Does New York Need a ‘New Moses’?

Okay, so the question comprising the title of this post sounds naive enough to border on rhetorical. But in light of the city’s current development climate, it takes a stronger resolve than mine to read "Power Broken," by NYU’s Thomas Bender, without wondering which side of the fence to come down on.

Published in the latest edition of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (free registration required), mosescover2.JPGBender’s provocative essay reacts to what he sees as a revisionist Robert Moses movement, typified by the recent book "Robert Moses and the Modern City," by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson, and the accompanying museum displays earlier this year. Moses revisionists, Bender writes, believe the thriving New York of today would not exist were it not for the hard-nosed autocrat’s bulldozing brand of tough love. Bender says those calling for "neo-Mosesism" are willing to forget — or, worse, forgive — the human cost Moses inflicted upon the city, rationalizing it as inevitable, or even necessary, much like Moses himself.

Bender disputes the neo-Mosesist claim that dependence on public process has lead to "urban paralysis," bogging down public works and stifling growth. Instead of Moses clones, Bender argues that cities need better ways to accept and utilize public input.

While it’s hard to disagree with that, Bender missteps by citing the progression of Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards as rebuttals to the Mosesist ethic. Of the former, Bender writes:

Today, the recently approved Atlantic Yards project, a huge mixed-use development in central Brooklyn including an arena for professional basketball, proceeds, after a great deal of public discussion and review (albeit a controversial one) by government bureaucracies. 

It would be difficult to find many people, if any at all, from the public advocacy arena who would say Atlantic Yards has been anything other than a developer-driven monster from day one, with enough backroom machinations and public bullying to rank among Moses’s most notorious projects. And though the reviled plan for a far West Side Jets football stadium was defeated, as Bender points out, neighborhood residents are suing the Bloomberg administration over its Moses-like quest to include over 20,000 parking spaces as part of new Hudson Yards development.

In fact, with unpopular projects like Atlantic Yards, Willets Point and the new Yankee Stadium surging forward, one could make the case that a new Moses era has long been underway.

To further cloud the picture, consider the positive works that have recently moved forward under edict — be they relatively smaller ones, like pedestrian improvements to Jewel Avenue in Queens, or an enormous undertaking like congestion pricing. As Transport for London spokesman Alun Shermer said, "If congestion pricing had to go through a legislative process it probably wouldn’t have happened." And in New York, it may well be that "populists" for hire end up killing it off.

So what’s the solution?  More efficient, effective public involvement? Enlightened, benign dictatorship?  Or should we — must we — straddle that fence with some combination of the two?

Image: W.W. Norton