POWER BROKERS

Was Robert Moses the Original Donald Trump?

Where past and present converge is in Moses' startlingly impolitic public statements about his own work and callous indifference to the people affected by it.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

It's been more than five decades since journalist and urban activist Jane Jacobs faced off with the legendary or notorious, depending on who you ask, "power broker" Robert Moses — arguably the most powerful bureaucrat in U.S. history — and his plan to eviscerate Greenwich Village by constructing an interstate highway that would have connected New Jersey to Brooklyn via downtown Manhattan.

At the time, Moses held dictatorial powers over a number of New York public agencies, which he used to create unquestionably positive public works such as beaches, parks, and the vital Triboro Bridge. But Moses also created the slum of the South Bronx by ignoring the pleas of citizens of the then-thriving neighborhood of East Tremont when he built the much-loathed Cross Bronx Expressway (a project from which New York's northern-most borough has never fully recovered from), destroyed low-income neighborhoods to create modern superblock housing projects (which made the crime and poverty of those areas even more devastating), and essentially chased the Dodgers out of Brooklyn by refusing to allow the beloved baseball team to build a stadium on the plot of land that now hosts the Barclay's Center (itself a disaster of public-private collusion).

Moses' proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway proved to be his Waterloo, and in Jacobs — who Moses dismissed as a mere disgruntled housewife — he found an adversary worthy of his larger-than-life persona. The battle between Moses and Jacobs over the fate of lower Manhattan is depicted in the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle For the City.

The Daily Beast spoke with director Matt Tyrnauer and producer Robert Hammond (co-founder of New York's High Line Park) about how Moses' brash intolerance for dissent parallels that of President Donald Trump, why urban development is an imperfect science, and how anti-gentrification activists misunderstand Jacob's legacy.

"Jane and Moses both wanted to save the city, but they had different visions of what the city should be," Hammond says. "Jane saw the city as this messy organism, and messy in a positive way. Moses saw it as messy in a negative way and wanted to clean it up."

When asked what they think Jacobs would have to say about urban activists invoking her name and work to advocate for things like increased landmarking and opposing development, Tyrnauer says, "We are both reluctant to say what Jane would say, because we know she would clonk us over the head and say, 'You can't have cookie-cutter solutions for everything.' Every city is different and everything is situational. You have to look around your own city and come up with problems that are tailored to not only the city, but the individual neighborhoods."

That said, Tyrnauer thinks there has been some of what he calls "Jane-washing" or "misappropriating some easy to grasp ideas from Jane Jacobs' work" such as calling for adding "storefronts, outdoor seating, or mixed-use buildings" in the process of new development. Hammond insists Jacobs "wasn't for stasis" or "permanent preservation," but instead pushed for a mix of the old and the new and was generally "skeptical of grand plans."

Hammond recently gave an interview to The Atlantic where he spoke of his inspiration to convert the long-dormant elevated railroad tracks of West Chelsea into what is now the High Line Park. “We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” Hammond said. But the indifference of the local community to the park, despite its massive popularity with tourists, meant “we failed.”

That statement, he says, was misinterpreted as an admission that the High Line "got it wrong." While conceding mistakes, Hammond reiterated his support for the project, as well as his desire to have the park more successfully integrate into the Chelsea community to which it stands adjacent, and which includes two massive public housing developments.

"When the High Line opened, very few people (from the West Chelsea neighborhood) were coming," Hammond says. "We realized it was not successful in that sense. I'm still glad we did it, but we realized we needed to ask people living there." It turns out the community didn't hate the High Line, according to Hammond, but they felt it wasn't built for them, and that the millions of tourists who have flocked to it since its opening "didn't look like them." Moreover, the locals "didn't like our programming," Hammond says.

Some of the community's suggestions, such as space to play ball on the High Line, were simply impossible in an elevated park that is 30 feet wide. Others, like the need for jobs, were more feasible. "We created two job employment programs," says Hammond, noting in particular the Teen Arts Council where neighborhood kids conceive and execute community events on the High Line, such as dance parties and educational programs.

Hammond maintains the High Line is a success, but admits, "Public space is not going to solve income inequality, it's not going to solve housing, it's not going to solve education, or racism. But all of these things intersect in public space, and that's where I think we need to do more."

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An important distinction between the present and the era when Jacobs and Moses did battle is "over success," Hammond adds. The difference is people want to live in cities now, whereas in post-World War II America, flight from urban centers was the norm.

Where the past and present appear to converge is in Moses' startlingly impolitic public statements about his own work and callous indifference to the people affected by it. Moses believed the low-income citizens his projects displaced were a "cancer" on the city, and in Robert Caro's epic biography of Moses, the New Deal progressive's overt racism was laid out in great detail (one particularly notable example was the power broker's decision to keep the water in public pools in African-American neighborhoods deliberately cold to discourage their use).

"It's pretty astonishing," Tyrnauer says. "I can't think of another figure from that era that spoke with that kind of bombast and bluntness and arrogance."

"But now we can," Hammond intones.

"Exactly," Tyrnauer agrees. "Sitting in the back of dark movie theatres watching (Citizen Jane), I've heard people lean over to their companion and whisper, 'Trump!'"