By the spring of 1956 Robert Moses, the “Master Builder”, had accomplished many things in his 40 year career in New York City as well as New York State.
He had consolidated the state government at Albany reducing the role of Tammany Hall. During the depression he almost single-handedly implemented FDR’s New Deal in New York City by building limited access highways, bridges, parks, public access beaches and swimming pools. He refurbished Central Park which by the mid 30’s had fallen into terrible disrepair. His highways and parkways made New York more modern and facilitated travel by automobile to the outreaches of Long Island so hard working people could relax and improve their quality of life. Robert Moses improved life in New York for everyone.
Because he was allowed by Governor Al Smith to hold city and state jobs simultaneously, Robert Moses abused his power. He built the Triborough Bridge project and then kept the tolls for his own departments so that he would not have to be at the mercy of the legislatures for funds. He destroyed neighbourhoods and displaced thousands of people with his different expressway projects. These expressways, built to ease traffic congestion, only led to the increase in the use of the automobile and traffic levels increased. The swimming pools and city parks he built were in predominantly white neighbourhoods. His projects hampered the increase of public transit in the city. He was the main reason the Brooklyn Dodgers left for the west coast. His Urban Renewal plans made it legal to condemn homes and remove families for the purpose of building new roads or real estate. Even though he helped abolish Tammany’s abuse of power, he abused power himself the way a dictator would. Robert Moses loved the public but not people. He ruined life in New York for everyone.
No matter where you line up on the Robert Moses story, one thing is for certain. Although never elected, it could be said that he was the most powerful man America has ever produced. He could get things done even if the majority didn’t like the things he was doing. Moses built such a strong power base and was so adept at accomplishing the things that politicians wanted done, that he was rarely challenged.
But by 1956 attitudes were beginning to change. When Moses had displaced thousands to build his Cross Bronx Expressway in 1948, people began to cause more of a fuss. In post WWII American people had become more confident in their ability to stand up to politics they didn’t like. The Cross Bronx Expressway went ahead but not before the public had learned how to use the newspaper and the new medium of television to gain support for their cause.
People also began to realize that people such as Robert Moses did not like being portrayed in a bad light on television. The term “public relations disaster” was just beginning to come into its own.
The move to stop Robert Moses from running unchallenged through the streets of New York began innocently enough on April 17, 1956 in a small children’s park adjacent to the Tavern on the Green in Central Park. When Elinor Sanger looked out her apartment at 75 Central Park West that morning, she noticed a bulldozer ripping up trees in the park. Sanger and her friends knew what to do.
They immediately called the newspapers and television stations. Then, they called young mothers in the area who used the park with their children. Within minutes doormen in the area were astonished to see women with dogs, children and baby carriages descending on the Tavern.
Everyone, the press, radio, TV, the young mothers with their kids and other folks from the neighbourhood arrived simultaneously. Then the police arrived. The bulldozer stopped. The driver was not going to do anything while the women and children were in such close proximity. It became the first sit-in. Passive resistance to get what you want.
The media ate it up. Then, the public ate it up. When the “Moms against Moses” story hit the newscasts that night, it had become apparent that from this day forward Robert Moses was going to have to have public support or have his projects met with resistance. The immediacy of the message brought people over to the cause quickly. It was a red letter day in the history of city politics.
Moses never did learn how to get along with people. He took any resistance from the public or the media as a personal affront. He would eventually sneak the bulldozer in after nightfall and turn the small children’s park into a parking lot for the Tavern on the sly. Television and the
People in the city now knew that they did not have to sit by helplessly and watch government do as they wished. In the early 1960’s when Robert Moses planned to put a Lower Manhattan Expressway from the Manhattan Bridge to the Holland Tunnel he was met by a with a force of resistance a thousand times larger than the “Moms against Moses”. People were not going to sit by while the expressway destroyed the neighborhoods of the east village. Activist Jane Jacobs took the lessons learned from the “Moms against Moses” and worked them to perfection.
The project was defeated, neighbourhoods remained intact and Robert Moses realized that he was on the downside of his illustrious career. Although many thought he may be capable, he did not sneak back after dark and build the expressway without anyone’s knowledge.
The sixties became a decade of dissent as people learned how to use the press, radio and television to protest war, racism and dirty politics. The “Moms against Moses” just wanted a place for their children to play. They accomplished so much more.