Robert Moses, one of the most controversial and polarising figures to have risen to invincible power in New York City’s urban development is a man whose reputation has seen both glory and condemnation in equal magnitude. Moses was neither an architect or a planner, but he was the most influential builder, America had ever seen. He was referred to as Master Builder for a reason. Moses built highways, bridges, public parks, and housing projects in such volume that an average New Yorker would run across or touch at least one structure that he had built.

Here are ten facts about Robert Moses that throw more light on his legacy and personality:

1. Undemocratic political power

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Facts about Robert Moses ©Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez

A display of possession of extraordinary power by Moses was when he held 12 public offices at one time, without being elected to any. Moses had power. He knew how to use it to his benefit. He controlled the money. Elected officials were at his mercy when it came to sanctioning funds. One of his initial tactics was to start a project without telling the actual cost. When the project stood halfway for the lack of resources, he knew the government would approve of more funds for the sake of their reputation. 

2. Modern New York post world war

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Facts about Robert Moses ©

After World War II, New York became the centre stage for many reasons. Moses had a vision of creating a modern city for the world to see. His idea of modernism was similar to Corbusier’s, where modern gadgets and machines like cars were the most important. He worked on executing the concept of ‘Towers in the park’. Low rise residential units were discarded for tall towers while leaving a large area for the grass.

3. Community opposition and Battle with Jane Jacobs

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Facts about Robert Moses ©Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez

Moses had faced community opposition for many of his projects. He cared too less to be bothered. He worked his ways around to get the plans executed. He was known to be a bully for this reason. But the Lower Manhattan Expressway project became a movement when Jane Jacobs, an activist criticised the project and Moses’s methods of urban developments heavily. She came up with a book, Death and life of great American cities in which she spoke about how Moses was ruining New York City and why it needs to stop. The project never reached fruition. It was around this time, Moses and his reputation took a hit. 

4. Hatred for public transport

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Facts about Robert Moses ©

Moses is known to have built bridges, parkways, tunnels, all transit infrastructure for the movement of cars. One example of his dislike for public transit is Long-island. Despite being advised to build a median road with public transit, he went against and built his highway without it. It is also said by many that he stopped public transport for some time so that people used his roadways. 

5. Execution of racism via urban development

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Facts about Robert Moses ©

Moses is well known for his racist and classist approach to developing New York City. He cared not at all for the slum dwellers and executed projects that displaced thousands of them in the blink of an eye. Not only slums, but Moses also uprooted the working middle class, people of colour with equal ease and took no responsibility for providing them with alternate housing. In 1936, he gave a 30-day eviction notice to the people of Barren Island in Brooklyn to build a bridge on the rubble of their demolished homes.

6. Robert Moses: A nationwide example through his work

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Facts about Robert Moses ©

Many people question why is it that Robert Moses is the only one critiqued so brutally, when he only worked in New York and other cities had a chance to do things differently, in the absence of Moses. But this is only partially true. Moses was the pioneer in his urban renewal endeavours and was glorified by the press. Also, he was very successful. All the other cities followed the example that Moses had set before them. Everyone wanted a piece of the success that Moses was.

7. Commitment and competence

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Facts about Robert Moses ©

One thing that all his supporters and critics agree upon is his commitment to getting things done. When Robert Moses set his eyes on a project he took it to it’s desired destination. It was also one of his qualities he took great pride in. Apart from committing to a project, he was also competent for the task he dug his teeth into.

8. Robert Moses supported by those with similar vision

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United Nations from Roosevelt Island ©Wikimedia Commons

Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Robert Moses were big advocates of modernism. Moses enjoyed support from both these architects and planners of his time. “Like Le Corbusier, Moses favoured bulldozing “blighted” areas and replacing them with high-rise housing projects”. In fact, it was Corbusier’s concept of ‘Towers in the Park’ that Moses adopted and used extensively. Criticism faced by both Corbusier and Moses is another commonality between the two.

9. Robert Moses was associated with Penn Station demolition

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Pennsylvania station was not demolished by Robert Moses but he is accused of having carved the path for its destruction. The philosophy of rehabilitation and construction was propagated by Moses when he went around casually demolishing the structures he found hindering his dispositions.

10. Robert vs Robert

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Robert Caro’s book, ‘The power broker’, which is a biography of Robert Moses, is the biggest blow on Moses’s legacy. Robert Caro has given a detailed account of Moses and his life both as a public works official and as an individual. In the book, Caro explains Moses’s rise to power, his racism and his hatred for the poor. 

Jason Haber, a critic of Robert Moses sums him up in one sentence: “New York needed ‘a’ Robert Moses, we got ‘the’ Robert Moses.” This definition aptly describes the power and the tragedy that was Robert Moses.

Priyamvada Gaur

Priyamvada is an architect, writer, and artist. She is passionate about the discourse around architecture both as a profession and as an art form. This brings her to architectural writing. She is an invested learner of film criticism, architectural theory and is attempting to practice abstraction through her paintings.

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