Should the Left embrace Robert Moses more?

Here is a fantastic Politico essay by Marc J. Dunkelman, telling the whole story of Penn Station, new and old, and how it came to pass that New York finds it so difficult to construct new infrastructure.  Here is one short excerpt from a much longer story:

Since the mid-1960s—really since the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island—no major new piece of public infrastructure has been built within the five boroughs of New York City.

And toward the end:

For anyone convinced that government is an indispensable tool in the progressive mission to improve peoples’ lives, Penn Station is a monument to conservatism. If public officials can’t even clear the way for a serviceable facility at the nation’s busiest transit hub, why give them any more authority?

Recommended.  By the way, Madison Square Garden is now a dump and should be rebuilt from scratch, somewhere else of course.


That NYC is incapable of building infrastructure is a solution, not a problem. This is an example of natural limits to growth and other cities will have a chance to grow.

Yet MoMA is the best museum in America after its renovation, at least according to one Internet authority-

Dead written subject matter, Really enjoyed

Almost everything in moma is stupid. Corney gimmicky trivial banalities.

3 floors of contemporary trash to wade through on the way to a truly spectacular collection of early modernists.

Robert Moses deliberately built the overpasses on the Southern State Parkway so low that public buses couldn't use the parkway because he didn't want "those people" to be able to get to the beaches. That's one reason why he is not beloved by Democrats--or anyone who abhors racism.

From your own link:

"And contrary to a claim in The Power Broker, Moses clearly meant buses to serve his “little Jones Beach” in the Rockaways—Jacob Riis Park. While oriented mainly toward motorists (the parking lot was once the largest in the world), it is simply not true that New Yorkers without cars were excluded. The original site plan included bus drop-off zones, and photographs from the era plainly show buses loading and unloading passengers. “Bus connections with the B.M.T. and I.R.T. in Brooklyn,” reported the Brooklyn Eagle when the vast seaside playground opened 80 years ago this summer, 'make the park easily accessible to non-motorists.'"

Leftists see racism everywhere.

Just Saying is very selective in his quotations. He might have quoted either of the following:
"There is little question that Moses held patently bigoted views. But to what extent were those prejudices embedded in his public works? Very much so, according to Caro, who described Moses as “the most racist human being I had ever really encountered.” The evidence is legion: minority neighborhoods bulldozed for urban renewal projects; simian-themed details in a Harlem playground; elaborate attempts to discourage non-whites from certain parks and pools. He complained of his works sullied by “that scum floating up from Puerto Rico.”"

The author goes on to actually compare the bridge heights on the Southern State Parkway to those of the Bronx River, Sawmill and Hutchison River Parkways, all built just before the Southern State.

"Overall, clearances are substantially lower on the Moses parkway, averaging just 107.6 inches (eastbound), against 121.6 inches on the Hutchinson and 123.2 inches on the Saw Mill. Even on the Bronx River Parkway—a road championed by an infamous racist, Madison Grant, author of the 1916 best seller The Passing of the Great Race—clearances averaged 115.6 inches. There is just a single structure of under eight feet (96 inches) clearance on all three Westchester parkways; on the Southern State there are four."

"Leftists see racism everywhere."

Not a racist, just catering to the rich. Working classes were bulldozed, but the rich we detoured around.

The parkways were for cars, ideally convertibles, to promote family Sunday drives with no commercial vehicles to lay on horns behind slow sightseeing drivers looking at nature.

Conservatives are the biggest proponents of strong regulation when it comes to building fast and cheap by bulldozing the property of conservatives. The 14th amendment is a bitch because it does not allow conservatives to keep their detached single family homes while passing laws to bulldoze the homes of liberals and force them to live in dense Soviet style housing blocks. Damn equal protection.

I would note that conservatives always complain about tunneling costs, claim to be the real masters of capitalism, but never do anything to cut the costs, time, and impact of building tunnels. It's always talk talk talk, but zero action.

Taking action means failures that must be overcome.

So, when an illegal immigrant from shithole Africa, passing as white, starts promising to bore tunnels at low cost and much faster without impacting anyone living on the surface, what do conservatives do? Claim it's a hoax, a plot to steal their property and rights, but not any cheering or political support, like passing laws opening up the underground to anyone willing to develop it on first come basis in a renewed land rush.

Progressives oppose it because the low costs mean it kills jobs, but must be massively profitable. If not massively profitable, no capitalist would do it, having had all Keynesian theory stripped from their education by Chicago free lunch economists who promise that cutting costs to boost profits will create lots of high wage jobs and really low priced products and services. But then they train MBAs is how to lay off workers, cut wages and benefits, increase imports, to cut costs. Having sat through numerous MBA presentations on how they are saving the company, not once did they say we were getting pay hikes, added coworkers, as part of the cost cutting.

About every other comment of yours makes light of what you see as an underinvestment in infrastructure. Yet, here you are complaining that infrastructure projects of the past benefited the rich at great cost to the poor and middle class. Should we assume that you want increased infrastructure spending in order to punish the poor more?

As MS says, the truth is that Moses intentionally designed his roads to avoid having buses bring "those people" to Jones Beach. The fact that he established his "little Jones Beach" in the Rockaways to serve buses does not undermine that fact. That was an apartheid strategy - one beach for one type of person and a different beach for another type. That is hardly a reason to give Moses more credit.

NIMBYs have a point, you have a good school, good home and good neighbors. You want me to re-roll the dice, trusting the government will increase infrastructure, schooling, etc in sufficient quantities for the 'unwashed masses'? Fat chance

They'd have a point if they owned all they surveyed. What they own is maybe 1/4 of an acre. That ownership of 1/4 acre doesn't give you the right to control everything within several miles of your home.

These projects impose externalities on my ownership of my property. I should be compensated. Whenever I see a vagrant wandering around my neighborhood eyeing me children because he hopped off the train line 2 blocks away, that is a cost on me.

Oddly, when some public infrastructure project increases the value of Mr. Property Owner's deeded land he isn't compelled nor voluntarily likely to send that increase to the responsible parties.

Perhaps you've never heard of "property tax"

It's not one guy with a 1/4 acre, it's the majority of voters vs the minority of owners. I feel for the guy who owns some land and wants to do something with it. But he did buy it knowing the rules. If he can't get the majority to change them, then it's on him for buying the property.

The whole idea of a constitution and a federalist republic is to prevent the sort of tyranny of the “majority” from taking root.

Just because a majority of homeowners within a given area want their city to look and feel a certain way, doesn’t mean they should be granted that desire irrespective of the rights of others.

Otherwise you begin to build a world where every human act is a negotiation or something that has to go before a planning board!

NIMBYism is optimal for the individual. It is harmful to the society. Societies have laws and regulations to prevent the needs and desires of individuals from harming society. For instance, you're not allowed to park in front of your house if that road space is needed for traffic.

Your discovery that "NIMBYs have a point" is not revelatory. The needs of a city or broader society always conflict with the desires of individuals. That's why we have governments, laws, and law enforcement: to resolve those conflicts in ways that benefit society as a whole. A society where individuals are unencumbered by the need to abide by rules that benefit society is called an Anarchy.

My experience with suburban parking regulations is that 90-95% of them serve no public need. The statement "The needs of a city or broader society always conflict with the desires of individuals." is easily falsified: cities need live citizens & I have no desire to not be live. Last I heard, the reason why we have government is to protect the weak from the strong, NOT to benefit "society as a whole" at the expense of individuals life, liberty, happiness and rights.

Ok fine, I will use all of the regulations, laws, voting, lawsuits, and any means within the law to keep these projects out of my neighborhood. Not anarchy, the rule of law in action. Happy?

And when society is unencumbered by the need to abide by rules that benefit individuals, it is called totalitarianism.

Not that I'm too eager to defend NIMBYism, though, which is indeed a problem in some areas.

tl;dr the only way to get anything done in NYC is corruption, so blame the whistleblower for slowing development.

It's true, wealthy people don't wish to contribute to public infrastructure. And why should they: they fly private. And the wealthy control government, and by controlling government, government's dysfunction. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

We’re paying the vast majority of the taxes.

Inevitably the taxes go to projects that never actually deliver, but cost hundreds of millions of dollars or billions of dollars.

How’s that high speed rail coming? How’s the 2nd Avenue line ?

The current Rayward proposition is that we pay more in taxes (already 45% of income per year) to pay for projects that never deliver.

I work for free 5 months of the year. What the f do I get out of being a slave? Crime is high. Services are garbage. Schools are awful.

Where can you go where you work fewer days for free and get better services? If there's such a place, why not go there?

The bulk of your federal tax dollars have nothing to do with education, infrastricture, law enforcement, or public services. Rather, they go to the military, SS, Medicare, Medicaid and debt service. If you don't like that state of affairs, surely one option is to advocate a different set of spending priorities.

If public officials can’t even clear the way for a serviceable facility at the nation’s busiest transit hub, why give them any more authority?

Isn't that kind of circular logic? We've put all these choke points to prevent you from doing your job and now we complain that you can't do your job.

If we're looking at solutions, at the most extreme you have China. "We're taking your house to build a new highway. You have total freedom of choice. You can take the money we're offering or you can get a bullet in the back of the head. It's all up to you. "

It has its problems but they sure are able to build quickly and cheaply.

A more modest proposal might be to remove some NIMBY choke points. All objections need to be raised withing 6 months of the projects announcement. Then there are 12 months of lawsuits, appeals, etc. Then a final unappealable go-ahead is issued.

As someone who lived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn in the 1980s-90s, condemnation of Moses is richly deserved. This was a vital, stable neighborhood before Moses tore its heart out to build the Gowanus Expressway connecting to the Verazano Narrow Bridge. The disaster that is the new Penn Station cannot and must not be viewed in isolation.

Regarding rail stations, I saw from a quick scan (will devote more time later) that the article does not the decline of the RRs as the federal government created interstate highway systems, just as Moses sought to increase private vehicular traffic flowing into the city.

In addition, we see across the world the degradation of once magnificent stations into the sterile equivalents of airport terminals. It is so there in Washington and here in Spain, where Sevilla's classic Plaza de Armas station was abandoned with the construction of the high-speed train line which basically stops at a soulless concrete monstrosity on the outskirts of the city. What I knew first as a vibrant train station nearly in the center of Sevilla became first a museum and is now a sterile shopping center where McDonalds dominates the entrance. It is known as global capitalism, Tyler. Why don't you write it another love letter?

Your glorious train station once did not exist. It was created because the city needed it, and it died when the city needed something different. The refusal of change purely for nostalgia is the worst and most inequitable form of conservatism, because it stands in the way of all forms of progress, including economic and social mobility within a society.

I like what Tom Meadowcroft is doing in this thread, +10 internet points.

what about the second avenue subway?

That's been a disruptive money pit, with only three of the planned 16 stations open at this point. Perhaps the city and the MTA have done a better job on rebuilding the 9/11 target area?

Remember the 2nd Ave EL and the 3rd Ave El ? Then there were the 6th and 9th Ave ELs. All long gone. I grew up in NYC and watched the 3rd Ave El being taken down. Nobody ever missed these lines.

The 2nd Ave subway is a boondoggle, nothing more. Pity it has been partly constructed.

The 6th and 9th Ave ELs were demolished because they ran parallel to the then-new 6th and 8th Ave subway lines, which took away their passengers because they were faster.

A 2nd Ave subway is badly needed to relieve crowding on the Lex. Ave line; it's just that it's no longer possible to build on a scale that was possible 50 or 100 years ago because costs have exploded.

There seem to be many culprits for the exploding costs. For example, new construction must be ADA-compliant, which for subways means elevators, and constructing these under a street significantly raises the cost of each station. Then there was the choice to tunnel under 2nd Ave instead of cut-and-cover: less disruptive to surface traffic, but more costly. And is it even necessary to mention union featherbedding?

Of course it's not just subways; all large public projects (and many private ones) just take far longer than they once did and and cost an order of magnitude more.

So, the 2nd Ave subway was born with only three stops and its total distance is barely beyond a comfortably short walk, but, think of the upside: absolutely no need to build separate tracks for local and express trains!

Crowding? Raise the price! :-)

Infrastructure is difficult in cities like NYC largely because obtaining property is so difficult. Posner and Weyl's "Radical Markets" suggested that we could fix a lot of society's problems by making all major assets (esp. property) permanently on sale with the price specified by the owner, who would also pay a wealth tax based on that price. If everything is for sale, obtaining land for infrastructure becomes a matter of picking the property needed and buying it at the asking price. This stops the practice of hoarding valuable assets of all sorts. Those who put an unreasonable price on their asset to keep it off the market pay extra wealth tax for that privilege.

This open, blatant, indefensible bullshit rears its head again?

The reason Tokyo can do infill subway lines in dense urban districts in an earthquake zone, at less than half the cost per kilometer that it takes NYC, is not that Tokyo has easier land acquisition. Tokyo's version of eminent domain is vastly weaker than NYC's.

Donald John Trump is the modern day Robert Moses.

Build that wall and use eminent domain to do it.

No, Kelo was decided by a left wing Supreme Court majority in favor of the left run City of New London. Clearly, a better class of people lives there.

Empty dessert, literally no one cares. But like tearing down people's homes and destroying neighborhoods like the left wing city governments do.

Empty desert gets a wall


OK, empty desert gets a WEAK wall.

I never heard of Moses until I caught Ed Norton on Joe Rogan talking about him. Apparently, Norton's new movie, Motherless Brooklyn, is a fictionalized take on Moses. Very good interview, BTW, haven't seen the movie.

Weird headline. Does the Left embrace Moses a little? Are you suggesting the Left is more sympathetic toward Big Men Who Break Eggs to Get Things Done?

"Are you suggesting the Left is more sympathetic toward Big Men Who Break Eggs to Get Things Done?"

FDR would certainly qualify. And perhaps LBJ.

Are there any plans for Tyler to do a guest spot on Rogan? Rogan is pretty good at giving his guests the time to discuss subjects. The interview with Bernie Saunders was very good.

What's interesting politically is that the Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th century were actively anti-Democratic. Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson were both incorrigible racists and elitists who believed that government elites needed enough power to create change which the public would eventually appreciate as to their benefit, and that too much democracy stood in the way of dramatic change and growth. This sort of thinking was echoed by Fascists in Europe and by FDR, who felt the government needed to micro-manage the economy to free it from the Depression.

That sort of thinking by both the left and the right was superceded in the 1960s by the worship of the individual. The right embraced markets for everything, while the left embraced a regulatory sclerosis that allowed any individual or small group to block change through environmental review, safety review, or diversity review. In it's zeal to stop big business, the left has given individuals the tools to block any change through "Due Process" precedents. In it's zeal to protect minorities (racial, sexual, national), the left has given minority groups the tools to thwart the majority from doing anything. The right has embraced those Due Process precedents to protect businesses and rich people from government regulation (e.g. Citizen's United). The result is sclerosis, even when there is strong majority support for change. When we champion the individual and minority groups, we encourage individual expression, self-actualization and diversity, but we make it impossible for society to achieve and act on a consensus. That hurts poor people more than rich people -- rich people can build their own little worlds in their own image, but poor people need an empowered and vital government which can form and act on a consensus to change their worlds.

"but poor people need an empowered and vital government which can form and act on a consensus to change their worlds"

Thanks for commenting, Lenin

+1. In the 60s, the liberals/leftists conceptualized the judiciary, specifically the federal one, as a vehicle to protect individual rights in a way that advanced liberal causes. Administrative agencies, federal departments, the presidency, schools, police, and certainly state governments couldn't simply do the things they wanted by fiat. This approach reached its limits in the 1970s as the judiciary began to put more limits on standing by the end of the decade. The trouble, though, is that the right, particularly the libertarian end of the right, embraced individual rights as a means to advance their causes around 1990. We have a mash of 50+ years of a kind of individualist jurisprudence (and given that both sides used it to fight the culture war over the past 20 years, it is often incoherent), some advancing liberal positions, some conservative ones, that makes significant change almost impossible without impairing a lot of the liberal and conservative interest groups that care about the specific individual rights won.

Yes. Due process precedent has been used to stifle change by individuals, minorities, businesses, NIMBY homeowners, and billionaires on the left and the right. It’s the only thing that the left and right can agree on, and that consensus is doing more harm than most of what they disagree about.

There is no consensus so you're just supporting the simple majoritarianism of the Progressives sans Il Duce (which is what Progressives wrought at the state and local levels in the Midwest and West).

I believe "anti-Democratic" is meant to be "anti-democratic". Teddy was a 'publican. There's plenty of responsibility to go around. :-)

Yes, democratic not Democratic. Early progressives were elitists who believed they had all the answers but were held back by the backwards voting public and their ignorance. That is reminiscent of some progressives today but they haven’t figured out that to enact a truly progressive agenda like a Roosevelt or a Johnson they’ll need to reverse some of the Watergate era reforms that were embraced by Democrats in the 1970s to “democratize” public life with endless hearings and reviews designed to allow public input but which make any ambitious agenda impossible today.

The "we all used trains until the government conspiracy to force people to drive cars" (aka, the Roger Rabbit fallacy) rears its ugly head again.

"But Penn Station’s glory lasted barely more than half a century. The federal government’s decision in the 1950s to build an interstate highway system poached huge portions of the market for train travel. Many white, middle-class New Yorkers decamped for the suburbs, and they chose to drive their sedans and station wagons into Manhattan."

Two things are incorrect with this:
1. The idea that "interstates killed passenger railroads." Passenger rail traffic had been on a steady decline since its peak of 1.27 million riders and 47.8 million passenger-miles in 1920, down to less than half that by 1939. Meanwhile, many urban streetcar lines went bankrupt in the 1930s.

WWII travel restrictions and rationing gave passenger rail a brief stay, but by 1950, passenger rail ridership was down to 488K and dropped to 412K by 1957, the year the IHS really began to be constructed. Passenger-miles dropped from 64m in 1946 to 45m by 1947, down to 31m by 1950 and 26m by 1957. So rail ridership was in a free-fall LONG before the creation of interstates. Freight has LONG been the most profitable function of American railroads, as it's very efficient to move 100+ cars between cities with one crew. Scheduled passenger service got in the way and caused RRs to lose money. (source:

2. The insinuation that the IHS caused people to "decamp for the suburbs" (which often coincides with a sneering belief that suburban living is a subpar - and maybe even immoral - choice compared to urban living). Levittown, NY was built in 1947. The percentage of population living in suburban areas grew from about 10% in 1940 to 20% in 1950 to about 30% by 1960 and 35% by 1970 - while the percentage of population living in central cities has stayed relatively the same. Urban interstates - connecting suburbs with central cities - were among the last to be built, so understand that much of America's suburbanization (in NYC and elsewhere) came BEFORE the creation of the IHS. Urban interstates reflected that change in settlement patterns and personal choices which had been happening for years.

In 1927 there were only a little more than 20 million passenger vehicles registered in the US. By 1939 that number had gone up to 22 1/4 million. Cars weren't a universal possession. For each car in the country there were about 5 people. By 1951 the number of cars had mushroomed by 63% to a little less than 43 million while the population had grown to 157.6 million and there were then 2.6 people per car in the country. This was all before any Interstate Highway development had begun.

Moses is hard to embrace because his policies were anti-urban. He is remembered for building roads and destroying neighborhoods. There are good arguments for building roads, but they don't mix with the good arguments for building urban infrastructure instead.

The long delayed 2nd Avenue subway and the Hudson River park have both been successes. The new Hudson rail tunnel would have been extremely useful, and could be revived. Nowadays, the right tends to support automotive projects while the left tends to support mass transit and pedestrian projects. There was a time when the left was more automobile friendly, but that was before we understood the limits of relying on car culture.

"The long delayed 2nd Avenue subway and the Hudson River park have both been successes."

$2B per mile is a success? WTF is failure?

"that was before we understood the limits of relying on car culture."

Progressives don't understand anything except what they fervently believe.

The only "limit to car culture" is the Progressive rejection of it as "bad". OTOH, rail could work too, but at $2B+ and a whopping ***FIVE FRIGGIN YEARS*** per mile for a line that will probably lose money even on daily operations, rail is like a drain in the bathtub of wealth.

Compare the 2nd Avenue subway's use of $2b with the $2b per month for the unending disaster in Afghanistan. $2b per mile is, by comparison, an overwhelming success.

We at least 10x more money subsidizing the petroleum industry through our military budget than we spend subsidizing transit.

By all means, get the hell out of Afghanistan, Iraq & Syria.

$2B per mile *is* good compared to flushing the money down the toilet, but to call not flushing the money down the toilet "success" is pretty stupid.

Nice try. The big argument for transit is that it's cost effective, and that argument might even be true if it were built by people with any damned sense.

What's success here? The 2nd Ave subway is paying for itself? The Hudson River Park is close for a better group of people who don't have to pay admission.

"If public officials can’t even clear the way for a serviceable facility at the nation’s busiest transit hub, why give them any more authority?"

Hmm. That's a pretty uniform concept of "authority" isn't it?

Authority is fungible?

Can't build new train lines, so halt restaurant inspections?


The claim is that they can't do transportation, so don't allow them to do more transportation. What does that have to do with restaurants?

Gee, it's politics... who knew? What special interest group can we pander to today?... kill the landlords.

It seems to me that the decline of Penn Station, and by extension the railroad industry in general, starts with the involvement of the federal government in the industry. Pennsylvania Railroad's profits funded the station's construction in 1905. As with the airline industry, as the large railroad companies lost their monopolies, they had less profit to fund extravagant projects such as Penn Station. Monopoly profits built Penn Station — not progressive politicians.

Yes, and regulation destroyed more passenger traffic than would have disappeared from market forces. As common carriers, railroads HAD to transport passengers, no matter what the cost. to get rid of this burden, railroads purposely made the passenger service bad. This is a hard legacy to overcome.

The author concludes that Moses's ability to cut through bureaucracy means we need another Moses-like figure, when in reality we simply need to do away with the bureaucracy.

Should the Left embrace Robert Moses more?
Dunno if I should laugh or cry over the prospect.

Did you know Jerry Brown was an amateur bridge designer? He had his hands in the San Jose bridge to no where, the bay bridge fiasco, and the Arc De Bullet bridge here in Fresno, CA.

The bridge in Fresno is magnificent, it leaps out of no where in a grand in arc, leaping over a sunken freeway. One can see it for a mile, like a religious totem to a mammoth god somewhere.

The San Jose overpass to nowhere was great humor. Jerry halted a freeway construction due to lack of funds, leaving a two level complex exchange sitting up in the air at fifty feet. tI hung there for about a year.

Bit I digress. Left and Moses are oil and water.

I suspect there is something to the general case that big project liberalism is fundamentally constrained if not completely destroyed by the requirement of no disruption to "regular people" and that the left itself has as much of this instinct as the right - if not more. Medicare for all will face a similar hurdle. We see proposals for nordic programs, but absolutely not with nordic funding models which yes would raise taxes significantly on everyone and raise the general price level on nearly everything.

I too loved this essay. The lesson that I learned was that holdouts are generally bad and that stakeholder theory is thus problematic. A stakeholder without a veto is just window dressing, but if there are too many stakeholders with veto rights, nothing gets done.

Rather than embrace Robert Moses, Progressives should do the public a favor and get the hell out of government.

Here in the Seattle area, there are old surface rail routes that could be used today for mass transportation for pennies on the dollar of the cost of new elevated or tunnel routes - much less be completed and operating in a tenth the amount of time. But thanks to "Progressives", these routes are carrying bicycles. What a laugh.

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