Monday, December 18, 2006

Moses Said So

Robert Moses was born on this day in 1888 in New York City.

A Phi Beta Kappa political scientist from Yale, Oxford and Columbia, Moses was hired as a technical expert by the New York City Civil Service Commission in 1915 to implement the meritocratic (anti-patronage) reform ideas he had articulated in his doctoral thesis, but before he could make much headway, reform mayor John Purroy Mitchel was defeated for reelection. Governor Al Smith then hired Moses, eventually appointing him the president of the Long Island State Park Commission, marking the beginning of Moses' extraordinarily long career as a public builder.

Supervising the construction of parkways, bridges and highways around New York, Moses was publicly admired as an expert manager who conducted his business above the political fray, but behind the scenes he was a Machiavellian who wielded more political power over public works than any elected politician. One of his favorite strategies for doing so was extending the maturities of existing public bond issues, thereby restricting the legislature's ability to second-guess him without jeopardizing the state's role as fiduciary to the public bondholders. Even his detractors had to admire his energy, intellect and technical talents: as governor of New York and later as president, Franklin Roosevelt resented Moses' authority, but felt moved to pour millions of dollars into his projects, such as the remarkable Triborough Bridge (1940) and numerous zoos, parks and monuments which kept Depression-era construction laborers in full employment.

His skills as an organizer were not always matched with socially visionary judgment: his housing projects and expressways often fractured neighborhoods and displaced the underprivileged, resulting at times in increased racial and ethnic tensions in neighborhoods which had enjoyed relative peace and leading to the reorganization of large portions of New York from pastoral pedestrian niches to an often alienating car culture. When his projects succeeded, as they often did despite his estrangement from their social consequences, his autocratic management style was tolerated, but by the 1960s, as community involvement in planning decisions became a political flashpoint, Moses found himself being marginalized politically, particularly by the policies of New York City mayor John V. Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Rockefeller finally drove Moses out of all his political posts when Moses was 75. Although he had taken his own paternalistic reform ideals to their logical limits, he ultimately fell victim to another reform movement, with ideals which focused on democracy and not exclusively on efficiency. He died on July 29, 1981 in West Islip, New York.

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