Flashbacks December 2007

The Godfather of Sprawl

The legacy of Robert Moses is as controversial as ever. Atlantic articles by Moses from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s offer a glimpse into the mind of this father of the postmodern American landscape.

In 1929, when Long Island celebrated the opening of Jones Beach—the 2,413-acre recreation area carved out of a remote sandbar—the spot was instantly popular as a summer escape for New York City's sweltering masses. It has remained so—but in many ways the beach and the access road, built by the New York uber-planner Robert Moses, inaugurated a troubling era of urban sprawl.

Moses isn't just known for Jones Beach, of course—it's not much of an exaggeration to say that if you can name it in New York, Moses built it. There are the Long Island Expressway, the Harlem River Drive, the Triborough and Verrazano bridges (to name just a few of his contributions), the patchwork of state parks, the masses of housing developments, the legacy of two World's Fairs (1939 and 1964)—not to mention Shea Stadium, the United Nations, Lincoln Center, and the New York Coliseum. It's a staggering legacy for one man—and an increasingly unpopular one in some circles. This seems a fitting time, therefore, to look back at some of the writing in The Atlantic by and about Robert Moses.

In February of 1939, at the height of Moses's popularity, Cleveland Rodgers painted a glowing and comprehensive portrait of the man as an adept and sacrificing public servant with a remarkable ability to get the job done ("Robert Moses: An Atlantic Portrait"). "In a period of prodigious public expenditures," Rodgers wrote, "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." (Although his tone was adulatory throughout, Rodgers did recognize Moses's tendency to irk his fellow bureaucrats, noting at one point that "Mr. Moses frequently finishes and dedicates parks before submitting his plans for ... approval.")

Six years later, in January of 1945, Moses himself contributed to The Atlantic, attacking New York City's real estate operators for the perpetuation of slum conditions ("Slums and City Planning"). Oozing contempt for any opinion but his own, and in a style as purposeful and relentless as one of his bulldozers, Moses blamed the shortage of decent low-cost housing on real estate developers' disregard for zoning and safety regulations—and on "misguided" investment in public transportation. "If in New York City," he wrote, "we had refrained from building so many miles of subways at twenty million dollars a mile and had put some of this money into rehabilitating and making livable and attractive the older and central parts of town, millions of people would not today be crowded like cattle into hurtling trains during the rush hours."

Turning his attention from city slums to suburban subdivisions, in "Build and Be Damned" (December 1950), Moses again reproached crooked developers for the many shoddily built and poorly planned suburban communities that were springing up in the postwar building years. "The typical real-estate subdivision brochure," he wrote, "contains distorted maps, claims that distant places are within easy commuting range, and pictures kitchens replete with shining gadgets, living rooms which look like Hitler's Chancellery, and gardens reminiscent of Marie Antoinette and the Tuileries." Calling for better regulations and more conscientious planning of new towns, Moses warned country dwellers to "resist the ruthless modern developer."

That was interesting advice coming from a man who a decade or so later, in "Are Cities Dead?" (January 1962), would write, "If more cars are inevitable, must there not be roads for them to run on?"—and who by that time had gained a reputation as the father of all ruthless modern developers. In "Are Cities Dead?" Moses responded angrily and sanctimoniously to Lewis Mumford's The City in History, a book tracing the evolution of the city in ancient and modern times and lamenting the decline of civic life in modern America. Mumford in some respects seemed to be directly attacking Moses and his approach to development—as in the following passage by Mumford, which Moses quotes in his article:

Such form as the metropolis achieves is crowdform: the swarming bathing beach by the sea or the body of spectators in the boxing arena or the football stadium. With the increase of private motor cars, the streets and avenues become parking lots, and to move traffic at all, vast expressways gouge through the city and increase the demand for further parking lots and garages. In the act of making the core of the metropolis accessible, the planners of congestion have already almost made it uninhabitable.

In response Moses was both scornful and proud. "Admittedly," he wrote, "the gasoline motor has provided us with problems which did not exist in ancient Rome. But the jaundiced eye of the city historian sees no signs of achievement and progress. He is obsessed with the harlotry and the decline and fall of Rome and Babylon, and the beams and motes blot out Jones Beach."

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