On the Robert Moses Exhibits

In n+1:

Last season’s series of museum exhibitions (the Queens Museum’s “Road to Recreation,” the Museum of the City of New York’s “Remaking the Metropolis,” and the Wallach Gallery’s “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution”), seeking, quite openly, to recover Robert Moses’s reputation and legacy, did not emphasize this particular antagonism, between many of Moses’s built structures and the current spatial ambitions of the city’s real estate interests. The Moses of the exhibits, which were unusual both for the artfulness of their display and for the openly opinionated quality of their explanatory plaques, was not the Moses whose expressways and housing projects are currently preventing New York City from gentrifying as thoroughly as, say, central London or Paris. Instead, it was the “middle-class” Moses—the builder of middle-income housing complexes like Morningside Gardens and Washington Square Village, of Lincoln Center and the United Nations, of soaring suspension bridges leading to suburban parkways, of Jones Beach, the Astoria Pool, and two world’s fairs.

Such a Moses, of course, did actually exist. Moreover, this particular Moses, this mighty champion of middle-class values, has more often been the source of commentators’ collective condemnation than he has of their esteem. Jane Jacobs was already criticizing this Moses, in her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, for importing suburban spatial norms into her city of sidewalks, stoops, and corner shops. By this time, Lewis Mumford, an admirer of Moses during the 1930s and 40s, and usually an adversary of Jacobs’s, was attacking Moses on similar grounds. He found infuriating the “car culture” Moses built for so exclusively, and, along with many other city-planning advocates of the time, Mumford derided the great bureaucrat for neglecting mass transit.