The Corrupting of New York City

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Eight separate times in 1950 the mayor denied rumors that he was considering resignation. Then Ed Flynn, boss of the Bronx, paid a quiet visit to Harry Truman. On August 31,1950, Mexico welcomed the new United States ambassador, William O’Dwyer. To concentrate upon O’Dwyer, however, is to miss the real story of New York City in this period. Mayors come and go. For much of this century, the story of New York City was the story of Robert Moses.

Moses never was elected to public office, yet in New York State from 1924 to 1968, and in New York City from 1934 to 1968, he wielded more power than any of the six governors and five mayors whom he ostensibly served, with the possible exception of Nelson Rockefeller.

Born in 1888, Moses was a graduate of Yale and Oxford who began his career as a reformer. At thirty, after the defeat of a comprehensive plan of civil service reform that he had drafted during the administration of the reform mayor John Purroy Mitchel, he was unemployed. His chances of ever gaining real power in New York seemed tiny.

Then he met Al Smith, and Al Smith liked him. On August 9,1924, Moses became president of the Long Island State Park Commission.

Over the years, he would hold twelve key city and state positions, many of them simultaneously: president, Long Island State Park Commission; chairman, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority; chairman, State Power Authority; chairman, State Council of Parks; chairman, Jones Beach State Park Authority; chairman, Bethpage State Park Authority; New York City Construction Coordinator; New York City Parks Commissioner; chairman, New York City Emergency Housing Committee; chairman, Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance; member, New York City Planning Commission; and president, 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Highways, housing, bridges, tunnels, parks, a fair—it all sounds innocent enough. It is only when you add up all the pieces, it is only when you look at a map that shows all the bridges, roads, parks, playgrounds, and housing projects that Robert Moses built in New York City and State, and throw in for good measure Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium, the New York Coliseum, the United Nations, Co-op City, and the immense power dams at Massena and Niagara and along the St. Lawrence River—it is only when you consider that one man controlled all the contracts that were required for all this construction (public works costing $27 billion in 1968 dollars), that you begin to understand the power that Robert Moses wielded.

Moses did not use graft—even “honest graft”—to enrich himself. He used graft to acquire what interested him, and what interested him was not wealth but power and achievement. Moses was a “political boss with a difference,” writes his biographer Robert Caro. “His constituency was not the public but some of the most powerful men in the city and state, and he kept these men in line by doling out to them, as Tammany ward bosses once handed out turkeys to the poor at Thanksgiving, the goodies in which such men were interested. …” Those goodies included not only the contracts that made the fortunes of dozens of builders and engineers but also millions of dollars’ worth of public relations retainers, insurance commissions, and legal fees: “In the post-La Guardia era, there was no more ‘Tin Box’ Brigade. It was the Retainer Regiment now.”

Moses possessed one source of power that was unprecedented. Each of the public authorities that he chaired had been conceived as a means of financing a single public work, and each was supposed to go out of existence when the bondholders for that one project had been paid off. Through a series of subtle amendments to the laws that created the authorities, and through provisions that he built into the contracts with the purchasers of the enormous bond issues that financed the work of the authorities, Moses escaped this limitation and, in effect, made the authorities permanent bodies that could build one huge work after another.

In postwar New York anyone who drove into or out of Manhattan over the Triborough Bridge, the Throgs Neck Bridge, or the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, or anyone who drove into or out of Manhattan through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, paid a toll not to the city itself but to Robert Moses in his capacity as chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. In the first fifteen years after the end of World War II, agencies controlled by Moses spent on public works in New York City nearly $4.5 billion—three-quarters of a billion more than the city itself spent on public works in the same period.