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Robert Moses: New York’s Antihero

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Growing up on Long Island, I have always been familiar with the name of Robert Moses: I spent countless summer afternoons at Robert Moses Beach (affectionately called RoMo among my friends), took drives along the Robert Moses Causeway to go visit my cousins in the next town over, heard stories about Robert Moses Middle School where a number of my friends attended, and walked past a statue of Robert Moses in my village many times without ever realizing who he was. This experience, I am sure, is one that many Long Islanders share. What little I did know of Robert Moses was always positive – he designed my favorite beach and he has namesakes across not just Long Island but all of New York State. It was not until I read Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air that I began to see a more comprehensive picture of who Robert Moses was and the work that he did.

Berman speaks about the move towards modernism in New York City and on Long Island in the twentieth century. He talks about the projects Moses undertook in New York City, particularly the way he cut up the Bronx as if with “a meat-ax” in constructing the Cross Bronx Expressway. He points to the destruction that Moses brought to this northernmost borough and the ways in which neighborhoods and communities were divided without any thought as to the effect this demarcation would have on the people living in these areas.

Berman instead points to the suburbs – my home – and the ways these suburbanites of upper classes and their conveniences were prioritized over the needs of the vast working class population of the Bronx. The Cross Bronx Expressway was commissioned because there was a need for a fast track through New York City to get to the suburbs of Long Island. People did not want to drive slowly through the destitute or run down areas of the Bronx to get to their homes or vacations on Long Island; they wanted a fast track through the ugliness – an elevated expressway to minimize the level of truth they would have to see in their travels.

So yes, to Long Islanders, Robert Moses is a hero. He transformed swamps, dumps, and other undesirable locations into beautiful state parks and sprawling beaches. But many Long Islanders, and embarrassingly myself included, never heard of the ways that our gain was the Bronx’s loss. This course on Urban Visions has taught me many things – perhaps the most significant being a working knowledge of modernity (although at this point I am not sure that anyone can provide an all-encompassing definition) and how modernity transforms not just space and how individuals use this space, but how it transforms people as well. I know for myself that the next time I am “whizzing by” on the Cross Bronx Expressway on my way to Long Island to meet friends and family at “RoMo,” I will be looking out my windows at the areas intended to be overlooked for so long.

Mary Tuttle
MA student in History
Binghamton University

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