided with, and probably helped hasten, the rise of so-called participatory planning, in which formal public hearings are an essential part of the planning process.

Thus, not only at his height but also in the wake of his fall, Moses exerted a deep and lasting influence on urban planning.

SEE ALSO Architecture; Cities; Jacobs, Jane; Metropolis; Modernism; Planning; Public Goods; Regions, Metropolitan


Ballon, Hilary, and Kenneth T. Jackson, eds. 2007. Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York. New York: Norton.

Caro, Robert. 1974. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Knopf.

Sanford Ikeda

Moses, Robert

views updated May 23 2018


MOSES, ROBERT (1888–1981), U.S. parks and highways developer. Moses was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to well-to-do Spanish-Jewish parents. He denied his Jewish affiliation. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Oxford University in 1911 and 1913, respectively. In 1914 he received a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University, writing his dissertation on British colonial administration. It was published as Civil Service of Great Britain (1914). He later wrote Theory and Practice in Politics (1939), Working for the People (1956), La Guardia: A Salute and a Memoir (1957), ATribute to Governor Smith (1962), and Public Works: A Dangerous Trade (1970).

In 1919 Moses joined the staff of Governor Alfred E. Smith and served as chief of staff of a New York State commission on administrative reorganization. He then began his long career on state parks and highways agencies as president of the New York State Council of Parks (1924–63) and chairman of the Long Island State Parks Commission (1924–63). He also served as secretary of state for New York (1927–28). In 1934 Moses was the unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor of New York.

In 1934 Moses became Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's parks commissioner, a post he held under four mayors (to 1960). As commissioner, he inaugurated massive public works of the New Deal type. He was responsible, for example, for construction of the Triborough Bridge structures (dedicated 1936); Grand Central Parkway; Belt Parkway; West Side Highway and Henry Hudson Parkway, in Manhattan and the Bronx; East River (later called the Franklin D. Roosevelt) and Harlem River Drive, in Manhattan; Fire Island State Park; the Niagara power plant; and the Coliseum convention hall in Manhattan. His department developed 15 outdoor swimming pools, 84 miles of parkways, and 17 miles of beaches, including Jones Beach. The park acreage in New York City was increased from 14,000 acres to 34,673 acres. On the social level, he provided full entry for the city's working-class communities into a recreational world previously reserved for the middle and upper classes.

Moses also served as city construction coordinator (1946–60); as chairman of the Jones Beach State Parkway Authority (1933–63); as member (1934) and then chairman (1936–46) of the Triborough Bridge Authority and of the Consolidated Triborough Bridge and City Tunnel Authority (1946–68); as sole member (1938) of the New York City Parkway Authority; as chairman of the state committee on postwar employment (1948); and as chief consultant on public works to the federal Hoover Commission on Reorganization of the Executive Branch (1948). Among the city buildings he constructed were Shea Stadium, Lincoln Center, and the New York Aquarium in Coney Island.

Impatient for results, Moses was known as "the man who got things done." Outspoken and single-minded, he was frequently embroiled in controversies in which he displayed his acerbic wit and combative style. By the late 1950s, however, there was growing public resentment about his aggressive urban reconstruction programs. In 1960, Mayor Robert F. Wagner moved him out of his city positions to run the New York World's Fair of 1964. Under the administration of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Moses lost his positions in New York State and thus left state government in 1968. Finally, in 1972, Mayor John Lindsay refused to reappoint him to the Triborough Authority, which essentially ended Moses' career.

Considered the single most powerful individual in the city and state of New York in the 20th century, Moses was the most influential nonfederal public official in the U.S. of his time without ever being elected to public office. Some of the landmarks named in his honor include the Robert Moses State Park in Long Island; Robert Moses State Park at Massena; the Robert Moses Causeway on Long Island; the Robert Moses Parkway at Niagara; and the dams at Niagara and Massena.


C. Rodgers, Robert Moses: Builder for Democracy (1952). add. bibliography: J. Schwartz, The New York Approach (1993); B. Nicholson, Hi Ho, Come to the Fair (1990); E. Lewis, Public Entrepreneurship (1980); R. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1975);

[Richard Skolnik /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]

Moses, Robert

views updated May 23 2018


During the 1930s, Robert Moses (December 18, 1888–July 29, 1981), acting under the title commissioner of parks, not only dotted New York City with hundreds of new parks, playgrounds, and swimming pools, but also permeated much of New York state with his vision of public recreational facilities linked by parkways, causeways, and bridges. From 1933 to 1939, Moses probably exercised control over a greater amount of public funds than any unelected official ever had. And the elected officials he "served" were glad to let him do it.

Moses's strong-minded and independent mother, Isabella, gave him his most salient personality traits. He was an extraordinarily industrious student at Yale from 1905 to 1909, despite the fact that being Jewish left him at the edges of Yale society. After Yale he went to Oxford, where he decided to focus on public administration and made himself an expert on the British colonial system, which he saw as a model of efficient government.

Though he was a lifelong Republican, Moses rose to power under Democratic administrations in New York, particularly those of Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Having grown up during the height of the Progressive era, Moses was always to remain an idealist. Thus, he was able to maintain his early value as a public official through his judicious and successful sponsorship of reform measures, particularly in the area of banking in the first years of the Depression. It also did not hurt that the studious Moses knew more about the issues at hand than anybody else did. When federal money poured into New York City in the mid-1930s under the auspices of the Public Works Administration, Moses was given almost total freedom to build his most ambitious projects to date. These included the building of the Triborough Bridge, an expansion of the subway system, the construction of the city's first public housing project, and an extensive renovation of the city's parks.

Moses's reclamation of part of Long Island as a 118-mile-long public playground in the late 1920s set the model and tone for how he would work during the 1930s and after. First, he would think big, fitting every detail of his plan into his macrocosmic vision. Second, he would see potential in tracts of land that others had dismissed as unworthy of development. His Jones Beach project was exemplary in this regard. Third, he would overcome all opposition to his plans, even though this opposition often came in the form of powerful estate owners and politicians. Lastly, he would consolidate the authority for all of these public works under himself. This led to greater efficiency in administration, but left him open to charges of autocracy. The primary example in this regard is the Triborough Bridge Authority, over which he took complete charge when he was appointed city parks commissioner by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1934.

Critics of Moses have pointed out that his parks, roads, and public facilities have subsequently led to unexpected blights upon the landscape, and to greater congestion in places where he had hoped to create a free flow of movement. However, these problems might have been caused by factors of urban (and suburban) expansion that were beyond even "The Commissioner's" extensive control. Robert Moses finally left state government in 1968 when Nelson Rockefeller shuffled the cards of the New York bureaucracy and forced him out. However, by then Moses had left his indelible stamp upon the city and state, and had become the most influential environmental planner of the twentieth century.



Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and theFall of New York. 1974.

Krieg, Joann P., ed. Robert Moses: Single-Minded Genius. 1989.

Ladner, Joyce A. The New Urban Leaders. 2001.

Rodgers, Cleveland. Robert Moses: Builder for Democracy. 1952.

Schwartz, Joel. The New York Approach: Robert Moses,Urban Liberals, and Redevelopment of the Inner City. 1993.

Michael T. Van Dyke

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