Heart of the Empire
“People kept saying no more roads, but Robert Moses didn’t listen.”
Introducing Then & Now, a monthly column on the history of buildings by Adrian Shirk. Shirk has previously written about the feminist takeover of an abandoned building, and the death of shopping malls.
If the story of urban renewal in New York City were a novel, Robert Moses would be its hero and its villain. If it were a film, the entire thing would be shot from above, the ambient noise from cars and the interlocking parts of expressways superseding human characters, except for Moses who would be implicated in this perspective. If it were a series of short stories, it would be told—as I decided once—through absences, through portraits of the neighborhoods that were decimated by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Major Deegan and other projects he was responsible for, and in this version Moses’s presence would be only ghostly and unnamed.
The story of Robert Moses and New York is well-trod territory. He became active in the shaping of public space of the city in the early 1920s while working for Governor Al Smith in Albany, when he drafted the proposal for the role he would eventually occupy for forty years: first as president of the Long Island State Park Commission, and later as commissioner of the New York City Parks Department. During his first fifteen years in politics, Moses was seen as a reformer. He oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Promenade, the great beaches of Long Island, the renovation of Central Park, as well as dozens of playgrounds, pools, and parkways throughout the city. It wasn’t until later, when he seemingly could not stop building, that he was seen as a tyrant.
In 1936, a couple of years after Fiorello LaGuardia appointed Robert Moses as both Parks Commissioner and Chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority, Moses was undergoing a transformation from the guy who saved New York City from the Depression into “the power broker,” as dubbed by Robert Caro in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Moses had, throughout the 1930s, created a number of different toll-collecting authorities, the TBA being the most powerful, whose revenue was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department, but allocated in full to the various authorities’ infrastructure projects. In addition to the tolls, Moses also had at his disposal President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal funds—he was free now to build and build. This new freedom would be made manifest in the landscape he was engineering. His earlier focus on parks and pools and scenic byways shifted to expressways, bridges, and a public housing plan that looked like a good idea only from the bird’s eye view—drab, twenty-five-story towers that neatly stacked low-income homes to replace those which, many miles away, had been flattened by new pavement.
This second act of his career is what he’s chiefly remembered for today, as citizens of New York continue to forge—by foot, car, or Section 8 application—through a civic landscape he almost unilaterally designed.
But as his sway on public infrastructure intensified, he moved his operations just off-stage. The most ambitious plans of Moses’s career were carried out not from his office suite around the corner from City Hall, or from the New York City Parks Department headquarters in the Arsenal in Central Park, but from a squat, Art Deco limestone complex in the marshy, undeveloped expanse of Randall’s Island off upper Manhattan: the Triborough Bridge Authority Administration Building.
Randall’s Island was still mostly marshland but, over the next decade, Moses’s Triborough Authority would develop it into a massive public park, above which hummed what was the largest automobile bridge of its kind—the Robert F. Kennedy, or “Triborough,” Bridge, which connects Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx. “If the empire had a heart, that was it,” writes Caro regarding the Administration Building, though he adds that “its roof was just enough below that plaza so that the building could not be seen by drivers who used the bridge day after day.” And so “Moses’s headquarters was concealed almost completely from public view.” It was there Moses sat, from the late 1930s to the late 1960s, tugging at the strings of New York City as a sort of puppet theater—a static surface upon which he could act, animate, and perfect his vision.
Caro’s description of Moses’s Randall’s Island office reflects this perspective, its wall having been “dominated by a huge map of New York City. And while that map was crisscrossed with the solid lines that represented achievements built—highways, bridges, tunnels—on it also were lines, many lines, that were not solid but broken: lines representing achievements not yet built, dreams yet to be turned reality. As he sat at his desk, that map, its width wider than his armspread, its height taller than a man, stared back at him, reminding this man to whom accomplishment was so important that there was so much yet to accomplish.”
For many years, I casually sorted through Moses’s life—dipping in and out of Caro’s 1200-page biography, Marshall Berman’s portrait in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, and documents which detail Moses’s public skirmishes with community organizer Jane Jacobs who, in 1964, thwarted his plans for the Mid-Manhattan Expressway, which would have razed most of SoHo and Greenwich Village. Thinking about the interplay between Moses’s reign and the residents too poor and vulnerable to advocate for themselves, I wrote a series of short stories about Brooklynites in different decades through the mid-to-late 20th century, living in the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. I watched TV interviews with Moses late in life, wherein hosts asked him if he felt regret about the people he’d displaced, or the housing projects he’d used federal funding to build and to all but racially segregate huge swaths of the city.
The answer was always the same. No, he did not regret anything, and dammit, if they’d just let him keep building, the city today wouldn’t be so congested. The congestion! When one of his interviewers asks if that’s all that matters, Moses responds, “Well, in the end, yes.”
A friend of mine recently showed me a scan of a third grader’s drawing floating around Facebook, an image that seems to capture this side of the Moses narrative. It’s all in magic marker, and it depicts a city street and a bank of squiggly brownstones, outside of which three people are yelling things in speech bubbles, like, “We don’t like you,” and “no more roads,” and perhaps most heartbreaking in its use of the singular noun, “We need home.” Robert Moses stands in the foreground, dressed in black with a wide, jagged mouth, directing traffic. Beneath the drawing is the simple caption: “Robert Moses said, ‘Calm down you’re all being dogs.’ People kept saying no more roads and no more roads, but Robert Moses didn’t listen.” (This seems in keeping, too, with Marshall Berman’s comparison of Moses to the corrupted Mr. Kurtz from Heart of Darkness).
Only now do I begin to wonder if Moses’s problem was only one of perspective; perhaps it has something to do with these odd headquarters on the island, just out of sight. There’s a photograph of the building, shot right after its completion, in the Museum of the City of New York archives. It’s of an empty office room that I assume must’ve been Moses’s. It’s lined in smooth subway tile and floored with some kind of Depression-era synthetic. The focus of the image is the large, leaded central window. It looks point-blank onto the Triborough Bridge. The window is a perfect frame for the bridge. Outside the window, in the island rubble, is the figure of a man in a black trench coat and hat, kicking around in the dirt, and I can’t help but assume that it’s Moses.
The Triborough Bridge Authority Administration Building was constructed relatively quickly, early in 1936 and opening in December. It was re-dubbed the Robert Moses Building in 1989. Even its official MTA blurb online highlights its relative invisibility, saying that while “Moses left his mark throughout the metropolitan area” this building “seems to fly under the radar.” Today the building stands not as a memorial for New York history nerds (as I’d hoped), but more predictably as the outpost for the MTA Bridge and Tunnel offices.
I learned this the hard way a few years ago when I journeyed there without a plan. Assuming that there might be some kind of historical display or Moses shrine set up for public viewing, I enlisted one of my best friends on a trip from Brooklyn to Randall’s Island. We were both twenty-three, between jobs, and about to leave New York for a spell. She had recently started carrying around a ten-pound copy of The Power Broker everywhere she went. Looking back at these two impulses—her book martyrdom and my pilgrimage—I’m struck by this desperation to attach to a life rich with meaning. But what kind of meaning did we expect?
We took two trains and a bus to get there, and then we walked the perimeter of the island, the entirety of the Sunken Meadow Loop at the edge of a long string of rec fields: Saturday afternoon soccer and softball games carried on around us, and the wastewater treatment plant loomed in the distance. Every once in awhile, we’d pass someone in Parks garb, and Lina would ask where “the Robert Moses house” was, but they’d only shrug. Later, as it started to rain, we crouched under rebar holding up the Triborough Bridge, where we rolled a tiny, damp cigarette from the last of my tobacco, and smoked it, feeling foolish. When the rain stopped, an albino man on a golf cart approached us and asked if we needed directions.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s just around the bend over there.”
So we walked, and there it was: a somber, three-story office complex, the limestone glinting in the sun, and a big half-moon driveway. It seemed obviously sealed from the public, so I stopped there and said, “Well, that’s it I guess,” but Lina marched right up to the front door and tried to open it. A voice crackled inquiry through the intercom, to which Lina responded, “Can we come inside?”
They asked if we had an appointment.
“We don’t,” I blurted out, for which Lina—a reporter—looked at me admonishingly.
The person on the intercom asked us to leave. We walked down the driveway to a bus stop just outside the building, sat on the curb, and waited. It was sunset. We looked out at a cluster of housing projects just across the river, and I wondered what it must have been like to be Robert Moses every day, viewing the spoils of his reign. What did he imagine life was like in those projects across the river? Did he think about it? Or was his mind only ever on the efficiency of it all, on the freeways, the tolls, and the noble automobile for whom his sympathies truly lay?
Though I like to imagine that a current Bridge and Tunnels executive works from the same office that Moses once did, it turns out that, with the exception of the building’s façade and entryway, most of the interior has been adapted for modern use—to the extent that Moses’s original executive office no longer exists—a fact I discovered during my recent attempt to take a tour of the building. I was fielded through a long line of MTA officials until I was put in contact with Metropolitan Transportation Authority Bridges and Tunnels archivist Mary Hedge.
In an email, she told me that there had been a large extension added in the 1960s. “One of its features was a huge model room—a room that housed all the models built by architects and engineers for Moses’s major projects. It was an entertainment hub for his visitors.” But when I asked whether evidence of his tenure was still enshrined in the building, she added that after he retired, “the model room was converted to office use.” She also described an elevator built very late in his tenure, which had dramatically changed the building layout. (He was, after all, almost eighty years old in 1968, when the TBA was absorbed into the newly created Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Moses was all but phased out of power by the new mayor, John Lindsay.)
She invited me to the Special Archives near Battery Park.
Twenty-two stories up, Hedge guards a climate-controlled room full of models, images, blueprints, logs, and every piece of bridge-and-tunnel construction ephemera from the last century to the present day. She led me through the doors to a small inter-office exhibition she’d recently assembled. Blown up on the walls were images of Moses’s final project, the Cross-Bay Bridge, and below them was Robert Moses’s actual desk—or, the one he sat at while he was overseeing the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Hedge had it dredged out from storage, and arranged on it various period documents, memos, TBA “look-books”, and even a Formica ashtray with a fake cigarette perched at the edge. Above the desk was an image of Moses sitting in his Randall’s Island office, the Triborough Bridge just outside his window. On the wall behind the display, Hedge and her assistant had affixed two pieces of white paper listing some two hundred public works Moses was responsible for, though Hedge admitted that there were probably more she hadn’t yet identified.
Then she looked at me quizzically and said, “Now, I know the building is a beautiful example of Art Deco architecture, but beyond that I’m not entirely sure why you’re so interested in it.”
“I guess,” I said, “that I’m interested in what it might have felt like to actually be in the building, to have that perspective of the city, or just to be sitting in it and thinking about the city.”
She brought me into the archive, where she’d unearthed a number of items she thought I’d find of interest: original blueprints of the building, and photographs of the construction.
The building’s original interior belied a regalness, in the same way that most Art Deco buildings resisted the drear of the Depression. It had clean lines. It used a lot of marble, and gilded ornamental railing that curved up all three stories to the tiny third-floor “penthouse” with its two octagonal windows. The hallways were rimmed in glazed brick tile and copper flashing. Delicate iron cross-hatch grillework covered the vestibule windows. Like a sort of stations of the cross, there were friezes around the perimeter of the lobby and the boardroom showing reliefs of the Authority’s bridges. And there were the usual things—offices, boiler rooms, “muster” rooms, “recording rooms,” and, most mysteriously, “police toilets.” The photos, on the other hand, revealed the strange challenges of the building site: the construction looks muddy, with brown puddles around the base of the sinking structure. Laborers with cigarettes dangling from their mouths grin as they stand around the placing of the cornerstone.
Toward the end of my time in the archives, Hedge mentioned that Moses’s famous office—the one Caro illustrates in near-mythological detail—was originally intended for another TBA employee, though she couldn’t remember who. The decision to make it the executive suite happened only after construction was finished. This was weird news. The narrative I had developed depended on that office being built especially for Moses, that it reflected an ethos unique to him, with its perfectly framed view of the bridge and the city across river. But the office was never meant for Moses in the first place.
I used to watch documentaries of twentieth-century New York, especially Ric Burns’s ten-part series, and cry. This was during a period of time shortly before Lina and I traveled across the city to stand in the mud outside of Moses’s old headquarters. The sadness was very strange, and totally unbidden. There must’ve been other things going on in my life—growing up? Leaving New York?—but for some reason, the city became the site of my grief. It seemed tragic that the city had changed so suddenly and so undemocratically; that it had been built so gradually by the “tempest-tost” and so violently redesigned by one guy; that he’d built the architecture that would unwittingly give the middle class its easy exit to the suburbs, leaving the disenfranchised to buckle under all this infrastructure’s weight during the years of crisis and neglect. And yet, the city still existed anyway! And that seemed so heroic to me, so miraculous. I would start crying before the opening credits had finished running, when all that had happened was David Ogden Stiers or some voiceover had finished reading a devastating or optimistic quote from Baldwin or Fitzgerald or Moore. There might be a crowd of people that the camera pans over—the footage accompanied by a bit of piano music—and then the waterworks would begin.
But my response was shaped by a limited perspective. It was reductive. Like Moses, I was only looking at the city from the bird’s-eye view, or from across the river, from an emotional island, even. My grief reminds me of some newsreel I once saw of former Mayor Ed Koch. He tells a story of an old woman who approached him on the street during his first term in the early 1980s and said, “Mayor, mayor, make it like it was!” He laughed and said, “Madame, it never was the way you think it was, but I’ll try.”
My being moved by those documentaries was about as shallow as that woman’s despair. For years I lived in Bed-Stuy, my rent subsidized by art school loans, driving up real estate and eventually out-pricing the families who were there first. Today, that neighborhood is unrecognizable, even to me—but who was that new espresso shop for, all glass and brushed steel, wedged under the Franklin Avenue C train stop? I live in Yonkers now, on the street that divides the Bronx and Westchester, less than a mile from Woodlawn Cemetery, where Robert Moses is buried. I pass the cemetery twice a week on the B16 bus, on my way to work in a writing center at a small college. Many of the students I work with grew up in the public housing that Moses built in the Bronx, an area that began to burn in the years following his departure from Randall’s Island. It’s the same area that once gave birth to hip hop and is now giving way to things like craft breweries in a city-wide sweep of gentrification that is the only force that has ever come close to the ferociousness of Moses’s reign, and of which I have been a part. Madame, it never was the way you think it was.
Adrian Shirk is the author of And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy, a hybrid-memoir exploring the lives of American women prophets and mystics, named an NPR ‘Best Book’ of 2017. She's currently working on a manuscript about utopian communities. Shirk was raised in Portland, Oregon, and has since lived in New York and Wyoming. She's a frequent contributor to Catapult, and her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, among others. Currently, she teaches in Pratt Institute’s BFA Creative Writing Program, and lives on the border of the Bronx and Yonkers with her husband Sweeney and Quentin the cat.