Columbians Ahead of Their Time
Robert Moses

Robert Moses

"If the ends don't justify the means, what does?"

Robert Moses (1888–1981)
Shaper of New York City
PhD 1914
Medal (hon.) 1937, LLD (hon.) 1952

In the words of Columbia history Prof. Kenneth T. Jackson, "the achievement of Robert Moses was that he adapted New York City to the twentieth century." One of the most powerful municipal officials in American history, Moses was the undisputed "master builder" of New York City in a period stretching from the 1920s to the 1960s. He is responsible for most of the city and region's major expressways and parkways, as well as the Triborough Bridge and a half-dozen other modern bridges and tunnels. Moses also conceived or oversaw urban renewal projects that led to the creation of Lincoln Center, the United Nations headquarters, and the many public-housing complexes built in that era. He built hundreds of playgrounds, was a driving force behind the construction of Shea Stadium, and ran both the 1939 and 1964 world's fairs. Called by former governor Al Smith "the most efficient administrator I have ever met in public life," Moses accrued his power in a series of state and city positions—many held concurrently—that left his ability to reshape the city and state virtually unchecked. The New York City parks commissioner from 1934 to 1960, he also served as the head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, as the New York City construction coordinator, and as the only member of the New York City Parkway Authority. Widely hailed in the early years of his career, Moses began to fall from favor in the 1950s, as he was criticized in some quarters for displacing poor and minority communities to build projects such as the Cross Bronx Expressway. Moses's career nevertheless spanned five decades and 27 billion dollars of public-works projects, ending in 1968 only when he was forced from state office by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He is memorialized by two separate state parks—one on Long Island and one in northern New York, near the Canadian border.

Moses began his studies at Columbia after graduating from Yale and Oxford; he received a PhD in political science in 1914. It was while at Columbia that he became interested in civil-service reform, work that led to his first job, at the city's Bureau of Municipal Research. In 1948, it was Moses who approved the conversion of 116th Street from an automobile thoroughfare to the pedestrian College Walk. For this concession Columbia agreed to donate 10 acres of the Lamont estate (now the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory), land that Moses sought to build the Palisades Instate Park.

Robert Moses is the subject of an upcoming exhibit curated by Columbia professors Kenneth T. Jackson and Hilary Ballon; the three-part Robert Moses and the Modern City is slated to open at Columbia's Wallach Art Gallery, The Museum of the City of New York, and the Queens Museum in early 2006.

Read more about Moses in the Columbia Encyclopedia.


Columbia’s Kenneth T. Jackson discusses Moses and his legacy.


View the work of Columbia’s planning students here.


This 1939 article in the Atlantic Monthly profiles Moses, and links to other relevant articles.

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