He's the pre-eminent historian on NYC and author of Robert Moses and The Modern City: The Transformation of New York.
Why are we so much worse at building things today?
Would NYC be like Detroit without the master builder?
Does it take a tyrant to stop NIMBY?
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A huge thanks to Graham Bessellieu for editing this podcast.
(0:00:00) Preview + Intro
(0:11:13) How Moses Gained Power
(0:18:22) Moses Saved NYC?
(0:27:31) Moses the Startup Founder?
(0:32:34) The Case Against Moses Highways
(1:02:44) Is Progress Cyclical
(1:11:13) Friendship with Caro
(1:19:50) Moses the Longtermist?
0:00:00 Preview + Intro
Kenneth Jackson 0:00:00
Robert Moses represented a past when we wanted to build bridges and superhighways. We're not building superhighways now. We're not building vast bridges like Moses built all the time. Essentially all the big roads, all the bridges, all the parks, the United Nations, Lincoln Center, the World's Fairs of 1939 and 1964, and hundreds of other things he built.
Had Robert Moses not lived, not done what he did, New York would have followed the trail of maybe Detroit. I think The Power Broker was the best book I ever read and in broad strokes, it's correct. Robert Moses had more power than any urban figure in American history. He built incredible monuments. He was ruthless, arrogant and honest.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:00:54
I am really, really excited about this one. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Professor Kenneth T. Jackson about the life and legacy of Robert Moses. Professor Jackson is the preeminent historian on New York City. He was the director of the Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History and the Jacques Barzun Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, where he has also shared the Department of History. We will be discussing Robert Moses. Professor Jackson is the author and editor of Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York.
Professor Jackson, welcome to the podcast.
Kenneth Jackson 0:01:37
Thank you for having me.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:01:40
Many people will have heard of Robert Moses and be vaguely aware of him through the popular biography of him by Robert Caro, The Power Broker, but most people will not be aware of the extent of his influence on New York City. Can you give a summary of the things he was able to get built in New York City?
Kenneth Jackson 0:02:03
One of the best comparisons I can think of is by Caro himself, when he compared him to Christopher Wren in London, he said, if you would see his monuments and look around it's almost easier to talk about what Moses didn't do than what he did do. Essentially all the big roads, all the bridges, all the parks, the United Nations, the Lincoln Center, the World's Fairs of 1939 and 1964, and hundreds of other things he built. He didn't actually do it with his own two hands, but he was in charge. He got it done.
Robert Caro wrote a really great book. I think the book was flawed because I think Caro only looked at Moses's own documents and Moses had a very narrow view of himself. He thought he was a great man but he didn't pay any attention to what was going on in LA very much, for example. But clearly, by any standard, he's the greatest builder in American history. There's nobody really in second place.
And not only did he build and spend this vast amount of money, he was in power for a long time, a half century more or less. He had a singular focus. He was married, but his personal life was not important to him. He did it without scandal, even Caro admits that he really died with less than he started with. He wanted power, and boy did he have power.
Technically he was subservient to governors and mayors, but since he built so much and since he had multiple jobs, that was part of his secret. He had as many as six, eight, ten different things at once. If the mayor fired him or got rid of him, he had all these different ways which he was in charge of that the mayor couldn't. So people were afraid of him, and they also respected him. He was very smart and he worked for a dollar a year. So what are you going to get him for?
As Caro says, nobody is ready to be compared with Robert Moses. In fact, compare him with an act of nature. In other words, the person you can compare him with is God. That's the person. He put the rivers in. He put the hills in. He put the island in. Compare that to what Moses did. No other person could compare to that. That's a little bit of exaggeration, but when you really think about Robert Moses and you read the Power Broker, you are just stunned by the scope of his achievement.
Even beyond New York, when we think of the interstate highway system, which starts in 1954/55/56, and which is 40- thousand miles of interstate highways, those were built by Moses' men, people who had in their young life had worked with the parkways and expressways in and around New York City. So they were ready to go. Moses also worked both outside and inside New York City. He achieved so much. You need to understand that it's not easy to get things done in New York. It's very, very dense. Twice as dense as any place in the United States and full of neighborhoods that feel like and are little cities that don't want change, even today. A place like Austin, for example, is heavy into development, not New York. You want to build a tall building in New York, you have got to fight for it. And the fact that he did so much in the face of opposition speaks a lot to his methods. And how did Moses do what he did? That is a huge question because it isn't happening anymore, certainly not in New York City.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:06:22
And that's really why I actually wanted to talk to you and talk about this book because The Power Broker was released in 1974 and at the time New York was not doing well, which is to put it mildly. But today the crisis we face is one where we haven't built significant public works in many American cities for decades. So it's interesting to look back on a time when we could actually get a lot of public works built very quickly and very efficiently and see if maybe we got our characterization of the people at the time wrong. And that's where your 2007 book comes in. So I'm curious, how was the book received 40 years after the Power Broker was released? What was the reception like? How does the intellectual climate around these issues change in that time?
Kenneth Jackson 0:07:18
The Power Broker is a stunning achievement, but you're right the title is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York. He's thinking that in the 1970s, which in New York's 400-year history, we think of the 1970s as being the bottom. City was bankrupt, crime was going up, corruption was all around. Nothing was working very well.
My argument and the subtitle of the 2007 book or that article is Robert Moses and the rise of New York. Argument that had Robert Moses not lived, not done what he did, New York would have followed the trail of maybe Detroit and St. Louis and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and most cities in the Northeast and Midwest, which declined.
New York City really hasn't declined. It's got more people now than it ever did. It's still a number one city in the world by most of our standards. It's the global leader, maybe along with London. At one point in the 1980s, we thought it might be Tokyo, which is the largest city in the world, but it's no longer considered competitive with New York. I say London too because New York and London are kind of alone at the top.
But I think Robert Moses' public works, activities, I just don't know that you could have a New York City and not have expressways. I don't like the Cross Bronx expressway either and don't want to drive on it. But how can you have a world in which you can't go from Boston to San Francisco? You had to have it. You have to have some highways and Caro had it exactly wrong. He talked about Moses and the decline of public transit in New York. Actually what you need to explain in New York is why public transit survived in New York, wherein most other American cities, the only people who use public transit are the losers. The old, the disabled, the poor and stuff like that. In New York City, rich people ride the subway. It's simply the most efficient way to get around and the quickest. Some of the things in that question need to be turned on its head. How did he get it done? How did he do it without scandal? When you think about how the world is in our time, when everything has either a financial scandal or a sexual scandal attached to it, Moses didn't have scandals. He built the White Stone Bridge, for example, which is a gigantic bridge connecting the Bronx to Queens. It's beautiful. It was finished in the late 1930s on time and under budget, actually a little earlier.
There's no such thing as that now. You're going to do a big public works project and you're going to do it on time? And also he did it well. Jones Beach, for example, for generations has been considered one of the great public facilities on earth. It's gigantic. And he created it. I know people will say it's just sand and water. No, no, it's a little more complicated than that. So everything he did was complicated.
I think Robert Caro deserves a lot of credit for doing research on Moses, his childhood, his growing up, his assertion that he's the most important person ever to live in and around New York. And to just think of Franklin Roosevelt and all the people who lived in and around New York. Moses is in a category by himself, even though most Americans have never heard of Robert Moses. That book made him famous. And I think his legacy will continue to evolve and slightly improve as Americans realize that it's hard to build public works, especially in dense urban environments. And he did it.
0:11:13 How Moses Gained Power
Dwarkesh Patel 0:11:33
Yeah. There's so much to talk about there. But one of the interesting things from the Power Broker is Caro is trying to explain why governors and mayors who were hesitant about the power that Moses was gaining continued to give him more power. And there's a section where he's talking about how FDR would keep giving him more positions and responsibilities, even though FDR and Moses famously had a huge enmity. And he says no governor could look at the difficulty of getting things built in New York and not admire and respect Moses' ability to do things efficiently, on time, under budget, and not need him, essentially.
Speaking of scandal, you talked about how he didn't take a salary for his 12 concurrent government roles that he was on. There's a very arresting anecdote in the Power Broker where I think he's 71 and his daughter gets cancer and for the first time, he had to accept a salary for working on the World's Fair because he didn't have enough. He was the most powerful person in New York, and he didn't have enough money to pay for his daughter's cancer. Even Caro himself says that a lot of the scandals that came later in his life, they were just kind of trivial stuff, an acre of Central Park or the Shakespeare in the park. The things that actually took him down were just trivial scandals.
Kenneth Jackson 0:13:07
In fact, when he finally was taken down, it took the efforts of a person who was almost considered the second most powerful person in the United States, David Rockefeller, and the governor of New York, both of whom were brothers, and they still had lie to make Moses get out of power in 1968. But it was time. And he exercised power into his 70s and 80s, and most of it was good. The bridges are remarkable. The bridges are gorgeous, they're incredible. The Throgs Neck Bridge, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, they're really works of art. He liked to build things you could see and I think the fact that he didn't take money was important to it.
I wouldn't say he's not wealthy in New York terms, but he was not a poor person. He went to Yale as a Jewish person in the early 20th century, that's fairly unusual and he lived well. We can't say he's poor, but I think that Caro was right in saying that what Moses was after in the end was not sex and not money, it was Power. He wanted power. And boy, did he get it.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:14:37
There's a good review of the book from Phillip Lopate and he made a good point, which was that the connotation of the word power is very negative, but it's a modern thing really to have this sort of attitude towards power that somebody who's just seeking it must necessarily have suspicious motivations.
If Moses believed that he was just much more effective at building public works for the people that live in New York, was it irrational of him or was it selfish of him to just desire to work 14 hour days for 40 years on end in order to accumulate the power by which he could build more public works? So there's a way of looking at it where this pursuit of power is not itself troubling.
Kenneth Jackson 0:15:36
First of all, I just need to make a point that it's not just New York City. Jones Beach is on Long Island. A lot of those highways, the Northern State Parkway, the Southern State Parkway are built outside the city. And also big projects, the Power Authority in upstate New York. He also was a consultant around the world in cities and transportation. So his influence was really felt far beyond New York City. Of course, New York City is so big and so important.
I think that we might also want to think about the counterfactual argument. When I was in the Air Force, we lived next door to a couple from New York City. We didn't know New York City at the time and I can't remember whether she or he was from the Bronx or Brooklyn, but they had they made us understand how incredibly much he must have loved her to go to Brooklyn or the Bronx to see her and pick her up for days. You couldn't get there. It would take you three hours to go from the Rockaways in Brooklyn to somewhere in the Northern Bronx. But the roads that Moses built, I know they’re jammed at rush hour, but right this minute on a Sunday, you can whiz around New York City on these expressways that Moses built. It's hard to imagine New York without the expressways.
The only thing Moses didn't do was the subway, and many people have criticized him because the subways deteriorated between the time they were built in the early part of the 20th century in 1974 when Caro wrote to Power Broker. But so had public transit systems all over the United States. And the public transit system in New York is now better than it was 50 years ago. So that trajectory has changed. And all these other cities, Pittsburgh used to have 600,000 people now it has 300,000, Cleveland used to have 900,000 and now it's below five, Detroit used to have 2 million now it's 600 thousand, St. Louis used to have 850,000 now it's 300,000. The steep drop in all these other cities in the Midwest and Northeast, even Washington and even Boston and Philadelphia. They all declined except New York City, which even though it was way bigger than any of them in 1950 is bigger now than it was then. More people crammed into this small space. And Moses had something to do with that.
0:18:22 Would NYC Have Fallen Without Moses?
Dwarkesh Patel 0:18:22
You write in the book — “Had the city not undertaken a massive program of public works between 1924 and 1970, had it not built the arterial highway system and had it not relocated 200,000 people from old law tenements to new public housing projects, New York would not have been able to claim in the 1990s that it was a capital of the 20th century.”
I would like to make this connection more explicit. So what is the reason for thinking that if New York hadn't done urban renewal and hadn't built the 600 miles of highways that Moses built there, that New York would have declined like these other cities in the Northeast and the Midwest?
Kenneth Jackson 0:19:05
You could argue, first of all, that New York is not like other cities. It's a world city and has been and what happens to the rest of the United States is, I accept a little bit of that, but not all of it. You say, New York is just New York. And so whatever happens here is not necessarily because of Moses or different from Detroit, but I think it's important to realize its history has been different from other American cities.
Most American cities, especially the older cities, have been in relative decline for 75 years. And in some ways New York has too. And its relative dominance of the United States is less now than it was because there's been a shift south and west in the United States. But the prosperity of New York, the desire of people to live in it, and after all, one of its problems is it's so expensive. Well, one reason it's expensive is that people want to live there. If they didn't want to live there, it would be like Detroit. It'd be practically free. You know what I mean? So there are answers to these issues.
Moses' ways, I think, were interesting. First of all, he didn't worry about legalities. He would start an expressway through somebody's property and dare a judge to tell him to stop after the construction had already started. Most of the time, Moses was kind of like Hitler. I don't mean to say he was like Hitler but what I mean is you have such confidence. You just do things and dare other people to change it. I'm going to do it. Most people don't have that. I think there's a little bit of that in Trump, but not as much. I don't think he has nearly the genius or brains of Moses. But there's something to self-confidence. There's something to having a broad vision.
Moses liked cities, but he didn't like neighborhoods or people. In other words, I don't think he loved New York City. He really thought everybody should live in the suburbs and drive cars and that was the world of the future and he was going to make that possible. He thought all those old law tenements in New York, which is really anything built before 1901, were slums. They didn't have hot and cold water. They often didn't have bathrooms. He thought they should be destroyed and that his vision of high-rise public housing was an improvement.
Now around the United States, we don't think these high-rise public housing projects are so wonderful but he thought he was doing the right thing. And he was so arrogant, he didn't listen to people like Jane Jacobs, who fought him and said, “You're saying Greenwich Village is a slum? Are you kidding me?” He thought it was a slum. Go to Greenwich Village today. Try to buy anything for under a million dollars. It doesn't exist.
He saw old things, old neighborhoods, walking, and thought they were hopelessly out of date. And he was wrong. He was wrong about a lot of his vision. Now we understand that and all around the country, we're trying to revitalize downtowns and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and gasoline and cars. But Moses didn't see the world that way. It's interesting. He never himself drove a car. Can you believe that the man who had more influence on the American car culture, probably even more than Henry Ford, himself was always driven. He was chauffeured.
In fact, he was so busy that Caro talks about him as having two limousines behind each other. He would have a secretary in one and he would be dealing with business and writing letters and things like this. And once she had all she could do they would pull off to the side of the road. She would get out of his car and the car that was following would discharge the secretary in that car. They would switch places and the fresh secretary would get in the backseat, Moses and her would continue to work. And the first secretary would go to type up whatever she had to do.
He worked all the time. He really didn't have much of a private life. There are people like Robert Moses, but not so many, and he achieved his ideal. I think that there are so many ironies there. Not only did he not drive himself, he didn't appreciate the density of New York, which many people now love, and it's getting more dense. They're building tall buildings everywhere. He didn't really appreciate the diversity. He didn't care about that, but it worked. And I just think we have to appreciate the fact that he did what was impossible, really impossible, and nobody else could have done what he did.
If he hadn't done it then, he sure as heck wouldn't be able to do it in the 21st century, when people are even more litigious. You try to change the color of a door in New York City, you try to do something positive, like build a free swimming pool, fix up an old armory and turn it into a public place, there'll be people who'll fight you. I'm not kidding. Moses didn't care. When he built the Cross Bronx Expressway he said, “I'm going to do this.” which in some ways was horrible what he did to these people, but Caro mischaracterizes what happened. It's a dense working class —let's call it Jewish neighborhood—in the early 1950s and Moses decides that we need a big highway going right through it. He sent masses of people letters that said “Get out in 90 days.” He didn't mean 91 days. He didn't mean let's argue about it for four years. Moses meant the bulldozers will be bulldozing. We just don't have that kind of attitude anymore. It's kind of funny now to think back on it, but it wasn't funny to the people who got evicted.
But again, as I say, it's hard to imagine New York City without the Cross Bronx Expressway. They tore down five blocks of dense buildings and built this road right through it. And they didn't worry about where they were going to rehouse them. I mean, they did, but it didn't work. Now it's so busy, it's crowded all the time. So what does this prove? That we need more roads? But you can't have more roads in New York because if you build more roads, what are you going to do with the cars? Right now, the problem is there are so many cars in the city, there's nothing to do. It's easy to get around in New York, but what are you going to do with the car? The car culture has the seeds of its own destruction. Just parking cars or putting them in a garage is a problem.
Moses didn't foresee that. He thought that you're all going to live in the Long Island suburbs or Westchester suburbs or New Jersey suburbs, park your car in your house and come into the city to work. Now, the city is becoming a place to live more than a place to work. So what they're doing in New York as fast as they can is converting office buildings into residential units. He would never have seen that people with options would want to live in the city. That they would reject a single family house and choose a high rise and choose the convenience of going outside and walking to a delicatessen over driving to a grocery store. It's a world he never saw.
0:27:31 Moses the Startup Founder?
Dwarkesh Patel 0:27:31
Yeah, the thing you pointed out earlier about him having the two limousines and then the enormous work ethic and then the 90 day eviction. I'm a programmer and I can recognize this trope immediately. Robert Moses was a startup founder, but in government. That attitude is like Silicon Valley. We all recognize that.
Kenneth Jackson 0:27:54
And I think we should go back to what you said earlier about why was it that governors or mayors couldn't tell him what to do? There are many scenes in the Power Broker where he will go to the mayor who wants to do something else and Moses would say, “Damn it.” and throw his pages on the desk and say, “Sign this. This is my resignation. And I'm out of here”
Mayors and governors love to open bridges and highways and do it efficiently and beautifully. Moses could do that. Moses could deliver. And the workers loved him because he paid union wages, good wages to his workers and he got things done. Things like more than 700 playgrounds and it wasn't just grand things. Even though people criticize the 1964 World's Fair as a failure and financially it was a failure, but still. Tens of millions of people went there and had a good time. Even some of the things that were supposedly failures, failures according to whom? Failures according to the investment banker, maybe, but not to the people who went there.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:29:20
Right, yeah. And the point about the governors and mayors needing him, it was especially important to have somebody who could work that fast. If you're going to get reelected in four years or two years, and want to be there for the opening you need somebody who can get public works done faster than they're done today.
Kenneth Jackson 0:29:36
And it's important to realize that Moses did try public office once. I think it's true that he lost by more than anybody in the history of New York. He was not an effective public speaker. He was not soft and friendly and warm and cuddly. That's not Robert Moses. The voters rejected him. But the people who had power and also Wall Street, because you had to issue bonds.
One of the ways that Moses had power was he created this thing called the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to build the Triborough Bridge. Now, if in Portland, Oregon, you want to build a bridge or a road, you issue a couple hundred million dollars worth of bonds to the public and assign a value to it. Interest rate is paid off by the revenue that comes in from the bridge or the road or whatever it is.
Normally you would build a public works and pay for it itself on a user fees. And when the user fees paid it off, it ended. But what Moses, who was called the best bill drafter in Albany, which was a Moses term, he said he was somewhere down in paragraph 13, Section G, say, “And the chairman can only be removed for cause.” What that meant was when you buy a bond for the Traverse Bridge or something else, you're in a contract, supported by the Supreme Court. This is a financial deal you're making with somebody. And part of the contract was the chairman gets to stay unless he does something wrong. Moses was careful not to do anything wrong. And it also would continue. You would get the bond for the Traverse Bridge, but rather than pay off the Traverse Bridge, he would build another project. It would give him the right to continually build this chain of events. So he had this massive pot of money from all these initially nickels and dimes. He made a lot of money, the 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s, to spend more money and build more bridges and build more roads. And that's where he had his power.
The Wall Street, the big business loved him because they're issuing the bonds. The unions loved him because they're paying the investors. Now what Caro says is that Moses allowed the investors an extra quarter or half percent on bonds, but they all sold out. So everybody was happy. Was that crooked? It wasn't really illegal. But it's the way people do that today. If you're issuing a bond, you have to figure out what interest am I going to pay on this that will attract investors now.
0:32:34 The Case Against Moses Highways
Dwarkesh Patel 0:32:34
And the crucial thing about these tales of graft is that it never was about Moses trying to get rich. It was always him trying to push through a project. Obviously that can be disturbing, but it is a completely different category of thing, especially when you remember that this was a corrupt time in New York history. It was like after Tammany Hall and so on. So it's completely different from somebody using their projects to get themselves rich.
I do want to actually talk in more detail about the impact of these roads. Obviously the current system we have today where we just kind of treat cities as living museums with NIMBYism and historical preservation, that's not optimal. But there are examples, at least of Caro's in that chapter on the one mile, about Moses just throwing out thousands of people carelessly and how he could have diverted the cross Bronx expressway one mile and prevented thousands of people from getting needlessly evicted.
I'm just going to list off a few criticisms of his highway building and then you can respond to them in any order you want. One of the main criticisms that Caro makes is that Moses refused to add mass transit to his highways, which would have helped deal with the traffic problem and the car problem and all these other problems at a time when getting the right of way and doing the construction would have been much cheaper. He just refused to do that because of his dislike for mass transit. And also the prolific building of highways contributed to urban sprawl, it contributed to congestion, it contributed to neighborhoods getting torn apart if a highway would cross them.
So a whole list of criticisms of these highways. I'll let you take it in any order you want.
Kenneth Jackson 0:34:27
Well first of all, Moses' response was, I wasn't in charge of subways. So if you think the subways deteriorated or didn't build enough, find out who was in charge of them and blame that person. I was in charge of highways and I built those. So that's the first thing.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:34:41
On that particular point it is true that he wasn't in charge of mass transit, but also he wasn't in charge of roads until he made himself responsible for roads, right? So if he chose to, he could have made himself responsible for mass transit and taken care of it.
Kenneth Jackson 0:34:56
Maybe, maybe. Although I think the other thing about it is putting Moses in a broader historical concept. He was swimming with the tide of history. In other words, history when he was building, was building Ford Motor Company and General Motors and Chrysler Corporation and building cars by the millions. The automobile industry in the United States was huge. People thought any kind of rail transit was obsolete and on the way out anyway so let's just build roads. That's what the public wanted. He built what the public wanted. Looking historically, I don't think he did the right thing, but we needed to join the 20th century. New York could have stayed as a distinctly different kind of place where everybody walks. I just don't think it would have been the same kind of city because there are people who are attached to their cars in New York. The sprawl in New York, which is enormous, nobody's saying it wasn't, spreads over 31 counties, an area about as large as the state of Connecticut. Metropolitan New York is about as large as the Netherlands.
But it's still relatively, I don't want to say compact, but everybody knows where the center is. It's not that anybody grows up in New York at 16 and thinks that the world is in some mall three miles away. They all know there is a center and that's where it is. It's called Manhattan. And that's New York and Moses didn't change that, for all of his roads. There is still a definite center in New York. Skyscrapers and everything in the middle.
It's true that public transit did decline. I like Chicago and they have a rail transit from O'Hare down to JFK Expressway and it works sort of, but you have to walk a ways to get on. You have to walk blocks to get in the middle of the expressway and catch the train there. It's not like in New York where you just go down some steps. New York subway is much bigger than Chicago and more widely used.
I think what Caro was trying to explain and your question suggests is, was Moses responsible for the decline of public transit? Well, he was building cars and roads and bridges. So in that sense, a little bit, yes. But if you look at New York compared to the rest of the United States, it used to be that maybe 20 percent of all the transit riders in the United States were in the New York area. Now it's 40 percent. So if you're looking at the United States, what you have to explain is why is New York different from the rest of the United States? Why is it that when I was chairman or president of the New York Historical Society, we had rich trustees, and I would tell them, “Well, I got here on a subway.” They would say, “How do you think I got here?” These are people who are close to billionaires and they're saying they used the subway.
If you're in lower Manhattan and you're trying to get to Midtown and it's raining and it's five o'clock, you've got to be a fool to try to get in your own limousine. It isn't going to get you there very quickly. A subway will. So there are reasons for it. And I think Moses didn't destroy public transit. He didn't help it and that's an important distinction.
But he was swimming with history. He built what the public wanted. I think if he had built public transit, he would have found it tougher to build. Just for example, Cincinnati built a subway system, a tunnel all through the city. It never has opened. They built it. You can still see the holes in the ground where it's supposed to come out. By the time they built it, people weren't riding trains anymore. So it's there now and they don't know what to do with it. And that's 80 years ago. These issues are much more complex than I'm speaking of. I just think it's unfair to blame Moses for the problems of the city. I think he did as much as anybody to try to bring the city into the 21st century, which he didn't live to. You've got to adapt and you've got to have a hybrid model in the world now. And I think the model that America needs to follow is a model where we reduce our dependence on the cars and somehow ride buses more or use the internet more or whatever it is, but stop using so much fossil fuels so that we destroy our environment. And New York, by far, is the most energy efficient place in the United States. Mainly because you live in tall buildings, you have hot floors. It doesn't really cost much to heat places because you're heating the floor below you and above you. And you don't have outside walls and you walk. New Yorkers are thinner. Many more people take buses and subways in New York than anywhere else in the United States, not just in absolute terms, in relative terms. So they're helping. It's probably a healthier lifestyle to walk around. And I think we're rediscovering it.
For example, if you come to New York between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there's so many tourists in the city that there is gridlock on the sidewalks around. The police have to direct the traffic and in part, it's because a Detroit grandmother wants to bring her granddaughter to New York. to see Hudson's, which is a great department store in Detroit or in any city or GFox in Hartford. Every city had these giant department and windows where Santa Claus is and stuff like this. You can still go to New York and see that. You can say, “Jane, this is the way it used to be in Detroit.” People ringing the bells and looking at the store windows and things like that. A mall can't recapture that. It just can't. You can try, but it's not the same thing.
So I think that in a way, not only did Moses not destroy New York he gets a little bit of credit for saving it because it might have been on the way to Detroit. Again, I'm not saying that it would have been Detroit because Detroit's almost empty. It’s Baltimore, it's Cleveland, it's every place. There's nobody there anymore. And even in New York, the department stores have mostly closed, not all of them. And so it's not the same as it was 80 years ago, but it's closer to it than anywhere else.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:42:16
OK, I'm actually very curious to get your opinion on the following question given the fact that you are an expert on New York history and have literally written the encyclopedia on New York City.
Kenneth Jackson 0:42:30
800 people wrote the encyclopedia. I just took all the credit for it. I was the Editor in Chief.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:42:34
You talked about the importance just earlier about counterfactual history. So I'm curious if Caro is actually right about the claim that the neighborhoods through which Moses built his highways were destroyed in a way that neighborhoods which were in touch by the highways weren't. Sorry for the confusing phrasing there. But basically, looking back on all these neighborhoods, is there a clear counterfactual negative impact on the neighborhoods in which Moses built his highways and bridges and so on?
Kenneth Jackson 0:43:10
Caro makes that argument mostly about East Tremont and places like that in the Bronx where the Cross Bronx Expressway passed through. And he says this perfectly wonderful Jewish neighborhood that was not racially prejudiced and everybody was happy and not leaving was destroyed by Moses.
As a historian of New York City, or for that matter, any city, if a student comes to you and says, that's what I found out, you say that it runs counter to the experience of every city so let's do a little more work on that.
If you look at the census tracts or the residential security maps of S.H.A, you know it's not true. The Jews were leaving and had nothing to do with the thing. They didn't love blacks. The Bronx was called the Jewish borough at the time, those neighborhoods that weren't on the Cross Bronx Expressway all emptied out mostly. So the Bronx itself was a part of New York City that followed the pattern of Detroit and Baltimore and Cleveland. Bronx is now coming back, but it's a different place.
I've said this in public, Caro wouldn't know those neighborhoods if he landed there by parachute. They're much better than he ever said they were. He acted like if you went outside near the Bronx County Courthouse, you needed a wagon train to go. I've taken my students there dozens of times and shown them the people, the old ladies eating on the benches and stuff like this. Nobody's mugging them. He just has an outsider's view. He didn't know the places he was writing about.
But I think Caro was right about some things. Moses was personally a jerk. You can make it stronger than that. He was not your friendly grandfather. He was arrogant. He was self-centered. He thought he knew the truth and you don't. He was vindictive and ruthless. But some of his strategies were good. He made people building a beach or a building feel like they’re building a cathedral. “You're building something great and I'm going to pay you for it and let's make it good. Let's make it as best as we can.” That itself is a real trick. How do you get people to think of their jobs as more than a job, as something else? Even a beach or a wall or something like that. He also paid them and that's important. He said he was improving things for the people.
I don't know if you want to talk about Jane Jacobs, who was his nemesis. I tend to vote with Jane Jacobs. Jane Jacobs and I agree on a lot of things or did before she died a few years ago. Jane Jacobs saw the city as intricate stores and people living and walking and knowing each other and eyes on the street and all these kinds of things. Moses didn't see that at all. He saw the city as a traffic problem. How do we tear this down and build something big and get people the hell out of here? That was a mistake. Moses made mistakes. But what Moses was doing was what everybody in the United States was doing, just not as big and not as ruthless and not as quick. It was not like Moses built a different kind of world than exists in Kansas City. That's exactly what they did in Kansas City or every other city. Blow the damn roads to the black neighborhoods, build the expressway interchanges, my hometown of Memphis criss crossed with big streets, those neighborhoods gone. They're even more extensive in places like Memphis and Kansas City and New Orleans than they are in New York because New York builds relatively fewer of them. Still huge what he built.
You would not know from the power broker that Los Angeles was building freeways too. Or he says that New York had more federal money. Well, not true. I've had students work in Chicago and Chicago is getting more money per person than New York for some of these projects. Some of the claims, no doubt he got those from Moses' own records. If you're going to write a book like this, you have got to know what's going on in other places. Anyway, let's go back to your questions.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:48:10
No, no. That was one of the things I was actually going to ask you about, so I was glad to get your opinion on that. I've been preparing for this interview and trying to learn more about the impact of these different projects. I was trying to find the economic literature on the value of these highways. There was a National Bureau of Economic Research paper by Morgan Foy, or at least a digest by Morgan Foy, where he's talking about the economic gains from highways. He says, “The gains tend to be largest in areas where roads connect large economic hubs where few alternative routes exist. Two segments near New York City have welfare benefits exceeding $500 million a year. Expanding the Long Island Expressway had an estimated economic value of $719 million”, which I think was Moses. He says, “Of the top 10 segments with the highest rate of return, 7 are in the New York City area.”
It turns out that 7 of the top 10 most valuable highway segments in America are in New York. The way Caro paints Moses' planning process, is that it's just very impulsive and feelings-based and in some cases, almost out of malice towards poor people. Given that a century later, it seems that many of the most valuable tracks of highways were planned and built exactly how Moses envisioned, it makes you think that there was some sort of actual intelligent deliberation and thought that was put into where they were placed.
Kenneth Jackson 0:50:32
I think that's true. I'm not saying that the automobile didn't have an economic impact. That's what Moses was building for. He would probably endorse that idea. I think that what we're looking at now in the 21st century is the high value put on places that Moses literally thought were something. He was going to run an expressway from Brooklyn through lower Manhattan to New Jersey and knock down all these buildings in Greenwich Village that people now love. People and even movie stars crowd into those neighborhoods to live and he saw it as a slum. Well, Moses was simply wrong and Caro puts him to task for that. I think that's true.
0:51:24 The Rise of NIMBYism
Dwarkesh Patel 0:51:24
Okay. Professor Jackson, now I want to discuss how the process of city planning and building projects has changed since Moses' time. We spent some good amount of time actually discussing what Moses actually did in his time. Last year you wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal talking about how the 27-story building in Manhattan was put in limbo because the parking lot which it would replace was part of a historic district.
What is it like to actually build a skyscraper or a highway or a bridge or anything of that sort in today's New York City?
Kenneth Jackson 0:52:06
In the larger context, it's probably fair to say it's tougher to build in New York City than any other city. You may not deploy a skyscraper in a precious suburb but as far as the city is concerned, there'll be more opposition in New York than anywhere else. It's more dense. So just to unload and load stuff to build a building, how do you do that? Trucks have to park on the street. Everything is more complicated and thus more expensive.
I think a major difference between Robert Moses' time and our own was that historic preservation was as yet little known and little understood and little supported. The view generally was — buildings are good, roads are good, houses are good, and they're all on the way to a more modern and better world. We don't have the same kind of faith in the future that they did. We kind of like it like it is. Let's just sit on it. So I think we should say that Moses had an easier time of it than he would have had he lived today. It still wasn't an easy time, but easier than today.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:53:40
Can you talk more about what that change in philosophy has been since then? I feel like that's been one of the themes of this podcast, to see how our cultural attitude towards progress and technology have changed.
Kenneth Jackson 0:53:54
One reason why The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s famous book, received such popular acclaim is it fits in with book readers' opinions today, which is “Old is better.” You got to think about New York City. If you say it's a pre-war apartment, you mean it's a better apartment. The walls are solid plaster, not fiber or board and stuff like that. Old has a reverence in New York that it doesn't have in Japan. In Japan, they tear down houses every 15 years. So it's a whole different thing.
In this new country, new culture, we tend to value oldness in some places, especially in a place that's old like New York City. Most Americans don't realize that New York is not only the most dense American city and the largest, but also really the oldest. I know there's St. Augustine but that's taking the concept of what a city is to an extreme and then there's Jamestown in Virginia, but there's literally nobody there. And where the pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, Plymouth plantation, that's totally rebuilt as a kind of a theme park. For a place that's a city, it's Santa Fe a little bit in New Mexico, but it was a wide place on the road until after World War II. If you think about cities, New York is really old and it's never valued history, but the historic preservation movement here is very strong.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:55:33
What is the reason for its resurgence? It's had a big impact on many cities. I'm in San Francisco right now and obviously you can't tear down one of these Victorian houses to build the housing that the city massively needs. Why have we gained a reverence for anything that was built 80 years ago?
Kenneth Jackson 0:55:56
The two most expensive places in the United States are usually San Francisco and New York. If you want to drop the price of popsicles on your block, have more people selling popsicles and the price will fall. But somehow they say they're going to build luxury housing when actually if you build any housing, it'll put downward pressure on prices, even at super luxury. But anyway, most Americans don't understand that. So they oppose change and especially so in New York and San Francisco on the basis that change means gentrification. And of course there has been a lot of gentrification. During World War II or right after, San Francisco was a working class city and huge numbers of short and longshoremen lived there. Now San Francisco has become the headquarters in a tech revolution and it's become very expensive and very homeless. It's very complex. Not easy to understand even if you're in the middle of it.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:57:08
If we could get Robert Moses back again today, what major mega project do you think New York needs today that a Moses-like figure could build?
Kenneth Jackson 0:57:22
If you think really broadly and you take climate change seriously, as I think most people do, probably to build some sort of infrastructure to prevent rising water from sinking the city. It's doable. In order to save New Orleans you had to flood Mississippi and some other places, so usually there is a downside somewhere but you could. It would be a huge project to build a land bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan to prevent water coming in from the ocean because New York is on the ocean.
Another big infrastructure project is they're talking about another tunnel under the river, Hudson River from New Jersey to New York. The problem with that is there are already too many cars in Manhattan. If you've not been to New York you don't really understand this, but there's no place for anything. And if you bring more cars in, what are you going to do with them? If you build parking garages for all the cars that could come into the city, then you'd be building over the whole city. There'd be no reason to come here because it would all be parking garages or parking lots.
New York City simply won't work if you reduce the density or you get rid of underground transportation because it's all about people moving around underneath the streets and not taking up space as they do it. So it won't work. And of course, it's not the only city. Tokyo wouldn't work either. Lots of cities in the world won't work increasingly without not just public transportation but underground public transportation where you can get it out of the way of traffic.
Moses probably could have done that. He wouldn't have loved it as much as he loved bridges because he wanted you to see what he built. And there was an argument in the power broker, but he didn't really want the Brooklyn battery tunnel built because he wanted to build a bridge that everybody could see. So he may not have done it with such enthusiasm. I actually believe that Moses was first and foremost a builder. He really wanted to build things, change things. If you said, we'll pay you to build tunnels, I think he would have built tunnels. Who knows? He never was offered that. That wasn't the time in which he lived.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:00:04
Today to get rid of the red tape and the NIMBYism, would it just be enough for one man to accumulate as much influence as Moses had and then to push through some things or does that need to be some sort of systemic reform? Because when Moses took power there was also the Tammany Hall machine that he had to run through. Is that just what's needed today to get through the bureaucracy or is something more needed?
Kenneth Jackson 1:00:31
I don't think Robert Moses with all of his talents and personality, I don't think he could do in the 21st century what he did in the middle of the 20th century. I think he would have done a lot, maybe more than anybody else. But also I don’t think his bullying methods would work quite as easy today. He bullied people, including powerful people. But I do think we need it today. And I think even today, even now we have in New York, just the beginnings of leftists. I'm thinking of AOC, the woman who led the campaign against Amazon in New York saying, we need some development. If we want to make housing more affordable, somebody has got to build something. It's not that we've got more voters because you say you want affordable housing. You got to build affordable housing and especially you got to build more of it.
We have to overturn the NIMBYism. Even today for all of our concern about environmental change, we have to work together. I mean, in some ways we have to believe that we're in some ways in the same boat and it won't work if we put more people in the boat, but don't make the boat any bigger.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:01:59
When people discuss Moses and the power accumulated, they often talk about the fact that he took so much power away from democratically elected officials and centralized so much power in himself. And obviously the Power Broker talks a great deal about the harms of that kind of centralization. But I'm curious, having studied the history of New York, what are the benefits if there can be one coordinated cohesive plan for the entire city? If there's one person who's designing all the bridges, all the highways, all the parks, is something more possible that can be possible if like multiple different branches and people have their own unique visions? I don't know if that question makes sense.
Kenneth Jackson 1:02:39
That's a big question. You've got to put a lot of trust into the grand planner, especially if it's a massive area of 20-25 million people. I think that in some ways we've gone too far in the ability to obstruct change, to stop it. And we need change. Houses deteriorate. Roads deteriorate. Sewers deteriorate. We have to build into our system the ability to improve them.
Now in New York we respond to emergencies. All of a sudden a water main breaks, the street collapses and then they stop everything, stop the water main break and repair the street. Meanwhile in a hundred other places it's leaking, it's just not leaking enough to make the road collapse. But the problem is there every day, every minute.
1:03:44 Is Progress Cyclical
Dwarkesh Patel 1:03:44
I'm curious, as a professor you've studied American history, do you just see this as a cyclical thing where you have periods where maybe one person has too much power to periods where there's dispersed vetocracy and sclerosis and then you're just going to go through these cycles? In the grand context of things, how do you see where we are, where we were during Moses and where we might be in the future?
Kenneth Jackson 1:04:10
You're right to say that much of life is cyclical and there is a swing back and forth. But having said that, I think a person like Robert Moses is unusual, partly because he might have gone on to become a hedge fund person although they didn't have hedge funds when he was around. But say a new competitor to Goldman Sachs, I mean he could have done a lot of things, maybe been a general. He wanted to have power and control. And I think that's harder to accumulate now. We have too much power. You can demonstrate and you can stop anything. We love demonstrations in the United States. We respect them. We see your ability to get on the streets and block the streets as a visible expression of our democracy. But still you have to get to work. I mean at some point in the day you've got to do something. Hitler could have done a lot of things if he wanted to. Hitler had a lot of power. If he turned Berlin into a colossal city, he was going to make it like Washington but times five. Well, Washington has already got its own issues. The Government buildings are too big. Buildings don't have life on the street and stuff like this. Somebody like Hitler would destroy it forever because you build a monumental city that's not for people. And I think that was probably one of Moses' weak points. Unlike Jane Jacobs who saw people, Moses didn't see people. He saw bridges. He saw highways. He saw tunnels. He saw rivers. He saw the city as a giant traffic problem. Jane Jacobs, who was a person without portfolio most of her life except of her own powers of judgment and persuasion, she thought, “What does the shoe repairman got to do with the grocery store, got to do with the school, got to do with something else?” She saw what Moses didn't see. She saw the intricacies of the city. He saw a giant landscape. She saw the block, just the block.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:06:45
Yeah, there's a common trope about socialist and communist which is that they love humanity in the abstract but they hate people as individuals. And I guess it’s one way to describe Robert Moses. It actually reminds me of one of my relatives that's a doctor and he's not exactly a people person. And he says like, I hate actually having to talk to the patients about and ask them questions. I just like the actual detective work of looking at the charts and figuring out what is going on and doing the diagnosis.
Are you optimistic about New York? Do you think that towards the end of the 21st century and into the 22nd century, it will still be the capital of the world or what do you think is the future of the city?
Kenneth Jackson 1:07:30
Well, The Economist, which is a major publication that comes out of England, recently predicted that London and New York would be in 2100 what they are today, which is the capitals of the world. London is not really a major city in terms of population, probably under 10 million, much smaller than New York and way smaller than Tokyo. But London has a cosmopolitan, heterogeneous atmosphere within the rule of law. What London and New York both offer, which Shanghai doesn't or Hong Kong doesn't at the moment, is a system where if you disagree, you're not going to disappear. There's some level of guarantee that personal safety is sacred and you can say what you want. I think that's valuable. And the fact that it's open to newcomers. You can't find a minority that doesn’t have a physical presence in New York. If you're from Estonia, which has fewer people than individual New York suburbs, there's an Estonian house, there's Estonian restaurants. India, Pakistan, every place has got an ethnic presence. If you want it, you can have it. You want to merge with the larger community, merge with it. That's fine.
But if you want to celebrate your special circumstances, it's been said that New York is everybody's second home because you know if you come to New York, you can find people just like yourself and speaking your language and eating your food and going to your religious institution. I think that's going to continue and I think it's not only what makes the United States unusual, there are a few other places like it. Switzerland is like it, but the thing about Switzerland that's different from the United States is there are parts of Switzerland that are mostly Swiss German and parts of it is French, but they stay in their own place. They speak French here and they speak German there. Arizona and Maine are not that different demographically in the United States. Everybody has shuffled the deck several times and so I think that's what makes New York unique. And London too. Paris a little bit too. You go to the Paris underground, you don't even know what language you're listening to. Often the Texas cities are very diverse. San Francisco, LA are also very diverse. It's not just New York. New York kind of stands out because it's bigger and because the neighborhoods are more distinct, anybody can see them.
And that's what Robert Moses didn't spend any time thinking about. He wasn't concerned with who was eating at that restaurant. That wasn't important, or even if there was a restaurant. Whereas now, the slow drift back towards cities, and I'm predicting that the pandemic will not have a permanent influence. The pandemic is huge and it's affected the way people work and live and shop and have recreation. I'm not trying to blow it off like something else.
But I think in the long run, we are social animals. We want to be with each other. We need each other, especially if you're young, you want to be with potential romantic partners. But even other people are drawn. Just a few days ago, there was a horrible tragedy in Seoul, Korea. That's because 100,000 young people are drawn to each other. They could have had more room to swing their arms, but they wanted to crowd into this one alley because that's where other people were. They wanted to go where other people were. That's a lot about the appeal of cities today. We've been in cars and we've been on interstate highways. At the end of the day, we're almost like cats. We want to get together at night and sleep on each other or with each other. I think that's the ultimate goal. It's not for everybody. Most people would maybe rather live in a small town or on the top of a mountain, but there's a percentage of people. Let's call it 25% who really want to be part of the tumble in the tide and want things to be mixed up. They will always want to be in a place like New York. There are other places, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia a little bit. They're not mainly in the United States, but in Europe, Copenhagen. Copenhagen is not a big city, neither is Prague, but they have urbanity. New York has urbanity. I think we don't celebrate urbanity as much as we might. The pure joy of being with others.
1:12:36 Friendship with Caro
Dwarkesh Patel 1:12:36
I'm curious if you ever got a chance to talk to Robert Caro himself about Moses at some point.
Kenneth Jackson 1:12:45
Robert Caro and I were friends. In fact, when The Power Broker received an award, the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians, it turned out we lived near each other in the Bronx. And I drove him home and we became friends and social friends. And I happened to be with him on the day that Robert Moses died. We were with our wives eating out in a neighborhood called Arthur Avenue. The real Little Italy of New York is in the Bronx. It's also called Belmont.
On the 100th anniversary of Moses's birth, I think in 1989, I was asked to give the keynote speech at a conference at Hofstra University on Moses. And Caro was also invited to be a speaker, maybe another keynote speaker. And there I said, and I still stand by this, that The Power Broker, I learned more from it than any book I ever read and I wish I had written it myself so that my name was on it rather than his. And I think it was the best book I ever read. That may be a slight exaggeration, but just like it's an incredible achievement.
Having said that, I said it's got a thousand errors, just small errors. I mean, in broad strokes, it's correct. Robert Moses had more power than any urban figure in American history. He built incredible monuments that the city needs. He was ruthless, arrogant and honest. That's a big story right there. That's probably true. But in all the little stories about the temperature in the swimming pools, about the destruction of public transit, about the destruction of the Bronx with the Cross Bronx Expressway, about the building the bridges too low so that buses couldn't get to the beaches. He's just wrong. It just isn’t that way. Wasn't that way, isn't that way. And all he had to do was look at some different sources, you know that they were doing some of the same things in LA or Chicago. They just weren't as famous as New York. That's more or less what it was.
I think I still feel that way. I still wish I had written the book, even with all those mistakes. I've taught for half a century or more New York City history at Columbia University. I've had dozens of students write term papers on one or another aspect of Caro’s book. I can never remember a single one coming back and saying, “Oh, Caro got it right.” They would go back to the same source and say “This is not what this is not the way he said it was.” Now they may be smaller, but it was generally that way. They didn't celebrate it. I think he'd made up his mind what he was going to argue before he started it and Moses was a jerk.
For example, think of the issues now with President Biden and his son Hunter, you know, and all the grief he's catching about his son or people with….. My wife is telling me not to go down this road.
Moses is attacked in the book because he's not good enough to his brother. He should have done more for his brother than he did. Well, so what if he didn't give his brother a job. I'm just saying that all these little things that you can come to about different neighborhoods and things like that. But I think Caro was right that Moses, the biggest builder of cities in the 20th century, the builder of the greatest city in the world, didn't like it. That's incredible. He didn't actually like the place he was designing. He wanted everybody to get out. It's better in the suburbs, better if you have a house, better if you have a garage, better if you have a car in the front. That’s better than the Bronx or Brooklyn or Queens. Whereas again, his opponent, Jane Jacobs, are people now. And one of the greatest changes now than when Caro was writing Moses is people wanted to all have a car in New York. Everybody wanted a car. Teens, when they were 16 years old, wanted to have a driver's license more than they wanted to have sex. Get me the car. Now a big percentage of young Americans are skipping the driver's license. They don't care as much. We're moving into a different time. And where that's going to lead us, I'm not sure. But I think we're ready to walk more for health reasons and all sorts of reasons. But Moses did not see it. Moses never drove, but he created the world for drivers.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:17:57
Some people might object to this defense of Moses by saying, “Listen, whenever he does something well, we give him credit here.” But then whenever he does something badly, we just say, “Oh, well, he was just swimming with the tide of history. There were other cities that were doing it worse.” We're doing what-aboutism on the negative side of Moses' legacy. But then we're happy to let him take credit for the good things. It's kind of a double standard. How would you respond to that?
Kenneth Jackson 1:18:27
I understand what you're saying and I can sympathize with it. Let's take the cross Bronx expressway as an egregious example of something that Robert Caro or Moses' critics would say, “God, all these people, tens of thousands of people paid a price. Their lives were uprooted.” But I just can't imagine you would say we can't have a cross Bronx. I mean, it could have been two blocks this way or two blocks that way, that's a different question. And we can talk about that too, but I think we have to have it.
I think the parks,the bridges, the Verrazano-Narrows bridge transformed Staten Island. The history of Staten Island is before and after 1964. They had to take into account the curvature of the earth. That bridge was so long. At the time it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. It's been surpassed in Europe since then, but a big bridge. That would be a lifetime's achievement. If you built the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, this gigantic, gorgeous entrance to New York Harbor, that's a lifetime achievement. For Moses, it's one of a list of about 50 things. You don't even think about the Verrazano-Narrows bridge and Robert Moses. Yeah, he did it. So what? There's lots of other big things too. I think it's the scale and the scale was not human. It was totally on a different scale. And with that comes a lot of criticism because as he would say himself, in order to make an omelet, you have to break eggs. No other way to do it. And he would say, I had to do it. This is his answer. In order to build a great public event or thing, I have to hurt some people. That's just the way it is. The way we live now, we don't want to hurt anybody. You can't run a city or a country that way. You can't. Nothing will change.
1:20:41 Moses the Longtermist?
Dwarkesh Patel 1:20:41
Yeah, I've had recently a lot of guests who have been advocating for this philosophical view that's called long-termism, which is basically the idea that we should take the interest of future generations and consider them equally with the interest of people alive today. As a way to emphasize, for example, that people who live thousands of years from now, we should take their interest seriously.
I guess if we take this kind of view and just care about progeny more, there's a part in the Power Broker where they're talking about the Cross Bronx Expressway through East Tremont and Moses is getting opposition from an elected official. And Moses responds by saying, “You make a habit out of pointing out that I'm not democratically elected while you are. But the advantage of me not being democratically elected is that I can build projects that might not be the favorite thing for the people alive now, but will benefit the city for generations and centuries to come.”
There's obviously a lot of arrogance there and there’s the question of if that's true. But to the extent that that is true, and it is in many cases — all these bridges you're talking about and all these highways are still standing today and are in wide use, it changes how you think about him. Given all the egg breaking that had to happen at the time, it's still the fact that for hundreds of years we'll get to use the things he built.
I'm curious, you mentioned you were with Caro when you found out that Moses had died. How did you react? How did Caro react? Was he sad about it?
Kenneth Jackson 1:22:25
Well, he was being interviewed. I just remember being stunned at the restaurant. We were eating at a restaurant in the Bronx and they brought a telephone to him. I've never seen anybody have a telephone brought to them. That was way before cell phones and everything else. It was 1981 and we were friends when he died. It was after I criticized him in public and the New York Times quoted me. They didn't quote that I thought was the best book I'd ever read and I wish I'd written it. They did quote that I said it was full of mistakes. That's what the New York Times said and that's what he read. He didn't hear my speech. I'm sorry. I don't have enemies with anyone, but I have regard for the book and have regard for his ability to do research. What's amazing about The Power Broker is his ability and interest in going back and interviewing his third grade teacher and stuff like that and finding that out. That's way more than what most of us are willing to do.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:23:35
What was his reaction when he found out that Moses died?
Kenneth Jackson 1:23:41
That was not unexpected. He was 90 years old at the time. Remember this is 30 years ago, more than that. Not that many people lived to be 90 and he was a swimmer. He was an athlete. He was a swimmer. Swam in the ocean in his 80s. He was quite a person.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:24:01
Yeah. There was a part in the in Caro's memoir where he talks about learning from Moses' former aides who are now friends with Caro that now that he had lost his power, he was just in his house all day just looking at all his plans and writing down more ideas for where there should be another highway, hust impertinently making new ideas and so on.
Caro says that just hearing about that scene, this master builder having nothing to do, made him want to cry despite the fact that he had documented all the harm that Moses had done. That was really interesting.
Kenneth Jackson 1:24:50
Moses had a phenomenal amount of power and he loses it all in a short order. That's gotta be tough. Really tough. Now, Moses did write a response to the Power Broker, which was published in the New Yorker about 1975, which is a long response saying that Caro had it all wrong.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:25:24
Actually, I don't know what your reaction to the response was. I read it and I thought that Moses kind of vindicated Caro's description of his personality because it was very ad hominem and wasn't specific. I'm sure there were a lot of errors, as you say. Moses wrote 8,000 words but he actually documents very few of the supposed errors that he claims Caro is making. The ones he does document are minor ones, not the major ones that were about his major public works, so just small little details. But yeah, I don't know what your reaction was to that response.
Kenneth Jackson 1:26:04
Well, I think you're very perceptive. I think his response was rambling, wordy, not particular. I think he probably could have taken Caro apart, but he didn't. He didn't say, “Page, so-and-so, you said this. This is wrong.” He didn't. And also, Moses didn't have people around him to say, “Boss, you're wrong here. You got to reword this. You don't mean it the way you said it.” And also, the quality of her response was poor enough that he needed assistance. He needed a smart or three or four smart people to say, “Put it this way. You have got to give this example or do something else.” But still, the response tells you something about Moses and also the way Moses kind of held grudges. He blames the New Yorker and he blames Knopf of Alfred Knopf Publishers, because you're in cahoots with Caro so you're all damned and going to hell rather than just talking about Caro. Maybe that's just the way he looked at the world at his time. You got to find out who's got the levers of power and then go after them. The rest of the people don't matter.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:27:28
Yeah. Okay, so I want to be respectful of your time. You've given me so much already. But before we close out the interview, if you have any other things you want to say about The Power Broker or about Moses or about his legacy or about NIMBYism today or the state of construction and public works today.
Kenneth Jackson 1:27:46
I think of Moses as the polar opposite of Jane Jacobs. Think about what Jane Jacobs saw as important. She saw the block, the store, the people, the mixture of genders and races and everything else as being significant. Robert Moses really didn't see people. He saw massive things, things you put on an architectural board and he didn't see other things. That's both his strength and his weakness. Had he seen people more, maybe he would never have built what he did and we wouldn't have had the bridges. But we do. And can you imagine New York without the Triborough Bridge? It's not imaginable. You’ve got to have it. Listeners who have not been to New York may not understand it. This is a city that has water all through it. It's about water. It's not like Dallas, where there's essentially no water. New York water is everywhere. You've got to cross these bridges. You've got to get over that. So it creates a problem of circulation that's vast, especially when you have tens of millions of people trying to move around. That's something that Moses figured a way around.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:29:14
Yep. Actually, one more question that just occurred to me. I'm curious why you think that this biography of Moses by Caro achieved the cultural prominence it did. Of course, it's like an incredible book and I enjoyed it a lot as well. But like there's countless biographies written every year and many of them are also good. What was it about this book that catapulted it? There's a review of the new play about Robert Moses and the title of that review was just that New Yorkers love to hate Robert Moses. Why does he have this sort of cultural prominence in New York and across the world?
Kenneth Jackson 1:29:57
Because I think Robert Moses represented a past, you know, a time when we wanted to build bridges and super highways. We're not building superhighways now. We're not building vast bridges like Moses built all the time. He's not swimming with the tide of history anymore. And so I think that's part of it. Plus the fact that it's a biography that has an argument and the argument is understandable and it runs through the whole book. And he's a terrific writer and builds suspense and he can write a paragraph in two words and he repeats himself a little too much. Anyway, when I get negative, my wife is nearby and getting on me. I think it's a terrific book.
Look, Moses was a great man. Caro is a great writer and in many ways a great historian. And I think the other thing is that Caro's book is so important. You know, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, I have lots of books written about. Caro not so much. I mean, Moses not so much. He's not that famous. So it's such a big and intimidating book. Everybody else is afraid to go there. There will be other books about Robert Moses. They may be underway as we speak and they will revise our reinterpretation. I think that's true. He will be reinterpreted in ways in which we talked about today, though I don't know that.
But, the basic things that Moses did are there, you can look at it. And the things that Caro said about him are mostly true. He gives a little tiny bit about an affair. He once explained to me that sex was not important to Moses. If you want to understand him, it wasn't about females. Moses was committed and married to his job and to his vision of a city. That's both his greatness and the fact that he didn't have friends or many friends and he didn't live the world the way most people live it, with people. I think that's probably all I know.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:32:21
Well, this is a true pleasure. I highly recommend that people check out your book, Robert Moses and the Modern City: the Transformation of New York. There they can find your essay on Robert Moses and the Rise of New York City, which I highly recommend.
Professor Jackson, where else can people find you?
Kenneth Jackson 1:32:42
My email address is still email@example.com. It's been a pleasure.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:32:57
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