Robert Moses

An Atlantic portrait

NOT long ago the automobile in which Robert Moses was riding was stopped by traffic lights at a busy street crossing in Manhattan. Suddenly the driver of a large truck leaned from his cab and asked excitedly: 'Ain't that Commissioner Moses?' 'Yes, that's me,' was the reply. 'Well, I just want to tell you you're doin' a swell job on them parks,' the man shouted. Then the lights changed.

This spontaneous tribute is indicative of the growing appreciation of millions of New Yorkers of all ages and classes for the man who, in less than five years, has remade or refurbished a considerable portion of the metropolis. The Commissioner of Parks under Mayor La Guardia's Fusion administration is also head of the magnificent park system of New York State, which he conceived and largely created. He administers simultaneously a network of related agencies. His responsibility covers more than half a billion dollars' worth of new city parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, and other recreational facilities; transformation of old ones; acquiring and developing scores of large park areas throughout the state; reclamation for public use of miles of waterfront around lakes, along rivers, and at the seaside; and the linking of these vast playgrounds and scenic places by a system of parkways, causeways, and bridges that are bold examples of engineering skill and are solving traffic problems in the most congested area in the world.

In a period of prodigious public expenditures Robert Moses emerges as the most farsighted and constructive of public spenders. He has demonstrated in brilliant fashion that democracy can be made to work by skillful, resolute handling, and that 'public improvements' can be given a surprising amount of beauty.

'Bob' Moses is a Paul Bunyan of an official. Six feet plus, with the broad shoulders of a trained swimmer, he carries his one hundred and eighty-five pounds easily. He may be seen at his best before the Board of Estimate, the administrative body of the city, where he alternately explains, persuades, denounces, compromises, and usually wins because of the completeness of his preparations and his nimble political sense. A fighter quick of temper, he is ruthless in dealing with self-seekers and those who would obstruct his plans. He flatly contradicts opponents, tells them they don't know what they are talking about, puts them straight as to facts, or sears them with sarcasm and ridicule. He is quite as outspoken in arguing with the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, and other officials as with subordinates.

That the fiery Mayor and the aggressive Park Commissioner have worked so closely together for five years is due to the fact that the two men greatly respect each other, and the Mayor simply ignores the Moses resignations. Not long ago the mild-mannered Stanley M. Isaacs, Borough President of Manhattan, proposed that New York's school children be admitted free, at least once, to the World's Fair. Moses quickly got on his feet and riddled the proposal. He is interested because the first $2,000,000 of profits realized by the Fair are to be turned over to him to convert the site of the exposition into a park. From the heated argument that took place an onlooker might have thought Isaacs and Moses were bitter enemies or political opponents. They have worked together for twenty-five years; or rather, as Mr. Isaacs said later, "'Bob" Moses keeps all of us working for him, but we like it.'

Moses frequently offends needlessly but the notion that he is ill-natured is banished when he smiles. Firm-jawed, with a large, straight 'executive' nose he has a generous mouth, his strong white teeth affording a striking contrast to smooth olive-hued skin, sombre eyes and heavy black eyebrows. At times his dark brown eyes seem tired, but the expression is more of impatience than of fatigue. His large, strong hands, with tapering fingers, suggest a sculptor.

His office is in the State Building in lower Manhattan, a reminder of the City Park Commissioner's unusual official status. The walls carry pictures of completed projects, and maps and progress charts of projects under way. Physically restless, Moses does most of his work standing or walking around, sitting on desk or table, dictating, arguing, explaining. A conference or meeting of one of the 'Authorities' is carried on in the same casual way. Holding numerous offices, he has only one unpretentious workshop, and uses the teletype to keep in touch with his capable staff, or staffs -- mostly young men whose tried ability is matched by their loyalty to 'R. M.,' as he is called. While he works his men hard, he is considerate and finds ways of showing appreciation.

It helps to an understanding of his activities to know that Moses himself drafted the laws creating every position he has held or now holds. These laws were written and the jobs legally defined to carry out specific purposes, most of them conceived by him. He has never been elected to office, and, with the exception of his two years as Secretary of State in 1927-1928, until he became Park Commissioner in 1933 had never received payment for public service. The only remunerative office he holds is his Park Commissionership at $13,600 a year, which consolidates the work of five borough park commissioners whose salaries totaled $62,000 annually. His career, unique in so many ways, is our best example of what can be accomplished in the field of public service by one who decides early what he wants to do, thoroughly prepares himself for the task, and possesses the character, energy, and singleness of purpose to keep going.

II

EMANUEL Moses, of Spanish-Jewish (unorthodox) extraction, was a successful department store owner in New Haven, Connecticut, where his son Robert Moses was born on December 18, 1888. Robert's mother, Isabella, was the daughter of Bernard Cohen, a prosperous New York merchant and member of the Commission of Education under William L. Strong, last Republican mayor before the creation of Greater New York. When Bernard Cohen died in 1897, he willed his New York home to Robert Moses's mother, and the family went there to live. Robert entered Yale in 1905. There he went in for running, and made both the freshman and the varsity swimming team. In the Yale Courant he fought successfully to secure a share of football revenue for minor sports. Taking prizes in Latin, mathematics, and public speaking, he qualified for a Phi Beta Kappa key. Besides writing on the Courant, he helped to edit a volume of Yale verse, experimented with poetry, served as president of the Kit Kat Club, and was elected to the Senior Council, which he helped to organize. A non-fraternity man could hardly get further at Yale.

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