Rehabilitating Robert Moses (Exhibits/NYC)





FOR three decades his image has been frozen in time. The bulldozing bully who callously displaced thousands of New Yorkers in the name of urban renewal. The public-works kingpin who championed highways as he starved mass transit. And yes, the visionary idealist who gave New York Lincoln Center and Jones Beach, along with parks, roads, playgrounds and public pools.

This is the Robert Moses most of us know today, courtesy of Robert A. Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography from 1974, “The Power Broker,” which charts Moses’ long reign as city parks commissioner (1934-60) and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1946-68). A 1,286-page book that reads like a novel, it won a Pulitzer Prize and virtually redefined the biographical genre by raising the bar for contemporary research. Today it remains the premier text on the evolution of 20th-century New York, a portrait of a man who used his power without regard for the human toll.

But according to the Columbia University architectural historian Hilary Ballon and assorted colleagues, Moses deserves better — or at least a fresh look. In three exhibitions opening in the next few days — at the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum of Art and Columbia University — Ms. Ballon argues that too little attention has been focused on what Moses achieved, versus what he destroyed, and on the enormous bureaucratic hurdles he surmounted to get things done.

With the city on the brink of a building boom unparalleled since Moses’ heyday — the reconstruction of Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, an overhaul of the Far West Side, sweeping redevelopment downtown — Ms. Ballon and other scholars argue that his legacy is more relevant than ever.


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