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Robert Moses and the Second Avenue Subway

By Joan Marans Dim


The world was allegedly created in six days (God rested on the seventh day), so why is it taking New York City so long — some 90 years, or possibly longer — to create the Second Avenue Subway?

According to the MTA, proposals to build a north-south subway line along Second Avenue date back to 1929. But it wasn’t until March 2007 — 78 years later — that the first construction contract for Phase One of the Second Avenue Subway was awarded. Tentative plans aim at a 2016 completion, although several dates have proliferated.

Perhaps it takes a God-like figure in this metropolis to get monumental tasks done. As it happens, New York City had such a being, Robert Moses, often referred to as the “Master Builder.”

Source: New York Public Library.
Moses, who died in 1981 at the age of 91, was a driven and brilliant civil servant. In a 44-year reign from 1924 to 1968, he was likely the city’s most influential figure during the 20th Century. Never elected to public office, he served as chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, city park commissioner, and city construction coordinator. He also held other numerous state appointments. Moses’ power and influence was unprecedented, and during his tenure he accomplished seemingly impossible tasks.

In 1929, Moses wasn’t keen on the mass transit and therefore probably not on the Second Avenue Subway as well. The Second Avenue Subway’s slow progress is clarified by reporter William Bredderman, who interviewed Moses biographer and author Robert Caro for the online magazine Realcity. (Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and The Fall of New York — qualifies him as the uber expert on Moses.) Writes Bredderman:

“According to Caro, the city attempted to build the Second Avenue line first in 1942 and again in 1954. Both times Moses prevented funds from being allocated to the project, preferring to instead spend the money building expressways through densely-populated neighborhoods. If you’ve ever been on (or near) the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the BQE or The Major Deegan, you can thank Moses.”

Moses routinely built bridges, tunnels, and roadways that transformed the city, without an iota’s consideration for what might be lost. The result was huge gashes in densely populated working-class neighborhoods to make way for roadways and expressways. Neighborhoods were destroyed, forever. Who can drive these expressways without seeing the havoc wrought? Old timers who had once lived in these now devastated neighborhoods still curse Moses.

An early example of Moses’ disdain for mass transit is also evident in his first major public project, Jones Beach, which begun in the 1920s and opened in 1929. Almost immediately after the opening, motorists jammed the city’s parkways in a beeline to get to what is still considered one of the world’s most beautiful parks. However, accommodation for public transportation to Jones Beach was not a part of Moses’ plan.

Moses, of course had his critics, including: Caro, activist Jane Jacobs, and historian and architectural critic Lewis Mumford, who all viewed Moses’ efforts as massively destructive. Mumford described him as the “unbuilder.” Others said worse. Although, one thing is certain, nobody could get a big job done like Robert Moses–that is if he wanted to.
Moses’ pet projects always seemed to get funded.

By the time Moses was finished, his legacy, according to Anthony Flint’s Wrestling with Moses, included 13 bridges, two tunnels, 637 miles of highways, 658 playgrounds, 10 swimming pools, 17 state parks, and dozens of new or renovated parks. Plus, he cleared city land and constructed towers that contained 28,400 new apartments. He also built Lincoln Center, the United Nations, Shea Stadium, and the Central Park Zoo.

As for the building of the Second Avenue Subway, it’s hard not to wonder how that project would have fared had Robert Moses not blocked its progress. What would New York City have been like today if Moses had been a supporter of mass transit? With his astounding can-do skills, one can imagine a radically different New York–a cleaner, quieter, more commodious metropolis with a streamlined mass transit system serving all residents.

The tragedy of Moses’ deeds were further compounded because many city planners, impressed by his building successes, fancied his bull-doze-and-build approach and implemented it across the nation. But Moses’ popularity did not last because by 1968, his arrogance and elitist policies had transformed the “Master Builder” into an unloved urban relic. He was finally pushed into retirement by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay. And even though the damage was done, Moses remained steadfastly unrepentant for his actions until the end of his long life.

“I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs,” he proclaimed.

If Moses never learned from his mistakes, let us at least learn from his.

Joan Marans Dim, a New York City historian, is the co-author of New York’s Golden Age of Bridges with Antonio Masi. She is also the co-author of The Miracle on Washington Square: New York University and the author of the novel Recollections of a Rotten Kid. She grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and has traveled the bridges of New York City all her life. She now lives in Brooklyn.

View more about this book on the or Fordham University Press website.

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