Discussing the alleged systemic racism of American transportation at a recent press conference, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg used the example of how “an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach . . . in New York was . . . designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices.”
Conservative commentators quickly pounced on Buttigieg’s remarks, leading Washington Post writer Philip Bump to point out that Buttigieg was merely talking about a well-known story from Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, his massive and authoritative biography of Robert Moses. In the book, Caro alleges that Moses designed the overpass bridges on the Southern State Parkway leading to Jones Beach too low to be used by buses that would carry poor minorities there. To Bump, it was “not only obviously true that American governmental bodies used infrastructure spending as a way to bolster both directly and indirectly racist policies, but it is an equally obvious truth that such systemic decisions have often been ignored in the teaching of the country’s history.” And such omissions were why, Bump maintained, something like the 1619 Project was needed.
But then, in a burst of journalistic honesty, Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler walked back Bump’s remarks, claiming that the paper “knee-jerked” in its defense of Buttigieg. Kessler had heard from several historians who urged caution in using the story about Moses and the bridges. “Buttigieg should tailor his remarks to reflect what is historically unimpeachable—and we should be more careful to double-check on the latest views of historians,” Kessler wrote with remarkable judiciousness. “Even a Pulitzer Prize-winning book is not always the last word on a subject.”
Caro’s The Power Broker is one of the best American biographies ever written. It is also deeply flawed. Without the book, few people today would have heard of Moses. Caro painted a picture of an unlovely and imperious man whose policies and projects, in the author’s view, destroyed New York City. The book was published in 1974, at a low point in the city’s history and during a time of growing disillusionment with government and traditional authority. Caro’s Moses was unredeemable; his projects were steeped in racism and disregard for the average New Yorker.
Recent years have seen reappraisals of Moses’s legacy. In 2007, the Museum of the City of New York held an exhibition called “Robert Moses and the Modern City.” A wonderfully illustrated, edited volume by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson based on that exhibit produced thoughtful essays on various aspects of Moses’s career and work. It was not a whitewash but an attempt to move beyond the caricatures in Caro’s book.
Caro said that he got the information about the bridges from one of Moses’s engineers. But Ken Jackson, the dean of New York historians (and my former adviser), pushed back against the claim. “Caro is wrong,” Jackson told Kessler. “Arnold Vollmer, the landscape architect who was in charge of design for the bridges, said the height was due to cost.” Jackson added that there were many ways to get to Jones Beach by train and bus that avoided the supposedly lowered parkway overpasses. The North Shore Bus Company published a bus schedule specifically for Jones Beach in the summer of 1937; it had a number of daily routes from Flushing to Jones Beach.
A few years ago, Cornell professor Thomas Campanella published a thoughtful assessment of the legend of Moses’s “racist parkway.” Campanella compared the heights of the overpasses on the Southern State Parkway with those on the overpasses on Westchester County parkways built around the same time. He found the Moses-built overpasses to be lower than their Westchester counterparts, but this fact alone did not prove that the height differential was based on racial prejudice. In fact, if it were true that Moses deliberately sought to lower the height of the parkway bridge overpasses to Jones Beach to keep out “undesirable” elements, then most of those excluded in the late 1920s and 1930s would have been working-class urban whites. In 1930, less than 5 percent of city residents were African-American, and the Latino population was negligible; it would be at least 15 to 20 years before the great migration from Puerto Rico to the city began.
In his remarks, Buttigieg included another example of institutional racism in infrastructure: the construction of federal highways that cut through minority neighborhoods or divided areas by color. More historical evidence exists in favor of this argument than in favor of the story about parkway overpasses, but the public should still be wary of such stories. Many federal highways, for instance, plowed through white neighborhoods. In response to Buttigieg’s remarks, New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams tweeted his support for the idea that “racism is built into our infrastructure,” citing the widely despised Cross Bronx Expressway. But according to Caro himself, the major neighborhood destroyed when Moses built the Cross Bronx was the working-class Jewish neighborhood of East Tremont. (The Cross Bronx only later became a racial dividing line in the Bronx.) Another infamous Caro highway project—one that thankfully was never built—was the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have torn through SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side.
No doubt, Moses had an unlovely personality. He was certainly racially prejudiced, but even more pervasive was his callous disregard for New Yorkers of all races and ethnicities. What Caro only touched on and most contemporary readers of the book miss is that this disdain emanated from his larger view of public policy. Moses’s roots were in the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century, and he gained a reputation as a brilliant reformer while working for New York governor Al Smith.
Moses’s progressivism led him to believe that he could use the levers of government to improve the lives of New Yorkers—whether they liked it or not. If Jane Addams was the face of bottom-up progressivism, at home with the people she was trying to help, Moses was the face of top-down progressivism. His brand would lead to the urban renewal that changed the face of American cities in the postwar period, uprooting the homes and communities of many working-class residents. Modern progressives decry urban renewal, highway building, and high-rise public housing projects as racist while ignoring the progressive roots of these policies.
Buttigieg no doubt thought he was being clever to cite Moses as “proof” of systemic racism, but the real history is, well, complicated. By all means, we should discuss how the building of roads and infrastructure affected communities in the past and how we can create policies that respect individuals, strengthen community, and help broaden opportunity. But to shoehorn complex historical events into a two-word phrase like “systemic racism” is to flatten history in service to an ideological fad.
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