Robert Moses

An Atlantic portrait

The projected Brooklyn Battery vehicular tunnel and its approaches will complete a system including more than one hundred miles in length of new highways and parks. Inside this will be an inner parkway and express traffic system of which Triborough Bridge is the heart, consisting of three main spans and numerous viaducts and ramps linking Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, via Ward's and Randall's islands. With nineteen miles of approaches, all financed by the authority, Triborough now connects with the Long Island parkways, and the 'feeders' planned or under construction will completely integrate the system. Originally financed by PWA funds, Triborough cost $61,000,000 and was built so economically that it has since been refinanced by a private bond issue at a profit of $1,365,000 to the Federal Government. This bridge system has a capacity for 80,000 cars daily, and its tremendous success enabled Mr. Moses to issue an additional $18,000,000 in Triborough bonds to finance the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge and its approaches.

This last-named structure is exceeded in length by only three other bridges in the world. Its graceful towers and cables are already a part of the landscape, and the bridge will be ready to bring New England motorists directly to the World's Fair next spring. Although the bridges built under Moses's direction are financially successful, they are not monopolies. They compete with free bridges and are simply timesaving alternatives for people who are glad to pay the moderate tolls to avoid traffic congestion on other routes. When they have paid for themselves, the toll system may be abandoned or the revenue used for additional facilities. The city parkway programme is by no means complete, but it is being steadily advanced by Mr. Moses's strategy of fighting for limited objectives.

One of Commissioner Moses's most striking miracles is the conversion of a vast swamp and a small mountain of odorous refuse in Queens into the site for the New York World's Fair of 1939. He was given the task of preparing this uninviting terrain for the great exposition and spent more than $50,000,000 effecting the change. By working twenty-four hours a day, with the aid of floodlights at night, the huge dump was leveled, two large lakes created, and the entire site transformed in less than nine months. Moses has seen to it that all schemes for the Fair conform to plans for the subsequent use of the site, with the result that the World's Fair of 1939 is being created in what will be the largest, and perhaps the most beautiful, of the city's parks. Many hot battles have been fought over this big enterprise with Moses in the role of landlord to the Fair corporation, which is using his park and parkways. He refused to permit Grover Whalen to lead the Preview of the Fair Parade, held in April 1938 over Triborough Bridge, because, as he says, it would have inconvenienced the regular paying users, and because he regarded the preview 'as a silly and wasteful stunt.'

V

DURING the past five years Commissioner Moses has spent considerably more than $300,000,000 on parks and parkways in New York City, exclusive of nearly $100,000,000 disbursed on bridges and their approaches, which were built by contract labor. Nearly $200,000,000 of the money spent on parks came from federal funds for work relief. That he has accomplished so much with relief labor, which he estimates has been about 50 per cent as efficient as contract labor on the average, is due to his insistence on preparing plans in advance, on securing competent supervisors to direct projects, and on retaining control over all park work. His policies have frequently provoked clashes with federal administrators, but he has held firmly to them.

Newspaper 'morgues' are filled with clippings of Moses's controversies running back to the earliest days of his public service when the young reformer, mistaken for a Britisher because of his Oxonian English, stirred the ire of civil service employees under Mayor Mitchell. He has been fighting over one thing or another ever since, with an utter disregard of consequences to himself or his political fortunes. With equal audacity he has attacked or defied presidents, governors, mayors, millionaires, trades-unionists, PWA administrators, judges, legislators, organized relief workers, and poor squatters in shacks along the right of ways of his projects. He doesn't win all his battles, but he has won most of them. No one questions his honesty, no matter what may be said of his methods and he probably numbers among his supporters more former opponents than any other man in public life.

Many of his controversies end in reasonable compromises. He fought hard in the Constitutional Convention for a grade-crossing provision that would put the full cost of such improvements on the state. Defeated in the convention, he blew up, resigned as a member of Mayor La Guardia's committee, and issued a blistering statement. Ultimately he rescinded his resignation, accepted a compromise, and started to work to get it adopted.

In controversy he is usually right, but likes to get in his punches first. That he receives so much favorable publicity is partly explained by his painstaking care to keep editors and reporters informed rather than by press agentry. His many rows and frequent 'resignations,' which are never accepted, may have created the impression in some minds of a disagreeable person. Actually his grin, which readily turns into robust laughter, more than discounts the effects of his sharp tongue. He gets a lot of fun out of his work and play. The stubborn refusal of bluefish in Great South Bay to cooperate in his plans for a beach supper arouses his ire as profoundly as most of his encounters in the realm of polemics.

New York's Art Commission, made up of distinguished artists and connoisseurs, complains that Mr. Moses frequently finishes and dedicates parks and structures before submitting his plans for the Commission's approval, but it has nothing but praise for his completed works. He uses the best available architects and engineers. The city's permanent building at the World's Fair, erected by him, is a fine and appropriate structure, as are his other new park buildings. Many of his bridges have received national awards. Several of the smaller parks, such as the Conservatory Gardens in Central Park and Bryant Park, are gems of landscaping and park design. At Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson in upper Manhattan, he provided an exquisite setting for The Cloisters, unique among American Art Museums.

Mr. Moses's contribution to city planning is by no means limited to the creation of beautiful parks and parkways. He insists upon protecting them by drastic 'zoning' of adjacent property. His curving parkways replace a monotonous gridiron street system over large sections of the city, and he provides special parks and playgrounds for new government housing projects. He was a membor of a committee that drafted the housing amendment to the new State Constitution and he has already made proposals for a gigantic slum-clearance project of $245,000,000 which has raised a storm of criticism from experts. Mayor La Guardia gives him many extra tasks ranging from the major problem of removing the remaining railroad grade crossings in the city to the creation of an opera and art centre.

Mr. Moses was offered the Fusion nomination for Mayor in New York in 1933, but declined it because of the opposition of Samuel Seabury, who had exposed the rottenness of the Tammany regime and was fearful of Moses's friendly relations with Smith. Moses cast his first presidential vote for Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and has since supported the Republican Party in national elections, except in 1928 when he voted for Smith. He always made a sharp distinction between Smith and Tammany Hall.

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