The Corrupting of New York City


Moses’s control of the revenues that poured into the coffers of the public authorities was secured by nothing less than the Constitution of the United States. Article I, Section 10, of the Constitution says that no state shall pass any law that impairs the “obligation of contracts.” The bonds that the authorities issued were contracts, protected by the Constitution. The provisions that Moses wrote into the bond covenants could not be amended or repealed except by consent of the parties to the contracts. “From the moment the bonds were sold … ,” Robert Caro explains, “the powers [Moses] had been given in the legislation could be revoked only by the mutual consent of both Moses and the bondholders. They could not be revoked by the state that had created the Authority or by the city whose mere instrumentality it was supposed to be.”

If, for instance, the bond covenants contained provisions that gave Moses the right to charge whatever tolls he wished for as long as he wished, then that power “could never be revoked without his consent. … The elected representatives of the state and city might have given Robert Moses those powers. But the elected representatives of the state and city would never be able to take them back.”

A remarkable episode in the winter of 1934–35 provides a vivid demonstration of Moses’s position in New York. An old enemy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decided to use his control of federal funds to force Moses off the board of the Triborough Authority. Roosevelt was an immensely popular President with all the resources of the federal government at his command. Moses was an unelected official whom the New York State voters had rejected overwhelmingly in the gubernatorial election of 1934. In the showdown between Roosevelt near the highest point of his popularity and Moses at one of the low points in his career, Moses prevailed.

Through most of his career Moses enjoyed a reputation as an incorruptible public servant. The first serious cracks in his image occurred in the 1950s, in connection with his activities as the man in charge of the gigantic urban renewal program that was funded in New York City by the federal government under Title I of the 1949 Federal Housing Act. In all, Moses’s Slum Clearance Committee evicted and relocated an estimated 170,000 people from eleven major urban renewal sites. Each site presented its individual “developer” with rich opportunities for milking funds from the city.

A single scheme at a single site, Manhattantown, may stand as a symbol of all the rest. According to Robert Caro (using as his source the published record of hearings conducted by the Banking and Currency Committee of the United States Senate), Moses’s developer for the site set up a separate corporation run by his own son-in-law. “Manhattantown sold the son-in-law’s corporation all the gas stoves and refrigerators in the tenements for $33,000—and then rented them right back from the corporation, paying it in effect for the privilege of using what had been its own appliances. And Manhattantown paid so well… that in less than a year the so-nin-law’s corporation earned, after all expenses, $115,326.37. At the end of the year, Manhattantown bought back the stoves and refrigerators for the same amount it had sold them: $33,000. Financially, Manhattantown had wound up right where it had started—but the son-in-law’s firm had pocketed $115,326.37.”

It was not until 1968, at age eighty, that Moses lost the last of his power. More than any of the bosses of Tammany, more than any mayor, he shaped the city that we see if we visit New York today. The power that he wielded did not pass to any one man. It passed to dozens of less formidable men, and with it passed, as always, the potential for its abuse.

Thomas M. Parley, sheriff of New York County, explained at the Seabury hearings that he had deposited some $400,000 in six and a half years on a total salary of $90,000.

What became of Tammany Hall in the postwar years? In a sense Robert Moses’s success was the measure of Tammany’s decline. In 1949 a second-generation Italian-American, Carmine DeSapio, emerged as the new boss of Tammany. Rumors that he took orders from Frank Costello did not prevent DeSapio, who proclaimed as his goal the creation of a modern, spotless Tammany, from being widely portrayed as a “new kind of Tammany tiger.” “If it were my ambition to seek the Democratic presidential nomination,” Adlai Stevenson said, “I would welcome the support of Carmine DeSapio and Tammany Hall.”

At this stage in the city’s history, however, to be a boss of Tammany was to occupy a precarious throne. In an amazing mayoral race in 1961, Robert F. Wagner, Jr., twice elected with the support of Carmine DeSapio and the “New Tammany,” ran against his own record, promising to purge City Hall of the “secret battalion of corruption” that had helped to elect him both in 1953 and in 1957.