Learning to Love the Gowanus Expressway
September 7, 2011 10:35 PM - Deleted
There is an urgent need, both for our city and our country, for some level-headed scholar to write a revisionist, balanced history of Robert Moses and his works. I call the need “urgent” because we still suffer from the intellectual legacy of the political hit-piece written by Robert Caro. The agenda behind this book is spelled out in its subtitle: “Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”.

At the time that this book was written, it certainly did appear that New York had not only declined, but that it had indeed fallen into the abyss. The city’s intellectual and political establishment refused to take responsibility for any of it. To read the editorials of the New York Times on the topic is to witness a search for other forces to blame: the federal government, racist suburbanites, the rise of the automobile nation, etc. Robert Caro, however, found the ultimate bogeyman in Robert Moses. Here was a guy who had already fallen from power, had an aloof, imperious public persona and was the driving force behind many of the factors they were blaming the city’s decline on: highways, urban renewal projects, etc.

I believe that Caro’s book will not stand the test of time, nor does it deserve to. The book is a hit piece with an agenda. Some of it is just silly: a whole chapter on his private relationship with his never-do-well brother. More telling, however, are the substantive chapters, some of which have morphed into myths. Let’s take a look at one the most significant: the construction of the Gowanus Expressway, which he covers in pages 520 to 525. I urge all to re-read this section.

To begin with, he writes of the project as an ill-conceived one that had only downsides, especially the damage to the fabric of that part of Sunset Park. Never once does he mention the over-riding need for this expressway, namely, that prior to its construction the only way for trucks to enter Brooklyn was through Manhattan and the East River Bridges. This chokepoint added to the cost of distributing goods to Brooklyn, in addition to creating more congestion and pollution in Manhattan. Indeed, not only does Caro not mention this upside, he actually views the improved access as a downside. Here is the exact quote from the book:

“With Moses’ road and tunnel making Sunset Park more accessible to trucks, industries requiring truck traffic –including two large new plants, one a division of Bethlehem Steel, the other a division of American machine and Foundry –moved onto Sunset park’s waterfront, already crowded with industrial activity”.

Imagine that!! This highway brought two new large manufacturing plants to Brooklyn!! What a disaster!! Would that we had such a disaster today.

The other notable thing about Caro’s “reporting” on this project is his discussion of the choice of Third Ave as the location for the highway. He spends pages decrying what was lost by putting the highway on this avenue – one that had long had an elevated train running over it. He spends one paragraph discussing the simple question: what alternative locations were there? Again, let’s quote directly from his book on this topic:

“Residents of Sunset Park had pleaded with Moses to build the road along Second Avenue instead of Third. After it was built, and they saw what had been done to their neighborhood, they knew their suggestion had been correct. “That was an industrial area anyway. Building it over there wouldn’t have changed anything in the area at all,” Cathy Cadorine said.”

There you have Caro’s thorough research into the topic: a quote from a neighborhood ”activist”. Had Caro spent a minute analyzing the matter, he might have addressed the following real issues concerning Second Ave:

a) Second Ave ENDS at 40th Street!!! Was Moses supposed to run the highway over the waterfront from 39th Street to 17th Street, destroying the piers and maritime activity there?!?!?!!?!?
b) Brooklyn’s premier industrial complex, Bush Terminal, runs right smack up to Second Ave. Would it have been better if he tore down these loft buildings, the source of thousands of jobs?
c) It would have been more expensive to locate the highway on Second Ave, and the budget for this project was tight. The budget for this project was so tight that Moses REUSED the pillars of the Third Ave El to support the new highway. This savings would not have been realized if the highway was located on Second Ave. More importantly, the eminent domain and demolition costs for the Bush Terminal buildings would have been far higher than the tenements along Third. These buildings take up a whole city block, rather than the 20 x 100 lot that a tenement usually stands on. Finally, it would have been an enormous expense to run the highway over the waterfront from 39th Street to 17th Street.

I ask folks to read Caro’s book, and determine if there is any analysis of alternatives such as that just presented. I assert that you will find precious little, as befits a hit piece.

I stated at the beginning of this article that there is an urgent need for a balanced, revisionist history of Moses and his times. I state this not so much for the benefit of Moses’ reputation. Rather, it is because of the intellectual legacy left by Caro’s book. It has been 50 years since Moses left the scene, and since that time we have lost the capacity to both think, and act, in a big way. We are still living off the infrastructure he built, and have done little to advance it. I’d rather hear someone propose something new and big, rather than listening to another drone going on about all of Moses’ mistakes. Learn from his mistakes, and let’s move on.

September 7, 2011 10:41 PM - gay smurf hoodlum
i can't stand agendas that paint issues with one broad stroak while squaking at the same time that everyone else paints everyone else with one broad stroak either.

see: the preservationist crowd lol. talk about hypocrisy at it's finest.


September 7, 2011 10:42 PM - gay smurf hoodlum
oh wow, didnt realize this was a full article. will read tomorrow morning when im not so sleepy... i love conversations like this and about topics like this!


September 7, 2011 10:46 PM - gay smurf hoodlum
and seriously, the same people who subscribe to the a lot of this are the exactly same people who dont WANT industry coming to their neighborhood, nothing real, nothing substantial. they'd have have 5 dollar cups of coffee that they can stumble out of bed to on a wednesday at 1 pm. that is what they consider a neighborhood. that's not what i consider a neighborhood. okay it's late and my thoughts are just gonna be scattered, i hope i didnt pollute your article any.


September 8, 2011 6:44 AM - denton
benson, you don't consider "Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York" that revisionist history you have in mind? While I haven't read it, reviews seemed to indicate that it took a more enlightened view of many of the projects that Moses got done.

The one I wish he got done was the tunnel under midtown Manhattan linking NJ to LI, altho it was proposed as an above ground expressway.

September 8, 2011 7:19 AM - BoerumHillScott
I have not read the book, but it seems to me that the BWQ/Gowanus/Belt system are a critical part of New York's transportation system, and were located more or less in the best place possible.

The fact is that in the modern US economy, trucks are basically the only way goods are moved on a local and regional scale, and have a majority of the share for cross country traffic as well. This is not because of Moses, this is because of efficiencies in internal combustion engines, cheap oil, a federally sponsored highway system, and a geographically distributed economy.

Without methods to receive supplies and ship goods via the highway system, I think the decline in manufacturing and distribution businesses located near the Brooklyn waterfront would have been much greater than what happened.

I'm sure there were block by block decisions that could have been made differently, but I agree with Bensen that the routing through Sunset Park was reasonable.
September 8, 2011 9:36 AM - Deleted

I've read "Moses and the Modern City". It is a collection of essays that were written in conjunction with a three part exhibition/symposium on his works (which I also attended). It indeed takes a more balanced view of his works and makes the case that many of the changes he wrought were necessary to bring NYC into the modern era (akin to what Scott writes above).

While it is a good start, I believe it is not the counter-weight to Caro's book (and Jane Jacobs also). The book treats the subject from an academic, "mile-high" view. While that perspective is quite necessary, what is also needed is the creation of a popular narrative that counters the urban legends created by Caro's book (and also Jane Jacobs) that has fostered the navel-gazing and NIMBYism that paralyzes us. Someone needs to debunk these myths one-by-one, in detail, akin to what I tried to do above with just one topic.

As an example: you are probably aware that there has been a long-term proposal to build a freight-train tunnel from Jersey to Maspeth, Queens. Representative Jerry Nadler has been a long-term advocate of this tunnel, which would cut down on the number of cross-tunnel/bridge truck trips. The proposal has gone nowhere, because the folks in Maspeth invoke all the NIMBY arguments celebrated by Caro in his book. Someone needs to create a popular narrative on the upside of such grand works.

September 8, 2011 12:59 PM - Slopefarm
Hi, Benson,
I'm not looking to get into a knock down drag out with you on this or go paragraph by paragraph on a long book on a long and complex career. My very incomplete nutshell take on Moses and the lessons we should draw are:
1. He was a successful builder but only a sometimes successful planner. The record on this is better in the earlier years and worse in the later years. As someone remarked in the Burns History of NY series, in the earlier years he amassed power to build but in the later years he built to amass power. An oversimplfication but it rings true to me.
2. Do we really have to choose between giving one man massive and unaccountable power to build vs. paralysis due to nimby-ism? How can we enable the building of necessary and sometimes visionary projects that would benefit the City and allow for input that would call attention to and help stop proposals that if built would be harmful?
4. Transportation -- we do need much of the roadways RM built but we would be better off if he had not stubbornly refused to incorporate mass transit or other non-vehicular infrastructure. Your rail tunnel is a great example and I agree with you on it but it is not the kind of project RM typically advanced.
5. As much as you think others overestimate it, I think you underestimate the destructive influence of pushing elevated or ground level highways through residential neighborhoods. I do think Cross Bronx, Gowanus and perhaps others did contribute to neighborhood devaluation and disinvestment at a critical time. Good planning balances and reconciles various needs and impacts, not to the end of paralysis but to the end of getting needed stuff built without unnecessary ill side effects. Not saying there will be no downside, but downsides can often be minimized. As ridiculously costly as Boston's big dig turned out, my sense is that putting that much central artery underground has really benefitted quite a number of neighborhoods.
6. I'm sure there's more but that's all I got off the top of my head. I would be less interested in a popular counternarrative than a sober dissection, project by project, of the merits and drawbacks and what it all adds up to.
Edited at September 8, 2011 12:59 PM
September 8, 2011 2:04 PM - Legion
Thanks for the article benson,
this is a very interesting topic.

I think that it has become common practice in our modern age of quick soundbites, to tag a larger than life personality like Robert Moses with an easy to reference summary. Unfortunately, this summary is often based on the vagaries of popular notion and biased viewpoints. A review of history will reveal how the hero of one age can be transformed into the villain of another and vice versa. The Eiffel tower for instance was mocked in its early years as a monstrosity totally at odds with the Parisian landscape. Now who could think of that city without it? President Truman has been enjoying a steady increase in popularity over the decades while President Grant has declined from a very high point of popularity over the last century. Evaluations and re-evaluations are made through the prism of each generation's values it seems.

We are still close to the works of R. Moses in terms of time, even now, however, who would doubt that Robert Moses State Park/Jones Beach or Tri-Boro/RFK and George Washington Bridges are useful and even beautiful public projects? Who can fault the creation of large public pools and baths in Astoria and Williamsburg which were not only a welcome addition to the gritty urban landscape but a necessity for the teeming masses looking to escape the summer heat?

With any great legacy comes great controversy however, since the footprint of such works must ultimately rest on the space of another time and place. In Moses' case there is the often mentioned cut-off of the waterfront and the division of existing neighborhoods. To say that the Cross-Bronx Expressway "killed" that borough in the 60's and 70's is to ignore all the other complex facets that contributed to the decline. Surely an argument can be made for that but I don't believe that was exclusively the case nor should that project be used to condemn the many positive influences of other works.

As you say, a more balanced discussion needs to be put forth in some way to mitigate the recent decidedly negative picture of the man. In the interest of fairness and even more so, in the interest of discussing what can be done in the future without become paralyzed into inaction.
September 8, 2011 4:14 PM - petebklyn
Moses has his name on one of NewYork's most prized beaches. So don't fret. He will always be loved just for that.
Book doesn't sound like a best seller anyway.
Edited at September 8, 2011 4:14 PM
September 8, 2011 9:26 PM - minard lafever
There really were two Robert Moses. The early one built amazing public beaches and parkways that made the areas just outside the central city accessible to the public through the amazing new invention of the personal motor car. This Moses took a derelict dump site and turned it into the park setting for the 1939 World's Fair, he did it again in 1964. That huge park is of course still there today enjoyed by millions every year. He built the northern parkways and created orchard beach in the Bronx and pushed to build the WPA pools that are so esteemed today. That was the early Moses, unfortunately, as often happens, his power turned to megalomania and he morphed into the evil Moses who dispossessed thousands of families and ruined perfectly good neighborhoods in order to build his expressways. His heavy handed, really totalitarian approach and utter disregard for the opinion of the public is what turned him into a villain. He did it to himself, he did not need the NY Times or Caro. Towards the very end he actually had to bend to the will of the public, abandoning his plan to build a cross-Manhattan Expressway through SoHo or a giant bridge at the battery that would have altered forever NY Bay. So his legacy is mixed. He certainly brought the antiquated city into the future, but he did so, especially towards the end of his career, with such callousness, hubris, and brutality that it overshadowed his positive contributions and worst of all, turned the city against large-scale projects for the next several generations.
Edited at September 8, 2011 9:26 PM
September 8, 2011 11:13 PM - Deleted
Minard and Slopey;

When I wrote my article, I specifically tried to make it as analytical as possible, in the hopes of starting the balanced criticism I am advocating. Unfortunately, it seems to me that you chose to stick to the over-arching narrative first developed by Caro (the early Good Moses followed by the evil one) and recreated by Ken Burns (note: I have very little regard for the work of either Burns' brother). I believe the only way to respond to such an approach is to continue to stick to the facts, as such:

-Minard, the facts you cite do not support your narrative. Moses' suffered defeats throughout his career, not just at the end. For instance, his proposal to build a bridge across the Battery was defeated in the 1930's, when he was at the zenith of his popularity and achievements. One of the works you cite as great and good, the 1964 World's Fair, was his last public act - during his "evil" period that you postulate.

-You both talk of his work on the Cross-Bronx and similiar projects as that of a megalomaniacal dicatator who rammed through these projects, and disregarded the popular will and the need for mass transit expansion. Let's talk history and facts, shall we? These projects were part and parcel of one of the most popular political projects in the history of our country: the Eisenhower Interstate System. Whether you think it was wise or not, there was overwhelming political support at the time for these projects, at the federal, state and local level. Moreover, there was zero -- I repeat, ZERO - support at the time for funding mass transit expansion. Robert Moses did not appropriate funding, he spent it, according to the overwhelmingly popular political will of the time. In that role, it was his unpleasant task to shoehorn Interstate expressways into a crowded, developed city, and to disrupt thousands of lives in the process. Your refusal to recognize the political context of the time, but rather to stick to the narrative of Robert Moses as bogeyman, will only continue to foster our present paralysis. Moreover, you do not discuss practical alternatives at the time.

Finally, I simply don't understand the narrative of Moses as a dictatorial power-monger. History shows that he reported to the mayor and/or governor during his career, and served at their pleasure. When Mayor Wagner was dissatisfied with his performance as housing commissioner, he removed him from that post. Likewise, Rockefeller showed him the door soon after he was elected. Once again, a significant number of his proposals never came to pass because of popular oppositon: the cross-Midtwon Expressway; the cross-downtown expressway; the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge and the fFirth Ave extension through Washington Square, to name a few.

Edited at September 8, 2011 11:13 PM
September 9, 2011 7:14 AM - BoerumHillScott
Is there any real evidence to show that neighborhoods bisected by expressways went downhill faster or recovered slower than ones that did not?

In my unscientific observations both here and in the other places I have lived, the negative impact of the expressways on neighborhoods seems to mostly go away a block to either side of them, and the impact even immediately adjacent is not huge.
I lived in apartments in both Birmingham and Los Angeles that were adjacent to freeways, and the rents charged were no more than 10% lower than comparable properties not next to the freeway.

The greater issue I have with Moses and other urban planners of the era was the demolition of numerous blocks to build "towers in the park" style apartment buildings.
Edited at September 9, 2011 7:14 AM
September 9, 2011 7:31 AM - BoerumHillScott
Another note: prior to Moses, New York had a history of tearing down blocks for infrastructure projects.

The approaches to all the bridges required huge amounts of demolition, and in the case of the Manhattan bridge, Flatbush Avenue Extension was created by tearing down buildings between Fulton and the bridge (side note: an earlier plan had an extension of Flatbush connecting to the Brooklyn Bridge)

In Manhattan, several sections of street that exist today were created by plowing through blocks to create paths for the subways from 1900 to 1930.
- Church from Liberty to Fulton
- Federal Plaza
- 6th between Canal and W 3rd
- 7th between Houston and Greenwich
Other streets had buildings destroyed along one side for blocks and blocks, including Houston.

In Brooklyn, the entire south side of Schermerhorn from 3rd to Smith (except the Baptist Temple) was demolished around 1930 for the subway.
September 9, 2011 9:23 AM - Slopefarm
Hey, benson,

I thought I was introducing more balance on this than you seem to give me credit for. My takeaway on cross bronx, for example, is not that we'd be better off without a highway there, but that it would not have taken much tweaking of the path and design to have it have been far less destructive. I believe in good, rational planning that can get good things built but allows for the input necessary to stop bad things. I don't think all major projects are good or bad. So I am receptive to your views that the pendulum has swung too far in the NIMBY direction, but I am leery of it swinging all the way back to us having a RM-like figure at the helm. One possible example of middle ground planning is the way RE development and park development have gone hand in hand along the Brooklyn waterfront, and NIMBY concerns have not completely held sway to prevent the RE development because that is how the parks got funded. Smaller scale than what you are talking about, but rational planning operating at neither extreme.
Finally, I agree with you about the Burns style of documentary, with overarching narratives and big themes and not much attention to the nuances on the ground. Much of the NY series drove me batty and I could not stand the jazz series. Made it sound like the most important jazz event following early-60s Coltrane was the death of Armstrong and Ellington and Wynton's admission to Julliard. Totally bananas.
September 9, 2011 9:28 AM - minard lafever
I'm done on the tired subject of Robert Moses.
September 9, 2011 9:34 AM - Slopefarm
Well, minard, I was trying to pivot to late 60s jazz. I imagine I'll get few takers, although legion may chime in.
September 9, 2011 9:50 AM - Legion
Hey folks,

I noticed that I threw in the GW bridge as a Moses project, my understanding is that he was involved in linking the highways to that particular bridge not specifically building it.
I meant to say the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges that link Queens to the Bronx and which are not only elegant in design but continue to function beautifully in the flow of traffic and commerce decades later.

A favorite large scale project of mine is the revitalization of the Queens waterfront in Long Island City.
I seriously considered living there when there was only the Cesar Pelli designed City Lights building and a bunch of warehouses. Today there are numerous buildings, esplanades, restaurants, parks and the essential access to the water with the piers in Gantry Park. It doesn't hurt that the 7 train is one stop into Midtown either.
The planning for that transformative project was done in stages over the last decade and it seems to be working smoothly in fostering the growth of a vibrant community inclusive of housing, commerce,arts, recreation and even history (they restored the iconic PEPSI neon sign and left the old railway loading structures as part of one park).

The light rail line linking JFK to Jamaica over the Van Wyck expressway seems to be working as well. My feeling is that these two projects used more of a scalpel type of precision in their implementation.
September 9, 2011 10:07 AM - Deleted
"One possible example of middle ground planning is the way RE development and park development have gone hand in hand along the Brooklyn waterfront, and NIMBY concerns have not completely held sway to prevent the RE development because that is how the parks got funded. Smaller scale than what you are talking about, but rational planning operating at neither extreme."


I beg to differ. How long has this rather minor project been going on? Do you want to compare that to the 4 years it took to build the Hoover Dam, or the 13 months it took to build the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge?

One more thought on this topic, and then I'll let it go. If you think that a take-charge, but accountable guy like Moses is not necessary to see these large-scale projects through, compare his base of operations, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

During his tenure, the TBTA stayed true to its charter of building and operating bridges and tunnels between the boroughs. As chairman, Moses served at the governors' pleasure and as I already mentioned, Rockefeller removed him soon after his election.

Compare that to the PANYNJ. Now HERE is a governmental entity run amuck. Its original charter was to build a cross-harbor freight train tunnel, something it has never done. Rather, it branched out into operating the ports (to NY's detriment), airports, subways and most outlandishly, real-estate development in lower Manhattan (how's that $1 Billion dollar Freedom Tower going?). Because it reports to two masters (the governor of each state) it is accountable to no one, and indeed, plays each state off against each other.
September 9, 2011 10:36 AM - Slopefarm
legion, I offer you a chance to comment on jazz and you comment on RE development? Seriously, I think you have a good example. I may be wrong, but I think that was a relatively blank slate as the property was more or less ripe. I think your Van Wyck link point is right, too, about how, when you are planning a new project where there is existing development or infrastructure, sometimes a scalpel is best. Had RM been more careful with his incisions, the backlash would have been more muted.