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“Robert Moses Is A Racist Whatever”

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 18, 2016

Christopher Robbins recently interviewed Robert Caro (author of The Power Broker, perhaps the best book ever written about New York) for Gothamist. The interview is interesting throughout. (I lightly edited the excerpts for clarity.)

Caro: If you’re publishing on the Internet, do you call them readers or viewers?

Robbins: Either, I think.

Caro: How do you know they’re reading it?

Robbins: There’s something called Chartbeat — it shows you how many people are reading a specific article in any given moment, and how long they spend on that article. That’s called “engagement time.” We have a giant flatscreen on the wall that displays it, a lot of publications do.

Caro: What you just said is the worst thing I ever heard. [Laughs]

That exchange makes a nice companion to Snapchat like the teens.

Caro: Moses came along with his incredible vision, and vision not in a good sense. It’s like how he built the bridges too low.

I remember his aide, Sid Shapiro, who I spent a lot of time getting to talk to me, he finally talked to me. And he had this quote that I’ve never forgotten. He said Moses didn’t want poor people, particularly poor people of color, to use Jones Beach, so they had legislation passed forbidding the use of buses on parkways.

Then he had this quote, and I can still hear him saying it to me. “Legislation can always be changed. It’s very hard to tear down a bridge once it’s up.” So he built 180 or 170 bridges too low for buses.

We used Jones Beach a lot, because I used to work the night shift for the first couple of years, so I’d sleep til 12 and then we’d go down and spend a lot of afternoons at the beach. It never occurred to me that there weren’t any black people at the beach.

So Ina and I went to the main parking lot, that huge 10,000-car lot. We stood there with steno pads, and we had three columns: Whites, Blacks, Others. And I still remember that first column — there were a few Others, and almost no Blacks. The Whites would be go on to the next page. I said, God, this is what Robert Moses did. This is how you can shape a metropolis for generations.

That’s something to remember the next time someone tries to rehabilitate Moses’ legacy. Not to mention this excerpt from The Power Broker:

Robert Moses had always displayed a genius for adorning his creations with little details that made them fit in with their setting, that made the people who used them feel at home in them. There was a little detail on the playhouse-comfort station in the Harlem section of Riverside Park that is found nowhere else in the park. The wrought-iron trellises of the park’s other playhouses and comfort stations are decorated with designs like curling waves.

The wrought-iron trellises of the Harlem playhouse-comfort station are decorated with monkeys.

And now I am filled with regret at never having read The Power Broker. I started it a couple times, but could never find the time to follow through. I wish it was available on the Kindle…a 1300-page paperback is not exactly handy to carry about and read. The unabridged audiobook is 66 hours long…and $72.

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