The Legacy of Robert Moses

Dear Islanders;

Last week I wrote to you about Frederick Olmsted, and his desire to turn precious outdoor spaces into natural cathedrals for contemplation and self-improvement— free of carriages on the shorelines and concessions at every corner. He saw in the groves and forests what our ancestors did when they built the great places of worship. Consider a forest with the branches leaning overhead and the tinted light letting a trickle of divine sunshine in. Is it such a stretch to think about places like Notre Dame—with its stained glass and wooden beams—and to consider that its architects were recreating the solemnity of nature? Olmsted did not think so. And neither do I. 

But who was Robert Moses? 

Today I want to delve into another man’s legacy, the one of Robert Moses. An Islander recently grabbed me after a Town Board meeting and said, “How dare you attack Robert Moses. He was a great man.” Well, I guess that depends on your meaning of great. If you think ruling over New York as an unelected and unaccountable Roman monarch, then maybe I would agree with you. But few people still respect Robert Moses. 

Robert Moses certainly had his upside. He was a brilliant, although cunning, man.  He designed some beautiful parks and great works of infrastructure. But most of what he designed is now looked upon unfavorably (more on this below). And then there is, of course, his personal history of graft and corruption. 

Moses was a fat cat power broker who usurped tax payer money to create a virtual nation state within the bureaucracy of New York State government, the remnants of which remain to this day. He ruled for decades, making at a whim his appointed elite as rich as Croesus while crushing and ruining the lives of his political foes. Among his henchmen were a crew of dossier collecting goons peeping in keyholes and spying though windows. And what did Moses use this power mostly for? He tore up communities, built playgrounds and apartment complexes for the rich over the homes of the poor, and he robbed (yes robbed) Western New York.

Think I’m being harsh? Don’t take my word for it. Here’s just some of what others have to say about the Moses legacy:

“The $45 million Kensington Expressway tore up Frederick Law Olmsted’s tree-lined Humboldt Parkway, claimed hundreds of homes in previously stable neighborhoods, ripped a trench in the ground that emphasized the city’s racial division, and diverted automobile traffic from the East Side’s once-thriving business strips to a limited-access expressway that shuttles commuters from downtown Buffalo to the northern suburbs in about 10 minutes on a clear day.”

--“Bury This Big Mistake”, Geoff Kelly, Artvoice, 3 March 2010

"The Robert Moses Parkway was a mistake. It was a mistake. You don't block off your greatest asset, which is your waterfront. You don't close off communities. It was a mistake."

--Governor Andrew Cuomo, announcing a $42 million plan to replace the Robert Moses Parkway with hiking trails, scenic overlooks, and pedestrian-friendly spaces.

“Moses…was a shortsighted man.  For him, getting visitors to come to town meant building roads they could come in on.  It was partly the mania of the automobile age, and partly Moses’s personal blindness to quality-of-life issues beyond infrastructure…With the opening of [the Robert Moses Parkway], the Niagara Reservation, for which [Frederick Law] Olmsted…fought so hard, was separated from downtown by four lanes of traffic.”

--Ginger Strand, Inventing Niagara, page 283

“This history of nearsighted planning begins, not surprisingly, with Robert Moses, who cut deep into the city’s tax rolls by replacing private hydropower companies with the state-run New York Power Authority and stuck a parkway between the city and the gorge.”

--“Have the politics finally lined up for a (U.S.) Niagara Falls revival?”, Sarah Laskow, www.politico.com, 5 June 2014

New Yorkers hate Moses, but Western New Yorkers should hate him even more

There have been endless volumes written about Robert Moses’s terrible legacy. But what he did to Western New York is particularly horrible. Although he started off idealistic, by the time he got to the Niagara River he was nearly mad with power. He used a system of cronyism and power mongering to enforce his vision on our community. And that vision was to create expressways and parkways that allowed automobiles easy access to the waterfront, but kept people off of it. These roads helped kill Buffalo and Niagara Falls by breaking them into pieces and creating racially divided zones of dead economic activity. And to make matters worse, Moses snatched local control away from the power project and diverted all of the monies from it downstate to support his expanding empire. It’s named after him for a reason, but that reason is not a good one. 

Do you still think Robert Moses’s legacy in Western New York is worth preserving?  Because that’s the history folks. And that’s why people like me are so eager to change it. It was Moses who ripped up Olmsted parks. And it was Moses who separated all of us from the Niagara River. And it was Moses who permanently damaged our tourism industry and wreaked havoc on our local economy. And he did all of this while making millionaires out of his friends and flying around the country on private jets to host lavish parties for his political cronies. If you are still not convinced, read the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Robert Moses by Robert Caro, Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It’s almost Captain Ahab like in its scope, but despite its length remains an engaging read.  

It’s time to erase his legacy and create our own

So if you are still wondering why I think the State’s preferred plan to close the Parkway makes sense, please read about Robert Moses and modern trends on traffic flow. And then consider that the West River Parkway closure will help restore and correct a crime perpetrated on this community by a downstate political boss.  It will also be step one in invigorating our community and providing island-wide access to the waterfront. (We are working on new pedestrian projects for the Boulevard and sections of East River!)

It’s time to throw off the shackles of Moses and overcome his legacy of racial divide, environmental degradation, and downstate control—from the bridge tolls to the West River Parkway.  And it is time to think different and create our own legacy—a legacy not defined by exclusion, fear, and environmental decline, but a legacy defined by openness, hope, and prosperity. 

UPDATE:

Time Warner Contract

For decades the Town has not had a proper contract in place with Time Warner (Charter Communications).  The Cable & Communications Advisory Board, with Bev Kinney as the liaison, has worked diligently to not only get a new contract in place, but found underpayments to the Town to the tune of $67,540.  Their attention to detail will also increase revenues to the Town by about $12,000 per year moving forward.  More good news: An exciting piece of the new contract is the possibility of the Public Education & Government Grant that could fund up to $300,000 for production equipment that the Town could be eligible for.  Stay tuned!!

With highest regards,

Nate