In order to get started on our book club choice, Roberts’s A-Rod biography, I had to finish the mammoth 1,160-page book that I had started in April, “The Power Broker” by Robert Moses. The book had been sitting in an accusatory spot on my bookshelf since I bought in 2004. I was supposed to read it before I started grad school. I did not.
I can’t recommend the book highly enough, but that’s not why I’m writing. Sprinkled throughout the book are references to the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit planning group that covers the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region. Not only does the RPA still exist, but it helped Stamford organize the Master Plan adopted by the city in 2002 and has since helped the Glenbrook and Springdale community groups write new zoning rules that residents feel will improve the feel of their neighborhoods.
What the RPA was asking for from Robert Moses (or as his men called him, RM) was something that would affect my everyday life in a massive way.
Moses was a master planner, wielding power throughout New York City and the state for about 40 years to build the public works he wanted built. He started out building much needed public parks on Long Island, and acquired an overwhelming amount of WPA funds during the Depression to build highways into and out of the city. He also used proceeds from toll revenues, and bonds backed by future proceeds, to build highways. The Cross-Bronx, the West Side Highway, the Hutchinson Parkway, The Saw Mill, the B.Q.E. Highways, but never train tracks, which by the 1930s were, it was clear to most planners, necessary to take the vehicle burden off the roads. Reformers began begging for some share of the money for mass transit, arguing that a little extra money and space would help alleviate the traffic problem. Moses believed the solution for road problems was more roads. The desire to bridge toll revenues with mass transit funding is part of what undid his power under the Rockefeller administration.
In the late 1930s, Moses was building the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge to alleviate the traffic problems that started almost immediately after the Triborough — now RFK — opened. RPA asked Moses to consider building the Whitestone strong enough to carry a train as well. Even if he didn’t build the tracks right away, they asked him to build it strong enough for it to happen later. He did not. All of it’s right there on page 519.
Out of curiosity, I asked David Kooris, an RPA vice president and head of the Connecticut office, in Stamford, whether a train over the Whitestone could ever be possible.
“In terms of my gut feeling, no, because I know that the Whitestone is a twin with the Tacoma Narrows bridge,” which collapsed in 1940. “All the work that’s going on . . . they put all this extra strengthening on the Whitestone.”
He added, “But all that leads me to think there’s no way to support the train.”
I spend a lot of my free time driving back and forth from Brooklyn, and it takes about an hour to go down the Merritt and Hutch and then over the Whitestone to catch the Van Wyck, the L.I.E., and the B.Q.E. All but the Merritt were built by Moses. I would prefer to take the train, but it makes a one-way trip to Grand Central and then Brooklyn two and 1/2 hours instead. A train over the Whitestone would solve all my problems.
I told Kooris that, and he had some hope to share. There’s a freight line over the nearby Hell’s Gate Bridge that would come down in Sunnyside and through to Sunset Park in Brooklyn. There is sometimes talk of a train over the Triborough, but that’s a little too far west for my needs.
All of that would probably be years away, though. I asked Kooris about whether planners read “The Power Broker,” such a seminal work in journalism is almost required reading, and he said he did. Planners remember him much the way the book portrayed him, he said. Ambivalently.
“His earliest projects, they were very much projects for the people,” he said. “The later projects were projects at the expensive of the people. That being said there’s certainly, every planner somewhere deep down in their hearts envies the authority that he had to make city-shaping change, which is much more complex in today’s environment.”
Since Moses’s day the public works process has been much more Democratic. That creates hurdles, many of which are necessary, he said. It also makes the process slower.
“If you look in RPA’s old reports,” he said. “Many of the things we’re still talking about today . . . have been proposed for 60 years.”