Originally published May 27, 2007 in The New York Observer.

Beware of the Robert Moses Revisionists


A move is underway to put Robert Moses back up on the pedestal where he stood in the 1930’s. If the people backing the rehabilitation of New York’s quondam transportation, housing and recreation czar succeed, they might consider Joseph Stalin for their next revisionist project.

The two men had a little in common. Stalin was an anti-Semite, while Moses was anti-black. They both had no compunction about uprooting and moving people out of their homes and communities. Stalin transported entire ethnic groups thousands of miles away from their communities; Moses, with fewer forceful means at his disposal, merely kicked a quarter of a million out of their homes—but like his contemporary in the Kremlin, he never gave them another thought. Both adhered to the spirit of the aphorism attributed to Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

To rehabilitate Moses, it is necessary to attack or at least weaken Robert Caro’s magisterial biography, The Power Broker. The revisionist tide is expressing itself in museum exhibitions, a book of pro-Moses essays, newspaper articles and a symposium of worthies talking on the topic.

One of the oft-used ways of discrediting an earlier work like Mr. Caro’s is to point out that it is an earlier work. The suggestion here is that perhaps Moses was not being judged by the standards of his time, and that a man whose public career began in 1914 and finally wound down in 1968 ought not to be judged by the standards of the early 1970’s, when the great unwashed were threatening to become the great unruly.

We are therefore to overlook or at least not get too excited about Moses’ abhorrence of close contact with persons of color, since they were—or so the argument goes—shared by most or all of the white people of his time (except perhaps the Communists, who were always pushing racial themes for their own purposes—and thus, they don’t count).

In fact, Moses’ views on African-Americans were not unanimously shared by other white-skinned people. “In a stunning coincidence,” writes Martha Biondi, professor of African-American Studies at Northwestern University, “on August 1, 1943, the Harlem Riot began and The New York Times published an essay by Robert Moses in which the parks commissioner denounced civil rights laws, praised the leadership of Booker T. Washington, and proudly described—in detail—his successful effort to sabotage a civil rights amendment to the 1938 New York State constitution … How could Moses, the quintessential modernist and activist city builder, espouse such myopic ideas? Moreover, he was a northern New Dealer and a Jew writing just as a black-Jewish alliance to fight religious and racial bigotry in New York was about to commence.”

Given what Professor Biondi says, it may not be that The Power Broker is out of joint with our time, but that Moses was, even in the 1930’s, out of step with his—or at least the leading and best political thinking in the city he so dominated. That is not, however, how the Moses revivalists think. Another professor told The New York Times: “My hunch is that the more we distance ourselves, we will forget the costs, just as we look at ancient monuments and forget the labor that was expended in building them.”

Forgetting the costs may be another way of saying that he/we got away with it—and that has bearing on what the powerful may be doing now.

No doubt about it: Robert Moses was a big man who got big things built because he cut out the crap and split the guts of an opponent faster than a fisherman can do the same to a mackerel. If he had died around 1940, he would not be as famous as Robert Caro has made him, but he would have been better thought of. He did build many parks, beaches and recreational areas in the early years, even as he was putting up the West Side Highway, which effectively denied New Yorkers access to the Hudson River, as he would later do with the East River and the construction of F.D.R. Drive.

The attack on The Power Broker has nothing to do with the book, and everything to do with the need of some to change the city’s memory of this man, Moses. The book itself is airtight: You cannot read it without reflecting on what happens when a single person is given absolute power over a long period of time. The czar in question sometimes gets things done because he does indeed cut out the crap. Unluckily, the crap that is getting cut out is you and me.

The book is a warning against an American-style Mussolini-ism, and in his area of power and authority, Moses was akin to the Italian fascist who got things done with the help of his bully boys. Moses had no bully boys, of course, but the way he tossed people and furniture around, you might have thought he did.

That Robert Caro’s book is alive and being read a generation and a half after it first appeared bespeaks its pertinence to Americans who have never set foot in New York. It is the classic description of what happens when the power to raise and spend money is placed in government entities beyond the reach of the voters, when government institutions are designed to be impregnable to outside clamor.

Often, revisionist history has less to do with discovering a different way of looking at a person or an event than with the need by some to change the storyline for immediate political reasons. Thus, the present-day eclipse of Thomas Jefferson in favor of a John Adams or an Alexander Hamilton has as much or more to do with the aims of the American Enterprise Institute and the billionaires who support it as it does with new insight into late-18th-century American history.

By the same token, there is more at stake in blowing off the latter-day critics of The Power Broker than academic revisionism. What’s in play here is the renewed battle between the oligarchy with its czars and popular democracy. It’s a New York battle, and it’s a battle in every town and city where the well-placed few want to cut out the crap and get on with it, and the not-so-well-placed shout out, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s us you’re talking about—our homes, our jobs, our lives.”