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The checkered legacy of ‘master builder’ Robert Moses

Gov. Andrew Cuomo traveled to Niagara Falls a few days ago to announce plans for upgrading the state’s oldest park at the famous cataract.

A world-class attraction deserves world-class facilities, and Albany is delivering. At his press conference, the governor said New York will spend more than $40 million to restore public access.

The plan will remove 2 miles of the northern portion of the Robert Moses Parkway and transform the four-lane highway – called an urban design mistake almost from the beginning – back into a park.

“Robert Moses Parkway was not a good idea to be placed where it was placed,” Cuomo said. “We all knew it was a mistake and we are going to come back and redo it.”

In the process, the Robert Moses Parkway is now dubbed the Niagara Scenic Parkway. And also in the process, various barbs have been directed at Robert Moses himself – New York’s “master builder” – who directed massive construction projects in New York City and around the state for more than 40 years.

Jones Beach on Long Island, New York City’s Verrazano Narrows and Throgs Neck bridges, parks, dams, highways and tunnels throughout the state. They remain as tangible reminders of the man who presided over the state’s emergence from the Depression and the building spree that provided the infrastructure, especially for New York City – and for other massive efforts such as the Niagara Power Project.

For better or for worse, Moses is responsible for much of how New York functions today. He was instrumental in crafting the State Constitution that governs New York. It streamlined the Albany government, concentrated more power in the hands of the governor and introduced four-year gubernatorial terms.

He cajoled – some say controlled – legendary governors like Al Smith, FDR and Nelson Rockefeller, though Rocky ultimately proved the only man capable of clipping his overwhelming powers. In his ruthlessness to achieve the things he deemed necessary for a progressive society, Moses often emerged as the “master bully” as much as the “master builder.”

Noted historian Robert Caro recognized Moses’ place in history even before the master builder died in 1981. His 1,246-page biography “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” completed in 1974, remains required reading for anyone seeking to understand how New York functions today – almost half a century after Moses last stood over a drawing board.

Caro joins the chorus that derides Moses’ mistakes. He points to the urban sprawl created by his auto-centric plans that will affect the New York metropolitan area for centuries to come. He outlines how whole neighborhoods were displaced – 250,000 people in all – to accommodate the grand plans that his power implemented.

Indeed, Buffalo News columnist Denise Jewell Gee humanized that number back on April 3 with the story of Mamie Simonson – kicked out of her Niagara Falls home by the parkway project in 1959 – and her efforts to reduce the highway’s footprint.

Caro points out such ruthless exercise of power stemmed from Moses’ reliance on power. It was like a “drug.” He had to use it.

But Caro and everyone else argue that Moses must be studied – and not forgotten – if one is to understand how the state and much of the nation functions even today.

“With his power … Robert Moses shaped a city and its sprawling suburbs – and, to an extent that would have astonished analysts of urban trends had they measured the implications of his decades of handiwork, influenced the destiny of all the cities of 20th century America.

“Robert Moses shaped New York,” he added.

“Niagara Scenic” seems like a good Chamber of Commerce name for the road and its new concept. It’s likely to draw more visitors than the name of a figure fading into the past.

But changing a roadway’s name cannot dismiss an important story. And to ignore Moses and his efforts is to ignore history.