Haunted by the Past

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Eye from Albany
March 2000

Haunted by the Past
by Paul M. Bray

New York State is haunted by the ghost of Robert Moses and the fixed idea of home rule. They account in large part for why the State frequently seems stuck in the mud when it comes to facing the important needs for change.

Robert Moses for many decades of the 20th century was the builder extraordinaire. Bridges, highways, power plants and parks from Long Island to the St. Lawrence River make up his legacy. He has been out of the picture for decades but the state depends on this legacy for a substantial portion of our transportation, energy and recreation.

But as Robert Caro told the Moses story in his biography, The Power Broker, Moses operated like a steam roller with glaring social short comings. Neighborhoods were bulldozed and building overpasses on the highways to Long Island were built too low for buses.

He was a genius in his ability to grasp certain needs of the city of New York and the whole state and device the means to satisfy them. But he was uninterested in the lower classes and the natural environment. Little wonder the suggestion of any major public project brings forth the ghost of Robert Moses to scare a lot of people.

Like the fear of Moses, the notion of home rule or local control of land use is ingrained in our minds and controls what is done in the State and more often what isn’t done.

Certainly it is important for a local voice in what is built where, but there are many other voices clamoring and deserving to be heard. There is no escaping these other voices which are regional, state, national and even international representing social, environmental and economic values. In our citadels of home rule we care, for example, of protecting rain forests located in other citadels of home rule.

In reality home rule is a myth from a more simple time when local governments could compete amongst themselves for capital, there was greater local ownership of economic activities and business stayed put for generations. Now we have mall based retailing which is not locally owned and a global economy where businesses can be here today and gone tomorrow.

Even though the U.S. economy is increasingly a system of regional economies transcending city, town or village boundaries, local government officials cling to their land use control powers.

New York State is paying a big price for the Moses phobia and for unreflected genuflecting to the home rule myth. We are without visionaries and the governmental planning capacity to responsibly address large social needs. It leave us dependent on the market to address communal needs and the market has never been good at that.

Even with all of our fiscal problems including existing public debt, building and rebuilding New York State will go on. The newspapers are increasing reporting on planning for major projects like the $4 billion bridge to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge, billions for new schools and courthouses, transit projects and stadium. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

But will building without social vision and planning capacity be any better in the end that what Moses created? We need to free ourselves from the irrational fears from the past, learn lessons from the past and successfully move ahead.

The lesson from the Moses era isn’t that thinking big is always bad as Roberta Brandes Gratz declares in Cities Back From The Edge. Rather it is that building small or large should be humanistic and environmentally sensitive. Some building large is going to be required if we are going to meet the needs for social equality and diversity in our cities which will also have the benefit of being a countervailing force to suburban sprawl.

What is wrong with home rule isn’t taking account of local wishes. Rather it is the isolation and autonomy it creates when linkage across municipal boundaries should be the order of the day to address social, environmental and economic needs. There is a positive legacy from Robert Moses and once we accept that we will be better able to avoid negative side.

We also need to make home rule work in the larger world and it can be done without the political consequences that have scared off State officials. Through a process like the compact that was hammered out between three towns and the county and State governments on Long Island to create the Long Island Pine Barrens Preserve and plan for the managed growth of 50,000 acres, there are ways to successfully reconcile local, regional and state interests.

It is time to put the Moses era and home rule in their proper perspective and not just allow them to be weapons to thwart prudent, sustainable and smart building for the future.