The history of great American cities is the history of great urban planners, and there is none more influential than New York “master builder” Robert Moses. Never once elected to public office, Moses answered to the authority of no one, and for decades essentially operated with free rein to direct mountains of federal dollars toward the shaping of America’s most iconic metropolis.
Robert Caro’s Pulitzer-winning The Power Broker details the story of Moses’ decades of influence, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s one of the most grippingly written works of non-fiction I’ve read, even if Caro lapses into a couple cartoonish tangents about a “darkness” settling over Moses in his quest for power. But that’s seeing the forest for the trees — Caro excels at telling the stories of powerful Americans whose lives tell the story of 20th-century America, and in successfully telling the story of Moses and New York, Caro paints an unforgettable picture of the American city.
I wasn’t planning on centering any of my New York walks around The Power Broker, as I read it several years ago and the details of the book were hazy. But completely by chance, when I embarked on my second Bronx walk, I realized I was mere miles from Moses’ most controversial project of all: The Cross-Bronx Expressway. The Power Broker chapter “One Mile,” which tells the story of the expressway’s planning and construction, reads almost like a mob saga. In one fell swoop, Moses raised his arms and divided the Bronx in two; despite being told of a more viable option one block south, Moses opted to direct a one-mile stretch of the expressway through the heart of the East Tremont neighborhood, at once displacing 5,000 residents.
Exiting the subway near Pelham Bay Park, I realized I was directly adjacent to the storied expressway, and set out west toward East Tremont. The initial stretch of my trip was fairly residential, snaking through the Westchester Village and Parkchester neighborhoods. I fueled up for the journey by getting over my youthful aversion to ricotta cheese and sampling a white pizza for the first time; appetite satiated, I set out in the direction of Moses’ grand, disputed feat of civic engineering.
The effect of the Cross-Bronx Expressway on the borough is a fascinating microcosm of Moses’ effect on New York — and American urban planning — as a whole. Beyond the forced displacement of 5,000 people, an additional 10,000 fled the area due to the ensuing blight that overtook the neighborhood. The effect wasn’t limited to Tremont — property values lowered throughout the South Bronx, contributing to the spread of urban decay. Interestingly, the expressway’s construction leading to the blight and poverty of the South Bronx makes Moses a sort of foundational figure in the genre of hip-hop — though in the end, I’ll have to give DJ Kool Herc more credit.
Like most of New York, Tremont isn’t really a dangerous neighborhood — just one that had its heart torn out in 1963. Now that the interstate highway system is ever-present, seeing a gigantic highway in the middle of an existing neighborhood isn’t unusual; any Bay Area resident is familiar with the MacArthur Maze, which divides Oakland like a pizza. Likewise, Tremont has adapted to the expressway, with the stretches underneath consigned to junkyards, parking lots and dead space.
The project caused enough of a stir at the time to cause a public outcry against Moses; due to civic protests by urban activists such as Jane Jacobs, future plans such as the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have leveled 14 blocks of Little Italy, received the thrashing of a lifetime and came to an early, unceremonious end. And for all of the hoo-ha, the expressway did little to relieve traffic — as was little understood about urban highways at the time, the more options you give drivers, the more drivers are going to arrive en masse to clog them up.
But as I exited the South Bronx across the Triborough Bridge — itself overseen by Robert Moses during the New Deal — I began to have second thoughts about Moses’ legacy. Certainly, he’s a man who had a negative impact on the lives of millions, between slum clearance and the ensuing construction of boxy, unattractive, race-based public housing projects — not to mention the influence his “cars first” policy had on the planning of legions of other American cities. But he also shaped New York as it is today. He laced the city with ugly freeways, but he also added 20,000 acres to the city’s parkland, constructed seven major bridges, and was responsible for the United Nations Plaza and the 1964 World’s Fair site in Flushing Meadows.
And this essay persuasively argues that, in an era when America was flush with cash from World War II debt and outlaying millions upon millions in federal funding for the swift construction of transportation projects, Moses was just a bureaucrat doing his job as efficiently as possible. He made a number of questionable choices along the way, but what he got done in the time it got done would be impossible today.
I wound up in Flushing Meadows at night, and it turns out it’s actually one of the best times to visit. It’s nigh-on deserted but, since it’s touristy, it’s warm, well-lit and safe. Like most boys who were 14 in 1997, I’d seen the Unisphere in the climactic scene of Men in Black, but I had no idea it was so enormous. Moses used bureaucracy as a tool to get what he wanted, when he wanted, at the expense of the urban poor, but it’s apparent that he really wanted New York to be the greatest city on Earth.
Incidentally, the World’s Fair site is adjacent to both truly excellent carnitas from a decadent torta truck in Elmhurst and out-of-this-world cumin-lamb ribs at Fu Run in Flushing. I would not, however, advise any of you to eat both of these on the same night, particularly if you have a six-hour flight scheduled for the following day.
This is where the recounting of my 100 miles of New York ends; I took a few other walks, including a 2.5-mile stroll from Brooklyn Heights to Park Slope; a 10-mile walk from Midwood to Astoria to visit my long-time friend, Internet viewer Mark Prindle, and a 2-mile trek across the southern end of Central Park en route to Zabar’s, where I stocked up on knishes and cinnamon rugelach as compensation to my wife for leaving her alone in the East Bay for a week. This is the first of what I hope is many city walks, and I hope everyone enjoyed the vicarious experience!