The Development of Robert Moses 

As the 40th anniversary of Robert Moses’ death approaches (at the end of this July) it’s not surprising that people in Babylon, Long Island, are arguing for the removal of a statue of the notorious “master builder.”

New York City Parks Commissioner, City Construction Coordinator, and head of multiple city and state agencies and public authorities, as well as Secretary of State of New York in the 1920s, Moses left a monumental, and monumentally toxic, legacy. To be sure, no brief introduction to Moses life and work can adequately describe the unjust and ecocidal mess he’s fixed in place in the layout of streets, in steel and concrete, in highways, buildings, and bridges, in the New York metropolitan region and beyond.

If you’ve ever visited Inwood Hill Park in Upper Manhattan, or Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, or Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, or Lake Belmont State Park in Long Island and wondered why these parks, among many others across the New York metropolitan area, all have multi-lane highways thundering through them, spreading noise pollution, in addition to poisoning the air in spaces ostensibly dedicated to distance from such forces, the answer is: because Robert Moses, crusader of “progress, growth and development,” wanted it that way.

If you’ve ever walked around New York City wondering how a densely-built city with extraordinary public transportation infrastructure wound up belted and strangled by expressways, choking with lethal car traffic at nearly every intersection, the answer is also, in many respects, because Robert Moses wanted it this way. (And, yes, Robert Moses is in large part the reason the Brooklyn Dodgers decamped to L.A., too.)

Not only is Moses responsible for condemning and destroying dozens of vibrant communities and brutally displacing over half a million people in order to build his highways and other car-centric projects (not to mention his urban renewal projects); this net of highways continues to slice up the city — and, via the cars and trucks they carry, poison the communities these traverse as well. A brief introduction has little room for even cursory discussions of rates of asthma, cancer, and other diseases stemming from car pollution, not to mention the causal relationship between “progress, growth, and development”, of which Moses was a superlative agent, and global warming and catastrophic climate change.

Nor were the communities, parks, marshes, rivers, forests and other salubrious entities destroyed by Robert Moses between the early 1920s and the late 1960s done so in anything resembling good faith. Because of his monopolization of various public agencies, along with his close relationship with the press, who unwittingly helped spread his disinformation and smear campaigns, Moses was able to build his projects against popular objections. Overriding even the mayor and city council, Moses did not just neglect but, over the course of decades, was a major force in the destruction-via-defunding of public transportation, public hospitals, public schools, public libraries, the health of the environment, and other aspects of the public realm.

And because Moses’ ideas and principles were highly influential, determining the outcome of the U.S. Interstate Highway System, among other concrete institutions whose inequities are today hard baked into daily life, Moses’ authoritarian (and ecocidal, and racist) ideology (a direct expression of the imperialist ideology he lustily absorbed as a student of the British civil service just before World War I), continues to reproduce injustice, poverty, and disease throughout the world.

Contemporaneous with the autostrada and autobahn, the highway projects of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany respectively, Robert Moses’ monumental highways, bridges, dams and other projects would not have been out of place in those (likewise) imperialist regimes. Unlike the classic fascists of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, however, (as opposed to the alt fascists of today) Robert Moses would remain in power until the late 1960s. To be sure, the massive Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Staten Island, briefly the world’s longest suspension bridge, was completed as recently as 1964.

Yet, though concrete, his highways (and their accompanying sprawl) are still just that. Though it may sound utopian, with sufficient political will they can be removed or transformed altogether. To be sure, shutting down all these highways and transforming them into a network of interconnected flying parks designed according to, for instance, Frederick Law Olmsted’s aesthetic (with a lane or two dedicated to public transportation where appropriate, with bus stops, like subway stations, at on and off ramps perhaps) could be one step toward ecological justice, and racial justice — toward justice in general, which demands overcoming Robert Moses’ ever-present imperialist project; an overcoming that, simultaneously, amounts to the decolonization of our planet from those who desire little more than to enslave and devour it all.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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