Robert Moses helped ruin Penn Station. He'd have made it easier to fix, too.

Preservationists like Jane Jacobs are urbanist heroes. But their rules can stifle.

Robert Moses.
(Image credit: Illustrated | AP Images, Getty Images, iStock)

Robert Moses has an almost demonic status in the lore of American cities. As depicted by Robert Caro in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 biography The Power Broker, Moses was a racist, antisemite, and bully who combined vast power over New York City's built environment with a paradoxical contempt for urban life. Favoring automobiles over mass transit and foot traffic, Moses presided over the destruction of whole neighborhoods to make room for highways. He even tried to demolish a Central Park playground so patrons of an expensive restaurant would have somewhere to leave their cars while dining. He paved over paradise and put up a parking lot.

Moses wasn't all bad, though. Despite his sins against democracy, sociology, and good taste, the master builder was driven by a vision of a living city that offered affordable comfort to a growing population. Though they weren't always pretty, the highways, bridges, and housing developments Moses planned met genuine needs. And while Moses implemented discriminatory policies that were standard in his day, claims of special animus against minorities (revived last month by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg) are overblown.

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