Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Holy Moses, Why Can't We Build?

"I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs".
Robert Moses, 1974

Brian LAMB: Who was Robert Moses, by the way?

Robert CARO: Well, Robert Moses was this Park Commissioner of New York and the Chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority. He built every bridge that has been built in New York since 1930. The Verrazano, Throgsneck, Bronx, Whitestone, Henry Hudson. He built every mile of expressway and parkway that's been built in New York since the 1920s. All the parks he either built or rebuilt. He created so much of the landscape of New York. Now, here was a guy who was never elected to anything, and I was coming to realize that he had more power than anyone who was governor or mayor.

Robert Moses was in charge of building all public works in New York from the 1920's until 1968. He is one of the most influential persons in your life. His achievements stagger the mind. He is without question the greatest builder of public works in the history of the world. That's not to say everything he did was great. Clearly, it wasn't.

But the point is, he got things done. Huge projects. Small projects. Impossible projects.

It has been 40 years since Robert Moses relinquished power. He held power for 40 years, and now we are 40 years post- Moses.

The question I have is: What great public works has the City or State built in the last 40 years? You know the answer: Zero. Or put in a different way, the same number of games Jose Reyes will play in the rest of the year.

What a pathetic record we have in this area. The World Trade Center. When the fu*k is that thing going to be done? Atlantic Yards? You will sooner see R Kelly have sex with a woman over 15 than see the Atlantic Yards come to fruition.

How bout the 2nd avenue subway? They started that Project when LaGuardia was a Mayor, not an Airport.

You see, nowadays, there are just too many bureaucratic hurdles to jump to get things accomplished. There are just too many agendas that need to be nursed : Radical "Community Groups", politicians, environmental wackos, and other nut jobs that abuse our legal system and throw sand into the gears of progress.

Give me one man with blue prints, a wrecking ball and a mission over the current system any day of the week.

But it wasn't always like it is now.

I want to give you a glimpse into how Robert Moses operated. I am not going to use one of his major bridges or highways to illustrate my point. Instead, I am going to use Moses' work in an area that is dear to me-public parks.

Everything that I cite below comes from the monumental book The Power Broker by Robert Caro. I believe that The Power Broker is the greatest book I have ever read.

City Parks Before Robert Moses

Robert Moses became Park's Commissioner in January 1934. By the time he took over, the Parks Department for generations had been a dumping ground for Tammany Hall patronage positions. The idea was to spend the Park's department's budget mostly on salaries so that the political machine could give out jobs in return for votes. Hardly nothing was spent on materials and equipment.

Those who worked for the Parks Department were for the most part unskilled, as the political machine saw it as a great place to put drunks, bums and mentally ill people on the payroll. It is not an exaggeration to state that when you visited a city park, you could not tell the difference between a park supervisor and a bum.

Generations of this kind of neglect were devastating to city parks. By 1934, the paths, walkways and roadways in city parks were miles of broken pavement. Thousands of trees turned to stumps as they died from being pruned by unskilled workers.

The ironwork in the parks- fences, benches and playground equipment- were all caked with rust.

According to a Park Association survey at the time, there was not a single structure in any city park that was not in need of immediate repair.

And the definition of what constituted a park was terribly troubling: the city defined a playground as an open space maybe equipped with a slide or a swing, or maybe nothing at all, around which chicken wire had been strung.

Central Park, the jewel of the park system, was a filthy disgrace, run down and in need of a major overhaul. .

Moses Takes Control of the NYC Parks

In January 1934, Moses began negotiating with Mayor LaGuardia the terms in which he would take control of the city parks. Moses wanted total control. LaGuardia granted it.

While Moses was negotiating with Laguardia, he began preparing for this new monumental task before him.

Moses sent teams of his best engineers to "inventory" the city parks, their acreage, the buildings, paths, roadways, status and equipment in them, the condition of each item, and the type and amount of labor and materials needed to renovate them.

He filed this information in a lose-leaf notebook on his desk. By the time he was sworn in as Parks Commissioner, the notebook was more than a foot thick, and he had a list of 1,800 park projects on which 80,000 men could work.

A Genius at Work

Every accomplishment that will be mentioned below was achieved within four to six months. My mind still finds it hard to grasp, given the fact that I live in an era when no public work projects get done.

Moses was sworn in as Parks Commissioner on January 19, 1934 at City Hall. The moment after he was sworn in, he made a statement to the press in which he fired all the powers that be in the Parks Department "as of now".

Over the next eight days, he cut through all the red tape in order to bend the new deal rules to get waivers to hire 600 architects and engineers at a salary way above what the feds wanted to pay.

At noon on January 27, 1934 he sent out telegrams to 1,300 of the best architects and engineers, stating that if they wanted to work with the Parks Department, they should report to Moses' Manhattan office for an interview the next day.

The next morning, Moses hired 600 architects and engineers and immediately gave them drafting tables and put them to work. Several hundred were put on projects that were needed right away. These men worked for days without leaving the job, catching cat naps on cots Moses had set up.

The blue prints were given to the shape up crews to restore the parks. Moses and his trusted lieutenants instilled a strict discipline and work ethic into the shape up crews.Moses had three shifts of men working around the clock. At every city park the building and refurbishing went on 24 hours a day.

The Month of February was a particularly brutal month. The average temperature was 11 degrees. But the crews never stopped working.

On February 22 & 23, a total of 18 inches of snow fell on New York City, but during those days, the rebuilding of the city parks never stopped.

By May 1st, 1934, less than four months after Moses was sworn in as Parks Commissioner, 1,700 of the 1,800 renovation projects had been completed.

Every structure in every park had been repainted. Every tennis court resurfaced. Every lawn had been reseeded. Eight antiquated golf courses had been reshaped, eleven miles of bridle path rebuilt, thirty-eight miles of walks repaved, 145 comfort station's renovated, 284 statues refurbished, 678 drinking fountains repaired, 7,000 waste paper baskets replaced, 22,500 benches re-slatted, 7,000 dead trees removed, 11, 000 new ones planted, 62,000 other ones pruned, eighty-six miles of unnecessary fencing torn down, and nineteen miles of new fencing in its place. Every playground in the city had been resurfaced, with the most modern asphalt, every playground had been re-equipped with jungle gyms and sandboxes for children and benches for their mothers. Around each playground trees were planted for shade. Zoos were built or re-built, and the number of baseball diamonds more than tripled.

All that, in less than four months. But that is not all. You see, Moses' vision did not stop at the city's existing parks, he wanted to create more parks. But how? There was no money in any budget for new parks.

First, Moses sent his men out again to survey. This time, they made an "inventory" of all publicly owned land of the City of New York, every tract, every parcel, and determined if that land was being used by the city agency in charge of that land.

If it wasn't, Moses would make the case to LaGuardia to turn over the land. Which LaGuardia usually did. Moses than would build a new park on that land. No parcel was too large or too small.

He did the same thing with state owned land in the city of New York. He would use his influence in Albany to get the governor and the legislature to sign bills turning unused state land over to the city. Moses would again get LaGuardia to turn the land over to the Parks Department. Bingo, more parks.

You never knew when or where Moses would come up with ideas to acquire more land, for nothing, in order to build more parks.

There was the time when he was being driven up in Harlem and noticed a Catholic Church with abandoned tennis courts on its property. Moses rang the rectory bell, asked the priest if the Church would donate the land to the city. The priest was OK with it, but said Moses had to get permission from Cardinal Hayes. Moses immediately met with the Cardinal, and the City had more land to build another park.

Moses would remember long forgotten failed government projects that were never built, like War Memorials. He would turn the forgotten project into a War Memorial Park, thereby giving Moses jurisdiction over the land. Presto! Another park was built.

Finally, he would also use his charm and call upon the ultra wealthy, like John D. Rockefeller to donate land to the city. Another park.


In a mere six month period in 1934, Moses remade every existing park and playground and more than doubled existing park space with his innovative land grabs which he turned into parks. It was all his vision, carried out by men trained by him. And it is not like this was the only thing he had going on; while he was remaking the parks, he was also pushing hundreds of other projects, including the building of the TriBorough Bridge!

Compare these achievements with public park works of today. In February 2007, the City of New York announced it was building two new skating rinks in my beloved Prospect Park. Construction was to begin in 2008, and be completed in 2010. Since that announcement, Surprise! the project has been delayed. Construction is now slated to begin in 2009, with a new completion date of 2011. How pathetic.

Again, I am not saying everything Moses did was right. You can read The Power Broker and make your own decision. But the man could move mountains.

Nowadays, is there anybody on the horizon like a Bob Moses?

The sad answer for us, and for generations of future New Yorkers, is no.

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