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It was his way or the highway

February 13, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Early last Thursday, an hour before the public was let in, biographer Robert Caro passed through a side entrance of the Museum of the City of New York to see its exhibit on Robert Moses, the public works czar whose life he documented in "The Power Broker," which portrayed Moses as a Machiavellian manipulator who became "America's greatest builder

But after Caro signed the register, a security guard offered a different take on the New York bureaucrat who died in 1981. "From what I hear," said the guard, "he never got anything built." Not quite: Moses was the man behind most all the city's bridges, from the Triborough to the Verrazano Narrows, virtually every mile of its highways and more than 600 playgrounds and pools, not to mention such landmarks as the United Nations and Lincoln Center.

One point of the show here, however, is what Moses couldn't do -- how many of his grand plans never were realized. The three-pronged "Robert Moses & the Modern City," including exhibits at two other city museums, also makes the case that his projects were hardly original, with cities everywhere demolishing neighborhoods to build highways, for instance. The shows thus are a commentary not only on the figure in their title but on Caro, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 1,200-page biography has shaped the public image of Moses since its publication in 1974.

And, yes, it's gotten personal. Soon after Caro arrived, the curator of the exhibit showed up too, to meet a journalist. When Columbia University professor Hillary Ballon spotted the acclaimed biographer, she stuck out her hand -- and got no response. "He wouldn't shake," she muttered.

It's a testament to how this city and state official, never elected to any office, still can stir emotions a quarter-century after his death. Indeed, three days later they'd have to open two spillover rooms to handle the crowd eager to hear Caro's response to the reevaluation of New York's great "power broker."

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'Changed the landscape'

Moses spent 44 years at the helm of various agencies, and Caro's book showed him as a white-suited visionary at first, one who could picture Riverside Park along the Hudson on Manhattan's Upper West Side when it was blighted with railroad tracks and commercial rubble, and could imagine vast Jones Beach State Park on Long Island when the last thing that that area's robber barons wanted was "rabble" from the city frolicking on their turf. But Caro also showed how Moses achieved his goals -- by digging up evidence of a legislator's affair to win his vote, say, or routing his highway to Jones Beach around a millionaire's private golf course, instead devastating the farm of a family without clout. The current exhibits do not ignore this ruthless side of Moses. A video loop shows his speech at the 1959 groundbreaking for Lincoln Center, lambasting those who had complained about how thousands of families were uprooted for the arts center. "You cannot rebuild a city without moving people, just as you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs," Moses told an audience that included President Dwight D. Eisenhower. "It's easy for the demagogues to insinuate that only the small-income man should be considered in such projects."

When local activists fought another project, Moses branded them "professional vomiters and mud-throwers ... with their excited maggoty brains."

"He was obnoxious, he was bullying," said Ballon, the curator. "[But] we're less interested in how he got things done than how he changed the landscape."

Accordingly, the show features giant color photos of Moses' bridges and parks, as they look today, while reminding visitors "he did not always win," as Ballon put it. The first model shown is of a bridge connecting lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, which Moses proposed in 1939, only to have Eleanor Roosevelt complain that it would mar harbor views. He had to settle for the underwater Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which opened in 1950. The last section of the exhibit is devoted to "Defeats," noting how Moses' later proposal to put a highway though lower Manhattan set off grass-roots protests led by Jane Jacobs, who became the exponent of a different view of cities, touting their street life and intimate neighborhoods.

"This is one of our revisionist themes, that he was constrained," said Ballon, who hadn't gotten over her encounter with Caro. "Maybe he just didn't see my hand," she said.

"I was thinking of one of the things that was left out," Caro said later that day, explaining that his mind was elsewhere when the Columbia scholar offered her hand -- he was recalling some elderly couples forced from their homes by the Cross Bronx Expressway.

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